The recent arrest of Timur Ivanov, Russia’s deputy defense minister and close ally of defense minister Sergei Shoigu, has rocked the country’s politics. Ivanov was an important part of a powerful group that included Shoigu as his direct patron but that also included the billionaire oligarch Gennady Timchenko — a close associate of Vladimir Putin — and the powerful mayor of Moscow Oblast, Andrei Vorobyov.

Ivanov was reportedly known as “the wallet” of the Shoigu-Timchenko clan. A wallet is the nominal holder of assets and funds belonging to the clan. Putin’s wallet is thought to be his old friend Sergei Roldugin, a cello player.

Ivanov was well-known for his lavish lifestyle and was reported to own property worth far more than his official salary could justify. His “divorced” wife, Svetlana Ivanova, was a regular visitor to the ski slopes at Courchevel. Their divorce was alleged to be a way to avoid sanctions imposed on Ivanov by the EU in October 2022.

After an intense and lengthy siege destroyed the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in the early months of the war, Ivanov was put in charge of rebuilding the city as part of his brief which included major military construction projects. In the role, there was plenty of opportunity for graft and over the years he became known as “king of the kickback”.

But his family’s lavish lifestyle was no secret. He was the subject of a 2022 investigation by researchers working with the late opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.


Corruption among the political and military elites is a hallmark of Putin’s Russia. So why has action been taken against Ivanov now? There are several theories.

Firstly, it could be that he simply took too much. Few Russian officials live off their salary alone. But there is an unwritten law that officials should not overdo it. With Putin having recently directed the Federal Security Service (FSB) to investigate corruption — most likely as an attempt to raise flagging popular and elite support — Ivanov was an obvious target.

The fact that Ivanov is alleged to have milked funds from the reconstruction of Mariupol — funds which had been channeled from Putin’s hometown St Petersburg — would have made it personal.

But there are also suggestions of an intense rivalry between Ivanov and the head of military intelligence (GRU), Vladimir Alekseyev, who is thought to have masterminded the failed Skripal poisonings. The GRU and the ministry of defense have clashed over control of the remnants of the Wagner Group after the suspicious death of former Yevgeny Prigohzin in August last year.

This elite infighting reportedly extends to attempts by the intelligence services to weaken the power of the ministry of defense and Sergei Shoigu. There was talk of Shoigu’s weakness in the autumn of 2022 when Russia suffered setbacks on the battlefield as a result of Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive.

Now — despite recent military successes in Ukraine — there are signs that Russia’s economy is in danger of overheating thanks to Putin’s massive military overspend. Shoigu’s rivals, keen to preserve their share of the pie, may see this as an opportunity to weaken his position.

Cats Fighting in a Bag

Ivanov was arrested immediately after a meeting with Shoigu and, in the game of smoke and mirrors that is Kremlin politics, it may never be clear who was behind the arrest. The FSB, interior ministry, and national guard all had reasons to want to weaken the defense minister.

But such an attack suggests that Russia’s elite clans are fighting among themselves. There was an unwritten rule that the “wallets” of each clan would be left alone. Ivanov’s arrest would appear to have destroyed this gentleman’s agreement.

There are two likely candidates for the role of Ivanov’s “nemesis”. One is the head of the National Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, and his close allies, including FSB chief, Aleksandr Bortnikov. These two have been in a state of undeclared war with the defense ministry since 2014.

Patrushev has long been a major regime stakeholder and has long been known to be highly ambitious, perhaps to replace Putin himself. Anything that weakens Shoigu will be to his benefit.

The other likely suspect is the head of Russia’s national guard, Aleksandr Zolotov. Having long attempted to get his protégé, Aleksei Dyumin — a former head of Putin’s security detail and a man tipped as a rising star — promoted to minister of defense, Zolotov may have decided to act now. It would be in the interest of Zolotov’s faction to undermine Shoigu.

The Russian system relies on otmashka, a concept which reveals a lot about Russian politics under Putin. It essentially means that when a subordinate presents Putin with a scheme and he agrees, he does so in a way that provides no explicit instructions.

It is up to the subordinate to interpret his approval for themselves. This gives Putin plausible deniability should things go wrong, while taking praise if things go well. It also allows the Russian leader to balance Russia’s elite factions by acting to weaken one or another when he deems it necessary.

All of which means a great deal depends on the conduct and outcomes of the war in Ukraine. The arrest has been widely seen as a signal from Putin to Shoigu and those around him.

With Russia having made some incremental gains on the battlefield in recent months, it may appear a strange time to instigate inter-faction rivalries. But the various Kremlin factions never cared much about anything but their own self-interest, something the Machiavellian Russian leader will be well aware of.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, Russia’s influential milbloggers (an online community mainly made up of former or serving Russian military) are awash with speculation that Ivanov’s arrest is the first act in what could be a major purge at the top of the Defence Ministry.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stephen Hall is a lecturer in Russian and post-Soviet politics at the University of Bath.


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