Like the Greek titan Cronos devouring his own children, Vladimir Putin seems determined to turn against those he was once closest to – out of fear, anger and hubris. In the process, he is only further weakening his regime.
The former deputy head of the infamous Federal Security Service (FSB), colonel general Sergei Beseda, has been moved from house arrest to the investigations wing of the equally infamous Lefortovo prison. Designed to break inmates’ wills, guards escorting prisoners through its corridors use clickers to announce their presence. This allows other prisoners to be placed face to the wall in niches along the way so that they don’t get to see who else is in there.
Beseda headed the FSB’s Fifth Service, which was essentially its overseas operations branch. In particular, he was responsible for a long-term campaign of subversion aimed at preparing the ground for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
He and his deputy are ostensibly being held on charges of embezzling operational funds. This is hardly implausible – it is pretty much standard practice that any senior intelligence official with access to a ‘black budget’ takes his cut – but this is the excuse, not the reason for his arrest.
Rather, it is clear that Putin, infuriated by the failure of his initial invasion, is looking for scapegoats. Beseda was telling Putin what he wanted to hear, either that Ukrainians were groaning under the yoke of a neo-Nazi, American puppet regime and most would be eager for ‘liberation’, or at least that they were so cowed and divided that they would offer no serious resistance.
In reality, Putin has no one but himself to blame. For years he has been narrowing his circle of advisers and confidants to a smaller and smaller group of yes-men, cronies and ideological mini-me’s. Furthermore, he has made it clear how little he is willing to tolerate opinions that run counter to his prejudices and assumptions.
Of course one can assume Beseda dipped into the funds at his disposal: Putin has more or less institutionalised this kind of elite corruption. Of course Beseda would have told him what he wanted to hear, not what he needed to hear: Putin has more or less demanded this of his spies and advisers.
Yet those who live by these rules, die by them, too. Unable to admit his own flaws, Putin is furiously looking for people to blame, and Beseda will not be the last to face the president’s wrath.
Yet Putin does not seem to have learned any lessons. The highly competent chair of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, has tried to resign since the invasion, but has not been allowed to go. Presumably feeling she has little to lose, she reportedly used a video-conferenced meeting with Putin to pass on some home truths, saying that the invasion had ‘flushed’ the Russian economy ‘into the sewer.’ Putin, apparently, ended the call. He still doesn’t want to hear bad news.
Beseda’s downfall may also herald a wider purge of the FSB and other security institutions, though. There are unconfirmed reports that as many as 150 FSB analysts and officers may have been sacked, for example, and a hunt for suspected moles is also underway.
To a degree, this reflects effective Ukrainian and Western information warfare intended to spread division in Moscow. A barrage of recent claims and revelations – a mix of fact, rumour and, likely, fanciful invention – has kept the Kremlin very much on the back foot. Alleged leaks by disgruntled FSB officers are questionable, but seem to have been enough to stoke a climate of paranoia in Moscow.
When the witch-hunters are in town, you know someone is going to be burnt at the stake, so the temptation is to do your best to incriminate someone else. In this fervid climate of fear, suspicion and depression, Putin’s closest allies are beginning to turn on each other. At what point does this begin seriously to damage the very foundations of the repressive security state?
Cronos thought that by devouring his children he would be safe. He actually drove the last, Zeus, to slay him. We are a long way from any such potential parricide, but it seems fitting that the very agency which did the most to encourage and benefit from Putin’s increasing paranoia and isolation is also the first to suffer from it.
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