Putin’s regional reshuffle: the rise of “men in epaulettes” or just a search for reliable cadres?

The most recent reshuffle of regional officials is at once precisely what presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov called the “usual cyclical rotation” and also an interesting snapshot into the staffing policies and priorities of today’s Kremlin.

SlonInfographic

Who’s out? The old and the dirty?

It was usual in that as with most reshuffles, one or two dismissals or retirements tend to create cascading reappointments, as people move up, down or across the system. In this case, Federal Customs Service (FTS) chief Andrei Bel’yaninov’s dismissal courtesy of a corruption probe probably triggered an overdue bout of reorganization. Mikhail Zurabov, ambassador to Ukraine, had been in place for seven years and the position really needed new blood (perhaps an unfortunate expression…), while Siberian polpred (presidential plenipotentiary) Nikolai Rogozhkin, at 64, was also due for retirement. Kirov governor Nikolai Belykh, also under investigation for corruption, was another figure hanging on by his fingertips. Given that the Kremlin had little love for this liberal businessman – the jury is still out on whether his arrest was a put-up job – he was hardly likely to survive. Finally, Sergei Yastrebov, governor of Yaroslavl region, whose future is still unclear, has certainly been the target of some gossip and allegations in the past (though who isn’t?).

On the whole, then, it is striking that those dismissals not explained by age actually appear to reflect genuine questions about their effectiveness and honesty. Belykh’s case is unclear, admittedly. This is hardly conclusive, but it does incline me further to believing that – while corruption allegations and the like remain a weapon of personal feud and state repression – there is at the same time a real, quiet campaign to redefine the social contract with the elite such that they “steal a little bit less, do their job a little bit better.”

Who’s in? The uniformed…?

Predictably, considerable attention has focused on the security service background of many of the new appointees. According to Stanislav Belkovsky “All the figures appointed today are Putin’s personal bodyguards.” Hardly.

New FTS chief Vladimir Bulavin was previously polpred to the North-Western Federal District, but he had been a Colonel General in the FSB. New acting governor of Kaliningrad region Evgenii Zinichev had been head of the region’s FSB directorate, but before that one of Putin’s bodyguards in the FSO. Dmitri Mironov, incoming governor of Yaroslavl region, had been deputy interior minister, but before than an FSB officer. Finally, new National Guard deputy commander Sergei Melikov had been a career MVD Interior Troops officer and commander of the Moscow ‘Dzerzhinskii Division’ before becoming presidential plenipotentiary to the North Caucasus. Viktor Vasil’ev, head of the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadaster and Cartography (Rosreestr), and a former KGB veteran, became the new governor of Kirov.

But it is worth questioning the quick and easy assumptions that this shows some “rise of the siloviki.” First of all, two of these positions – deputy commander of the Rosgvardiya and head of the FTS – were almost automatically going to go to candidates with a military, security or law enforcement background. So really we are talking about three siloviki in the remaining seven significant promotions.

But while the others certainly have significant current or recent time in the “organs,” Vasil’ev served in the KGB 1985-early 1990s, largely in foreign intelligence. Although there are the usual litanies that “once in the KGB, always in the KGB,” that is demonstrably not true. That over twenty years ago he was in the KGB hardly makes him “one of them” these days, so to be honest I’d exclude him from the roster. So in practice, two out of seven.

Finally not forget that two of the outgoing figures – KGB veteran Bel’yaninov and soldier and Interior Troop commander Rogozhkin – were also siloviki. Indeed, Bel’yaninov was generally considered to have a personal connection of sorts to Putin following time in St. Petersburg. Take out the career diplomat and you have two of four senior dismissals coming from a silovik background, too.

…Or just the trusted and efficient?

Of course we can point to other recent leapfrogging promotions granted to siloviki, notably from the FSO: Viktor Zolotov to head the Rosgvardiya and Alexei Dyumin to become acting governor of Tula. (Though Dyumin’s move was probably a consolation prize for failing to become head of military intelligence.) Nonetheless, it does seem that the case for a “spookification” of the government is hardly made.

Rather, I would suggest the truth is a little more nuanced. In the run-up to the Duma elections and then the 2018 presidentials, at a time of growing tension in the Moscow elite and also between Moscow and the regions, Putin is looking to renovate the regional cadres and reaffirm central control. The governors and the polpredy are crucial to this process on the political level, just as the National Guard is on a coercive one.

So he is casting about for candidates he feels he can trust, who are honest (enough), loyal (enough) and efficient (enough). In part, this means not just the uniformed services but the ones he knows personally; it is striking, for example, not just how he now turns more often to the FSO even than the FSB, proportionate to the size of the respective agencies, but also that he no longer seems to be appointing soldiers.

With the exception of new North-Western Federal District polpred Nikolai Tsukanov, around whom a reasonable cloud of scandals swirl, most of the rest do share a reputation for a degree of efficiency that elevates them from their peers. None of them could be called liberals or freethinkers, necessarily, but nor are they all close-minded Kremlin clones. Some (notably new North Caucasus polpred Oleg Belaventsev and his Siberian counterpart Sergei Menyailo) are meant to be close to Sergei Shoigu. Others (including Vasil’ev) are meant to have an almost Medvedevian belief in the importance of rule of (tough) law, and for that matter Dmitri Ovsyannikov, who moves from deputy minister for trade and industry to governor of Sevastopol, was given his big break by Medvedev. (He was presumably appointed to try and do something about the city’s economy, after all.)

Putin generally and genuinely believes his “new aristocracy” of security officers are more likely to be loyal and efficient, but I think to believe that what we are seeing “The Men in Epaulets Take Over” mistakes cause and effect. Putin is indeed looking to remont, to repair the Power Vertical and he may look first to the siloviki for the human resources he needs, but he will also look beyond. I suspect this is a man building a new regional elite, likely also with an eye to a post-2018 order, not rewarding “his boys” willy-nilly.

 

The Battle of the Big Beasts? Would an expanded MVD give the FSB a run for its money?

Time for bigger dogs?

Time for bigger dogs?

A report in RBK suggests that the Federal Anti-Drug Service (FSKN) and the Federal Migration Service (FMS) are to be rolled into the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Meanwhile (and this is an idea which has been floated before) former Putin bodyguard and judo sparring partner Viktor Zolotov will become the new Minister of Internal Affairs. Current minister Kolokoltsev is, after all, too much of a professional and too little of a close Putin crony for such a crucial position, the thinking goes, despite his recent efforts to reinvent himself as a populist authoritarian of sorts.

The official logic would be to save money through efficiency savings. Maybe, though rarely does that actually happen when any government makes this claim. The FSKN has done, in my opinion, an at best mediocre job, not least as its determination to focus on interdiction and destruction of the supply-side (at which, incidentally, it has failed) has also derailed efforts to address the demand, and Russia is now the world’s largest per-capita heroin market. Its main preoccupation often seems rather empire-building (even wanting its own external intelligence role) and turf wars with other agencies. But whether rolled into the MVD or not (and this might at least address some of the jurisdictional issues which do arise between the FSKN and the police), there will still be an FSKN-like agency. With the FMS, the logic is even less apparent, although with the growing public disquiet about foreign migrants and workers, it is likely to become a more politically-significant (and thus fraught) body; the FMS may be in for a rough time ahead of it, but it will certainly be in the public eye.

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Russia’s Intelligence System – a presentation

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 12.03.10I was delighted to be invited to speak to the 2015 Annual Symposium of CASIS, the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies, in Ottawa. I was discussing Russia’s Intelligence System and to try and say something meaningful in just half an hour, I concentrated not just on the ‘who’–which agencies there were within the Russian intelligence and security community–so much as what was distinctive about how they operate in real life. My final conclusions were that the Kremlin ought to beware what it wished for, that it had agencies which were functional in appearance, but politically often counter-productive:

  • They are technically highly capable, even if sometimes badly tasked
  • They now reinforce Putin’s assumptions, not inform his world view
  • They reinforce the world’s view of Putinism
  • They are cynical opportunists at home, loyal to themselves

(To this end, I still suspect they may be key elements of what I have called the “Seventh Column,” the insiders who may ultimately turn on Putin.)

The slides for my talk (© Mark Galeotti 2015) are at: 150123-Galeotti-CASIS-RussiasIntelSystem

Retirement of FSO’s Murov may exacerbate Russia’s underground silovik conflicts

General Evgeny Murov - the stabilising silovik

General Evgeny Murov – the stabilising silovik

It’s not been confirmed, but there are reports that Evgeny Murov, head of the FSO (Federal Guard Service) is stepping down from his position, probably this autumn. Not a great surprise–he’s turning 69 this year and there have been reports that he’s wanted to step down for a few years now. Nonetheless, I view this with some concern because this is a time in which there are considerable pressures bubbling beneath the surface of the Russian intelligence and security community and Murov–the longest-serving of all the security agency chiefs currently in place–performed a quietly useful role as a stabilising force. Yes, his men are the besuited bullet-catchers with earpieces of the Presidential Security Service, the black-clad marksmen up on the roofs around the Red Square on parade days, the goose-stepping Kremlin Guard at the eternal flame and the guys guarding the State Duma and the like. But the FSO also plays an unofficial role as the watchers’ watcher, the agency that keeps tabs on the other security services to keep them in line, and gets to call bullshit if one or the other is briefing too directly for their institutional advantage–I discuss the FSO’s role in more detail here.

Murov’s reported successor is Alexei Mironov, his deputy and the head of Spetssvyaz, the FSO’s Special Communications Service. Fair enough: this should ensure a smooth handover at a time of tension. But it remains to be seen if Mironov has the stature, thick skin and independence of mind both to stay largely out of the silovik-on-silovik turf wars and also to help the Kremlin keep the agencies in check. If not, and this is a theme I’ll be touching on in a talk at Chatham House on Friday, there may be troubling times ahead both for Russia (as the spooks may end up in another internal war) and the outside world (as they may seek to gain traction with the Kremlin by aggressive moves abroad). I’ll be developing these issues more later.

Modern Counter-Terrorism in Sochi: more like counter-espionage

syromolotov

Gen. Syromolotov. I am charmed that his surname means “Cheese Hammers.”

Much has been made of the fact that Sochi Olympic security was put under the overall operational command of Oleg Vladimirovich Syromolotov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and head of its Counter-Espionage Service (SKR), rather than a counter-terrorism specialist. Somehow, this has been taken to be a mistake or else a sign of some kind of retrograde thinking, that Moscow really thinks the threat to Sochi comes from foreign espionage agencies or even that it wants primarily to use the Games for its own nefarious purposes. Let me disagree.

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Moscow continues its Amerikanskaya chistka: Tom Firestone expelled

In 2010 they award him; in 2013 they expel him

In 2010 they award him; in 2013 they expel him

There seems to be an Americanskaya chistka, an American purge in Moscow. After January’s quiet expulsion of an alleged CIA agent, Benjamin Dillon, and this week’s rather less quiet PNGing of Ryan Fogle, comes news (broken in the NY Times) that Thomas Firestone, a former legal counsellor at the US Embassy who had moved into private practice in Moscow, was barred from returning to the city and sent back to the USA. Tom is, for my money, one of the sharpest–in every sense–critics of corruption in Russian business and the dark arts of reiderstvo, ‘raiding’ in particular. (The practice of stealing assets through falsified legal claims.) He spent two tours at the US Embassy as resident legal adviser, then joined the Moscow office of Baker & McKenzie as senior counsel. Not only was he given a certificate of merit in 2010 by Federal Anti-Monopoly Service chief Igor Artemyev “for his outstanding work in advancing U.S.-Russian cooperation in combating cartels and unfair competition,” he also wrote some of the seminal scholarly studies of reiderstvo, notably ‘Criminal Corporate Raiding in Russia‘ (2008).

Apparently, he was returning to Moscow on 5 May and was detained, held  for 16 hours and then put on a flight to the USA. The news only seems to have broken today (Sunday 19 May). The story–so far–is that this follows efforts by the Federal Security Service to recruit him as an agent. Tom clearly enjoyed Moscow, with all its crass energy and sharp edges, but I confess I am astonished if the FSB really thought he was likely to be open to recruitment. Honestly I’d see it as much more likely that, as a perennial thorn in the side of corrupt officials and ‘raiders’ alike, certain interests finally decided they wanted him out of their city and out of their hair. No doubt we’ll get a better sense of the picture over time.

Meanwhile, though, although this predates the Fogle case, when put together it does begin to paint a worrying picture of increasing xenophobia in Moscow. Even if there is no connection between the Firestone case and those of Dillon and Fogle, a willingness to exclude a specialist in Russian and international law and an avowed enemy of the very “legal nihilism” the government is meant to be opposing offers no encouragement. Instead, it almost begins to look as if the Kremlin’s is beginning to believe its current propaganda campaign about its encirclement by foreign foes.

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