Is Putin afraid of his own intelligence services?
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Over the weekend Steven Hall, an ex CIA analyst and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, made an observation on CNN that the group Putin should fear the most are his intelligence services, particularly the FSB and the SVR (https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2022/03/12/putin-fears-steve-hall-acostanr-vpx.cnn). He argued that there has been too much focus on the “oligarchs” and their potential to remove Putin. In reality, the oligarchs really depend on Putin, much more than he depends on them. Further like the NKVD and KGB in Soviet times, the FSB maintains its own “army” including being equipped with tanks and armored vehicles. As the war drags on, there may be a greater incentive for the Intelligence service to oust Putin
Perhaps that is why there has been a recent mini purge of the intelligence services reported, particularly of the Foreign Intelligence agencies. The head of the foreign intelligence wing of the FSB, Sergey Beseda, has reportedly been placed under house arrest, as has his chief deputy (https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220314-russian-spies-in-spotlight-over-ukraine-shortcomings). The reported justification for this decapitation of the FSB foreign intelligence service was that Putin was looking for a scapegoat for the “special operation’s” failure, and the clear underestimation of the Ukrainian resolve to resist. Further there are reports of rampant corruption in the Foreign intelligence services, an allegedly billions of rubles that was spent on cultivating intelligence ties in Ukraine were actually stolen via rampant corruption (https://finance.yahoo.com/news/russian-spy-chiefs-under-house-163301889.html).
However, there were already signs that Putin may not only want a scapegoat for the failed war effort, but also to make substantial changes in the intelligence services-- even before the war. It is noteworthy that Putin publicly humiliated the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (the SVR) and his longtime associate Sergei Naryshkin during a TV broadcast of a meeting with his security council. This might suggest not only is Putin searching for a scapegoat for the military failures in the field, but he will use this as pretext to gut the very forces who represent the greatest elite threat to his regime, before the situation on the battlefield gets “really bad”. But it also might suggest in the shadowy world of the Russian intelligence services, that in the competition between the SVR and foreign intelligence wing of the FSB, the SVR has prevailed and has succeeded in shifting the blame to the FSB.
I expect some major and public removals of high ranking intelligence officials, which will clarify the situation. If Naryshkin survives, this would suggest that he has convinced Putin to blame the FSB. But if Naryshkin is removed, this might suggest an overhaul of the intelligence services to prevent what Professor Hall suggests that Putin is most afraid of.