War of Attrition Perturbs Putin’s Elites – PRIO Blogs

Last week was full of shocks for Moscow. The United States finally approved $61 billion of aid to Ukraine, the European Parliament passed a resolution rejecting the legitimacy of Russia’s March presidential elections, and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov was arrested in Moscow on accusations of bribery.

Timur Ivanov in court. Photo: Courts of General Jurisdiction of the City of Moscow via Telegram

The last event was the most astounding, as there have been practically no significant corruption cases in Russia since the war in Ukraine began (The Moscow Times, April 25).

Ivanov has been a prominent figure in Moscow’s high society and has ties to Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and Sergei Kiriyenko, the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration (The Moscow Times, April 25). Ivanov was detained immediately after a session of the Defense Ministry Collegium, standing for his first court hearing in full uniform (Kommersant, April 24).

The corruption charge against Ivanov seems too trivial for such a severe and public persecution. This has led to widespread speculation that he might have committed high treason, though officials have denied this rumor (RBC.ru, April 24).

The only large-scale investigation for high treason in Russia currently involves a group of scientists developing hypersonic technologies. The main driver of the investigation seems to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anger over poor weapons performance, including the Kinzhal air-launched missile (Meduza.io, February 1; Kommersant, April 18).

Ivanov had nothing to do with this research. Instead, he was in charge of managing the finances of prestigious construction projects, including Patriot Park, a popular park filled with military exhibitions largely commemorating World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia (Izvestiya, April 24). Ivanov’s main patron is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who swiftly dismissed his discredited deputy. Shoigu, however, has refrained from making any further comments, perhaps because his own involvement in corruption was exposed a few years ago by a non-governmental organization (NGO) led by Alexei Navalny (Istories Media, April 24).

An unexpected FSB attack

The Federal Security Service’s (FSB) attack on a prominent figure in the vast Shoigu crew was entirely unexpected as the Defense Minister is in charge of Putin’s war in Ukraine (Carnegie Politika, April 24). Since Prigozhin’s death, Shogiu has helped to successfully muzzle all “patriotic” voices critical of the president’s performance (Novaya gazeta Europe, April 24).

A noisy bunch of “mil-bloggers” have been emboldened to vilify corruption in the armed forces, presenting it as the main reason for the absence of a decisive victory in the slow-moving spring offensive (Svoboda.org, April 24). Shoigu’s control over the propaganda machine, however, is still strong enough to minimize the damage. Still, the new installment of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) weapons to Ukraine may undercut his position and even turn him into a convenient scapegoat (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 25).

Diverting attention?

The FSB may currently be using Ivanov’s arrest to divert political attention away from a major blunder: the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack, for which the FSB has been unable to concoct a convincing excuse (see EDM, March 25, 26, 27, 28). The investigation continues pursuing a fake “Ukrainian connection,” but this blame game cannot help explain why the FSB failed to prevent the attack (Republic.ru, April 24). Evidence instead points to the establishment of an Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) base in Tajikistan and the fast growth of its networks among labor migrants in Russia (TopWar.ru, April 19; Kommersant, April 27). Russian security services have neither the resources nor interest in addressing the rise of Islamist radicalism as their priorities are centered on suppressing anti-war sentiment (The Insider, April 5).

Another headache for the FSB is the instability in the North Caucasus, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a police patrol in Karachaevo-Cherkessiya (see EDM, March 7, April 2; Kavkaz-uzel, April 23). Brewing tensions between Dagestan and Chechnya nearly exploded into a larger conflict when a squad of Chechen fighters came to the rescue of an official detained at a checkpoint for driving under the influence (Business-Online, April 24). Another looming problem in the region is the deteriorating health of Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal ruler of Chechnya, whose death could trigger a leadership struggle for his criminal empire (Novaya gazeta Europe, April 26).

Old-timer political elite

Putin remains reluctant to reshuffle or replace government officials (with the exception of Ivanov’s arrest), even though it could help reassert his authority. He could, for example, punish governors in the Southern Urals and Western Siberia regions, where poorly constructed dams aggravated the impact of seasonal flooding (Forbes.ru, April 16). Putin’s reluctance is underpinned by an existential dread that he and his closest henchmen are approaching their twilight years and may be unable to hold on to power for much longer. Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council, Alexander Bortnikov, the FSB Director, and Sergei Chemezov, the head of the defense corporation Rostech, are all in their 70s, just like Putin (Carnegie Politika, April 8). Putin prefers to keep around old-timers such as Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Chairwoman of the Federation Council Valentina Matvienko rather than promote younger politicians, who would only draw attention to his age (The Insider, April 3).

Behind this old guard is a cohort of politicians in their 60s who have few reasons to worry about the change of government, which is due after Putin’s inauguration on May 7 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 15). They include Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and Kiriyenko, who have all been reasonably effective in their positions. Besides government ministers, the heads of many state corporations, like Igor Sechin of Rosneft, Aleksei Miller from Gazprom, and Andrei Kostin of VTB Bank, are also feeling safe in their long-occupied seats of power (The Moscow Times, April 18).

Putin has to watch out for the ambitious careerists in their 50s stuck in the lower layers of state bureaucracy. By authorizing Ivanov’s downfall, Putin has sent a clear warning. He has good reasons to doubt their loyalty and commitment to the war, which for him is the pivotal part of the legacy, but for them, it has merely cost them profits. In a quarter of a century, Putin’s regime has mutated into a rigid autocracy. Still, corruption remains its organizing principle, and the mobilization of dwindling resources for waging war goes against the interests of many, if not most, high-middle functionaries in Moscow’s overgrown pyramid of power.

Reinventing the deeply corrupt and profoundly degraded Russian state as a war machine is a mission too ambitious for the aging crooks who managed to gain control over Russia amid the turmoil of the late 1990s and have delivered the country to the brink of yet another catastrophe.

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