Top Russian military officers are being arrested

Top Russian military officers are being arrested

It began last month with the arrest of a Russian deputy defense minister. Then the head of the ministry’s personnel department was brought to court. This week two other senior military officers were arrested. All face corruption charges, which they have denied.

The arrests began shortly before President Vladimir Putin began his fifth term and moved his former ally, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, to a new position.

They immediately raised questions about whether Putin was reasserting control over the Defense Ministry amid the war in Ukraine, whether a turf battle had broken out between the army and the security services, or whether some other scenario was playing out behind the walls. of the Kremlin.

A look at what’s behind the arrests and why they’re happening:

How serious is corruption in Russia?

Corruption scandals are not new and officials and senior officials have been accused of profiting from their positions for decades.

Bribery in Russia works like a carrot and a stick. It is a way to “foster loyalty and urge people to be on the same page,” as well as a method of control, said Sam Greene, director of Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Putin wants everyone to have “a skeleton in their closet,” security expert Mark Galeotti recently said in a podcast. If the state has compromising material on key officials, it can choose who to attack, he added.

Corruption “is at the heart of the system,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The war in Ukraine has led to skyrocketing defense spending that has only increased opportunities for corruption.

Who was arrested?

Former Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov (the first official arrested in April and the highest-ranking so far) oversaw large military-related construction projects and had access to huge sums of money. Those projects included rebuilding parts of the destroyed port city of Mariupol in Ukraine.

The team led by the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny alleged that Ivanov, 48, and his family owned elite real estate, enjoyed lavish parties and trips abroad, even after the war began. They also alleged that Ivanov’s wife, Svetlana, divorced him in 2022 to avoid sanctions and continue living a luxurious lifestyle.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Thursday that the recent arrests are not a “campaign” against corruption but reflect ongoing activities in “all government bodies.”

Peskov and Ivanov were once part of an embarrassing episode caught on camera. Navalny’s team has shared 2022 footage of the Kremlin spokesman celebrating at a birthday party for Ivanov’s ex-wife. In the video, Peskov, with Ivanov next to him, is seen wearing a watch estimated to cost $85,000.

In April, the Investigative Committee, Russia’s top law enforcement body, reported that Ivanov is suspected of accepting a particularly large bribe, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Since then, other arrests on bribery charges have included Lieutenant General Yury Kuznetsov, head of the Defense Ministry’s personnel directorate; Major General Ivan Popov, a career soldier and former top commander in Ukraine; and Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, deputy chief of the military General Staff. Shamarin is deputy to Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff.

A fifth ministry official was reported to have been arrested on Thursday: Vladimir Verteletsky, who headed a division in the ministry’s defense procurement department. He was accused of abuse of power resulting in damages worth more than 70 million rubles (about US$776,000), the Investigative Committee said.

Additionally, the deputy head of the federal penitentiary service for the Moscow region, Vladimir Telayev, was arrested on Thursday on charges of large-scale bribery, according to Russian reports.

Why is this happening now?

The arrests suggest that “really egregious” corruption in the Defense Ministry will no longer be tolerated, said Richard Connolly, a specialist in Russian economics at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Shortly after his inauguration, Putin replaced Shoigu as defense minister with Andrei Belousov, an economist. Peskov said Russia’s growing defense budget must fit into the country’s broader economy.

Peskov said Russia’s defense budget is 6.7% of gross domestic product. This is a level not seen since the Soviet era.

“There is a view that this needs to be spent more wisely,” Connolly said.

Before his death in a still-mysterious plane crash last year, mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin led a brief rebellion against the country’s military leadership, saying it had mismanaged the war and denied arms and ammunition to his forces.

Belousov’s appointment is “a grudging recognition by the Kremlin” that it needs to pay attention to these problems, Gould-Davies said.

It is also essential that the war is managed correctly because the Russian economy depends on it. Russians are earning higher salaries boosted by the booming defense sector. While that has created problems with inflation, it allows Putin to continue delivering on his promises to raise living standards.

Greene said the government needs to “keep the war going to keep the economy going,” but it also needs to ensure the costs (and corruption) are no greater than necessary.

Connolly said it is also possible that Belousov, the new defense minister, is ousting his predecessor’s associates and sending the message that “things are going to be done differently.”

Other changes include Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Sadovenko, who was replaced by Oleg Saveliev, a former Belousov aide, and Rossiyana Markovskaya, a former Shoigu spokeswoman who said she was resigning to take a new job.

Popov’s case may be different. He fought in Ukraine and was suspended in July 2023 for criticizing the Defense Ministry leadership (as Prigozhin did) and blaming it for a lack of weapons and poor supply lines that led to many Russian casualties.

You may now be facing the consequences of that criticism.

Could this be a turf battle?

It is unclear whether the Kremlin or the Russian security services, particularly the State Security Service (FSB), are the driving force behind the arrests.

Officials sufficiently distant from Putin may have been caught in the middle of a turf war unrelated to the appointment of the new defense minister.

The security services, Greene said, could be trying to “counter” the military dominance seen since Putin ordered the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

While the Kremlin denies that any kind of purge was taking place, “if Putin didn’t want it to happen, it wouldn’t be happening,” Greene said.

What will happen next?

More arrests are likely to be made as the new defense minister wants to show that “there is a price to pay” for corruption in order to bring it under control, Connolly said.

Greene added that it’s also possible that “corporate” investigators think that pursuing a criminal case against a general is a great opportunity to advance their career.

However, because corruption is so endemic, it could cause panic throughout the system.

If officials are arrested for behavior that was previously permitted even though it was illegal, “red lines” could be changed, Greene said.

If the arrests continue or spread beyond the Defense Ministry, they could lead to accusations and officials “scrambling for the exits,” he said, and that is something the Kremlin wants to avoid.

Because the system is built on corruption, Greene said, attacking it too much could cause it to “fall apart.”