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Putin’s purge of allies shows he came closer to being toppled than anyone realized

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Last night, Igor Girkin was arrested in Moscow. You may not know him by name, but he had been one of the three men a Dutch court found guilty in November 2022 for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 while it was flying over Ukraine. 

The civilian Boeing 777 airliner had been shot down in July 2014 by Russian separatists in Ukraine using a Russian Buk missile system that was under the command and control of Girkin. All 298 souls on board were killed. In The Hague, an investigative team determined in February that there were “strong indications” Russian President Vladimir Putin “approved the supply of heavy anti-aircraft weapons to Girkin’s rebel forces. 

Girkin’s wife, Miroslava Reginskaya, posted on his Telegram account that her husband, who also goes under the nom de guerre of Igor Strelkov, has been charged under Article 282 of the Criminal code of the Russian Federation for “extremism.” 

Girkin’s “extremism” was for increasingly voicing his displeasure about Putin and the deteriorating state of his faltering “special military operation” in Ukraine. Last Tuesday, Girkin — a well-known milblogger and silovik inside of Russia and in the Donbas — had penned a “Telegram too far” when he “changed tack from criticizing Putin’s military decisions to turning to the issue of his leadership of the country in general.”

In doing so, Girkin essentially signed his arrest warrant, if not death sentence. As Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, put it in a Tweet, Girkin should have accepted the life sentence of the Dutch court and “taken his chances with a Dutch prison” instead of basically penciling in his own appointment in Lubyanka Square, the infamous headquarters of the FSB and the Cold War-era KGB.

Girkin is one more former close ally of Putin who finds himself either arrested, missing or very dead courtesy of a window, a cup of tea, or the ever-popular “heart attack.”

For Putin’s allies, the Ukrainian sunflower is proving to be a Venus flytrap, whose golden petals may yet come even to devour Putin himself. The war has badly weakened and destabilized Putin’s regime, as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed “march for justice” showed last month. 

Clearly, Putin’s critics — Girkin heretofore included — feel more emboldened, not less, in the wake of Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny and seizure of the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, a key city in terms of the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine. More and more Russians are speaking up about what did not happen during Putin’s efforts to put down the Wagner Group’s revolt against the Russian Defense Ministry.

Michael Weiss, in a fascinating exposé for “The Insider,” a Russia-based investigative website, revealed just how deeply the cracks inside Russia’s state security and intelligence organs. If Weiss’ sources inside the FSB, GRU and Ministry of Internal Affairs are to be believed, Prigozhin came much closer to toppling Putin than has been fully realized to date.

Perhaps when the history of present-day Russia is written, Prigozhin’s rebellion will have proven to be the proverbial straw that broke the Kremlin’s back. As Weiss quotes one GRU officer as saying, “Now everyone is convinced of how easily and without a fight you can take power, so there may be many who want to.”

The GRU officer then said what only 18 months ago would have been unthinkable, at least in Western circles, observing, “Everyone saw that, in fact, no one stood up for Putin. What until recently was considered by many to be absolutely impossible almost succeeded, and now many may want to repeat it again.”

Girkin, perhaps, thought so as well — that is until Ukraine’s sunflower came for him too during the dead of a Russian night. From Putin’s standpoint, however, Weiss’ piece is even more telling in documenting who refused to come to Putin’s aid during the uprising. 

There are tales of drunk Russian general officers who either were unable or unwilling to respond to the crisis. Weiss cites one Ukrainian spy as saying, “We watched one general in one of the Russian regions who received a call on Saturday and demanded to urgently appear at the headquarters in connection with an attempted military coup, but he did not go anywhere and continued to drink. And as we understand, such a reaction was typical.”

Most astounding in Weiss’ reporting, however, was the purported action of the FSB itself during Prigozhin’s mutiny. Relying on an FSB officer, Weiss asserts that “even the Russian Spetsnaz, or Special Forces, didn’t show up to stop Prigozhin’s army.” Yet — and this is important to note — “Alpha unit [an elite Spetsnaz unit of the FSB] was transferred to guard Lubyanka,” inexplicably, two days prior to the rebellion, as if in anticipation.

To put it in Nixonian Watergate terms, what did the FSB know, when did they know it, and why did they not act sooner in conjunction with the Russian Ministry of Defense to protect Putin and Russia’s capital city from Prigozhin’s approaching marauders?

The answers to those questions are likely proving uncomfortable for Putin and his regime. He cannot but help to wonder who in his security state — especially inside of the FSB and GRU — were, at least for a while, unwilling to protect him, but did act (even in advance!) to protect their own headquarters in Lubyanka Square.

Moscow, in all likelihood, is deeply in crisis behind closed doors. Even Washington is taking notice. In late June, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during an appearance on CNN to Dana Bash, “I think you’ve seen cracks emerge that weren’t there before.” Based on Weiss’ sources, it appears those cracks may run deeper than anyone believed possible, even into the very foundation of the Russian state — the FSB itself. 

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The conflict in Ukraine hath wrought all of this. That nation’s iconic sunflowers have sprung up in and around the Kremlin and Lubyanka Square; like Venus flytraps they are ravenously devouring those whose usefulness to the Putin regime has run out.

But Putin’s usefulness to the establishment in Moscow might also run out soon enough. As the Russian saying goes, “It’s you today, me tomorrow.”

Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy and is an economist, entrepreneur, and former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis. Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army Colonel and 30-year military intelligence officer, led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014.

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