Tweeting about Ukraine at @cjjohns1951

THE KREMLIN FILE, Podcast, Episode 16, 4/21/22

In an interview with Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, Hosts Olga Lautman and Monique Camarra asked what was happening with Putin and the leadership in Russia. 

Soldatov noted that the war in Ukraine is different from the other Russian wars in the past few decades.

The Scale of the War

Putin has never engaged in a war of this scale before.    

The Command Structure

The wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and Syria had a clear chain of command.  There was always a commander in charge of the war, and you knew who oversaw the situation on the battlefield.  In Ukraine, we do not know that.  It is only recently that we have had a commander appointed who oversaw the entire war. 

The Relationship Between Putin and the Command

In other wars, Putin never attacked members of his own command structure to the extent he has in the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.  There have been problems with the FSB.  Two FSB generals have been placed under house arrest.  The head of the National Guard was asked to resign and there are rumors that he is under criminal investigation.  The Defense Minister first disappeared and then reappeared (See Washington Post, 3/26/22).  There are people in every security service that Putin is unhappy with. 

The command structure was evidently not informed of the invasion until very shortly before the order was given.  They did not have time to adequately prepare.  (Note: This may be an indication of how little Putin trusts his command structure).

Security Services and Their Role in the War in Ukraine

While all the security services were involved in the invasion of Ukraine, they had different objectives.  The FSB had two objectives.  They were to collect intelligence on political activity in Ukraine and cultivate political groups which might be supportive of the invasion.  They were also identifying spies and political operatives. 

FSB intelligence had a big impact on Putin’s thinking about the invasion and the war.  But, in the end, Putin thinks he’s the best FSB agent that has ever been.

Another problem is that the military and security services think tactically, but rarely seen the bigger picture.  They think about the tactics of invading Ukraine, but not the effect of the sanctions on the economy.  Had they limited their actions to the Donbas, securing their position there, they might have been able to expand their control over larger parts of Ukraine without provoking the sanctions.  It was their attack on Kyiv and the entire country that provoked the array of sanctions. 

Ukraine is Different

Putin has strong opinions about Ukraine.  He has been writing articles about Ukraine for years.  And, he is emotional about Ukraine and its place within the Russian sphere.  The failures in the war are not just a failure of the intelligence services.  They are also partly an outcome of Putin’s emotional reaction to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.  Putin takes a dim view of the Ukrainians in relation to Russians.  He had evidently decided that the Ukrainians are weak and given a shove by the Russians, the Ukrainian government would fall and be replaced by a Russian puppet.

It is unlikely that Putin would have listened to more realistic assessments of the invasion had he been given them.  Putin considers himself the best FSB intelligence analyst in the world.  Those surrounding him know that he considers himself an expert and are unlikely to offer contradictory opinions.

The evidence seems to indicate that Putin is not even receiving accurate assessments of what is going on in Ukraine since the initial invasion.  Putin does not read social media, or watch TV.  He would not believe anything on Western TV.  The fact that the war was going so badly for so long without any change in strategy is a further indication that Putin was not getting accurate information.  Soldatov argues that while it was evident from the beginning of the invasion that the tactics weren’t working, it took weeks for any change to be made in strategy.  Soldatov argues that this is “astonishing.”

Weeks ago, Putin maintained he did not know about conscripts being used in Ukraine.  Soldatov is of the opinion that Putin is telling the truth about this.  The military wanted to hide the fact that this was true.  Soldatov maintains that Putin has made efforts to keep conscripts out of Ukraine.

Putin’s attitudes about Ukrainians also contributed to other problems on the ground.  Because he was convinced that the government of Ukraine would fall almost immediately, the operation was not planned to last very long.  There are problems with communication on the ground, high level officials using unsecured lines, because it was not thought necessary to provide for long term communications technology that was secure while they were fighting a war.

If Putin is in Charge, Putin is to Blame

Soldatov argues that Putin’s tight control of the operation in Ukraine has contributed to resentment and low morale among those in the command structure.  Some in the government have said privately that something needed to be done about Ukraine, but not done in this way.  While Putin used to be highly popular within the bureaucracy, now even the security services bureaucracy is distant from him. 

Putin has accused members of the FSB of misusing government funds and made attacks on members of the FSB  Now, even military counterintelligence is looking at members of the FSB.  Because of the accuracy of the information released by the US intelligence services about the invasion of Ukraine, members of the security service are suspecting a mole, and consequently looking over their shoulders. 

The FSB is a likely place to look since the FSB was in charge of maintaining official contact with the CIA and therefore were regularly interacting with CIA members.  Because everyone is suspicious of everyone else, sharing anecdotes or complaints about Putin is not safe.

Support for the War

Soldatov notes that even with all the problems and setbacks and mistrust, popular support for the war seems to be increasing.  Soldatov mentions the control of information for the domestic population but thinks that the support is more than this indoctrination. 

Additional Points

  • Chechen Forces:  Soldatov was asked about reports that Chechen forces were being used to discipline and punish Russian soldiers who seemed reluctant to fight.  Soldatov said he suspected that Chechen forces were primarily being used as propaganda.  They have a reputation for being ruthless and their presence in Ukraine is a threat to people, especially civilians.
  • In the 1990s Putin created the first generation of oligarchs.  They are beholden to him.  Putin is an expert at managing them.  After 2014, it became important to make sure they had a source of income after the take over of Crimea.  Putin offered them lucrative contracts with the state, mostly military contracts.  In five years, they became an essential part of the Military Industrial complex.
  • Ukrainian intelligence released a list of Russian security service members publicly.  It is difficult to evaluate this list since there are no directorates listed.  What is interesting about this is that it is another example of the Ukrainian government talking to the Russian government in pubic.  Usually this type of thing would be negotiated in secret.  Only the two governments actually know what is being talked about.  Outsiders can’t sufficiently evaluate the list or why it was released.  Ukrainians are using the public space to convey something to Russian security services.  (Not: This is much like the public release of information before the war by the US intelligence community.)

This is an excellent podcast for anyone interested in the invasion of Ukraine or Russia. The Kremlin File

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