Significant losses of the Russian army and the failure of the first stage of the war in Ukraine led the Russian authorities to try to find a scapegoat, as well as to rebuild the system of command of offensive operations on Ukrainian soil.
New Voice of Ukraine compiled the highlights of what is known about the Kremlin's attempts to "clean up" the FSB from the alleged "culprits" of the failings of the first phase of the war in Ukraine and reformat the command structure of the troops.
"Purges" in the FSB and other structures: whom did they affect and what do they mean
Back in early March, reports emerged that the Russian authorities had begun “purges” in one of the structural units of the FSB, which the Kremlin apparently blames for the failure of the original plan for the war in Ukraine.
The agency in question is the Fifth Service of the FSB (Service of Operational Information and International Relations), within which there is a Department for Operational Information (DOI), which performs the functions of foreign intelligence of the special service. It was the DOI operatives who in recent years were engaged in subversive activities in Ukraine and collected intelligence information on its territory, which was supposed to help plan the Russian invasion.
However, as Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan reported in March, citing their own sources, after the first weeks of a full-scale war in Ukraine, the leadership of the Fifth FSB service fell out of favor — at the time, the head of the service, Colonel-General Sergey Beseda and his deputy were placed under house arrest.
“Among the reasons cited are the misuse of funds allocated for [FSB in Ukraine] operations, as well as poor intelligence,” said Soldatov, a Russian intelligence specialist and editor of the Agentura.ru website.
In April, he clarified that Beseda was transferred to a pre-trial detention center in Lefortovo. His case is being investigated by the Military Investigative Department of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.
Similar information was confirmed by the investigative group Bellingcat, which is preparing to publish details of the recent “purges” in the Fifth Service of the FSB. This was announced on April 10 by a journalist from the Bellingcat team, Christo Grozev, in an interview with the Russian opposition channel Popular Politics.
Grozev confirmed that the first "victim" of the purge was Colonel-General Sergey Beseda, head of the FSB's Department for Operational Information and International Relations. According to the investigative journalist, the reports about his transfer to the pre-trial detention center appear credible: Beseda hasn’t picked up the phone for two weeks and there is no contact with him.
Grozev revealed that large-scale purges are also taking place among the former subordinates of the colonel-general. In total, according to Bellingcat estimates, about 150 officers were involved in the “Ukrainian line” in the Fifth Service of the FSB.
However, after a month and a half of the invasion that failed for Russia, “a significant part of them, if not arrested, then definitely no longer work for the FSB,” Grozev said. “So the purge is definitely over. In a few days, I hope [Bellingcat] will be able to publish something more specific about the fate of these people,” the journalist added.
As early as March 20, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported that the discord between the Kremlin and the FSB could be used by those representatives of the “Russian business-political elite” who are ready to try to remove Putin from power.
“A certain part of the Russian political elite considers FSB director Alexander Bortnikov as Putin's successor. It is worth noting that it was Bortnikov who recently fell into disgrace in the eyes of the Russian dictator. The official reason for the disgrace of the head of the FSB is fatal miscalculations in the war against Ukraine,” the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reported, recalling that it was Bortnikov and his department “who were responsible for analyzing the mood of the population of Ukraine and the capabilities of the Ukrainian army.”
Since the beginning of the invasion, Ukrainian intelligence officers have repeatedly stated that some of the information — in particular, about the location of Chechen units to the north of Kyiv — was “leaked” to them from the FSB.
“This may be an attempt to establish cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities in advance, bypassing the current leadership of the Russian Federation,” the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine suggested, admitting that “Bortnikov and some other influential representatives of the Russian elite are considering various options for removing Putin from power.”
Business Insider a lso recently reported that Beseda, the head of the Fifth FSB Service, was not the only high-ranking security official who lost his seat due to the failure of the invasion of Ukraine. In March, the dismissal of Roman Gavrilov, the deputy head of the Rosgvardiya (National Guard) was reported [it was assigned the task of "mopping up" and "restoring order" in the captured Ukrainian cities — ed.].
At that time, analysts pointed out that the idea of the Russian authorities to introduce the National Guard into Ukraine at the same time as the regular army was another sign that Russia did not expect such strong resistance from the Ukrainians.
Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence analyst, suggested in a comment to Business Insider in March that Putin was "punishing" top security officials to "send a message to commanders that further failures would not be tolerated."
Soldatov, in turn, told Business Insider that Russian counterintelligence launched an investigation to identify possible informants and foreign agents in the FSB. He recalled that Western intelligence reports contained granular details, first on the Russian military buildup, then about its plans, and finally about the stalled campaign in Ukraine.
According to Soldatov, because of this, the Kremlin fears that foreign intelligence could have penetrated the FSB structures. “This basically means that they started looking for moles because military counterintelligence is basically identifying Western spies,” the journalist explained.
He also noted that the Fifth FSB Service was not only involved in Ukraine — the duties of this particular department included maintaining contact with the CIA, so this unit was doomed to become "the first place to look for Western spies."
Ruth Deyermond, an expert on security issues in the post-Soviet countries at King's College London, names another possible reason for the detention of the FSB officers.
“Whatever the Kremlin says in public, we know that in reality, Putin can see at least some of the war's failures. It also suggests that he's unwilling to take the blame for them himself," she told Insider in late March.
According to Deyermond, “if the war continues as badly as it's begun, it suggests that many more intelligence and probably military officers will be blamed and punished.” How such measures will affect support for Putin in these government circles in the long term is still unclear, the expert noted.
New commander: will the "butcher of Syria" General Dvornikov succeed in coordinating the Russian offensive in the Donbas?
After the first month of a full-scale war that Russia unleashed in Ukraine, Western intelligence noted with surprise that the Russian army did not have a single "field" commander — aside from military officials like Sergei Shoigu in Moscow. Along with the authoritarian system, in which orders from the Kremlin are non-negotiable, the lack of proper coordination between the troops exacerbated other ills of the occupying army, from low motivation to logistical problems.
New reports suggest that Russia has reorganized the command of its troops in Ukraine and they are now led by General Alexander Dvornikov. Dvornikov, 60, is the commander of the Southern Military District of the Russian army, known for his brutal style of warfare in Chechnya and later in Syria, where he commanded a group of Russian troops.
Western analysts consider this appointment not unplanned. “The decision to establish new battlefield leadership in Ukraine comes as Russia gears up for what is expected to be a large and more focused push to expand Russian control in the Donbas region, and follows a failed opening attempt to conquer Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital,” The Guardian comments on Dvornikov’s new role.
The publication recalls that in Syria, this Russian general established an airbase on the northwestern coast of the country from where "bombers obliterated towns and cities across Idlib province”. “The fall of Syria’s second city, Aleppo, was substantially due to Russian airstrikes, which were flown from the Hmeimim base and routinely targeted hospitals, schools, bread queues and other pillars of civilian life,” writes The Guardian.
Dvornikov can also follow a similar “scorched-earth” strategy in Ukraine, Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayoush, who defected from the Syrian army to the side of the opposition and is now in Turkey, noted in a comment to AP. He called the Russian general a “war criminal” and opined that the main goal of appointing Dvornikov as a key military leader in Ukraine is to turn the war into a series of “rapid battles” in several places at the same time.
Other analysts say it's important that Dvornikov's troops from the Southern Military District have been operating in previous weeks in precisely the regions in eastern Ukraine where Russia has now decided to concentrate its attacks.
“The designation of Dvornikov as the overall commander makes sense now given that the announced Russian main efforts are almost all in his area of responsibility,” reads the analytical review of the American Institute for the Study of War, which published an assessment of the situation in Ukraine on April 9. According to ISW, before the expansion of power, Dvornikov was only one of two or three other commanders who were responsible for various axes of the Russian army offensive in Ukraine. And the absence of a single commander "clearly hindered the cooperation of Russian forces operating along various invasion axes," the institute's analysts state.
However, at the same time, ISW stresses that "this simplification of the Russian command structure may not resolve all of Russia’s command problems" in Ukraine. Firstly, most of the reinforcement forces that the Russian Federation is now sending to the Donbas are drawn from other military districts of the Russian army. Moreover, the active offensive drive of Russian forces from Izyum to the southeast "relies on the concentration of Russian troops around Kharkivthat draws in turn on the logistics hub of Belgorod in Russia—both in areas nominally under the control of [the commander of the Western Military District General Alexander] Zhuravlyov,” the analytical review reads. This means that “Russian forces will likely continue to struggle to establish coherent and efficient command and control arrangements for the foreseeable future,” ISW analysts conclude.
The author of the article in The Guardian points out another aspect: in Ukraine, Dvornikov will have to face “a very different set of challenges” than in Syria. Unlike the Syrian war, the Russian Air Force in Ukraine does not control the skies, and the ground forces of the Russian army are “seriously depleted by regular supplies of advanced weaponry that was unavailable to Syrian rebels.”
Another major factor in countering the Russian army will remain the “enormous amount of data coming out of the war zone that disproves Russia’s claims of battlefield success,” The Guardian writes. Although Syria was previously considered the best-chronicled conflict of the modern era, “that effort is dwarfed by the way smartphones and digital technology have brought the Ukraine conflict to the world”.