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The Arrest of Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Has Broken a Taboo

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The ongoing state of war and uncertain future mean that the Russian elites cannot make long-term plans, which encourages them to flout the old rules, live for today, and undertake power moves to score a win against their rivals.

The arrest of Russia’s deputy defense minister, Timur Ivanov, at the height of the country’s war against Ukraine is a conspicuous sign of divisions within the Russian government. Influential groups vying for power are now attacking each other even more aggressively than before the war, and it’s no longer just lone players or minor representatives of the various clans who are at risk, but central figures too. And with Ivanov’s protector, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it seems even the patronage of the head of state no longer affords protection against interclan squabbles. 

In an unexpected turn of events, the deputy defense minister was arrested immediately after a meeting with Defense Ministry colleagues—including Shoigu—on April 23 and charged with taking bribes. News of his arrest broke late that evening, but without the images of searches of luxurious properties or the discovery of huge sums of cash in a safe that usually accompany arrests for corruption in Russia. Ivanov subsequently appeared in court in military uniform, even though arrested generals are typically tried in civilian clothing to avoid tarnishing the image of the armed forces.

These unusual optics suggest that the deputy minister’s arrest was planned in haste. Further indirect evidence of that is the silence of Ivanov’s immediate boss Shoigu, who appeared blindsided by the arrest of his deputy.

Indeed, those behind the case against Ivanov had every reason to act swiftly, since this could well turn out to be a landmark case for the Putin regime. The deputy minister is the highest-ranking serving Russian official to face criminal charges since former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev was arrested in 2016. Ivanov could in fact be described as an even bigger heavyweight than Ulyukayev: he controlled far larger sums of money, and in practice had much more influence and authority.

No less important is the fact that Ulyukayev was a lone figure within the state apparatus, while Ivanov is a prominent representative of an influential clan. That clan includes Shoigu himself; Gennady Timchenko, a businessman close to Putin; Federation Council deputy speaker Yury Vorobyov and his son, Moscow region governor Andrei Vorobyov; and many other less high-profile officials and businessmen.

Ivanov was effectively in charge of an important resource for this clan worth trillions of rubles: all the Defense Ministry’s infrastructure projects. In this sense, the charges against Ivanov are a direct attack on the Shoigu/Timchenko group. 

Shoigu’s nemesis is considered to be Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardiya) and former head of the Federal Protective Service tasked with protecting senior officials, who has long sought to gain control of the Defense Ministry. Zolotov tried unsuccessfully in both the mid-2010s and in 2022–2023 to get his former subordinate Alexei Dyumin—one of Putin’s favorite bodyguards—promoted to head of the ministry. 

About eighteen months ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the infamous head of the Wagner mercenary group, launched a campaign against Shoigu with Zolotov’s backing. The Rosgvardiya group was ready and waiting with two candidates to replace him: Dyumin and General Sergei Surovikin, who is popular in army circles.

But Shoigu managed to fight back and even settle some scores with his opponents. Prigozhin was killed in mysterious circumstances soon after staging an unsuccessful mutiny, while Surovikin fell from grace and was dismissed. Later, the defense minister managed to get firmly back into the president’s good books when the Ukrainian counteroffensive last summer proved unsuccessful and the Russian military managed to regain the initiative.

Given that Putin likes to publicly cite the Defense Ministry’s press releases about the numbers of Ukrainian soldiers killed and volume of military equipment destroyed, the Shoigu clan was widely expected to retain its position in the government reshuffle due to follow Putin’s inauguration in May, and perhaps even increase its influence. It would appear that this prospect prompted the defense minister’s opponents to launch an urgent offensive by arresting one of the clan’s most prominent representatives.

The case against Ivanov should at the very least stop the expansion of the Shoigu clan. Now the minister will be forced to divert some of his attention to making sure the post of his deputy in charge of infrastructure does not go to an outsider. At most, the arrest of such a close ally could lead to the resignation of the minister himself, especially if reports that Ivanov may face charges for treason as well as graft prove to be true.

In securing the arrest of Ivanov, Shoigu’s enemies resorted to a move previously considered taboo in Russia’s interclan squabbles. While there has been no shortage of arrests of senior officials in the past, they were all peripheral figures or minor representatives of influential clans. There was an unspoken agreement not to touch prominent representatives of clans that control significant resources. Ivanov’s arrest shows that not everyone is prepared to keep abiding by this unwritten rule. Also notable is the distinct lack of regard for the opinion of the president, who is clearly favorably disposed to the defense minister right now.

This significantly raises the stakes in the infighting among the elites. Once one player breaks a taboo and gains an unfair advantage by doing so, other more disciplined groups will soon follow suit.

There were already signs that more and more rules were being ignored in the interclan fighting. Traditionally, the duration of a presidential campaign has been considered a time of truce in Russia, so as not to disrupt the work of the state apparatus to ensure the desired outcome.

This year, however, that rule was also broken, with several high-profile criminal cases being brought against regional heavyweights ahead of March’s presidential election. Most notable was the arrest of the head of the Samara region government, Viktor Kudryashov, who was also brought down by the Rosgvardiya group as part of the clan’s war against the region’s governor, Dmitry Azarov. 

The war against Ukraine was also initially considered a time of truce. Putin has said repeatedly that everyone in Russia, including the elites, has rallied together in the face of an external threat and is working as one for the good of the motherland. For a while, the infighting really did subside, before erupting again with renewed viciousness, as the prewar rules were abandoned one after another. 

The issue is not just that there are fewer resources to go around because of the war and sanctions. The ongoing state of war and uncertain future mean that the elites cannot make long-term plans, which encourages them to flout the old rules, live for today, and undertake power moves to score a win against their rivals. 

Another factor is that the Russian elites rely less and less on presidential arbitration. In all of Prigozhin’s chaotic battles—both with the Defense Ministry, and together with the Kovalchuk brothers against St. Petersburg governor Alexander Beglov—Putin tried to distance himself from the crises by simply letting them run their course. 

As a result, the clans around Putin are coming to the conclusion that in these internecine battles, actions speak louder than words—even the words of Putin himself. Accordingly, there will be more and more such battles within the Russian elites, and fewer and fewer rules.

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