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Military purge illustrates Putin’s growing strength

A military corruption probe is war by other means. Credit: Getty

June 11, 2024 - 10:10am

“In the Russian army, generals who do not steal are as few as those who do not drink.” Given those words of Russian political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov, it may seem surprising that the Kremlin has decided to wage yet another new war — this time, against corruption within its own military.

In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin commanded the Federal Security Service (FSB) to investigate corruption in defence procurement. The high-profile arrest of Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov in April has been followed by the similarly headline-grabbing falls from grace of several other senior defence officials accused of wrongdoing.

However, considering that corruption in Russia’s military has traditionally been both widespread and widely tolerated, the question remains as to why this crackdown is being implemented now. Potentially, with Moscow’s direct military spending predicted to reach nearly $132 billion through 2024 and a long war still ahead, Putin decided that he cannot afford for gun money to go on Gucci. In April, he condemned graft as “stealing the money we need for the defence of the country”, with the UK’s former defence attaché in Moscow Captain John Foreman suggesting that “Putin’s patience finally snapped”.

Moreover, with success in the Ukraine war hinging upon defence production, Russian ex-air force lieutenant Gleb Irisov has claimed that the crackdown aims to counter the damage caused by ex-defence minister Sergei Shoigu having packed the MoD with his cronies and put substandard equipment in the hands of Russian soldiers.

Additionally, investigations by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation have long shed light on the lavish lifestyles of officials, who have done investigators’ work for them by personally flaunting their opulence online. It may be that Putin does not want Russian citizens, badly affected by a sanctions-hit economy while their young men die at the front, to grow resentful or demoralised upon seeing their relatives’ commanding officers living high on the hog during a time of war.

Yet a corruption probe is itself war by other means — and, as Russian history teaches, a purge can rapidly gain momentum. Last month, defence and security sources told the Moscow Times that recent arrests are merely the beginning of what will prove to be the “largest purges” in modern Russian history, conducted by the FSB with Kremlin approval and with hundreds of arrests expected across various ranks and units of the MoD.

For its part, the FSB gains an advantage in its rivalry with the military, acquiring extra resources and the opportunity to blame the botched opening stages of the invasion on the army rather than its own intelligence failures. Even small flies are becoming entangled in this particular web, with civilian regional administration officials now being detained.

While it may seem contradictory, a purge of the army could in fact signal Putin’s confidence in Russia’s military might — and even his fear of it. Ukrainian reports claim that the figures punished are those who lost Putin’s confidence earlier in the war through errors or who — like Ivan Popov — showed dissent or criticism. As such, the front line has now stabilised to such an extent that the President feels comfortable settling scores and hacking away at his own army without it damaging Russia’s overall effectiveness in battle.

With the memory of warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny still fresh and the Russian army pushing its advantage in Ukraine, strengthening the FSB at the expense of the military keeps the latter malleable and under Putin’s control. Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann has commented: “It’s out of the question for the Kremlin to see the military acquire too much power or authority. As for popular generals, they cannot be tolerated.”

As Putin moves around commanders as though they were tin soldiers on a map of battle, he should remember the lessons of history, not least the ease with which purges slide into excess. For all Putin’s apparent confidence in re-arranging his army, the opening days of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union offered ample demonstration of the disarray, weakness and instability of a purged army in war.


Bethany Elliott is a writer specialising in Russia and Eastern Europe.

BethanyAElliott

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Andrew F
Andrew F
6 days ago

I am not fan of Putin, but compering his little purge to mass killing of Soviet Army top brass by Stalin (80% of generals, if I recall) is over the top.

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
6 days ago

Perhaps the Russian Federation has it’s own “deep state” problem as is presently running the United States.

Martin M
Martin M
7 days ago

Putin might find that if he purges all his corrupt generals, he will have no generals left.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
4 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

That’s what colonels are for.

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 days ago

Just another example of how the West’s policies towards Russia have backfired. Also of where our commentariate have been relentlessly driven more by wishful and motivated thinking than rationality.

Almost every aspect of this conflict has been framed as weakening Putin – from a relatively few people fleeing a possible draft, to Prigozhin’s machinations, to a general unblinking acceptance of only Ukraine’s claimed casualty statistics, to any battlefield reversal (with anything other than a relentless march forward framed as a reversal) and any interaction with China being framed as Russia’s subservience to President Xi.

There’s also the assumption that Putin somehow stands atop all of this, his tentacles reaching into and controlling everything in the Russian state – rather than someone negotiating his way through the corrupt and powerful remnants of the Russian state following the looting of the 1990s.
To take another example, it’s never seriously been considered that the death of all those journalists – always taken here as evidence of his uber-villain reach, might equally have been an indication of his relative impotence throughout the last few decades. All those ‘suicides’ and suspect-free shootings are routinely pinned on him, but there could easily have been other parties at play – parties too powerful at the time for Putin to challenge.

I’ve no doubt Putin has ‘done a bit’ in his time, but it’s amazing how an existential threat can bring focus and this purge is long over due.

Peter B
Peter B
7 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Ah, bless ! The poor guy Putin’s not really in charge then – he’s just another innocent victim !
Astonishingly naive.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
6 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

The point is that we don’t know…and Western “intelligence” is not to be relied on…

Martin M
Martin M
6 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I don’t think the policies should be framed as “weakening Putin” as such. They should be framed as weakening the Russian State and the Russian people. If Putin died tomorrow, another tyrant would simply rise to the top. Russia is going to be a problem for the West for the next 100 years, and the West needs to deal with it accordingly.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
5 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Putin is only one person and yes, the west seems to have a propaganda addiction, much like everywhere else.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
6 days ago

The Russian army of 2024 isn’t facing the Wehrmacht of 1941.

Martin M
Martin M
6 days ago

I wish it was facing the NATO armies of 2024.

Michael Lipkin
Michael Lipkin
6 days ago

War made the state and the state made war

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
4 days ago

Russia has always been subject to these periodic upheavals. Who can forget Yeltsin on the tank in Moscow in 1991 when hardliners tried to overthrow Gorbachev.