The Purges in Putin's Shrinking Inner Circle

Isaac Chotiner / The New Yorker
The Purges in Putin's Shrinking Inner Circle Vladimir Putin. (photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/TASS/Getty Images)

The frustrated Russian leader has punished officials for misjudging the invasion of Ukraine. But ordinary citizens remain in the dark.

I recently spoke by phone with Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and an expert on the Russian state’s intelligence apparatus. Currently in London, Soldatov—along with Irina Borogan—has written “The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad”; the pair also founded and edits the Web site, which reports on Russia’s security services. (On Sunday, the site was blocked in the Russian Federation.) I called him to discuss recent reports of purges within the security services after Russian diplomatic and military failures in Ukraine, but our chat ended up touching on a wide range of topics, including the possible reasons for Vladimir Putin’s turn against his intelligence agencies, the increasing power of the military in Russia, the changes and contractions within Putin’s inner circle over the past decade, how ordinary Russians view the current conflict, and why Soldatov himself left Russia in 2020. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

What do we know about internal changes that have occurred in the Russian military and security services since the war in Ukraine began?

What we know is that, since the war began, Putin’s attacked the agencies already, as far as we know. So the war started at this now infamous meeting of the Russian Security Council, where Putin publicly berated the director of the S.V.R., the foreign-intelligence agency, which is a direct successor to the spy section of the K.G.B. Two and a half weeks later, we got news about the F.S.B. foreign-intelligence branch, because the F.S.B. also has a foreign-intelligence branch coming under attack. We now know about two people, two top-level officials at this department, being questioned and placed under house arrest.

Then, last week, we got news that the deputy head of the National Guard was forced to resign, and he will also probably face some sort of a criminal investigation. And he is not just National Guard. This guy is a former security-services person. He was with Putin’s personal security detail before he joined the National Guard, so he’s known personally to Putin.

How did we, or you, come by this information? And what do we know about the reasons for the moves?

Well, we know about the director of the S.V.R., Sergey Naryshkin, being humiliated, because it was done publicly, and this meeting was broadcast. We know about the F.S.B. purges because I’ve been investigating this particular unit of the F.S.B. starting in 2002, when actually I learned that there was such a thing inside of the F.S.B., which is supposed to be purely a domestic agency. But it’s obtained new powers, and they were given authority to conduct operations abroad, specifically in the former Soviet Union, meaning in Ukraine.

Last week’s news about the deputy head of the National Guard was first broken on some Telegram channel, which we know is close to the F.S.B., and a few hours later it was confirmed by official sources. But, while the Telegram channel said that the guy was detained, the official version is that he was just asked to resign.

How much do you feel comfortable speculating on the reasons for these moves? There’s some sense that the war is not going well for Russia, and so that’s what’s behind them. Do you have any sense, specifically, of why Putin might have gone after these people, and what that might suggest?

Yeah, I’ve been asking all my sources, and not only me but many Russian investigative journalists are now talking to their sources inside of Russian security and asking them, “What is going on?” It looks like Putin is getting really unhappy with the operation, but it looks like he still believes that the original plan was fine but that there were some problems with some elements. And that is why his attack on the foreign-intelligence branch of the F.S.B. is not just about bad intelligence but also about something else.

This unit is also in charge of conducting political warfare operations in Ukraine, meaning cultivating networks of agents and supporters of political groups that might be pro-Kremlin and that would support the Russian invasion. But that never happened, and, as far as I know from my sources, one of the investigations is also about how they used funds allocated to political groups in Ukraine. Maybe now it looks like Putin has gotten angry with the lack of popular support in Ukraine for the Russian troops.

But it looks like this story is developing really fast, and now we have news that it’s not only about the use of funds but also that military counterintelligence is looking into the activities of this particular department of the F.S.B. And that could mean that, finally, people in Moscow started asking themselves why the U.S. intelligence was so accurate. Military counterintelligence is mostly about mole-hunting, identifying the sources of leaks. So it looks like now Putin is getting angry, not only with bad intelligence and the bad performance in Ukraine but also about the sourcing of the U.S. intelligence about the invasion, and why U.S. intelligence was so good before the invasion, and why the Americans knew so many things about what was coming.

So Putin doesn’t think the over-all invasion plan, or the military dimensions of it, were necessarily wrong. But he’s upset with both how much intelligence America had and the political response within Ukraine to the invasion?

Yes, exactly.

There have been a lot of reports in the Western press that Putin is isolated now, whether this is because he’s been in power so long or because he doesn’t meet with many people owing to the pandemic. Do you have a sense of whether those types of reports are accurate? And do you have a sense of who Putin does talk to and what type of inner circle he has now? It feels like maybe people had a better idea of who was in his circle ten years ago.

Yeah. That’s true, and there is a reason for that. Ten years ago, Putin listened to at least several dozen different kinds of people. It might have been a very strange collection of characters: at one point, it was a film director with crazy ideas about the Russian imperial past. And, at another point, it was a journalist who was a big fan of Pinochet. There were some priests. So it was a multitude of people, but now it looks like, starting in 2016, 2017, this circle has been getting smaller and smaller. And what I’m getting from my sources is that, these days, Putin listens to only three or four people. There is Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, whom he trusts, and that is why Shoigu has played the main role in this invasion. There is Nikolai Patrushev, his head of the Security Council, and one of his oldest friends, who’s still close to him and was his successor as the director of the F.S.B. And probably one or two other friends from St. Petersburg, but that’s about it.

And so, in addition to the smaller circle, is your sense from people that his mindset has really changed in some way, or his character has changed in some way? I don’t want to go too far into psychoanalyzing him—

I’m not an expert on psychology. But I see, and everybody can see, that he’s still very quick at responding to people. Or, judging by his public performances, it looks like he is very quick at reacting to what people say. So it means that mentally or intellectually he’s still fine, but he might have developed some ideas from people’s adulation of him. Basically, when you are surrounded by people who just listen to you, you come to believe that you are the smartest guy in the room, and know better—and I think that was the biggest challenge for security and intelligence agencies reporting to him about what is going on in Ukraine, because everybody knows that Putin has his own strong opinions about Ukraine. He’s writing articles about the history of Ukraine, and he’s talking incessantly about Ukraine. How can you challenge him?

It’s not very clear how you can do that, especially due to this atmosphere of fear over the past seven years or so because of what I would say is selective repression against the élite. And it’s a big thing now in Russia. It’s not only that Putin tried to poison Navalny and expelled political opposition from the country. It’s also about governors and ministers in jail. You have so many people now in jail, even people from the F.S.B. So if you think, from the point of view of a military general, is it really safe to say something to Putin that he would not like? I think it’s a big challenge for them.

It seems like you’re describing a problem with a lot of autocratic political systems where bad news doesn’t filter upward or honest news doesn’t filter upward.

Yes. And, actually, it’s even worse because, within the agencies, there is a huge problem of mistrust between, say, mid-level officers and the generals. So you have the middle-level officers who might understand what actually is going on in Ukraine, but they are quite unwilling to report this to the generals, and the generals obviously think twice about whether to channel this information to Putin.

When we read about Russia ten or so years ago, obviously Putin was the most powerful person. But it did feel like there were all these different power centers, whether it was friendly oligarchs or whether it was the security services. What are those other power centers that still exist, whose opinion will be important to keeping the war going and keeping Putin in power? Or do you think that basically there are almost no other power centers?

Things changed, especially after Western sanctions were introduced in 2014, and mostly because of money. Before 2014–2016, we had these oligarchs, and they were, at least to some extent, independent. They had their contracts in the West, they had their contracts in the country, so they’re quite powerful. And maybe back then they could say something to Putin. This option was there.

Now it’s completely changed because of the sanctions. What happened is that Russian oligarchs, many of them, lost their contracts in the West, and Putin was really smart about offering them financial help by providing military contracts. So you had some people who own huge enterprises producing metal, engines, this kind of thing, and they lost their contracts in the U.S. and in Europe. All of a sudden, now they had something of a problem, but because of the sanctions and because the military-industrial complex is getting bigger, they got this military contract. And that made many of the oligarchs much more dependent on the state funding.

And not just some state funding but the funding provided by the military. This is why the Army became so important recently, and it’s absolutely clear that the Army understands that really well. And the Army is getting more and more ambitious, and the Army has a say in Russian ideology, too. For instance, we have the Youth Army, a nationwide movement that is used to brainwash kids in schools. The Army recently built one of the biggest churches in the country. They built this enormous military park as a propaganda exercise. They interfere with the way history is taught. So, all of a sudden, the military became really ambitious, and I would say that now it’s not about oligarchs and siloviki, the current and former security-services people. Now you have the military and the military-industrial complex, and oligarchs are dependent on the military-industrial complex.

That’s really interesting, because it seems like the purges that you’ve talked about happening so far are not mainly from the military, despite what a lot of people perceive to be military failures having to do with Russian military strategy and Russian military performance.

Absolutely. Yeah, that’s right.

Do you see the military as an alternate power center to Putin that could develop?

That’s a good question, because, here, we are in some uncharted territory. On one hand, Shoigu, the Minister of Defense, is a very shrewd politician. He’s been around for thirty years. He became Minister of Emergencies and Disaster Relief back in the nineteen-nineties, and he’s still a minister. Now he has a much more powerful ministry, but nevertheless it’s still the same guy. And while we have had so many changes, so many political crises for thirty years, Shoigu always survived. But his thing was always to show his complete loyalty to Putin. It might be a game, but Putin believes him and trusts him and believes that Shoigu is absolutely loyal to him.

I saw a quote from you where you suggested that opposition to Putin among average Russians was likely to gather steam on social-media and Internet platforms, and that Internet companies pulling out of Russia for reasons of wanting to punish Putin or the Russian state could have negative effects. Is that still how you feel?

Right now, it’s not about resistance. It’s more about an ability to talk and to get uncensored information about Ukraine. It’s about an ability to talk with your friends about what is going on. And, unfortunately, social media is basically the only place we actually can do that in the country. Given how strong Russian censorship is, where you cannot call the war a war and all that, social media is the only means to get access to this information.

In the past, yes, it was a tool to mobilize people to go to the streets. But, right now, maybe it’s not the right moment for that, because Russian restrictions on public gatherings are so horribly strict. You can face prison time for putting a Ukrainian flag up in your window. But it’s still relevant. Social-media access is still of the utmost importance for Russians.

Do you have any sense of what public opinion is about the conflict within Russia?

The big propaganda win for Putin is that he and his media are still capable of convincing people that the fighting takes place only in Lugansk and Donetsk. So they think nothing is going on in Kharkiv or Kyiv, and it’s a big, big win for Putin. Lots of ordinary Russians actually believe that the Russian army is there only to defend these two popular republics, and that’s all.

I have lots of friends and relatives in Moscow, and I’ve been asking them constantly about this. And it looks like ordinary Russians still believe this picture. They also think that all the civilian casualties are caused by nationalist gangs, so this propaganda line is also quite successful. So that’s how it is.

There are some cracks, but it’s not about more sympathy toward Ukrainians. It’s more killed soldiers, because it looks like the casualties are really big in the Russian military. I know from my relatives in the Volga region, quite far from Moscow, that now in small towns they have people who have had their kids killed in Ukraine. So society started talking about it because there are so many deaths. But, unfortunately, I don’t see any sympathy for Ukraine, which is a very hard thing to say.

Why did you leave Russia?

I’ve been writing about Russian security services, starting in the late nineties, for more than twenty-three years now, and it’s been my topic. But in 2020 the Russian government made it absolutely illegal to report on Russian security services. And because I wanted to keep going, because I think it’s an important topic, I thought I needed to leave the country. Then the Russian government sent me some signals that it would be better for me to leave the country. I have a Web site, which my partner and I established back in 2000. It’s a Web site that monitors the activity of the Russian security services. And it used to have a media license, because in Russia you need to have a license to be in media. So, in the beginning of 2020, our Web site was stripped of its license. But the reason provided by the Russian censorship agency, which is in charge of these media licenses, was the death of [’s] editor. And, because I’m the editor, I took it as a kind of perverse humor by the Russian censors. I got several signals of the same sort, enough that, in September of 2020, we decided to leave the country.

And the remaining journalists who are doing great work in Moscow—what have you heard from them?

Every day, I hear from my friends that they just left, so journalists are leaving the country right now. And I have friends now in Yerevan, in Vilnius, in Montenegro, and Prague and Berlin, but mostly in countries like Armenia and Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, because they didn’t have time to get European visas and they needed to leave the country really quickly.

I have friends who live in a garage in Yerevan because it’s really desperate for them. So I would say that most of my friends have already left the country, but there’s still some people there. But we have only one independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which is sort of capable of writing something—at least something—about the war. And they had at least one correspondent who wasn’t Ukrainian reporting from Ukraine, but that’s about it. And this newspaper is under enormous pressure.

For instance, maybe you’ll remember this story that, during a state-TV newscast, there was a woman who held up a sign against the war. It went viral, but nevertheless Novaya Gazeta was forced to blanket the sign in published photos because it had these antiwar words. It’s horrible.

What are you hoping to happen here? I mean, obviously, I’m sure, for the war to end, but is there an off-ramp you see for Putin and Russia? How is Russia going to reconstitute itself?

It’s a very hard question, to be fair. We are always trying to make these comparisons with the late nineteen-eighties, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then we got perestroika and all of that. So maybe is it possible to repeat the same thing? I was fifteen years old, but still I remember that back then there was this cheerful mood that people were good, and it was just the system that was bad. So back then maybe I was naïve, maybe my parents were naïve and my friends were naïve, but we had this idea that it was only because of the Communist Party and the K.G.B., and if you could get rid of them everything was going to be fine. People are good. Even the people, say, in the military and in the security services. They were just pressured to be bad and to serve the system.

These days, unfortunately, we don’t have this excuse. We do have lots of people who support the war, unfortunately. Yes, I understand that it’s about propaganda, and it’s about fear, and people are really fearful. They understand what is at stake, and these select repressions were quite successful at freezing society. But, nonetheless, there’s so many people who support the war, and, to be honest, I just don’t know the answer. I don’t know how to get them back as humans.

You are talking about average citizens and people within the state itself who believe in the war in a way that they did in the Soviet system?

You have ordinary people, and people in the security services, and people in the military, and they are supportive of this war. And I don’t quite understand how we can humanize them back. I just don’t see a way. That’s my problem.

And not just the war, but you see them as supportive of Putin and Putinism in some way, too?

Well, yeah. The war is a function of Putinism because it’s so aggressive. Putin is famous for having no sympathy, actually. So, if I remember what struck me when I was with Novaya Gazeta in 2006, when Anna Politkovskaya was killed and some journalists finally asked Putin this question, like, “You had a journalist killed in your country.” And he was absolutely horrible, because he expressed no sympathy at all. Like, “Well, yeah. Blah, blah, blah.” He said that she was absolutely insignificant, and you think, Wow, you can’t find some words to express sympathy. Just maybe you feel sorry. And I think that’s what we have here with Ukraine. It’s just a manifestation of his complete lack of sympathy for other people.

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