Explainer: Top Russian military officials are being arrested. Why is it happening?

4:51 pm on 26 May 2024

By Emma Burrows, Associated Press

Russia's Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov standing in a defendants' cage in court in Moscow, on Wednesday, 24 April, 2024.

Russia's Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov standing in a defendants' cage in court in Moscow, on 24 April. Photo: AP/ Basmanny District Court press service

Analysis - Last month Russia's deputy defence minister was arrested. Then the head of the ministry's personnel directorate was hauled into court. This week, two more senior military officials were detained. All face charges of corruption, which they have denied.

The arrests started shortly before President Vladimir Putin began his fifth term and shuffled his ally, longtime Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, into a new post.

They immediately raised questions about whether Putin was reasserting control over the Defence Ministry amid the war in Ukraine, whether a turf battle had broken out between the military and the security services, or whether some other scenario was playing out behind the Kremlin's walls.

A look at what's behind the arrests and why they are happening:

How serious is corruption in Russia?

Corruption scandals are not new and officials and top officials have been accused of profiting from their positions for decades.

Graft in Russia functions as both a carrot and stick. It's a way of "encouraging loyalty and urging people to be on the same page," as well as a method of control, said Sam Greene, director of Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Putin wants everyone to have "a skeleton in their closet," security expert Mark Galeotti said on a recent podcast. If the state has compromising material on key officials, it can cherry-pick whom to target, he added.

Corruption, "is the essence of the system," said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The war in Ukraine has led to ballooning defence spending that has increased opportunities for graft.

Who was arrested?

Former Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov - the first official arrested in April and the highest-ranking one so far - oversaw large military-related construction projects with access to vast sums of money. Those projects included rebuilding Ukraine's destroyed port city of Mariupol.

The team headed by the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny alleged that Ivanov, 48, and his family owned elite real estate, enjoyed lavish parties and trips abroad, even after the invasion. They also alleged that Ivanov's wife, Svetlana, divorced him in 2022 to avoid sanctions and continue living in luxury.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday the recent arrests are not a "campaign" against corruption but rather reflect ongoing activities in "all government bodies."

Peskov and Ivanov were once part of an embarrassing episode caught on camera. Navalny's team has shared 2022 images of the Kremlin spokesman celebrating at a birthday party for Ivanov's former wife. In the video, Peskov, with Ivanov at his side, is seen wearing a watch estimated to cost $85,000.

In April, the Investigative Committee, Russia's top law enforcement agency, reported Ivanov is suspected of taking an especially large bribe - a criminal offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Since then, other arrests on bribery charges have included Lieutenant General Yury Kuznetsov, head of the Defence Ministry's personnel directorate; Major General Ivan Popov, a career soldier and former top commander in Ukraine; and Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, deputy chief of the military general staff. Shamarin is a deputy to Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff.

A fifth ministry official was reported arrested Thursday - Vladimir Verteletsky, from the defence procurement department. He was charged with abuse of office that resulted in damages worth over 70 million rubles (about $US776,000), the Investigative Committee said.

Also, the deputy head of the federal prison service for the Moscow region, Vladimir Telayev, was arrested Thursday on charges of large-scale bribery, Russian reports said.

Why is this happening now?

The arrests suggest that "really egregious" corruption in the Defence Ministry will no longer be tolerated, said Richard Connolly, a specialist on the Russian economy at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Shortly after his inauguration, Putin replaced Shoigu as defence minister with Andrei Belousov, an economist. Peskov said Russia's increasing defence budget must fit into the wider economy.

Peskov said Russia's defence budget is 6.7 percent of gross domestic product. That is a level not seen since the Soviet era.

"There is a view that this needs to be spent more wisely," Connolly said.

Before his death in a still-mysterious plane crash last year, mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin led a brief rebellion against the country's military leadership, saying it mismanaged the war and denied weapons and ammunition to his forces.

Belousov's appointment is "a grudging recognition from the Kremlin" that it has to pay attention to these problems, said Gould-Davies.

It is also critical the war is managed correctly, because Russia's economy depends on it. Russians are earning higher salaries driven by the booming defence sector. While that has created problems with inflation, it allows Putin to keep delivering on promises to raise living standards.

Greene said the government needs to "keep the war going in order to keep the economy going," but also must ensure the costs - and corruption - are not higher than needed.

Connolly said it's also possible that Belousov, the new defence minister, is clearing out his predecessor's associates and sending the message that "things are going to be done differently."

Other changes include Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Sadovenko, who was replaced by Oleg Saveliev, a former aide to Belousov, and former Shoigu spokesperson Rossiyana Markovskaya, who said she was moving to a new job.

Popov's case may be different. He fought in Ukraine and was suspended in July 2023 for criticizing the Defence Ministry leadership - like Prigozhin - and blaming it for a lack of weapons and poor supply lines that led to many Russian casualties.

He now may be facing the consequences for that criticism.

Could this be a turf battle?

It is unclear whether the Kremlin or Russia's security services, particularly the State Security Service, or FSB, are the driving force behind the arrests.

It's possible that officials sufficiently distant from Putin could have been caught in the middle of a turf war unconnected to the appointment of the new defence minister.

The security services, Greene said, could be trying to "push back" against the military's dominance seen since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

While the Kremlin denies that any kind of a purge was taking place, "if Putin didn't want it to happen, it wouldn't be happening," Greene said.

With the war in Ukraine turning in Russia's favour, Putin may be emboldened to sweep out the Defence Ministry, or he may be allowing the security services to assert their dominance.

What will happen next?

More arrests are likely as the new defence minister wants to show "there is a price to be paid" for corruption in order to rein it in, Connolly said.

Greene added it's also possible that "entrepreneurial" investigators will think launching a criminal case against a general is a great opportunity for career advancement.

Because corruption is so endemic, however, it could cause panic in the whole system.

If officials are arrested for behaviour that previously was allowed even though it was illegal, it could shift the "red lines," Greene said.

If the arrests continue or widen beyond the Defence Ministry, it could cause finger-pointing and for officials to "rush for the exits," he said, and that is something the Kremlin wants to avoid.

Because the system is built on corruption, Greene said, attacking it too hard could cause it to "fall apart."

This story has been corrected to show the arrests started shortly before, not after, Putin's fifth term began.


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