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Do reported Russian ‘whistleblower’ accounts indicate a crack in Putin’s power?

Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik pool via Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a March 8, 2022, file photo.

There is relative global unanimity that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone according to plan. Instead of a three-day blitzkrieg ending with Russian troops marching triumphantly into Kyiv’s Maidan Square, greeted by cheering crowds, Russia’s assault has bogged down as casualties of conscripts reportedly mount and harsh international economic sanctions deprive Putin of his war chest. The deadline for completing operations has been moved to a distant June.

According to U.S. and foreign sources, the purge of those responsible for the disaster — other than Putin himself — has already begun. Some generals reportedly are being relieved of command and top intelligence officers placed under house arrest. This is just the start; more purges are almost certain to come, and those at risk know it.

It therefore makes sense to expect that those waiting for the axe to fall might try to justify themselves — to document that they are not responsible, that they warned against the war and that the plans they suggested would have worked.

Vladimir Osechkin, a human rights activist on Russia’s most-wanted list, lives in Paris where he heads the website. attracts whistleblower reports (in Russian, herehere and here, and here in English) from Russian officials. Of these, four lengthy reports allegedly penned by analysts of the FSB, the successor organization of the Soviet-era KGB, deserve special attention. One was addressed to Osechkin; the others were written “for the record.” 

None of the four has been independently verified, given the circumstances in which the material was written and disseminated; there is no indication of how high up or well-connected the writers may or may not be.

Yet, if any of the reports is accurate, it would represent a startling, revealing look from the inside.

Note that the rumored whistleblowers are dedicated Chekists — members of Russia’s powerful state interests — who consider the U.S. and NATO their enemies. Their laundry-list of complaints relates to their advice being ignored, not to any pro-Western sentiments. They describe themselves as professional analysts who base decisions on the facts as they know them. They understand the danger they are in because, as one writes, “now they are methodically blaming us (FSB). We are being reprimanded for our analysis.”

The whistleblowers’ common purpose — assuming the documents are genuine — appears to be avoiding being scapegoated for what they uniformly label the “Ukrainian catastrophe.” Their main complaint is the screwed-up decision-making of a chaotic Putin regime, mixed with regret that the Kremlin did not take their earlier advice. Their reports cover different aspects of the Ukraine war, which they agree cannot be won. One reveals the FSB’s “plan for victory,” a document that should attract considerable Western attention; another explains why full mobilization cannot work and also why Putin will not push the nuclear button.

Not unlike government workers everywhere, these alleged whistleblowers complain of “political” superiors adjusting facts and creating events to yield results that higher-ups want. Writes one: “The FSB reports that go through me are then corrected by the leadership in a politically correct way (more positive, less negative notes). Based on such rosy reports, an even more rosy (and false) picture is created.” Each complains they were given no information about the pending invasion of Ukraine, without which their analyses would necessarily miss the mark by a wide margin.

They agree that Putin’s leadership style is a source of chaos. Decisions are described as resting on pressure politics and intrigues as “people trusted from above” lobby their interests. “We can say with almost absolute certainty that Putin is psychologically incapable of refusing an offer with justification to his closest circle,” one writes. “He agrees with each proposal, delegates responsibility to the proposer, who carries the blame if it does not succeed.” 

Putin, the documents claim, lives in a closed universe, not allowing even state ministers to be near him. Rumors circulate of Putin paying attention to “mystical meanings” from numerology and to shamans.

One of the four writes that he and fellow analysts believed a war in Ukraine was unlikely because it “would be a trap for us.” Their advice, apparently, was for a hybrid war involving only Ukraine’s Donbas separatists while organizing demonstrations and cyberwarfare to topple Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The world’s crushing economic sanctions caught the Kremlin off guard, the documents insist, and give Russia no chance of victory. Even if Russia wins, they say, the Kremlin has no occupation plan; there’s an estimate that 500,000 troops would be needed because any government installed by Russia would be overthrown within “ten minutes” of troop withdrawals.  

On the battlefield, one writes, no one knows what is happening: “We’ve lost contact with major troop formations … even the commanders don’t know how many are dead, injured, or captured. Total dead is definitely in the thousands, maybe 10,000, maybe 5,000, or maybe just 2,000 … But probably closer to 10,000 Russian soldiers killed.” A wider mobilization of troops, they say, would threaten Russia’s political and economic stability. 

Here, at some length, is one whistleblower’s assessment of Putin’s nuclear threat: 

“I do not believe that Putin will press the red button to destroy the whole world. First, there is more than one person making such a decision, at least someone will oppose. A lot of people are involved. There is no ‘one-man red button.’ 

“Second, there are some doubts that everything is functioning properly. Experience shows that the greater the transparency and control, the easier it is to identify shortcomings. And where it is not clear who controls and how, I’m not sure if the red button system works as advertised …

“Third, and this is the most vile and sad thing, I personally do not believe in the readiness to sacrifice oneself of a person who does not let his closest representatives and ministers come close to him. For fear of the coronavirus or an attack, it doesn’t matter. If you are afraid to let the most trusted people near you, then how will you dare to destroy yourself and your loved ones, inclusive?”

Although the FSB whistleblowers’ reports cannot be verified, it makes sense that such analysts, facing repercussions, would distribute exculpatory evidence in their favor.

Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian investigative journalist and executive director of Bellingcat, the Dutch-based open-source investigative media organization, wrote that he was skeptical at first, but after showing the material to two FSB sources, he concluded that at least one of the letters is genuine. Moreover, the story of the FSB letters is gradually being picked up in respectable Western press, with appropriate caveats.

The documents should be accorded close attention as Ukraine and Russia engage in serious negotiations.

According to the letters, the Kremlin is organizing pressure on the West to push Zelensky to sign a “soft” agreement that would cede Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas regions and agree to Ukraine’s demilitarization — part of the FSB’s original “hybrid” plan to seize the country. 

But the FSB analysts may be too optimistic: They cannot quantify the hatred and thirst for revenge now held by Ukraine against Russia.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

Tags FSB putin critics Russia Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russian military Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Vladimir Putin Whistleblower

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