Vladimir Putin and the Secret Service Fiasco in Ukraine


At the beginning of March 2022, less than two weeks after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was no longer any doubt: instead of a triumphal entry into kyiv, to the cheers of its inhabitants, the glorious Putin's army was routed, suffering heavy casualties. The shadow of the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) began to hang over the "special military operation", with rumors rife that Vladimir Putin, a professional "intoxicator", had himself been "intoxicated ".

In view of the humiliation, many heads were bound to roll. Logically, Putin should have first attacked Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, and Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council who, according to one work to be published, would have convinced him to favor a military solution in Ukraine. Putin should have taken it out on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valeri Guerassimov, who had reassured him by bragging about “the great experience” of the Russian troops. […] Punishing them for example and in public could however have proved counter-productive and constituted an admission of failure, when officially Russia had not deviated one iota from its plan in Ukraine. And then, Bortnikov, Patrushev, Shoigu and Guerassimov undoubtedly pleaded “not guilty” claiming that they too had been fooled by reports, provided by the secret services. Reports that described the Ukrainian army as non-operational, Volodymyr Zelensky as a jester without real presidential material, and bet on a disunited and passive West, as in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.

These intelligence services, it should be remembered, are made up of three main organizations: a military, known by its name of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) – placed under the command of the Minister of Defense, but in reality of Putin; and two civilian organizations reporting directly to the President of the Russian Federation, the SVR, Foreign Intelligence Service, and the FSB, Federal Security Service, responsible for counterintelligence, mentioned above.

Unlike the Western services, which are legally framed and controlled, the Russian secret services form the backbone of the Putinian system, the alpha and omega of its governance. Their particularity is not only to deal with intelligence, the collection and analysis of information, but also to fulfill political police functions, repression (even elimination) of opponents and "traitors". , in the pure Soviet tradition. The Novichok poisonings of the former GRU colonel Sergei Skripal, in 2018, and the opponent Alexei Navalny, in 2020, are two recent examples of operations for which the involvement of the Russian secret services has been demonstrated – two examples among many others. their executives, siloviki (from the Russian word Silas, “strength”), are a “new nobility”, an expression that we owe to Nikolai Patrushev, former director of the FSB, now secretary of the Security Council, who is perceived as the greatest “hawk” of the Kremlin.

In the end, therefore, it was neither Shoigu, nor Guerassimov, nor Patrushev, nor any other personality from Putin's entourage who was going to bear the brunt of the fiasco of the Russian "lightning war" in Ukraine, but "second knives" from of the secret services and first of all of the FSB, including a senior officer, Sergueï Besseda, a 68-year-old general, [head since 2008] of the Fifth Service of the FSB, the Service of operational information and international relations. Accused in March 2022 of corruption and of having “knowingly misinformed” his superiors, he was first placed under house arrest. Around mid-April, in the context of the sinking of the cruiser Moscow, when Putin was unable to contain his anger and demanded culprits, he was transferred in the greatest secrecy to Lefortovo, a notorious Moscow prison reserved for eminent personalities.


Even if the GRU and the SVR had their networks in Ukraine, it is the Fifth Service who, in the opinion of several experts, would have had the greatest influence with the Kremlin before the launch of the "special military operation". In fact, the Ukrainian unit for which he was responsible increased from 30 people in 2019 to 160 in the summer of 2021. Agents sent to Ukraine were given the task of recruiting collaborators and neutralizing opponents of Moscow. It is Besseda who would therefore have exerted a decisive influence on Putin through his analyzes and would have convinced him to give the green light. But did he “knowingly” misinform the Russian president? Wasn't he himself convinced that the conquest of the Ukraine would be a walk in the park? After all, we know today that a few days before the invasion, the men of Besseda had sent their Ukrainian agents the order to leave the keys of their apartments to the "men from Moscow" who would have come to organize the installation of a puppet regime after Russia's victory.

In Besseda's defense, there may have been a tendency within Russian intelligence, if not to misinform, at least to believe exaggeratedly in the chances of success of this operation, for several reasons. Indeed, military intelligence had begun an "aggressive transformation" since 2011, with the appointment of General Vladimir Alekseïev to the post of first deputy director. The latter took advantage of the strengthening of the role of the GRU under the leadership of Shoigu to become the main collector of information from the Ukraine.

A certain caution specific to military intelligence would have succeeded, with this former member of the special forces – the spetsnaz –, the desire to take more risks, which could explain the poisoning operations, the best known of which was that of Sergei Skripal in Great Britain. Add to this the deleterious effects on information of the competition between military and civilian intelligence, the GRU and the FSB, which could have pushed Besseda to want to “outbid” so as not to let his adversary occupy the field.


“Nobody likes the bearers of bad news. Over the years and rigged elections, the president has gradually lost his sense of reality, reducing his circle of friends and confidants. The only ones likely to still have an influence on him were Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the FSB, and Sergei Naryshkin, the director of the SVR, for civilian intelligence. However, Putin despises intelligence – thus Naryshkin was publicly humiliated on February 21, 2022, three days before the invasion, in the middle of a meeting of the Security Council; and Admiral Igor Kostioukov, the current boss of the GRU, would be given nicknames. If the secret services occupy a central place in Putin's decision-making process, paradoxically, Putin does not hold them in high esteem. […]

Ukraine: the lunar exchange between Putin and the head of Russian foreign intelligence, Le Parisien, February 21, 2022.


In this context, what was left for the "second knives" like Besseda, if not to carefully sort out the information to comfort the Master in his illusions? […]

Besseda [would have been released and] would have returned to work at his office in Lubyanka. This should not be seen as the trace of any desire to rehabilitate him, and even less the sign of the President's belated awareness of his own errors of judgment, but rather the desire to limit the risk of a worsening of the situation. […]

In fact, if Besseda's arrest should be interpreted as a warning to the intelligence services, the FSB in particular, his release corresponds to a "tactical retreat" intended to put to rest rumors of internal divisions and dissension between leaders and the "grassroots". It is a question of reassuring the “second knives” on which the stability of the system and the good management of the decision-making process depend in many respects.

This text is taken from “The Black Book of Vladimir Poutine”, which has just been published by Robert Laffont/Perrin. Robert Laffont/Perrin


This shadow world is subject to pressure from the executive, but also to Western sanctions that have undermined Russian intelligence networks abroad. Between February and April 2022, more than 450 Russian "diplomats" were expelled from 27 countries and international organizations, three times more than after the Skripal scandal. Putin has all the more interest in sparing his intelligence executives as he is confronted with the presence of a "war party", a fraction of siloviki at odds with the scaled down goals of the “special military operation” – no longer the conquest of Ukraine, but the occupation and annexation of Donbass. These grassroots cadres would like to see Putin announce general mobilization and use weapons of mass destruction to get it over with as quickly as possible.


Besseda's release therefore seems to indicate that Putin is trying to learn from his mistakes. Will the effect of this awareness be lasting? This is unlikely as long as Putin is in charge, with his paranoid view of the world and history, his anti-Western value system and his obsession with a "denazified" Ukraine, but also as the main model of inspiration for the Russian secret services will remain Andropov's KGB and, increasingly, the Stalinist NKVD.

Andrei Kozovoi, HDR Lecturer, University of Lille

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/ Kibri_ho

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