Tightening grip.

Photographer: Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

Putin Is Culling His Inner Circle

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is known for his loyalty to long-time associates, has left some of his friends vulnerable to attack. This is a new stage of Putin's rule: He now can only trust his security apparatus -- and not even all of it.

In December, the owner of a posh Moscow cafe had an argument about fees with a designer. Both women had influential friends, and they came to the cafe for a discussion: Emissaries of Shakro the Young, a mob kingpin, on the designer's side, and retired security officers spoke for the cafe owner. The dispute got ugly, and a shootout ensued. Two of Shakro's representatives were arrested, and he apparently tried to get them freed. Investigators from the FSB secret police claim they traced these efforts to General Denis Nikandrov, deputy head of the Moscow branch of the Investigative Committee -- the Russian equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

Nikandrov and two more top Investigative Committee officials were arrested last month, accused of graft by the FSB. This is a powerful blow to the committee's politically ambitious head, Alexander Bastrykin, who went to law school with Putin and was considered one of his most reliable allies.

Last week, a separate FSB investigation resulted in the search at the house of Andrei Belyaninov, the head of the customs service. A mountain of cash was found, suggesting the career bureaucrat may not have been a paragon of virtue. Belyaninov, a former KGB officer, served in East Germany at the same time as Putin. The customs chief has been trying to resign for years, but Putin reportedly asked him to stay on. After the search, Putin dismissed him.

Throughout Putin's rule, his friends have been spared these kinds of public scandals. Even the resignation of a long-time associate -- such as the fall from grace last year of Vladimir Yakunin, who ran the railroad monopoly -- was considered a big deal. Now, Putin appears reluctant to stop attacks against two important figures -- and these attacks are coming from the FSB, a part of the security apparatus that is run by the Putin loyalist Alexander Bortnikov, another of the president's former KGB colleagues.

The FSB has been undergoing a wave of mid-level personnel changes. It seems to be making a play for dominance among Russia's ever-competitive security services, breaking its earlier alliance with the Investigative Committee in a struggle against the prosecutor general's office.  

"The interspecies competition for an administrative rent that's shrinking because of the economic recession has become tougher -- it's harder to cut up the shrinking cake," Pavel Aptekar wrote in the daily Vedomosti. 

It's probably more than just "interspecies competition" -- Putin is still at the center. He appears to be behind the change in the security services. He recently replaced the leadership of his two bodyguard services -- roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Secret Service -- with younger men. 

In a commentary for the Moscow Carnegie Center, the political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya suggested that Putin's old friends should be seen as two distinct groups: Those in government service or state companies and those in private business, using government contracts to accumulate legitimate-looking personal wealth. The first group includes people such as Bastrykin, Belyaninov, Yakunin and Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Russia's state oil company, Rosneft; Sechin reportedly has fallen out of favor with Putin after insistent demands for state assistance for his company. Billionaires from the second group, such as the Rotenberg brothers, Gennady Timchenko and Yuri Kovalchuk, also serve the country in their own way: They can be counted on to co-fund and run projects Putin considers essential, such as the construction of a bridge to Crimea (Arkady Rotenberg's project) or the consolidation of pro-Putin media (Kovalchuk's purview).

Stanovaya wrote:

The annexation of Crimea has ensured Putin's place in history and gave rise to new geopolitical thinking and thus a new pyramid of priorities;  limited resources are making the constant pressure from 'friends,' with their constant requests fro help and support, increasingly unpleasant. As a result, the priorities of many of the president's allies have become severely misaligned with his own.

The billionaires aren't asking for anything, so they are safe. The bureaucrats are, so they are threatened. Unlike at the beginning of his 15-year reign, when friends were put in charge of vital parts of the state, Putin doesn't fully trust his allies. He has greater confidence in security professionals who have made successful careers during his presidency. That may explain some of the appointments he made after Belyaninov's fall.

The new customs chief, Vladimir Bulavin, is a former deputy chief of the FSB. Putin has also appointed two of his former bodyguards as regional governors: Yevgeny Zinichev now heads Russia's enclave in Europe, the Kaliningrad region, and Dmitri Mironov, who runs the Yaroslavl region on the Volga. Zinichev has already marked the beginning of his rule in the region with a press conference that lasted exactly 49 seconds.

Putin has always liked to appoint security professionals to every kind of government job: He trusts people with a background similar to his own. The new crop of appointments, however, is not about his Soviet-era friendships and alliances: It's strictly about service in a system that perceives itself as a besieged fortress. It's a security state increasingly run by state security. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net