On the evening of July 15, international media started broadcasting footage from Istanbul. Tanks were in the streets blocking major roads and communication facilities, and jets were flying overhead. It looked like a coup, and hours later was declared to be a coup attempt by Turkey’s military. By the time the sun had risen over the Bosphorus the next day, the media broadly declared the coup a failure—though, judging by the mass purges and repressions that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spearheaded in the ensuing weeks, perhaps that declaration was too hasty.
While the Turkish President was outmaneuvering and neutralizing those who opposed him, another coup, largely unnoticed in the West, was unfolding in Russia. And while Turkey’s coup started with footage of the army in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, the only sign of the Russian coup was an accelerating number of resignation and arrests among the ruling elite.
It all started in February of 2014, days before the invasion of Crimea, when officers from the Federal Security Service (FSB) raided offices at the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Committee for Economic Security and Combating Corruption. Days later, the department’s head, General Denis Sugrobov, resigned, and in May, he was arrested. Officially, Sugrobov was responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminality in the Russia’s financial sector. In reality, his department was running various protection rackets and schemes involving businesses and banks (of which the obnalichka, or illegal cash-out, was a particularly profitable example).
Another department with overlapping jurisdiction over—and overlapping interests in—the financial sector is the FSB’s Economic Security Service (SEB). General Sugrobov, in a bid to eliminate competitors, tried to set up an FSB officer by offering him a bribe, and was caught doing it. Soon after he had arrived at his post at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Sugrobov reportedly ran afoul of Oleg Feoktistov, the deputy chief of the FSB’s Interior Security Department’s (USB), as well as the chief of the USB’s 6th Service, Ivan Tkachev. As RBC later reported, Tkachev and Feoktistov personally orchestrated the operation against Sugrobov. The USB was set up to oversee corruption and crimes inside the FSB itself, so de facto it had the authority to arrest any official or silovik in Russia. The 6th Service was the most powerful and secretive organ within the entire FSB.
With the arrest of Sugrobov, Russian media began reporting in earnest on a war between the secret services, a war that has been raging ever since. Or at least it was until a week ago, when the USB struck yet another blow against the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Committee for Economic Security. Its deputy chief, Dmitry Zakharchenko, who was stashing $120 million in cash at his relatives’ apartment, was arrested, and his boss resigned. With this, control over the financial and banking sectors, including the profitable illegal cash-out operations, was monopolized by the FSB.
Meanwhile, earlier this year heads started rolling within the FSB itself—and at the SEB in particular. First to go was Viktor Voronin, the head of the SEB’s Directorate K, which oversees the banking sector. Voronin, one of the most powerful siloviki in Russia—powerful enough to be targeted by the Magnitsky Act—resigned after some of his subordinates were charged with bribery. Shortly after that, Voronin’s boss, Yury Yakovlev, the head of the SEB, retired. The USB was behind these hits as well. The fight culminated with the USB’s head, Sergey Korolev, being appointed to lead the SEB.
There was more collateral damage. Several other high-profile arrests and resignations, initiated or connected to the USB, took place in Russia this year: The Governor of Sakhalin Oblast Aleksander Khoroshavin, the Governor of Komi Republic Vyacheslav Gaiser, the Mayor of Vladivostok Igor Pushkarev, and the Governor of Kirov Oblast Nikita Belykh are all awaiting trial now. And in May, Evgeny Murov, the long-serving head of the Federal Protective Service (FSO), the agency responsible for guarding Russia’s President, retired. The resignation took place after a businessman from St. Petersburg was detained by the USB’s officers, arrested, and charged with smuggling. The businessman, Dmitry Mikhalchenko, turned out to be connected to the FSO and Murov.
Mikhalchenko’s case laid the groundwork for another major fall among the siloviki: that of Federal Customs Service head Andrey Belianinov, one of Vladimir Putin’s oldest allies. Belianinov’s house was raided by USB officers who discovered more than $1 million in cash, hidden in shoe-boxes. There is no way such an operation could have been conducted without Putin’s direct approval. Belianinov was not arrested, nor were charges pressed, but he was fired.
And if Belianinov’s resignation seemed extraordinary at the time, what happened two weeks later left everyone properly perplexed. Sergey Ivanov, a person who had spent 17 years together with Vladimir Putin, who had known Russia’s President since the 1970s, a man who was considered the second most powerful official in Russia, who had been Defense Minister, and was serving as the Chief of the Presidential Administration, resigned out of the blue. Ivanov was appointed to a newly created post—Presidential Envoy for Ecology and Nature Preservation—although he kept his seat on the Security Council. As we noted at the time, there has never been an Ecology Envoy to this extremely important national security body, which suggests that Ivanov’s role at the Security Council had been minimized—and might soon be eliminated.
Finally, last week, Russian media widely reported that the head of the Investigative Committee (SKR), Aleksandr Bastrykin, would resign after the Duma elections that took place this past Sunday. (His resignation has not yet been officially announced, but a source confirmed Bastrykin is out.) He and his deputy, the SKR’s press secretary, General Vladimir Markin, are leaving after the USB raided the SKR’s Moscow offices and detained three high-profile officials. The fourth one, the head of the department and Bastrykin’s closest ally, was not detained, but resigned.
The grand finale of the crusade being waged by the USB and its 6th Service is approaching. Russian media this week is abuzz with reports of a massive restructuring of Russia’s security services. Kommersant broke the story over the weekend, reporting that the FSB would be reconstituted as a new Ministry of State Security. This literal reincarnation of the KGB (KGB after all stands for komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti, which means the Committee for State Security) will also incorporate the Foreign Intelligence Service (which at the time of the USSR was part of the KGB), and several units of the FSO. The FSO itself will remain the official security service of the Russian President. Apart from that, the newly-formed MGB will provide internal security for all the remaining law enforcement and military agencies.
Furthermore, the Investigative Committee will be eliminated by these reforms, and its responsibilities will be handed back to the Attorney General’s office. (This, again, suggests that Aleksandr Bastrykin is out of a job.) The Ministry of Emergency Situations will be eliminated as well, and its functions will be divided between the Defense and the Interior Ministries.
So what we have today is that the entire financial sector is being controlled by the FSB; the new head of the Customs Service is a KGB guy; the FSB itself will be significantly enlarged, and its officers will be overseeing the entire law enforcement apparatus in the country. This represents an end to the informal system of checks and balances on power that used to exist in Putin’s Russia up until this point. Vladimir Putin’s preferred style of governance, where he created rival structures and make them fight with each other for favor, has always put the brakes on a single power center, apart from the Presidency, rising to dominate the others.
There is no question the siloviki have seized control over both law enforcement and key economic sectors in the state, which amounts to a military coup. The question is who is behind this.
The successful campaign of the USB, and its 6th Service, on rivals both in and outside the FSB could not have been possible without having powerful patronage at the very top. As we previously noted, General Viktor Zolotov, the long-serving bodyguard of Vladimir Putin and the head of recently formed National Guard, most likely stands behind all of it. Although it is impossible to confirm, a fair bit of evidence points his way.
Zolotov has long been feuding with Andrey Belianinov over Cherkizovsky Bazaar, a marketplace in Moscow valued in the billions of dollars, which was shut down in 2009. Zolotov is said to be close to Telman Ismailov, the market’s owner, and Belianinov’s department was ultimately responsible for the market’s closure. (Several Russian media outlets reported that Belianinov was Ivanov’s protege and was protected by him, which might help explain the strange fall of Sergey Ivanov.)
Zolotov has at least once almost openly come to blows with Aleksandr Bastrykin; the two are said to loathe each other.
Also, even though no one has ever reported friction between Zolotov and Evgeny Murov, the latter was clearly a strong rival for Vladimir Putin’s goodwill and affection.
Finally, Viktor Zolotov has always been very close to Putin, and has direct access to the President.
And while the USB has been successfully prosecuting a war against its rivals, an important reshuffling took place inside it: The deputy chief of the USB, the above-mentioned Oleg Feoktistov, was fired. As The New Times reported, the usual glide path for departing high-profile FSB officers is to get hired into the security departments of state-run corporations, banks or oil companies. Sure enough, this is General Feoktistov fate: He is now heading up the Rosneft’s security department. A possible explanation for Feoktistov’s departure is that someone who orchestrated the USB’s battles is now getting rid of the instruments.
Furthermore, as The New Times notes, the 6th Service was originally created at the initiative of Igor Sechin, who was at the time President Putin’s Special Assistant. Feoktistov, who had been with the Service from the very beginning, was Sechin’s protege. As Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in 2007, Zolotov and Sechin were on opposing sides of the famous Three Whales smuggling case. If that fight kept simmering in the background all these years, it could help explain Feoktistov’s resignation. And Sechin himself seems to have lost the Kremlin’s favor: His Rosneft was not given money from the budget that Sechin was demanding as a bailout, and was not allowed to bid in the recent privatization auction of the Bashneft oil company.
Even if it’s not Viktor Zolotov, the person responsible for such a complete change of fortunes for the siloviki has to be someone other than Vladimir Putin. Why not Putin, especially since he is a silovik himself? For one thing, all the major moves appear to have originated from one source: the FSB’s security service, the USB—an agency several levels below that of the President himself. Given all the other possible options available to Putin to shake the system up, why resort to this particular one? For example, Putin could just have easily fired Belianinov himself…
Whoever is the main driver of events, a much bigger question remains. Vladimir Putin clearly allowed the delicate system of checks and balances he had painstakingly built to change on his watch. What exactly happened to him that prompted him to let this occur?
A final thought: it’s no longer impossible to imagine that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will be dismissed (or resign, as these things usually play out). One possible sign that such a scenario is in the offing is the crescendo of rumors about St. Petersburg Governor Georgiy Poltavchenko’s appointment to either the Investigative Committee—now part of the Attorney General’s office—or to some other position in Moscow. How is this connected to a possible Medvedev resignation? For one, there is no obvious need to move Poltavchenko from St. Petersburg, so if it is being done it means his position is being cleared for somebody else. And the only post Medvedev could conceivably be given as a demotion prize is the governorship of St. Petersburg. If Medvedev is replaced, more than likely by a silovik with all the right friends, the resignation of Vladimir Putin might not be so far off. After all, the Russian constitution stipulates that the Prime Minister succeeds the President in case the latter resigns.