Murder, Putin wrote?
Russian oligarchs continue to fall out of windows around the world at what seems to be a precipitously increasing rate. The latest, Pavel Antonov, reputedly the richest deputy in Russia’s State Duma, fell to his death on Boxing Day in Rayagada, India. Alexey Idamkin, Moscow’s Consul General in Calcutta, essentially told TASS, “Nothing to see here.” Two days earlier, the Russian sausage-maker magnate turned politician’s traveling companion, Vladimir Budanov, suddenly died of a “heart attack” while celebrating Antonov’s birthday.
Perhaps it was a coincidence. Then again, likely not. In all likelihood, the sausage-maker, who in June had criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, simply knew too much about how Putin’s sausage was being made and, more to the point, just how corrupt Putin’s Kremlin has become since he assumed the Russian prime minister’s office in August 1999.
In the West, notably, there is a widespread misunderstanding of the oligarchs’ position and standing in Putin’s pyramid of power in Moscow. They are not, as a group, self-made commercial or industrial titans, but rather are mostly former confidantes or henchmen of Putin’s. Think of them as the human combination codes to Putin’s vaults and the vaults as the various Russian industries and market segments they control on Putin’s behalf.
Combination locks — or tumblers, to be more exact — can, as needed, be changed, and Putin’s favored way of doing so apparently is for disfavored Russian oligarchs to be invited to take a tumble out of an open window. Since the war began in February, according to CNN, at least one dozen “Russian businessmen have reportedly died by suicide or in unexplained accidents,” six of them alone from within Gazprom, the Kremlin’s state-owned colossal energy conglomerate.
Other deaths, each worthy of a CBS “48 Hours” or “Dateline TASS” segment (if it existed), include Alexander Buzakov earlier this month, who was the general director of Admiralty Shipyards, a St. Petersburg-based shipbuilder of Russian military submarines. Ivan Pechorin drowned in Vladivostok. He had been the senior executive at the Corporation for the Development of the Far East and Arctic (which was focused on Putin’s pre-war economic pet project, the Northern Sea Route). Anatoly Gerashchenko, who was head of the Moscow Aviation Institute, died under mysterious circumstances in September after falling down a flight of stairs.
The $64,000 question is why they are dying and who and/or what Russian organization is behind their deaths. Many in academia and some Russian experts, especially early on in the war, argued that Putin was likely to be overthrown by his oligarchs as they chose rubles over the Russian president’s desire to reincarnate himself as a modern-day Peter the Great. This, however, as noted above, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the limited maneuvering room for power afforded oligarchs in Putin’s mafia-like pyramid structure.
Understanding this pyramid is key. Putin sits at the top and his position of power is secured by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Operating from Lubyanka Square in Moscow, just blocks from the Kremlin, they serve as his Gestapo-like secret police, armed enforcers, and Secret Service-like Praetorian guard all rolled into one. Underneath and subservient to this layer, jockeying for scraps of political power, lie the Russian state-controlled media, oligarchs, and the Russian Orthodox Church headed by Patriarch Kirill.
Notably missing from this third tier is the Russian Defense Ministry and the country’s military forces. By design, not since Russian Minister of Defense Georgy Zhukov, a Soviet hero of World War II and marshal of its armies, intervened to arrest Lavrentiy Beria after Joseph Stalin’s death in support of Nikita Khrushchev, has the Russian military had any significant political clout in Moscow. Not then — and, notably, still not now.
If the oligarchs are being murdered, as they likely are, who are the “usual suspects” to consider? One obvious candidate is Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” and the head and founder of the Wagner Group. But his style of murder is not a subtle one. Prigozhin goes after his enemies with sledgehammers — which evidently have become his calling card, as evidenced by his presentation of a bloodied sledgehammer to a European Union official after its parliament declared Russia a terrorist state.
Given the cloak-and-dagger hallmarks of each of the oligarchs’ unexplained deaths, the FSB is the far more likely suspect, which also would mean that Putin, by default, ultimately is the man behind their apparent murders — or desire to tumble out of windows or down a flight of stairs.
If so, that begs the question: Why are they being murdered? Are they being held out as examples? As retribution? Or is it something far more fundamental and necessary for Putin to ensure he remains in power as Russia’s war in Ukraine appears to fall apart?
It is likely the latter. Recalcitrant oligarchs critical of Putin’s war are easily dealt with by tossing them away. Not so easily disposed of is the vast corruption that is coming to light as a result of the Russian military’s failures in Ukraine, largely because it is Putin himself who encouraged and nurtured wholesale corruption as a means of enriching himself.
Perhaps the oligarchs, as a class, are becoming an existential liability for Putin among the far right and military bloggers. On an increasing basis, Russian state media are openly criticizing the oligarchs and their luxurious lifestyles, and there are calls for the widespread “nationalization of companies” to support the war effort.
Likewise, in order to win, Putin is beginning to shift Russia onto a total war footing. He has announced that Moscow is expanding its standing army to 1.5 million soldiers. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced a 50 percent increase in Russian defense spending for 2023 to roughly $100 billion dollars. Part of this may be a bluff to force the West and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into negotiating on terms favorable to Moscow.
Yes, Putin has said he is ready to negotiate, but it is unlikely that he means it. He is trying to freeze the conflict in Ukraine to buy time for his armies to regroup for renewed offensives in the spring, if not sooner. Part of buying that time also means changing the combination locks on oligarchs who are not willing to commit to total war.
It also means ensuring that errant oligarchs are not around long enough to finance a coup, nor any Russian generals who might opt to try. Russian General Alexei Maslov is the second “high-ranking military officer to die” within the past several days alone. Putin last week abruptly canceled a planned visit to Maslov’s tank factory. Was Maslov, perhaps, planning a coup d’etat?
Ironically, there could be unintended consequences to Putin’s actions. One oligarch in particular — Prigozhin, unchecked — is expanding his influence and reportedly assembling a political power base of his own among the far-right military bloggers and Siloviki on Telegram.
For now, however, Putin needs Prigozhin and his Wagner Group to stave off total military defeat in Ukraine, especially in Bakhmut, which has become Putin’s Stalingrad. If Putin isn’t careful, history might record that it is Prigozhin who is the last man standing — and, perhaps, using a sledgehammer as his scepter and a balding head as his orb.
Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
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