Less than two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat alone at a desk in a palatial room lecturing his top national security goons about how Ukraine needed to be invaded. He was an imposing, menacing presence.
One of his top spy chiefs, Sergei Naryshkin—himself a hawkish figure who bears more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu—was reduced to stuttering at the lectern in the wake of Putin’s questioning.
“Speak directly!” Putin screamed at him. Hours later, the Russian president ordered a disastrous full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s hubris is a lesson for all modern autocrats who are considering bossing around and humiliating their most powerful officials: Messiness doesn’t always equal loyalty.
For years, Putin had cultivated a convoluted web of security organizations and spy agencies in the hopes of ensuring that no one could challenge his power. He succeeded. But with the war in Ukraine stalling all of that, the chaos is coming back to haunt him.
Now it’s the summer of 2023 and Putin has been reduced to giving interviews to state media about how he definitely had control of the situation as Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries stormed hundreds of miles of highway toward Moscow in an armored convoy (even shooting down a Russian aircraft), only to turn around at the very last second.
Whether this was a coup or a mutiny is an academic question; it was undoubtedly the clearest sign yet that Putin had lost some control. Whatever is happening behind the scenes in the halls of Putin’s government, American and Ukrainian intelligence figures have told me the situation is at the very least embarrassing for the Russian president and at worst a harbinger of his eventual demise.
“All of this shit looks so fucking bad on Putin,” said one U.S. intelligence source with knowledge of Russian espionage operations. According to them, relations between Russia’s spy agencies have been far from peaceful lately.
The GRU, the military intelligence branch that was active for the Kremlin during the Democratic National Committee hack, has historically been “sympathetic” to Wagner; the main internal security service, the FSB, which is responsible for maintaining order inside Russia and for counterintelligence operations, much less so.
“The FSB are kind of a wild card in all of this, as I see it, being [counterintelligence] and state security,” said the same American source. “Failure to see this coming falls squarely on the FSB.”
Putin has a well-known system of pitting his secret services against one another, which caused rivalries among the SVR—a foreign intelligence branch that is run by Naryshkin—the clumsier GRU, and FSB in order to ensure they would never unite against the Kremlin.
All three of those agencies have in the past reportedly run competing operations on the ground in Ukraine, further impairing the country’s war effort come the full-scale invasion in 2022.
“The SVR is unlikely to have played a part in Prigozhin’s attempts on the capital. The SVR have kind of been the black sheep of Russian intel,” they said, and they have received far less attention from the media since the invasion of Ukraine began.
Still, despite the tumult, in the wake of Prigozhin’s mutiny few are cheering on future coups. The same source said that perhaps the West—NATO and the CIA included—are less interested in seeing Putin toppled than we may realize.
“I think it’s one of those ‘devil you know’ situations,” the U.S. intelligence source said to me. There is a feeling within Western spy circles that Putin remaining in power is not the worst option for the stability of the world—provided he loses in Ukraine.
Putin, perhaps seeing the same threat from that far-right milieu, arrested former FSB officer, wanted war criminal, and hard-line Kremlin critic Igor Girkin last week. Following the Prigozhin affair, Girkin had again criticized Putin, going so far as to call him a “lowlife,” which likely led to his arrest.
British intelligence has already warned Girkin’s imprisonment will “infuriate” sections of the military and security services. But given Putin’s weakening, it would be “smart to watch Russia struggle as long as we can, push on [Army Tactical Missile Systems] to Ukraine, let them turn the war.”
Still, a far-right takeover isn’t the only possibility, should Putin lose his grip on power. Given “how badly oligarchs and elites in Russia have suffered economically since the start of the war, part of me thinks that whoever would replace Putin would have an interest in trying to appease the West in some way.”
On the other hand, a Ukrainian intelligence source despises Putin and wants to see him gone at all costs. They say, as the head of the CIA did at the Aspen Security Forum, that Prigozhin, who only recently made his first public appearance since the mutiny in a sort of proof-of-life Telegram video at dusk in some unknown location, is “highly likely” to be murdered.
“In my opinion, [the mutiny is the] first marker of the cracking of the regime, and we will see more of something like this in the future,” the Ukrainian source said, adding that the problem for Putin is his stranglehold on the security and military forces within the country.
In the last month alone, Putin is suspected of disappearing General “Armageddon” Sergei Surovikin, a Prigozhin ally, while he fired Major General Ivan Popov for speaking out against the prosecution of the war.
“The Russian government is losing (or even lost already) the monopoly on violence,” the Ukrainian source said. “Plus they have unleashed a very dangerous power: former prisoners with combat experience and no brakes.
“That brings problems and will bring more later.”
While he faces internal pressures at home, Putin hasn’t stopped projecting his power and threatening rivals abroad. In what was a deliberate provocation of a NATO ally, Putin warned Poland against its military buildup along the Belarussian border in response to Wagner amassing its troops in nearby Brest. But the Russian president’s words, now blunted by his stunning failures in Ukraine, don’t carry the same weight.
“Our intelligence services are keeping their hand on the pulse,” said Stanisław Żaryn, the Polish deputy minister and coordinator of special services, in an emailed statement referring to what he says is a little over a thousand Wagner soldiers who recently arrived in Belarus at the invitation of dictator Alexander Lukashenko—a key Kremlin ally.
According to Żaryn, their presence in Belarus “may herald their use against Poland” because the troops aren’t there “to rest.”
“They will carry out missions ordered by the Kremlin. To this day, there are very close ties between the activities of the [Wagner Group] and the Kremlin’s interests.”
Żaryn said Polish intelligence and military agencies are not underestimating the close presence of Wagner and have reinforced their borders accordingly. But Żaryn sees Putin’s latest statements targeting Poland as a sign of weakness.
“Putin’s and Lukashenko’s words regarding [Wagner] are typical psychological warfare designed to intimidate Poland and Poles,” he said. “Both despots will shout loudly—the louder the worse the war against Ukraine goes for Russia.”
Colin P. Clarke, an expert on Wagner and the director of research at intelligence consultancy firm the Soufan Group, thinks, as usual with Kremlin affairs, it’s “incredibly hard to get an accurate read” on what is actually happening in the halls of the Kremlin, but there’s no doubt that “Putin has been weakened.”
“I’d caution those cheering for Putin’s immediate demise,” Clarke said. “State collapse or civil war in Russia would be bad for the world. Moreover, if Putin is pushed out, his successor could very well be an identical figure; a hard-line nationalist that’s three decades younger and just as reckless as his predecessor.”
Though most top Western spy agencies have stayed silent over what exactly happened during the Prigozhin fiasco in an attempt to prevent Putin from claiming the mutiny was orchestrated by the West, that silence is also beginning to break.
In a rare speech in Prague, the head of Britain’s MI6, Richard Moore, was glib about Putin making nice with Prigozhin: “He cut a deal to save his skin.”