The purge is on: Putin reportedly fires 150 FSB agents

Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP

Here’s another way in which the U.S. and Russia are different. In America, we seem to be reliving the 1970s.

In Russia, it’s more of a 1930s-40s kind of vibe.

A related difference: Unlike in the U.S., when Russian intelligence officers screw up, there are actual consequences.

You may remember the rumors a month ago that Sergei Beseda, head of the Fifth Service of Russia’s FSB, had been placed under house arrest. The Fifth Service is in charge of spying inside Russia and within countries in the near-abroad, like Ukraine. Understandably, Putin is unhappy with the agency’s performance lately. Reportedly around 150 FSB operatives have been sent packing and, ominously, Beseda is allegedly locked away in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, a facility where the NKVD used to carry out mass executions.

But other than that, the war’s going great.

The FSB purge was reported by Christo Grozev, executive director of Bellingcat, the investigative organisation that unmasked the two Salisbury poisoners in 2018. He did not reveal the source of his information.

“I can say that although a significant number of them have not been arrested they will no longer work for the FSB,” Grozev told Popular Politics, a YouTube channel about Russian current affairs.

Last month FSB officers also carried out searches at more than 20 addresses around Moscow of colleagues suspected of being in contact with journalists.

Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov told the Times of London he’s surprised that Putin had Beseda sent to prison instead of simply humiliating him with a demotion. Maybe that’s a function of the magnitude of the intelligence failure, with Russia left embarrassed on the world stage by how it failed to anticipate the fierce Ukrainian resistance. But Soldatov, writing today in the Moscow Times, thinks there might be more to it. It turns out that Beseda used to be the FSB’s liaison to the CIA in Moscow, which may be significant:

He could have fired Beseda, as he did with Roman Gavrilov, the deputy commander of the National Guard. Putin could have also transferred him to another agency, as he did with the powerful General Oleg Syromolotov some years ago, when he made him deputy minister of foreign affairs. Instead, Putin placed Beseda under a false name in Lefortovo prison – the only prison in the country under control of the FSB, a place with a gruesome reputation from the 1930s and 1940s. The prison still has an underground shooting range pitted with bullet holes made during Stalin’s purges when this cell was used for mass executions.

The most likely explanation is that Beseda’s Fifth Service was also still in charge of maintaining official contacts with the CIA. Many people in Moscow and the Kremlin have been asking themselves why U.S. intelligence before the war was so accurate. This might have added more to the already existing climate of paranoia. And when Putin gets paranoid, he starts looking for traitors in the places and institutions which are known to have official contacts with American intelligence.

Putin was reportedly “incandescent” with rage before the war that the U.S. was somehow reading his battle plans and publicizing them to the world, another humiliation for Russia. He may suspect Beseda of having leaked those plans via his longstanding relationships with the CIA, or he may be looking for a fall guy in light of the fact that someone was obviously leaking. (It’s not as if Beseda ran a tight ship at the Fifth Service either. Soldatov says agents from the department were “caught red-handed” repeatedly in the field during Russian conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.) That would also explain why the FSB has been sniffing around to see which agents might have been communicating with reporters lately. Maybe the agency has a massive leak problem, enough so that more than 100 personnel had to be cashiered on suspicion of sharing secrets.

But why would there be such a massive leak problem at the FSB during Putin’s war? This theory seems completely plausible to me:

Putin’s disaster in Ukraine seems to boil down to two factors, widespread skimming — really looting — of the public coffers by bureaucrats who were supposed to be using that money to upgrade Russian capabilities and Putin immersing himself in a bubble of yes-men who refused to tell him that Russia’s army would have a hard time in Ukraine. WaPo has a worthy story today about the stupendous amount of willful blindness that seems to have informed Russia’s war strategy. It began with Putin’s hubris in believing that Russia already knew everything it needed to know about Ukrainian identity based on the country’s colonial past, which led him to misjudge the degree to which Ukraine would resist. His cronies didn’t dare disabuse him of those assumptions either, which gave him a false sense of confidence about the invasion. Meanwhile, the FSB was either pocketing the money that was supposed to buy Ukrainian officials’ loyalty towards Russia or wasting it on Ukrainians who weren’t truly interested.

So when Putin finally started sending troops to the border, everyone panicked. Russian military leaders presumably knew that their not-very-modernized army was in no condition to pull off a lightning conquest of Ukraine. And Russian intelligence officials like Beseda presumably knew that Ukraine’s government, let alone its people, weren’t about to roll over. But none of them could tell Putin that. So they leaked the whole operation to the U.S. in hopes that having the plan exposed and seeing western allies mobilize against Russia would back Putin off and get him to cancel the war.

Didn’t work. Now Beseda’s in prison. And Putin’s left babbling that he had no choice but to invade:

I’ll leave you with one more rumor, this one regarding a top Putin crony and Ukraine war enthusiast. If this guy’s under arrest, it means the purges are reaching towards the very top.