Lotta anxiety at the top of the political food chain in Russia nowadays.
Elvira Nabiullina and Sergei Shoigu each sit near the very top of that food chain but their respective statures at the moment are as different as can be. Nabiullina is the head of Russia’s central bank and widely admired internationally for her skill in having brought the country’s monetary system up to western standards, reducing inflation and building up huge currency reserves in the process. Now, according to Bloomberg, she wants out. Whether that’s because she opposes the war or because western sanctions have left Russia’s economy a smoking crater is unclear. (“Some central bank officials describe a state of hopelessness in the weeks since the invasion, feeling trapped in an institution that they fear will have little use for their market-oriented skills and experience as Russia is cut off from the world.”) Either way, Putin has refused to let her go. A bureaucrat of Nabiullina’s talent can’t be dispensed with lightly, especially not with Russia facing a historic fiscal crisis.
Shoigu is Russia’s defense minister and a general of the army despite having never served professionally as a soldier. He’s not where he is because of his military prowess, he’s where he is because he’s a crafty politician who’s successfully negotiated the currents of power in Russia over decades, becoming a close confidante of the tsar himself. It’s Shoigu who bears ultimate responsibility for the state of the campaign in Ukraine. Contra Nabiullina, he’s not an irreplaceably talented manager. Rather the opposite, it seems.
No one seems to know where he is lately. Opposition media claims that video of him on Russian newscasts over the last few weeks is clearly older footage that’s been recycled. There are whispers of “heart problems.” To thicken the plot further, Shoigu has been cracked up as a potential successor to Putin someday because of how adeptly he’s managed to climb the ladder of a business as ruthless as Russian government.
Suddenly he’s out of public view. I assume “heart problems” are a symptom of Novichok, yes?
We can only guess at Putin’s state of mind but odds are good that his baseline level of paranoia has climbed to a state of high fever. He knows Russia’s plutocratic elite would be happy to see him gone if it meant sanctions being lifted and restoring their access to luxury goods. He also knows that he has spies in his midst, possibly high-ranking ones. Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov claims to have sources near the top in Russia telling him that Putin is irate at how transparent his machinations in Ukraine have become to the U.S. Either America is intercepting sensitive Kremlin communications or Putin’s circle is leaking like a sieve:
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.
“He is incandescent that US and UK intelligence appear to know the Russian army’s next moves all the time, starting with predicting the invasion before he was ready to acknowledge it,” said one source to the Daily Mail of Putin. Western intelligence probably also has something to do with Ukraine’s uncanny ability to find Russian generals on the battlefield and liquidate them. According to the Mail, Putin has vented his wrath at Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff, and has spoken derisively of Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB. Igor Kostyukov, one of Gerasimov’s deputies, is a target as well.
But at least each of them is alive, for the moment. Is Shoigu? When Soldatov was asked by the New Yorker whether Putin might view the military as a threat to his power, he replied:
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.
What happens to Shoigu if Putin suddenly has reason to doubt his loyalty? Maybe his disappearance has less to do with Putin punishing an incompetent deputy for Russia’s humiliation in Ukraine than with sidelining a potential replacement at a moment when the incentives for a coup are unusually high.
Either way, all of the discontent within Russia’s power structure is a golden opportunity for U.S. intelligence, writes former CIA officer Douglas London in an op-ed today. There’s no spy as enthusiastic as one who’s disgruntled at his government and eager for revenge. And there are surely many Russian apparatchiks who are disgruntled about the misery Putin has visited on them:
Mr. Putin has delivered a rival intelligence officer a great gift: a precipitating crisis. The desire to take control over their own destiny amid crisis drives people to spy. Intelligence officers take advantage of that desire to secure an agent’s cooperation through inspiration, trust and means to make a difference. Mr. Putin’s bumbling has provided the crisis, Ukrainian courage the inspiration, and the response of the U.S. and its allies the trust and tools for Russians to strike back.
Some of the CIA’s best agents have been volunteers who finally are pushed over the edge by a life-altering event and offer their services to an intelligence service. Tolkachev, Polyakov and Kuklinski were volunteers. Thanks to Mr. Putin’s deplorable behavior, I expect an increase in Russian volunteers who have toyed with the idea of doing something to better Russia’s future and might now be receptive to an encouraging nudge.
Putin is an ex-spy himself and is probably thinking along the same lines as London, further fuel for his already blazing paranoia. In fact, WaPo reports this afternoon that if you stand outside the gates of the Russian embassy in D.C. and scroll through Twitter or Facebook on your phone, you’re apt to see a sponsored ad from the FBI written in Russian inviting you to contact the Bureau if you have information you’d like to share. The feds are already a step ahead of London in looking to flip Russian diplomats.
I’ll leave you with this. Remember the Krasukha-4 electronic weapons system that I wrote about earlier? Well, guess what.
The advanced Russian electronic warfare system Krasucha-4, captured on the battlefield in Ukraine, will be transported to the United States for investigation, the British Daily Telegraph reported. pic.twitter.com/kddN01agYw
— 360°Radar (@wipljw) March 23, 2022