With Putin’s vulnerability, insider reporting on Russia matters more than ever
In the Great Purge of 1936-38, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor, to liquidate his real and perceived enemies in the Communist Party leadership, the Red Army and Russia‘s security services. Stalin’s henchmen executed more than 1 million of their comrades, including three of the five Red Army marshals and virtually all of the Soviet Union‘s army corps commanders, admirals and division commanders.
Having absorbed the lesson of the failed revolution that followed the disastrous 1905 Russo-Japanese War — a dress rehearsal for the successful 1917 Bolshevik overthrow of the czarist autocracy — Stalin ruthlessly sought to impose dictatorial control over the state, even if the purges resulted in massive collateral damage to military capacity.
While Germany and Japan prepared for war, Stalin’s priority was to eliminate those who he feared were the greatest threat to his power: his cadre of professional military and intelligence officers.
All of which is to say that Stalin, who notoriously said that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” would have never allowed the threat posed by the late Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin to emerge as it did before taking action, as Vladimir Putin did.
Having been an agent in the KGB and later director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, Mr. Putin should have known that threats must be detected early and preempted before they pose a threat to regime security.
But this was not Mr. Putin‘s only intelligence miscalculation in recent days. The Russian leader failed to accurately assess Ukraine’s will and capacity to fight, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ability to awaken NATO from its post-Cold War slumber to help arm and support Ukraine’s forces, and the Russian military’s horrific state of readiness, logistics and strategy when the invasion was launched early last year.
Posting videos and photos from the front lines in his military fatigues, Prigozhin put Russia‘s military leadership in his crosshairs when he accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and army chief of staff Valery Gerasimov in profanity-laden rants of denying much-needed ammunition to his mercenary forces fighting in some of Ukraine’s toughest battles.
In early June, Prigozhin refused the Ministry of Defense’s order for his men to sign contracts with the military before July 1. On June 23, Prigozhin derisively called out “the evil” of the Russian defense establishment and released a video in which he lambasted the ministry of defense and Russian oligarchs for benefiting from a war launched on false pretenses.
Ukraine was not, Prigozhin emphasized in his critiques, a hostile enemy plotting with NATO to attack Russia. The next day, Wagner Group mercenaries entered the Rostov military district in southern Russia and began a march on Moscow.
The mutiny was on. The FSB filed criminal charges while Prigozhin’s mercenaries shot down a Russian aircraft and military helicopters on approach to Moscow. Only then did Mr. Putin finally denounce the Wagner Group attempted putsch. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a truce, but the damage had been done and Mr. Putin faced the dilemma of what to do next.
It was too late for preemptive Stalinist purges. The Russian president would have to wait two months before taking vengeance on Prigozhin and his Wagner Group comrade Dmitry Utkin, when their private plane went down in clear weather under mysterious circumstances.
Mr. Putin must now manage the dangerous blowback from the Prigozhin saga. He can no longer trust his own security forces, especially those in the Rostov Military District who reportedly welcomed the Prigozhin mutiny with open arms. Mr. Putin‘s failed strategy of playing senior officials against one another and co-opting them into his kleptocracy has weakened his control of the state.
Earlier this month, the CIA released a second brilliantly produced Russian-language recruitment video aimed at disaffected regime officials.
The CIA is on the hook to assess how much the Putin regime can tolerate having to rely on long-term strategic competitors such as Iran and China to help it deal with the Ukraine mess, as well as the humiliation of having to appeal to the hermit kingdom/rogue state of North Korea to help keep Russia‘s forces armed.
No one in Russia understands better than Mr. Putin‘s own intelligence services and military leadership that these dictatorships are exploiting Russia‘s desperate need for oil exports, drones and artillery because the failed war in Ukraine has wasted so much blood and treasure.
Emphasizing in its new video that “those around you may not want to hear the truth, but we do,” the CIA is banking on the likelihood that some of those officials have lost faith in Mr. Putin‘s leadership and recognize “integrity has rewards.”
Flooding the zone to enhance the doubts about Mr. Putin‘s strategy and staying power, the U.S. intelligence community must also be gaming out what a post-Putin Russia will look like. With Mr. Putin having demonstrated his vulnerability to internal threats, threats unprecedented since the fall of the Soviet Union, good sources and insider reporting on Russia matter more than ever.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on X @DanielHoffmanDC.