Why Did Putin Fire 18 Top Law-Enforcement Officials?

August 10, 2014
Putin arrives in Voronezh 5 August 2014. Photo by Russian Presidential Press Service

President Vladimir Putin has fired 18 top law-enforcement officials in the Investigative Committee, Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Ministry.

His sudden and secretive action has sparked some theories that it is somehow related to Ukraine — either punishing those who are poorly performing with regard to the aggression against Ukraine, or punishing those involved in a possible plane-downing conspiracy so as to distance himself from it.

It is not likely directly related to Ukraine but is more about Putin reinforcing areas of domestic vulnerability to make him more efficient in general in pursuing both increased authoritarian rule at home and foreign adventures.

Here is the first “Decree on release from post of employees of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation” and the second “Decree on appointments, releases from posts and dismissal from military service of soldiers, officials and workers of some federal state organs

Most of the dismissals — 11 of the 18 — were made from the Investigative Committee. The Investigative Committee, despite its name sounding like it is a subset of something else, is a relatively new creature in the Russian law-enforcement community, formed in 2011 at a time of great challenge to Putin by massive street demonstrations, to replace the former Prosecutor General’s investigating committee. It is now the leading investigative agency, increasingly taking over powers from the Interior Ministry or police, and might be better understood as more like the old Committee for State Security (KGB) in that it isn’t “just a committee.”

It has been compared to the FBI — but that’s not correct, as it has far more powers and no ministerial or legislative oversight as the FBI does from the Department of Justice and Congress. Its chair, Aleksandr Bastrykin — infamous for making a direct death threat against an investigative journalist — reports directly to the president. It investigates the top cases of the country of political and economic interest to the leadership, and also the top cases of dissent, such as the Bolotnaya Square case in which demonstrators against Putin were sent to prison for many years.

So first, let’s be clear: none of these people are on the Magnitsky List of gross human rights offenders. And they don’t seem to be the villains of exposĂ© blogs by Alexei Navalny or Boris Nemtsov or other opposition leaders ferreting out information about corruption among top officials with their fancy cars and real estate abroad. This needs more research, but these people don’t seem to be fired for corruption or abuse as we understand it.

Second, as Putin gave no explanation for these dismissals, there has been speculation particularly from Ukrainian sources that this mass purge may be related to either plans to invade Ukraine or even the conspiracy theory mounted recently by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) that MH17 was shot down by mistake not by rebels thinking it was a Ukrainian cargo plane (of the type they’d shot down before), but shot down by mistake by Russia — which had wanted to shoot down its own Aeroflot airliner as a “false-flag” operation to provide a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine. (For the record, the Russia’s State Civil Aviation Administration, which theoretically would have to be involved in such sabotage, is under the Ministry of Transport, which is separate from the Interior Ministry.)

While it’s always possible some of these colonels, lieutenants and generals in law-enforcement but not the army are indirectly related to the Ukraine operation or a plane conspiracy, a direct Ukraine-related explanation doesn’t seem likely for a number of reasons:

1. It’s not the Investigative Committee — which had the lion’s share of the dismissals — that is involved in clandestine warfare against Ukraine. To be sure, investigations have been opened at the IC related to Ukraine, notably the two Russian TV Zvezda journalists kidnapped in eastern Ukraine and tortured into confessions and then released, and the Ukrainian pilot who Russia claims illegally crossed the border and was allegedly involved in targeting a Russian journalist who was killed while embedded with rebels. But it’s not the center of anti-Ukraine operations.

2. Nor is the Interior Ministry and its many troops involved in Ukraine, as it was in the Chechen wars, although possibly one official fired from Rostov Region, bordering Ukraine, might have been related to Ukrainian events.

3. The agencies involved in Ukraine are the Defense Ministry, which has been documented by journalists as using the official military recruitment centers to find fighters for the separatist cause in Donbass, and the Armed Forces, whose numerous forces “training” near the border may also be implicated in supplying troops, vehicles and armaments directly across the border to the separatists. Of course there’s the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forces (the GRU) and the Federal Security Service (FSB). No one from those agencies has been fired.

4. If the theory is that these people stood up to Putin’s plans for an invasion of Ukraine, and then were fired, they don’t seem either to be involved in Ukraine affairs in the first place, or in a position to make decisions that would make or break an invasion. On the other hand, the armed forces are institutions that have a certain history and code of honor, and it is possible that some dissented privately — we don’t see that any of these people dissented publicly — and were caught out. Yet it seems unlikely and inconsistent with KGB trade-craft that Putin would call attention to an impending Ukraine invasion — which he has sought to portray as a insurgency or a “humanitarian aid” problem — by firing people who might have protested against it or be involved in it.

5. The theory of the relationship of the firings to the Aeroflot conspiracy could go either way — either Putin is theoretically firing people involved in executing the shoot-down, so that he has plausible deniability of being related to it, or he is firing people who objected to the shoot-down or supplying of the rebels — but none of these people seem to be in decision-making positions to affect these events.

So let’s look at the regions and offices where these people come from, to see if we can “reverse engineer” a motive for their firing:

From the Investigative Committee, they are from the following federal districts: Urals (2), Central (2), Volga (2), North-West (2), Far-East, Southern, Siberia.

We will recall that there was recently an announcement in the Urals media that they had received a notice from state TV to prepare a time slot for an emergency presidential address — which then never came and was disavowed by Kremlin spokesman. Was Putin going to announce something about the Urals or other outlying regions where there might have been trouble or a need to crack down?

What is going on in these regions in some cases thousands of miles from the Kremlin? Just to name some of the regional problems for Putin:

1. A major insurgent and terrorist movement in Dagestan and to some extent still in Chechnya which absorbs the lion’s share of Russian law-enforcement and military attention; last year Russian forces killed more than 400 terrorist suspects and arrested thousands of people suspected of Islamism;

2. A small but vocal autonomy movement in Siberia;

3. A large ethnic Ukrainian population in the Far East unhappy about events in Ukraine;

4. Independent-minded political movements and NGOs in the Urals, i.e. the mayor of Ekaterinburg;

5. Coastal regions like Arkhangelsk and Murmansk and regions bordering foreign countries such as Republic of Karelia, which borders Finland, and Kaliningrad, the enclave in the Baltic with no land connection to the rest of Russia.

Looking at the people fired from the MVD and prosecutor’s offices, we see these are the areas of their responsibility:

1. Deputy chief of the Main Directorate of the Interior Ministry for Rostov Region, chief of the main investigative division;

2. Deputy head of the Main Directorate to Combat Extremism of the Interior Ministry;

3. Deputy commander of the forces of the Siberian Regional Command of the Interior Ministry Internal Troops for the Rear Guard;

4. Deputy head of the Federal Service for Control of Narcotics Trade for St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region;

5. Head of the Main Directorate of the Interior Ministry for Chelyabinsk;

6. Deputy commander of the United Group of Forces for Counter-Terrorist Operations on the Territory of North Caucasus Region of the Interior Ministry Internal Troops;

7. Gen. Vladimir Rushaylo, Yeltsin’s interior minister, who was associated with the Chechen wars.

Thus the firing of a lot of deputies — and not chiefs — in agencies responsible for drugs, extremism and terrorism suggests that Putin wants to put in “his own” or “more loyal” people to better run the vertikal, or vertical chain of command, or they were performing poorly in their areas and not sufficiently arresting people suspected of drug dealing, leftist or rightist extremism or terrorism, particularly where there is already Islamist unrest, or near nuclear facilities as in Chelyabinsk or border areas. “Extremism” is everything from neo-communism and neo-Nazism to neo-liberalism and very broadly understood in Russia. The one official in this list possibly related to aggression against Ukraine is in Rostov Region; this area is not only a staging area for assistance to rebels across the border, but now has tens of thousands of refugees from Ukraine, some of them rebels and their families.

So ultimately, the motivation for these dismissals doesn’t appear to be directly about Ukraine, but ultimately in the larger scheme it is about Ukraine — and other neighboring countries and the international community at large. Thus we still have grounds to worry: the purge appears to be about Putin consolidating further control over law-enforcement and investigative agencies to make sure that there are no vulnerabilities on his own flanks as he consolidates further authoritarian control at home and pursues adventures abroad.

That means no Siberian freedom movements that draw from the “Novorossiya” independence struggle that they should try this at home; no democratic experiments in the Urals; no lax drug officials at a time when Russia’s drug addiction problem is growing with more than 30,000 deaths a year; no communists or nationalists out in front of Putin’s own politics; and certainly no North Caucasus militants or insurgents who pose the Kremlin’s greatest challenge.

One Russian blogger thought this current purge was the “worst since Stalin” — but that’s certainly not the case as KGB Chairman Vitaly Fyodorchuk, after the death of Brezhnev in 1982, fired 160,000 officers in a massive purge of the Interior Ministry that helped maintain Party and KGB control.

More research is needed to see if any of these people are leaking anything or if any of them have anything in common. But it pays to look at Russia’s history for the last 100 years — it has never had a military ruler or suffered a military coup, or for that matter, a significant police rebellion (and these people with military rankings are in fact from law-enforcement, not the armed forces). That’s because its ruthless civilian leaders — sometimes from intelligence agencies like Putin — have always succeeded in trimming and thwarting any military or police ambitions — even by draconian means, as Stalin did, executing some of his top generals on the eve of the Nazi invasion. It’s always been the case that the Kremlin knocks heads among the various agencies it depends on for its ruthless rule to keep them off balance. That’s the most likely reason for why these 18 were singled out for a purge: for Putin to better maintain control of the vast Russian Federation.