Owen Matthews Owen Matthews

Putin’s purge of his top generals

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In the past month, Vladimir Putin has had five top generals arrested on corruption charges. More are likely to follow in what looks like a gathering purge by the Federal Security Service (FSB). ‘There is a fierce clean-up under way,’ a source close to the Kremlin told the Moscow Times last week. ‘There is still a long way to go before the purges are finished. More arrests await us.’

Without doubt, the FSB will find plenty of the corruption it’s looking for. Timur Ivanov, Russia’s deputy defence minister – the first senior general arrested – was hardly shy about flaunting his wealth.

If embezzlement and bribery are suddenly impermissible, no official or army general is safe

An investigation by the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2022 found ample evidence by looking no further than the social media accounts of Ivanov’s wife. They featured a stream of photos of the couple on luxury holidays, as well as a birthday party featuring a three-tiered cake decorated with gold hand grenades, bullets and diamonds.

Several photos show Ivanov drinking with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov (bizarrely dressed in a bear costume) along with his former boss Sergei Shoigu, the veteran defence minister ousted soon after Ivanov’s arrest. Digging a little deeper, the Navalny team found pictures of Ivanov’s neoclassical estate outside Moscow, as well as a bank transfer for €90,000 for a week-long charter of a yacht in August 2013 (presumably a celebration of Ivanov’s appointment to head the Defence Ministry’s construction division, Oboronstroi).

The epic scale of the theft by Russia’s government officials – and the vulgarity and shamelessness of how they show off their ill-gotten gains – is beyond parody. Massive graft has also long been considered standard operating procedure for the Kremlin’s kleptocratic elite. Corruption is the glue that holds Putin’s so-called power vertical together. What’s unusual is for the Russian President to turn on his underlings so publicly. Ivanov and his fellow accused face jail terms of up to 15 years, and their perp-walks and arraignment hearings have been widely publicised on state TV. If embezzlement and bribery are suddenly impermissible, no government official or army general is safe.

Putin has no intention of dissolving the pyramid of graft on which his regime is built. That would be political suicidal. Rather, his purge of the army will be highly selective, and aimed at eradicating the most egregious offenders pour encourager les autres.

Corruption was a major factor in the army’s failure to seize and hold northern Ukraine in February and March 2022. Over the previous five years Shoigu was given vast resources – up to 6 per cent of Russia’s GDP – to build up and reform the Russian army into a (regionally, at least) invincible fighting force. Shoigu’s big innovation was the Battalion Tactical Group (BTG), a small and integrated force that combined motorised infantry and artillery. The problem was that while hardware was not in short supply, soldiers were. But rather than admit failure to fulfil the Kremlin’s orders, generals solved the problem by simply reducing the strength of units. Motorised rifle battalions shrank from up to 539 personnel in 2017 to around 345 on the eve of the Ukraine invasion.

The estimated 120 BTGs that attacked Ukraine all went in at far from full combat strength. And that shortfall told, especially in the wooded countryside and city suburbs of Ukraine. Each infantry fighting vehicle needed a commander, a driver and a gunner, leaving four men to dismount and act as actual boots – and, more importantly, eyes, ears and rifles – on the ground.

Without conscripts, each platoon was left with perhaps two fighting infantrymen per vehicle. Ukrainian forces reported attacking Russian armoured vehicles manned by their three-man crew alone. ‘With no dismountable men you’ve got a motorised infantry unit that doesn’t have infantry,’ said a senior British military source I interviewed in Kyiv in spring 2022. ‘Everyone’s stuck in their vehicles. You’re not going to have situational awareness. You don’t have the numbers to do common infantry tasks like stacking up [advancing to contact in single file], clearing buildings or providing security for an element.’

Corruption has continued to plague the Russian army as the war grinds on – as evidenced by regular video complaints by troops posted on social media revealing a lack of food, basic equipment and logistical support which they typically blame on corrupt senior officers. Collecting bribes from citizens for avoiding conscription has become a major cash-cow for officers across Russia. Massive state funds allocated to post-war reconstruction of occupied areas have reportedly gone astray – including into the pockets of Ivanov, who was responsible for the restoration of devastated Mariupol.

Army corruption is nothing, however, compared with the corruption of the FSB in the lead-up to the war. FSB Colonel-General Sergei Beseda was given his own brand-new directorate with the purpose of softening up Ukraine for invasion by distributing bribes in the hundreds of millions of dollars to Kyiv’s military, government and security elite – an operation that offered vast scope for skimming and embezzlement. On the eve of the war, Beseda confidently passed on his agents’ predictions that the fix was in and that Kyiv would fall in three days. Beseda was reportedly arrested in May 2022, though later released. If the FSB was truly looking for men guilty of misleading the Kremlin with rosy predictions and of stealing state money, they should first look to themselves. But the FSB is Putin’s parish, his power base and his chief enforcer. And they have chosen the army as their scapegoat.

Clearly, a less corrupt army is a more effective army. But could Putin’s purge hinder the war effort by throwing the military leadership into disarray at a time when Russia is seeking to take advantage of Kyiv’s munitions shortages? It’s worth looking at the last major purge of Russian military top brass, undertaken by Stalin between 1937 and 1940. During the Great Purge nearly 80 per cent of general officers were arrested, confessed to outlandish crimes, and shot. The practical result of Stalin’s paranoia was that the Red Army was gravely weakened and was beaten by the Finns in the Winter War of 1939-40 – and again by Hitler in 1941.

Putin’s purge will of course be less dramatic. But with half the top brass covering their backsides and the other half seeking to denounce their way to the top, there is potential for much disruption in Putin’s war plans. On the other hand, if he succeeds in scaring the military into stealing less money allocated for the war effort, the Russian army could very well end up leaner and – if it’s possible – even meaner.