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Arrests of Russian generals and officials raises questions about Putin's war machine

Cameron Manley   

Arrests of Russian generals and officials raises questions about Putin's war machine
  • Five senior figures in Russia's defense establishment have been arrested on corruption charges.
  • A former UK defense attaché in Moscow described corruption as a "cancer" within Russia's MOD.

It began with Timur Ivanov, Russia's then-deputy defense minister, who was arrested after being accused of taking bribes "on a particularly large scale."

Then came Lt. Gen. Yuri Kuznetsov, head of the defense ministry's personnel directorate. He was arrested after more than 100 million rubles (over $1 million), gold coins, and other valuables were seized from his residences.

That was followed by the arrests of the ex-commander of the 58th Guards Combined Arms Army, Ivan Popov, and later Lt. Gen. Vadim Shamarin and defense ministry official Vladimir Verteletsky.

The wave of arrests came as part of a push to stamp out corruption in Russia's defense ministry, which, according to the UK Ministry of Defence, "is deeply rooted."

John Foreman, a former British defense attaché in Moscow, described corruption as a "cancer" within Russia's MOD, adding that the arrests and ministry reshuffle suggest that things aren't going to plan for Russia.

"You don't remove your defense minister and replace all your generals if everything is going well," Foreman told Business Insider.

Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at University College London and senior research associate at the UK-based think tank the Royal United Services Institute, told BI he believed the clear-out was connected with the change in defense minister.

"Putin has been very disinclined to reshuffle the top tier of his security agencies in the middle of a war," Galeotti said.

But his inauguration for a fifth presidential term "provided a moment where he really felt he had to move Shoigu on," he added.

"If they're bringing in Belousov with a mandate to get absolute control of the defense ministry's finances, to cut down on waste and embezzlement, then now is the time to tackle the whole problem," he continued.

In a 2022 report, experts told the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project that corruption was so rife among Russian forces that it could ultimately save Ukraine.

Following the launch of Russia's full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022, a former Russian foreign minister also claimed that widespread corruption was among the reasons for the Russian military's poor performance in the early days of the conflict.

Andrey Kozyrev, who served as the foreign minister under President Boris Yeltsin in in 1990s, wrote on X: "The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernize its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus. But as a military advisor you cannot report that to the President. So they reported lies to him instead."

Belousov's appointment is, therefore, an attempt by Putin to gain control of these high levels of corruption that Shoigu and, until now, Putin himself have allowed to occur, Foreman told BI.

"Putin has tolerated Shoigu building his empire, taking money from the defense budget, installing his corrupt cronies in return for loyalty," he said.

Putin now needed someone who would bring "more bang for the buck," he added.

Echoes of Wagner criticisms

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former leader of the mercenary Wagner Group who was killed in a plane crash in August last year, had previously hit out at Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, Russia's Chief of the General Staff, accusing them of incompetence and corruption.

"Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where the fuck are the munitions?!" he shouted in one video, blaming the officials for some of the losses suffered by his Wagner Group.

While Putin stood with Shoigu at the time, it was likely his "nail in the coffin as defense minister," Foreman said.

"The drip of accusations of corruption, the blatant nature of it at a time when Putin was demanding more and more sacrifice for the cause of the war, was not good," he said.

For a while, it meant that Shoigu was safer than ever because "Putin couldn't seem to be giving into Prigozhin's demands," Galeotti said. There needed to be "time for the dust to settle."

But Prigozhin "was actually telling the truth about some of these things. And for an authoritarian regime that depends on information control, nothing is more dangerous than the truth," he added.

Russia's top general could be next on Putin's list

Valery Gerasimov, Russia's top general, has been found wanting in his role as Russia's Chief of the General Staff, defense experts say.

"He's 68, unpopular and incompetent and there's a new defense minister: he has lost his cover," Foreman said, adding that there are also "credible alternatives."

Both Galeotti and Foreman said they would be surprised if Gerasimov remained in place by the end of the year.

Witn Shoigu gone, the speed and frequency of arrests in the defense ministry can now pick up.

Last week a Kremlin source told The Moscow Times that "the FSB is mopping up Shoigu's team. It's to be expected. This kind of operation can only be carried out with approval at the very top."

"Criminal cases have been piled up. But while Shoigu was a minister and had enormous influence, investigators were not allowed to pursue them," a second government official told The Moscow Times.

The UK MOD has also said that it "is likely that there will be further arrests," while one acting Russian government official told The Moscow Times that the moves could become part of the "largest purges" in modern Russian history.

Galeotti said that any such further arrests would likely aim at sending senior military figures a clear message: "You could be next."

But a solution to the problem would require a complete upheaval of the whole defense structure, and "that's not going to happen," Galeotti said. "It is an attempt to redefine the acceptable levels of corruption."

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