There are reports in British papers that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the arrest of at least two senior officers in the Russian Federal Security Service or FSB. The FSB is the successor to the KGB but without the overseas portfolio. However, it does operate within the now-independent states that comprised the former Soviet Union, which by Russian law (lolol) is forbidden territory to the foreign intelligence service or SVR.
A Russian spy chief is said to have been placed under house arrest in a sign that President Putin is seeking to blame the security services for the stalled invasion of Ukraine.
Sergey Beseda, head of the FSB's foreign intelligence branch, was arrested with Anatoly Bolyukh, his deputy, according to a leading expert on the Russian security services.
Andrei Soldatov, who is co-founder and editor of Agentura, an investigative website that monitors the FSB and other agencies, said that sources from within FSB had confirmed the detention of both men.
Vladimir Osechkin, an exiled Russian human rights activist, also confirmed the arrests. He added that FSB officers had carried out searches at more than 20 addresses around Moscow of colleagues suspected of being in contact with journalists.
“The formal basis for conducting these searches is the accusation of the embezzlement of funds earmarked for subversive activities in Ukraine,” Osechkin said. “The real reason is unreliable, incomplete and partially false information about the political situation in Ukraine.”
The spy chief's defenestration attests to Putin's growing fury towards the intelligence services, which he believes provided false information over the situation in Ukraine, Soldatov said. “Putin has finally understood that he was misled,” Soldatov told The Times.
Beseda, 68, heads the FSB's Fifth Service, which is responsible for intelligence-gathering in Ukraine.
Bolyukh, 66, is head of the Department of Operative Information, which is a part of the Fifth Service.
The article goes on to note that the reason for the arrest, according to Russian sources, was that the intel before the invasion was “simply not right, which is part of the reason as to why things have gone so badly for Russia.” The article also notes that sources say that if Putin is this angry at the FSB that major leadership changes are underway. The story runs in tandem with another story from last week alleging that Putin has fired at least eight generals involved in the Ukraine fiasco (note the story originates in Ukraine, which doesn't make it wrong, it is just a warning to beware).
Interestingly, the article doesn't contend that the intelligence gathered by the FSB was wrong but that it was massaged along the way to provide Putin with the answer he wanted to hear.
However, he added: “The problem is that it is too risky for superiors to tell Putin what he doesn't want to hear, so they tailor their information. The tailoring probably takes place somewhere between the rank of colonel and general in the FSB. We can't rule out the fact that the intelligence they gathered on the ground was in fact very good.”
Last weekend an alleged report written by an FSB officer emerged. The author complained about being overworked and made a scapegoat for the failings of the Russian advance. They added: “I can't tell you what led those in charge to decide to proceed with the operation but now they are methodically throwing us to the lions. We are being scolded for our analysis.”
In the old Soviet Union, there were “three pillars” or power hierarchies: the Party, the Army, and the KGB. The key to leadership was playing those hierarchies off against one another while keeping them from feeling threatened. Within each of those “pillars,” there were competing centers of power that were constantly jostling for position, which largely prevented unified political action by the entire “pillar.” Because any two of the hierarchies working in consonance could crush the third, it was essential to keep bureaucratic alliances from forming that would undermine the stability of the state.
At a minimum, the arrest of the top two FSB officers with responsibility for the Ukraine portfolio indicates that things are not going well in Ukraine. Losing more than 3,000 dead soldiers is not part of some master strategery conducted by Vladimir Putin. If the story of the fired generals is correct, then it is clear that the Ukraine invasion has reached the soup-sandwich stage of being f***ed up. The big question is, how will the FSB and Army react to being scapegoated for an invasion they probably weren't crazy about getting involved in? Will those organizations standby and watch their reputations trashed?
There is an old joke in project management about the stages of any big, can't-fail project. They are a) Unbounded Enthusiasm, b) Total Disillusionment, c) Panic, hysteria and overtime, d) Frantic Search for the guilty, e) Punishment of the innocent, and f) Reward for the uninvolved.
We seem to have reached stage d). Unless things get markedly better, the people taking over in FSB will experience e). What happens after that is anyone's guess.