The supposedly hyper-competent Russian intelligence services have been thrust into the spotlight recently, and the look has not been flattering to the Putin regime. Indeed, what the Kremlin meant to be a demonstration of its might and ability to act with impunity has instead signaled its growing weakness.
It all started with a now-infamous video clip of National Guard head Viktor Zolotov berating Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader who has been in jail under administrative arrest since August. Taunting him with low-brow street slang, Zolotov promised “to make mincemeat” of Navalny and asked him to choose a weapon for their duel. Navalny had made General Zolotov mad by publishing investigations about corruption within the National Guard, and specifically revealing the expensive mansions allegedly belonging to the general’s son.
Zolotov’s address instantly became an Internet meme in Russia. At the same time, his performance also drew rebuke from the commentariat, especially considering the National Guard’s harsh crackdown on protestors complaining about pension reforms in the preceding days. Two prominent Russian media outlets published powerful opinion pieces condemning Zolotov, something that doesn’t happen often in the heavily censored media space in late Putinist Russia.
In Vedomosti, Vladimir Ruvinsky and Maria Zheleznova wrote that Zolotov had forsaken all notions of civility by choosing to speak so crudely. The official reaction to his remarks speaks volumes too, the article says. “Words that in any other country would be grounds for immediate dismissal have not been condemned—on the contrary, the spokesman to the President, who is Zolotov’s direct boss, found it possible to say that ‘sometimes, shameless libel might be fought against with any methods.’” The calls “for physical assault in political disputes shows very clearly what direction the country is heading—not forward, to the future, but backwards, to the backstreets,” the piece concludes.
Republic put its strong argument in the very headline of its editorial: “We need to admit: the country is being ruled by horrible people.” The editorial starts by recalling the recent fire in a shopping mall in Kemerovo that killed dozens, including children. After the fire, the Kemerovo Governor apologized to Vladimir Putin, but never to the families. And the head of the Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, castigated the mall owners for relentlessly pursuing profits, which he seemed to suggest was a kind of crime. There is no longer any division in Russia between state officials and the siloviki, the Republic editorial says, and there can be no economic development with the likes of Zolotov and Bastrykin calling the shots. Most of the country has not suffered from the siloviki yet, the authors acknowledge: If you don’t go to a rally, you won’t be beaten by the National Guard; if your business does not cross the interests of a silovik’s family, you will not be put in jail. But it is counterproductive to pretend not to notice this “parallel reality ruled by horrible people with a crass vision of the world.”
A day after Zolotov’s performance, another face of the siloviki intelligence apparatus revealed itself to the world. The two GRU officers who tried to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury appeared on Russia’s RT channel. What at first seemed merely a shambolic performance by two poorly prepared intelligence officers turned out to be a disgrace for the entire Russian intelligence community. Journalists quickly established the real name of one of the culprits: “Ruslan Boshirov” is in fact the GRU colonel Anatoly Chepiga. Kommersant took to the village where Chepiga was raised and spoke to his former neighbors. Over a hundred people recognized him and told stories about the future GRU officer. The exposure of the second officer came on Monday: “Aleksandr Petrov” is Aleksandr Mishkin, a military doctor.
The GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service within the Defense Ministry, has until now been considered the most elite spy agency in Russia, home to only the best and brightest. The Skripal screwups were far from the only recent instance of the GRU’s imposing image being brought down to earth.
Earlier this month, Dutch authorities announced that they had expelled four GRU officers in April for an attempt to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague. The same four, plus an additional three officers, were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice the very same day. Some of the GRU officers indicted in October had also been indicted in July for election meddling by Robert Muller.
Recall that in response to Muller’s indictment, Russian officials claimed that Mueller couldn’t have possibly established the names of the listed operatives. It turns out, given the amateurish nature of the GRU’s tradecraft, it really wasn’t that much of a challenge for American investigators.
When Dutch authorities arrested the four expelled officers, they found that one of them, Alexei Moronets, was carrying a taxi receipt for a ride from GRU headquarters in Moscow to Sheremetyevo Airport. Let that sink in: a military intelligence officer called a taxi in his own name to GRU headquarters, and kept the receipt, presumably in order to be reimbursed upon his return. The online investigative collective Bellingcat and The Insider magazine checked for the Moronets name in a motor vehicle department database, copies of which freely circulate on Russian black markets. Moronets’s name was there, along with his passport number, and his car was registered at an address known to correspond to GRU department #26165—the same unit named in the July Mueller indictment. Plugging that address back into the database revealed 305 other vehicles registered there, along with cell phone and passport numbers for associated individuals. This is not exactly the stuff of James Bond movies.
Meanwhile, General Viktor Zolotov, perhaps wounded by earlier unfavorable coverage, rushed to put himself back in the spotlight. Last week, a story emerged that he had personally disarmed a man who had threatened to explode a gas cylinder in Red Square. A businessman from Primorsky Krai reportedly drove his SUV onto Red Square and demanded to speak to either Vladimir Putin or Viktor Zolotov, threatening to set off an explosive device if his demands were not met. Zolotov is said to have strolled up to the car, unarmed, to have gotten in, and to have talked the man down, getting him to finally give up to the authorities. Video of the incident has now surfaced.
Given the violence with which the National Guard has put down completely nonviolent protests in the past, the Zolotov episode was roundly mocked by the Russian commentariat as a transparent publicity stunt. But the mockery should not distract us from the significance of Zolotov’s move. The narrative frame, as presented by Zolotov’s boosters, clearly puts their big man on the same level as Putin—the disgruntled terrorist was supposedly content to talk to either strongman. And though Zolotov is often seen as a loyal attack dog for Putin, he seems to increasingly be harboring delusions of grandeur himself: see, for instance, the giant, Stalin-esque portraits of himself that he regularly places in front of marching National Guard officers.
Who does General Viktor Zolotov think he is? What power does he have, and what does he aspire to? And why has one of the more obscure figures in Putin’s inner circle (though not that obscure to our regular readers) suddenly sought publicity? These questions are already stirring speculation on who will come after Putin—or, put another way, who would be the first to dare to grab rule from a faltering President. The question is especially relevant considering the latest drop in Putin’s approval ratings: Fresh Levada polls show that trust in Russia’s leader has fallen to 39 percent, 20 percentage points down from a year ago and the lowest level since before the Crimean annexation.
On the whole, these recent episodes suggest a paradox of sorts emerging in Putin’s Russia. On the one hand, corruption and incompetence is so rife, even among the most elite cadres of the spy services, that the regime can’t help but shoot itself in the foot, repeatedly, in what ought to be matters of the highest importance to Russian national security. On the other hand, none of these screwups really seem to matter. The siloviki are just getting stronger and more entrenched, and remain largely impervious to criticism. One might be tempted to conclude from all of this that the system overall is more brittle. But that would be a misreading. As I wrote several years ago in these pages, the most likely outcome is a replacement of Putin’s “soft” authoritarianism with a harder, more brazen kind. As things stand now, I have little reason to revise my expectations.