Sanctioning Putin’s Staff – why it is not “Putin’s friends” who are being targeted

Although formal confirmation is still pending, there seems a consensus that the EU has chosen, in its usual timorous way, to sanction just 4 Russian officials in retaliation for Aleksei Navalny’s kangaroo-court conviction: Investigative Committee (SK) head Alexander Bastrykin, Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), Prosecutor-General Igor Krasnov, and Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard. Predictably, debate swirls around who they may be, and whether targeting them will affect Putin’s future political calculi. Already, I’m seeing some claiming they are “Putin’s friends,” so let me do my best to scotch that right now. They are not his friends, they are his staff.

Bastrykin was a classmate of Putin’s reading law at Leningrad State University back in the early 1970s. That meant that when he and Igor Sechin were lobbying Putin to make the SK independent of the Prosecutor-General in 2007 (for they own reasons: Bastrykin was ambitious and didn’t get on with new Genprok Yuri Chaika, Sechin wanted to maintain influence over prosecutions now that his tame Genprok Vladimir Ustinov was gone), Putin was aware of him. These kind of weak human ties do matter, especially in such a personalised system, and meant that Putin was more favourably inclined than he might otherwise have been.

However, I have seen absolutely no evidence (readers: if you have, please let me know) that Bastrykin is a “friend”: no pictures of them sharing some social activity, no family connections, nothing. Indeed, Bastrykin, aware that he has no special dispensation from the boss, and singularly lacking in allies, actually has to work constantly to demonstrate his value and loyalty to the Kremlin. The parallel I have used in the past is that, like a shark, he has to keep swimming or he drowns.

What about Zolotov? Having been first one of Putin’s bodyguards and then head of his security detail, he undoubtedly is closest to the Body. Again, though, this is the relationship of a trusted lackey rather than a chum. He does get the occasional invite to attend Putin’s Night Hockey League – a ritual of imperial self-indulgence, in which the president inevitably scores the most goals and attracts the most fulsome praise – but as a spectator, not a player. He used to be a judo sparring partner of Putin’s, but again I think that was just when he was working his security.

Like Bastrykin, he is valuable because he is loyal – and because he has nowhere else to go, lacking friends or allies within the system with the questionable exception of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov. That what makes him so useful, hence his appointment as the head of the newly-formed National Guard in 2016, and so dangerous. He too has to keep swimming and, shark that he is, biting.

As for the lower-profile Kalashnikov, he started his career in the Ministry of Internal Affairs before switching to the KGB and thence FSB before moving upwards and across to become head of FSIN in 2019. I can see no evidence of his early career intersecting with Putin’s (he joined the KGB in 1988, by which time Putin was already in Dresden, and working in wholly different arms of that sprawling octopus), nor of any contact since.

Krasnov is in some ways even less of a Putin man. For sure, he would not have been appointed Prosecutor-General had the boss had any qualms about him, and as a former deputy of Bastrykin’s he is presumably a loyalist. In fairness, though, he also has a good reputation within law enforcement circles as an investigator who follows the evidence; it was noteworthy that he was originally leading the enquiry into the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and as soon as he uncovered the Chechen connection, it was handed to a more ‘political flexible’ case officer. Again, I can see no evidence of a personal relationship with the boss.

All four absolutely have played their parts in Navalny’s persecution. Bastrykin has been at the fore of the campaign of questionable court cases, not least pushing for the re-opening of the case on which he has now been imprisoned. Kalashnikov’s FSIN made the formal charge that he had breached the terms of his probation while recovering in Germany. Krasnov must have accepted if not initiated any investigations. And Zolotov’s goons were the front line dealing with the protests that erupted.

So it is not that I think they are innocents maligned. But the notion that these are “Putin’s friends,” whose fate will in any way affect Kremlin policy, is at best a shabby attempt to justify the EU’s lacklustre response, at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on.

One of the metaphors I like to use is of a traditional country house. Putin is the master, and he and his friends – the Rotenbergs and the like – are having a ball. Then there are some who are gentry tenants and similar hangers on: socially acceptable, possibly useful allies and clients, but not social equals. These, the Patrushevs and Shoigus, are there in their Sunday best, enjoying the drink and cheering on the dances, but careful not to transgress. Maybe Prigozhin is there, but maybe not.

Then there is the huge apparatus of ‘below stairs’: the cooks and gardeners, maids and manservants, gamekeepers and stableboys who keep everything running. The prime minister, Mishustin, is the chief butler, obsequious to the master, a tyrant to the staff, and no doubt happy to divert a little of the housekeeping his way. There is an arcane hierarchy within the staff, formal and implicit. Bastrykin, Zolotov, Kalashnikov and Krasnov are all staff. Perhaps Zolotov, as the master’s chief gamekeeper, is rather better known to him than, say, Kalashnikov, but they are still all staff.

The master cares about them in a general, paternalistic way. They get an extra ruble on a feast day. But there are always more applicants for every vacant position than openings, and the master knows they are lucky to get a job at the big house. They come, they go, he doesn’t pay too much attention, because life above stairs is sweet, and there is another ball next weekend.

What’s Navalny’s sanctions strategy?

With Alexei Navalny’s return into the mailed fist of FSIN, his ally Vladimir Ashurkov yesterday released the top eight names of an apparently rather longer list of people Navalny identified as his sanctions ‘wish list’ before he flew to Berlin. It is worth looking at this list in a little more detail to get a sense of what Navalny’s sanctions strategy may be. This shortlist is (copied with descriptions from Ashurkov’s Facebook post):

Roman Abramovich – one of the key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy, with significant ties/assets in the West.

Denis Bortnikov – Deputy President and Chairman of VTB Bank Management Board. He is the son of Alexander Bortnikov, FSB director and a key ally of Vladimir Putin, and he has been acting as a “wallet” for his father’s ill-gotten gains.

Andrey Kostin – President and Chairman of the Management Board of state-owned VTB Bank, a key facilitator of corrupt money flows related to the functioning of the Russian government and security services.

Mikhail Murashko – Minister of Healthcare of Russia, responsible for covering up Alexey’s poisoning and hindering efforts to evacuate him to Germany for medical treatment.

Dmitry Patrushev – Minister of Agriculture of Russia. He is the son of Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Security Council of Russia and a key ally of Vladimir Putin, and he has been acting as a “wallet” for his father’s ill-gotten gains.

Igor Shuvalov – Chairman of the State Development Corporation VEB.RF, a former senior government official, who has been instrumental in creating the system of state corruption, which took over the Russian political and legislative institutions.

Vladimir Solovyev – a key Russian state media personality, one of the primary mouthpieces of authoritarian propaganda.

Alisher Usmanov – one of the key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy, with significant ties/assets in the West.

This is an interestingly mixed collection, from which three main lines of attack emerge, which I could categorise as:

His attackers: With people such as FSB director Alexander Bortnikov already being under sanctions, instead two of these look directly connected with the attempted poisoning. Murashko, obviously, considering the treatment he faced from the Russian medical system (as opposed to the individual first responders and doctors who saved his life, probably at the expense of their careers), but also Solovyev, a particularly toxic individual even by the standards of Russian TV ‘shock jock’ style presenters. Solovyev – who called Navalny “Nazi scum” on TV last year, perhaps relishing the chance for revenge after Navalny’s 2017 revelations of his opulent lifestyle and hypocrisies – was a particularly outspoken cheerleader for the state’s cover-up after the poisoning. Given that the precedent to hit those peddling state lies especially enthusiastically has already been established with Russia Today director Dmitry Kiselev, Navalny presumably is happy to build on this. One wonders if people like RT’s Margarita Simonyan may be on the long list. The message is presumably that if you actively take part in hostile actions against Navalny, you become a target.

‘Wallets and Facilitators’: Others are those Navalny presents – often having produced video exposes to this end – as front men, bag carriers and agents for other individuals already under sanction. In other words, they are sanctions-busters. Kostin, Bortnikov Jr and Patrushev Jr  are in these terms not so much important for who they are, but who they serve or represent. The message, I assume, is proxies are as guilty as those they represent.

Kleptocrats: It is certainly not the case that every rich Russia is rich because Putin made him rich, or stays rich because he is an eager Putin crony, ally or agent. Nonetheless, Navalny has targeted Abramovich and Usmanov – perhaps as well known in the UK as anything else for owning Chelsea and, until 2018, having a major stake in Arsenal – as two symbolic leaders of the pack. I’m surprised, to be honest, that such even closer figures as Rosneft’s Gor Sechin aren’t here, but then again it may be that to Navalny – not without reason – the Sechins of this world are really nothing but Putin’s proxies, whereas Abramovich and Usmanov choose to collaborate with the Kremlin. Honestly I was wondering whether Shuvalov should go in the previous category or this one, but I suspect he really fits here, as someone who chose his path. It’s hard to tell for certain, but I presume the message is: if you deliberately choose to dine with the devil, you can expect to be exorcised.

Of course, only when the full list becomes known will we have the data to make a better assessment of the kind of strategy Navalny may have in mind. What is interesting is that all three of these lines of attack seem well-chosen to be able to fit UK, US and EU sanctions regimes, which allow measures to be brought to bear when it would punish human rights abuses or encourage better behaviour (the first), to strike at sanctions-busters (the second) and to deliver a rebuke to those prospering from a regime engaged in breaches of human rights (the third).

The key question, of course, is one of political will. It is all very well Navalny giving Western governments a list of the people he believes deserves to be sanctioned. But will they listen and think it worth the while doing anything about it, or just stick to the expressions of “grave concern” which the Kremlin is, by now, eminently used to ignoring.

FSB chief in Tomsk when Navalny was poisoned moving to higher things

When Alexei Navalny was poisoned in Tomsk last August, it was by an FSB team from a now-notorious Moscow-based unit, under the auspices of the Third Service, the FSB’s scientific and technical wing. However, it is inconceivable that the unit would have flown to Tomsk and carried out the operation without at least notifying the local FSB, especially as surveillance specialists from the ORU, the Operational Investigative Directorate, as well as local officers of the Tomsk FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System and the Fight against Terrorism would have been watching Navalny and his people.

Who was in charge then of the Tomsk Region UFSB or FSB Directorate? Major General Dmitry Ivanov. Since then, he has been moved to take over the Chelyabinsk UFSB, which may sound like a sideway move, but is actually diagonally upwards. This is not only a larger and more powerful UFSB but, as one inside source put it to a local news outlet, “Ivanov was sent to Chelyabinsk because it is one of the most profitable places in the country in terms of dealing with high-profile corruption cases.” Profitable? There certainly will be opportunities for personal enrichment: a former Chelyabinsk UFSB chief, Yuri Nikitin, acquired the unflattering nickname “Yura 5%” both for manipulating bonuses (his subordinates had theirs shaved 5% to boost his own) and also, some suggest, his rake-offs from local deals.  However, this is also as a chance to make a splash striking at corrupt police (not FSB, of course) and also criminal-official rackets (of which the South Urals abounds). His predecessor, Sergei Sizov, made a splash with a bribe-taking case against the ex-mayor of Chelyabinsk, Evgeny Teftelev.

The idea is that then he will be ready for a transfer to every Chekist’s dream posting: Moscow. Ivanov has done his time, having worked his way up through the Novosibirsk Region UFSB before being transferred to Tomsk in 2016. Sizov is moving to Novosibirsk – that is a lateral move – and only a year and a half since appointment. The chatter is that he was pushed precisely to give Ivanov this jump, suggesting he has been fast-tracked for Moscow.

The planned move likely predated the poisoning, although it may have accelerated things, helping account for Sizov’s unusually rapid move. Still, it clearly didn’t hurt. The system clearly knows that it has to reward good soldiers, especially when they are expected to do bad things.

Does a suicide in the Kremlin Guard reflect wider woes?

The news that an officer of the Federal Guard Service (FSO: Federal’naya sluzhba okhrany) committed suicide in the Kremlin has triggered a few press enquiries, so let me just put a little background out. (I’d add that I’m planning on a proper profile of the FSO in a future episode of my In Moscow’s Shadows podcast).

Although the Baza Telegram channel, which named the individual as one Mikhail Zakharov, claimed he was actually one of Putin’s bodyguards – which would make him part of the Presidential Security Service (SBP: Sluzhba bezopasnosti prezidenta), a sub-division of the FSO, most other Russian news sources are contradicting this last point. It thus seems more likely that he is part of the Presidential Regiment, formally the Independent Red Banner Order of the October Revolution Regiment of the Commandant’s Office of the Moscow Kremlin, or in other words the Kremlin Guard.

This 5,500-man force, subordinated to the Kremlin Commandant, Lt. Gen. Sergei Khlebnikov, is an elite protection force. Its barracks are inside the Kremlin, in ‘Block 14’ – the Arsenal building – on the other side of the complex from Cathedral Square, where the incident reportedly took place. Its officers all have to meet demanding physical fitness requirements, be at least 190 cm tall and never have been registered at a psychiatric facility, as well as pass an intensive background check (simply having a close relative living abroad is enough for disqualification). They are the men in wear blue uniforms around the Kremlin – and the men in dark blue-green parade uniform standing on guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexandrovsky Gardens.

The FSO has a range of other elements and roles, from the drivers of the Special Garage to the analysts poring over opinion poll data or hints of a serious threat in the president’s correspondence. Arguably, though, their political muscle has diminished since the retirement of former director Evgeny Murov in 2016; a veteran with considerable behind the scenes clout, Murov was replaced by Dmitri Kochnev, a serious and professional figure, but not someone with the same authority.

Since then, there have been subdued grumbles even from this elite force. It used to be that as well as relatively high salaries (and elevated ranks), they could convert the inevitable overtime they accrued into early retirement. That last perk was summarily removed, and at present they do not even get overtime pay. They are often expected to defer or reschedule vacations, and while they get good medical care in Moscow, the culture is still one which frowns on taking recovery time. Besides which, there is also a keen awareness that their cousins in the FSB and MVD get extracurricular opportunities from bribe-taking to moonlighting in private security. The former is not really an option for regular FSO officers and the latter strictly banned. This, plus the tough entry requirements, may help explain with the Presidential Regiment is currently under-strength, exacerbating the other problems.

Zakharov was also apparently going through a divorce – it could well be that this was nothing more than a personal tragedy, with no professional implications. However, there is a bit of a pattern. In March, one of the snipers from FSO Military Unit 11488 appears to have shot himself at home. Last year, an officer from one of the regional FSO departments – the Volga Federal District unit of the Special Communications and Information Directorate – threatened his superior officer with his service sidearm over a dispute over changed holiday schedules.

Tough conditions, arbitrary management and poor relations between officers and men are long-running problems in the Russian security sector. However, it is striking that a time when the police and the armed forces have certainly put efforts into addressing them, that the FSO seems to be lagging behind. I can’t help feel that if I were the president, I’d want my Praetorians to be a little happier and more relaxed.

How to make a conspiracy theory

A delightful little vignette of how news become conspiracy theory. The influential news/gossip/paid character assassination/serious analysis Nezygar Telegram feed ran a tale claiming that MI6 was the ‘curator’ of a new ‘motley but daring anti-Russian alliance of Poland-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Turkey.’ What’s the basis for this?

  1. That the British company, EDO MBM, provided the technology to Turkey that allowed them to build the Bayraktar TB2 drones that are playing such a visible role in the Azerbaijani war on Armenia.
  2. The chairman of the board of EDO (UK) and a director of the US parent company EDO Corporation is Sir Robert Walmsley, a former Vice Admiral of the Royal Navy and Chief of Procurement at the UK Ministry of Defence.
  3. The drones are built by the company Baykar, whose CEO, Haluk Bayraktar, has been pushing cooperation with Ukraine, and in August was awarded Ukraine’s Order of Merit by Presdident Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
  4. That month, the second prototype of the Bayraktar Akinci armed drone with Ukrainian Ivchenko-Progress AI-450C engines made its first flight.
  5. Somehow, this is all connected with Adnan Tanriverdi, a retired Turkish lieutenant general, and founder of the SADAT Inc. International Defence Consultancy, which is closely linked with Turley’s Erdogan, and for whom ‘working contacts … with the head of MI6 Richard Moore are likely.’
  6. (After all, Moore is a Turkey specialist, who served as UK ambassador to Ankara, 2014-17.)

And lo and behold, the ‘Poland-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance’ is born – so long as you don’t ask about Poland. A British arms company has former British defence officials on its board – as if any of them don’t. A Turkish arms company wants to make sales, and is willing to try out a Ukrainian engine. The Turkic Azeris are happy to use Turkish drones (and likely Turkish drone pilots) to hit the Armenians. Add in some hand-waving extraneous suppositions (where did Tanriverdi come into this?) and there you are.

Of course, it’s ridiculous and arguably not even worth the time it took me to type it up. But it’s a fascinating case study of the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacan’ way these conspiracy theories are constructed, and the assumptions made about the world in the process.

Let’s see.

  1. I corresponded with former General Igor Rodionov back at the end of the 80s when he was head of the General Staff Academy
  2. At the time Rodionov headed the academy, General Valery Baranov studied there
  3. Baranov went on to lose a leg in the bomb attack that killed Akhmad Kadyrov and thus paved the way for the elevation of Ramzan Kadyrov
  4. Baranov was then hosted and feted by Ramzan in 2018

Oh my goodness, it seems I am a Kadyrovets. Such is the logic of these conspiratorial chains…

Adventures in Hackery continued: the latest GRU indictment

The new US Department of Justice indictment of 6 Russian military intelligence hackers and, through them, their agency and the Russian government, is the usual piece of painstaking detail work. Although these cases are never going to come to court, they represent a fascinating set of documents that can be mined for years to come. I just wanted to touch on a few first and sometimes slightly left-field points:

Why is it always the GRU*?

We keep hearing about their hackers – are they the only Russian spooks doing this kind of naughtiness? Not at all, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and Federal Security Service (FSB) also have their cyber units. However, the focus is often different. The GRU, as befits a military intel outfit, does do spying but is also disproportionately involved in more direct measures, sabotage, the virtual equivalent of blowing up bridges and poisoning water supplies, the way their Spetsnaz commandoes might. These kinds of op are (1) more likely to be uncovered, (2) more likely to anger their targets and (3) more worth publicising to show what the Kremlin is up to.

The SVR is more a conventional, quiet intelligence gathering service, while the FSB concentrates its overseas operations especially on Russian enemies of the Kremlin or some influence operations. These are not hard and fast boundaries – Russian services overlap more than most Western ones – but they help explain the key roles.

(* And a PS to the DOJ: although everyone still calls it the GRU, technically these days its just GU, the Main Directorate of the General Staff.)

Are the Russians rubbish?

It would be tempting to think so, given the detailed information presented on the subjects of the indictment and also in all kinds of past investigations, including ones by non-state actors such as Bellingcat, Proekt and the Insider. It is certainly true that they can sometimes be sloppy (can’t we all?), and Russia is also a place where a lot of semi-classified or confidential information is available freely on the darkweb or on sale, providing particular opportunities for assiduous investigators. However, we should not get complacent and write them off as Keystone Konspirators. First of all, obviously, we don’t know which operations work (even in the case of the OPCW hack team uncovered in 2018, this was in part precisely because they had already carried out similar ops). Secondly, it is in part a reflection of the modern, interconnected, social media world, in that it is very hard to remain hidden. This is especially a problem for human intelligence services in the age of biometric visas and ubiquitous CCTV, but applies across the board.

One particular Russian vulnerability, though, is the interpenetration of criminality and espionage. It does mean that Moscow can ‘weaponise’ organised crime abroad, as I’ve written about elsewhere, but there is also a high level of corruption and criminality within the services. This creates its own vulnerabilities, while also distorting the tasking of the agencies. One of the defendants, Anatoly Kovalev, appears to have been a naughty boy:

Why on earth go after the Korean and then Japanese Olympics?

There would seem to be no real strategic rationale here, but this is a useful reminder why the study of international relations ought not totally to be surrendered to theory and qualitative study. Policy is determined by people, and especially in authoritarian regimes there tend to be fewer decision-makers and above all lighter checks and balances. The Kremlin was undoubtedly deeply peeved by the sports sanctions placed on them after the state doping campaign was uncovered. (There are two kinds of liar: the sort who accepts being found out as an occupational hazard, and the sort who has half convinced himself and is outraged at exposure. The Kremlin is definitely the latter.)

The current Kremlin leadership is consumed with a sense of geopolitical injustice and a desire to see Russia recognised as a ‘great power.’ They feel they have been singled out unfairly for boycotts, sanctions and bans – including the sporting ones – and I think they also believe that it undermines their global status if such slights go unavenged. Thus, if they are excluded from an event, they want the event to go badly. It may seem childish, but we should never discount the extent to which emotions drive politics.

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