Is it True That Putin Was Misinformed About the Situation in Ukraine?

The military blames the FSB for the failures of the Russian army. But the FSB data did not interest Putin – the department had another task. Which one? And why do we know so little about the current war?

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan – chief editor and deputy chief editor of the website and Telegram channel on Russian Special Services

This text is a shortened version of the discussions with Andrei and Irina, which took place on Youtube channels “On the country and on peace” and Sapere Aude. The text version is published by courtesy of the channel authors.

Andrei Soldatov

Putin, in general, is reluctant to trust any conclusions made by any intelligence officers – he considers himself, a former intelligence man, a big expert. In February, Putin was not expecting to receive full information on Ukraine from the FSB – he expected them to provide him with support as political actors. He expected actions, not data.

He needed a political crisis to happen in Ukraine, one that would be most easily provoked by a military operation. Russia will drive in on tanks, Zelensky will flee, the crowds will take to the streets and demand a change in the agenda, and that’s when our guys from the Fifth FSB Service, the service on Intelligence Information and International Networks, begin the action. Events took a different turn – and it became unclear what to do next. That is why the military tactic remained the same for a month and a half: the personnel expected this to be a quick political operation, wherein they would be used as an instrument to provoke a political crisis.

And my sources in the economical departments of the FSB expressed their surprise that they were not once asked about the potential economic and security consequences for Russia. It’s not that the information was wrong – nobody was even planning to listen to them.

Irina Borogan

Putin’s delusions of grandeur are based on the fact that the annexation of Crimea went well, no one had died. However, Crimea and Ukraine are two different things, Crimea is not the same as Sevastopol. There should have been someone to say this – however, the current system of power is formed in a way that there are no such “someones” in his circle. Careers grow based on the people’s willing confirmation of his points of view.

We’ve all seen Sergey Naryshkyn mumbling like a Gogolian character – and no one even tried to cut this footage, i.e., Putin wants people to see him – surrounded by pathetic, pointless men. No analysis can take place in such a situation. The president is fed what he wants to eat.

Andrei Soldatov

The ongoing war is different from the Chechen wars of the 2000s in the regards that it is much more secretive. In Syria and during the second Chechen war we were at least aware of the location of the Russian group’s main headquarters – there were headquarters, an informational center, a press center which reporters visited and conducted interviews with generals. Today, the entire responsibility lies on Sergey Konashenkov in Moscow. It is critical for the Ministry of Defense to preserve this veil of secrecy.

When repressions against the Fifth Service began, people began asking questions: it must be some fault in the plan, why punish someone otherwise? Putin realized that and released the service head Sergey Beseda from jail. It was a whole other special operation – first, he was shown at a funeral, then he was seen entering his office. That does not mean that all his credentials were returned; at the same time, the FSB stopped being the main agency to supply information on Ukraine, this function was transferred to the main administration of the joint staff, i.e., to military officials. However, the trick was played. Only Stalin had done this before: he could throw a man in jail, release him, and pretend that it’s never happened.

Additionally, due to secrecy, there are no risks that the generals can pose to Putin. When the war is going on for a while, generals who begin to think independently and gain popularity start to emerge. People such as Lev Rokhlin, Gennady Troshin, Vladimir Shamanov are a political risk. Right now they cannot emerge, as they don’t talk to reporters and no one knows their names. Putin wants to curtail this risk. He, in general, is not too fond of leaders other than himself.

Does the war cause a schism between security subdepartments and Special Services?

Andrei Soldatov

The military was enthusiastic to name the FSB as the scapegoat: look, it’s the special services that screwed everyone up. Looking for someone to blame, naming someone responsible – this is all in the Russian style. However, as logical people, we can pose a question: what was the main administration of the Joint Staff doing? How was it collecting information? How did it present its evaluations? We did not notice any criticisms of the military or of the military intelligence.

Putin’s delusions of grandeur are based on the fact that the annexation of Crimea went well, no one had died. However, Crimea and Ukraine are two different things

The military can criticize how the war began, what is the necessary volume of weapons and manpower supplies (mobilization is heavily discussed), but, surprisingly, there are no questions as to whether the war should have been started at all. Inside of the military corpus, it is not portrayed as a war against the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which, obviously, cannot compare to the Russian Army in terms of capabilities. It is framed like an apocalyptic conflict, wherein Russia must wage war against the whole world: such is her tragic duty.

The horizon becomes much narrower for people at war: when getting ready to leave, or already in the zone of combat action, they no longer discuss whether or not they should be doing it or who sent them there. They begin to only exist in the bounds of their subdivision. There, all is ruled by the law of comradeship, and the law of revenge, if your comrade was killed. Even the officers have no questions. They have descended to the level of truth from the trenches: all conversations with them come down to the following formula: “We’ll think about this after the war, but right now we have to stand up for our boys”.

In private conversations, especially in the special service environment, plenty of questions are asked. They don’t understand why special services must act as a trained infantry instead of cutting communications and sabotaging the supplies of Western ammunition: which is the key element for this war. Why so many people have died and why there are no repressions taking place.

Will the military overthrow Putin?

Irina Borogan

A negative answer to this question always disappoints  the conversational counterpart. We are looking for signs that they are preparing an uprising and are capable of one, having received combat experience and united into a brotherhood, but we are not finding any confirmations. They are indignant in Telegram channels and at kitchen tables – but this leads to nothing. There is no network, no regional support.

Andrei Soldatov

From Afghanistan and the first Chechen war we can recall that veteran coalitions and CDs with soldier songs appeared when such was the political will. No such things took place during the second Chechen war. The Russian army has been waging war in Syria since 2015 – and no culture was created around the men who’ve returned from there. They are not represented in society in any way. Currently, those who served in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are underrepresented as well: at first, they were promoted by Kremlin affiliates such as Konstantin Malofeev, but once they were told “enough”, they’ve forgotten about it.

The former special service employees are actively discussing the current events in Telegram channels, and a whole public environment has formed around them. It’s them who crowdfunds the money to purchase missing equipment. Typically, those people display a more radical attitude than the officials – even an extremist one. The surveys of hundreds of thousands of followers show that only 10% will be satisfied by the liberation of Donbass: people need a full occupation of Ukraine, an exit all the way to Poland. I was astonished by a discussion of what should be done with captive soldiers at “Azovstal”: I expected that people would want an exchange, but a vast majority voiced demands for a trial and execution by firing squad. The longer the war goes on, the stronger will be the influence of this environment. The Ministry of Defense isn’t too thrilled about this unsanctioned grassroots activity, which continues to puzzle as to what should be done with it.

On the role of special services on occupied territories

Andrei Soldatov

What do we need filtering camps for? Their purpose for exterior use is to provide for the security of armed forces in liberated territories, and, for this purpose, to ferret out those who can potentially pose danger (served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, or was a member of a group considered dangerous by the Russian Federation). Additionally, since the times of the second Chechen war, they have been used for recruitment. It is rather difficult for someone in a hostile environment – for example, a Muscovite in a village – to recruit agents. The camp, however, provides a unique opportunity, and the bigger it is, the better. You pump a crowd inside, recruit them, and then let them go – and, since the crowd is so large, it is impossible to differentiate those who’ve agreed from those who’ve refused. Recruitment takes place on the territory that is fully controlled by the special services. That is how Chechen filtering camps functioned back in the day,  and that is why Kadyrov tossed them once he gained power – he did not need them at all.

The more of those camps, the better for the FSB. Such is the current role of special services.

Why are there no mass repressions taking place?

Irina Borogan

There are plenty of resources. However, there is no political will to initiate mass repressions, those responsible have already reached their goals. The result of intimidation and point landings is quite good: in Moscow, there are a lot of people who are against the war and its consequences, but they will not take to the streets, they will not resist publically, because they are afraid.

Putin has come across the idea of fear as a unifying factor a while ago. During the years of his administration, fear has burgeoned. When he just came to power, people were afraid of explosions and poor healthcare. Now, they are afraid that the state will catch them at any moment in their private life, fine you, or violate you with a bottle. This fear is permanent and is present across all social strata: whether you’re Ulyukaev or a mother of a teenager, who may wear a ribbon or shout something during the school lineup.

Andrei Soldatov

The fear has spread to all elites, from ministers to the FSB staff. Putin has toyed around with the idea of FSB as the new aristocracy for more than 10 years; and then he understood that, in order to keep them under control, he needs repressions, including ones against them. In early and even late 2000s it was impossible to imagine that staff members, and, moreover, a general of the FSB can be imprisoned (if a staff member committed a crime, he was instantly disqualified and was imprisoned as a regular civilian), and now they are imprisoned.

Irina Borogan

Fear is an excellent instrument, the question is for how long it’ll remain effective. It is clear that in the short-term perspective it works well, but the fact that an enormous quantity of totalitarian regimes that existed during the XX century collapsed and were never brought back allows us to remain optimistic.

On the future reform of security agencies

Irina Borogan

Reform will begin with international military court hearings.

Andrei Soldatov

Before the war, a large expert discussion on the necessary scope of lustration took place. Since, when you place a large structure outside the bounds of the law, there is always a risk that they will say “It’s easier for us to get rid of you than to retire”. Therefore, the main idea was to leave certain departments.

Now it seems to me that relying only on ambiguous decisions is impossible, and we will have to take a risk. The Western special services have tons of problems, they have made enormous mistakes, but the principles on which they were built are quite different from those holding up their Soviet counterparts. The Western services were constructed around data collection and antiterrorism efforts. The Soviet services, even external ones, were built to guard the regime. We should not have allowed a structure built for repressions to remain. We will need to change our principles. And start again, from zero.