The Bear Breaks Down: Andrei Soldatov on Russia’s Self-Destruction
"When you have a guy in the Kremlin who is being absolutely delusional about the real situation in Ukraine, you can’t speak in terms of a coherent foreign policy."
About 20 years ago, Andrei Soldatov, a Russian newspaper reporter, co-founded a website called Agentura.ru devoted to monitoring the activities of Russia’s security services. The experience turned him into one of the world’s leading experts on Russia’s secretive intelligence and military agencies. In Moscow’s eyes, it also turned him into a dangerous man. In 2012, a new Russian law expanded the definition of treason to include the sharing of any information the FSB (the successor to the KGB) deemed harmful to Russia’s national interests. The noose tightened further in 2020, when another law made it effectively illegal to write anything at all about the security services—a change that “basically cancelled our profession,” Soldatov says. But the last straw came later that same year, when the Russian government cancelled the media license for Soldatov’s website, citing the death of its editor—the very job Soldatov held at the time. Taking the hint, he and his partner Irina Borogan fled for London. Today he’s a fellow at The Center for European Policy analysis, the co-author (with Borogan) of several books, including The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia's Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad, and one of the most authoritative voices on Vladimir Putin’s coercive apparatus. We spoke by phone on Thursday about Russian intelligence before and after the Ukraine war began, how to indentify Putin’s goals, and why the Russian state seems to be disintegrating around him.
Octavian Report: Given all of the restrictions Russia has imposed on the media and on independent organizations, how is it still possible to report on the Kremlin and the security services? The government seems like a black box.
Andrei Soldatov: Publicly, people are not willing to express their opinions. So it’s become a big problem to find someone still in Moscow who will go on the record. At the same time, however, more people are actually coming to me and my colleagues, because there is a feeling of desperation, especially among Russian bureaucrats—including in the security services. And if they trust you, they are quite eager to share their feelings, because the climate in Moscow is not good.
And this is new. In 2014, during and after the invasion of Crimea, I spoke to many people inside the government, and you could feel that most, or maybe even all of them, were on the same page as Putin. They believed that he had done the right thing in a really efficient way and with no bloodshed. So there was no distance between Putin and these people. Now it feels completely different. Lots of people in the financial sector, in the security services, and even in the army believe that something should have been done about Ukraine. People were ready for something like the occupation of the Donbass, or maybe some airstrikes in imitation of NATO’s 1999 bombing of Belgrade. Instead of that, we got this mess. My sources in the government think that Putin’s full-scale invasion was a horrible mistake.
OR: Does that mean that if the war continues to go badly and becomes an Afghanistan-style quagmire, say, that the unhappiness in the security and intelligence services could become so extreme that they either force Putin to change policy or remove him from power?
Soldatov: I’m a bit skeptical of that. Or at least, I’m skeptical that they could do it on their own. Why? For several reasons. One is that while we’ve had a heavily militarized society for decades, if not centuries, the history of military coups d’état here is surprisingly short. The last time the army tried it was the Decembrist revolt in 1825, and that failed miserably. There was another failed coup in 1991, but that was mostly led by the KGB.
The second problem is the military does not have a tradition of building underground organizations within the ranks, like in Turkey or Egypt. We’ve never had a Young Officers movement here. And, of course, the FSB has penetrated the military to a huge degree.
OR: But the FSB is also becoming unhappy with Ukraine, isn’t it?
Soldatov: Yes, but I’m also skeptical that the FSB could organize something. The 1991 coup didn’t fail because of the bravery of Muscovites—and they were brave, I was 15 years old and I was there. It didn’t fail because of Boris Yeltsin. It failed because there was a huge level of mistrust between the KGB’s generals and its midlevel officers, and that mistrust is still there. Generals in the Russian security services fail to build patronage networks by distributing money and things like that, so the midlevel officers don’t trust them. They respect the position, but not the person.
One final point: in the 1990s, you had competing political forces in the country. You had opposition parties. You had oligarchs. You had very strong regional centers of powers, such as the mayor of Moscow. All of them were competing, so if a group of generals became unhappy with the president, they could rush to this group or that group for political support. That’s not the case anymore. There is no political force left in the country except for Vladimir Putin. The political opposition is either dead, in jail, or in exile. The oligarchs are extremely dependent on Putin and on the military-industrial complex. The regional governors are really scared, because a number of them have been thrown in prison.
At the same time, I cannot say that things are absolutely hopeless, because Russia is a huge country, and due to the sanctions, the regions are going to have more and more problems. Moscow is already very nervous about the regions. All this talk about the nationalization of industry—it’s about politics, not the economy. In many regions, you have these big enterprises, and if they stop their operations, it would mean huge layoffs, and a lot of people would go out on the streets, which would create a big political problem. Now the government is trying to find a way to deal with that. So if you had this combination of factors—if, say, problems in the regions became worse and worse, and they could connect with some major new political force, then maybe the military or the FSB might do something.
OR: Let’s go back to the beginning. How do you explain the massive intelligence and policy failures that led Putin to start this war? Do you think that Russia’s intelligence agencies shared his fantasies about Ukraine?
Soldatov: Russia’s intelligence agencies might not be extremely competent, but they’re not that stupid. Of course they understood that nobody wants to join a new Soviet Union or any of that. What they believed then is that Ukraine is a dysfunctional state, with dysfunctional government institutions, so if you attack it, it will collapse.
They also had a view that Zelensky was a human being who cares about people’s lives. So what they expected to happen is that Putin would attack Ukraine with airstrikes, and all those Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders would convince Zelensky not to counterattack. They believed that they could bluff him and use the army not as a real force that would actually go into Ukraine, but as a deterrent to prevent Zelensky from launching a counterattack. And they thought that that decision, to not counterattack, would then ruin Zelensky politically.
What actually happened, however, is that Putin did something completely different. He decided to attack with ground forces immediately, and that left the Ukrainians with no choice but to say, “We need to fight now.” So it was a terrible miscalculation, but not because of the intelligence. It was because of Putin himself.
OR: What are the big takeaways for you from the way the war has gone so far? Has it revealed, for example, big structural problems in Russia’s military, intelligence, and policymaking bodies?
Soldatov: Yes and no. These days everybody is talking about how bad Russia’s army is. I would be a bit more cautious, because what we’re seeing is a huge degree of political interference. Militarily speaking, many things we are doing in Ukraine don’t make any sense. One is using the national guard. It doesn’t make any sense militarily, but it makes some sense politically. Because politically speaking, if you’re sending in your national guard, it means that it’s not a military operation, it’s a policing operation. So you are just dealing with thugs and drug addicts and so on.
The other problem is that the chain of command being used in Ukraine is very different from Putin’s previous wars. In every other war Putin conducted, you had a joint group of forces led by a commander whose name was known. So the public would know who was ultimately in charge of the operation on the battlefield. We had this knowledge in the second Chechen war, in Georgia, in Syria, everywhere. But not here. Here, we only have Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff. So we don’t know who’s in charge of the situation in Ukraine. We don’t even know where the headquarters of this joint group of forces is, or how many forces are involved. Nobody knows. This creates confusion, and it’s bad for the military because they don’t understand what is going on. So you can blame the military, but the problem is really with the Kremlin, because it decided how to design this whole thing. It’s absolutely astonishing. The only way I can explain its decisions is by pointing to the fact that Putin is way more emotional about Ukraine than he is about any other region.
OR: A lot of people are saying that his age and isolation have also affected his judgment. Do you agree?
Soldatov: To some extent, yes. And he’s become obsessed with history, which is something old politicians do. But I think he’s been obsessed with Ukraine for a very long time.
OR: What do you make of the recent American claims that Putin is being misinformed by his aides about the progress of the war?
Soldatov: I think it’s true. First thing, it was absolutely clear that Putin was not privy to information about the [widespread use of Russian] conscripts. He was quite astonished when he learned. So we know that the military was hiding something from him from the start. The second thing is much more important, however. We know what his initial war plan was, right? It involved airstrikes combined with sending vehicle columns deep into Ukraine. Now, this plan crashed immediately, as soon as it faced reality on the battleground. But Russia’s tactics didn’t change for more than a month, which is absolutely astonishing. They kept sending these columns deep into Ukrainian territory for weeks and weeks and weeks. And you would only do that if your leader was still convinced that the initial plan was absolutely fine.
OR: Why isn’t he getting good information from the battlefield? Is it because the security services are too frightened to tell him the truth?
Soldatov: I think so. There’s huge confusion inside the Russian government. To start with, the military has a longstanding habit of hiding information from Russia’s top leader. In the past, the FSB has helped fill in the gaps. But the problem is that Putin started this war by attacking his security services. He held a horrible meeting with his security council, where he publicly humiliated his chief of foreign intelligence. Two weeks later, he placed two guys from the FSB under house arrest. A few weeks later, the deputy head of the national guard, a former security services guy, was forced to resign and is now probably under some sort of criminal investigation. What all this ignores is that you cannot fix your intelligence problems with repression.
OR: Speaking of intelligence, why was U.S. intelligence prior to the war so good? How did Washington learn so much about Moscow’s plans?
Soldatov: To begin with, I think the United States had succeeded quite well in penetrating the Russian government. The other thing is that the Russian security services have always been famous for producing the biggest numbers of defectors. So I think the United States probably got some good sources. Maybe they still have some people in place.
OR: Say a little bit more about why Russia’s military performance has been so bad.
Soldatov: Well, there are things that are still not clear for me. Because some units of the Russian army, like the spetsnaz[special forces], are really good, very competent, and very well trained. So why they’ve performed so badly is a really good question. I think it has had something to do with morale. And the problems started before the war. Last year, there was a horrible story reported by the Russian media that in a spetsnaz brigade in Siberia, a commander had raped his soldiers as a form of punishment. That is absolutely unprecedented, because spetsnaz forces tend not only to be Russia’s most professional soldiers, but they don’t have hierarchical problems, because they fight in small groups where you need to trust everyone who’s with you. In the spetsnaz, it doesn’t matter whether you are lieutenant or a captain or just a soldier, you’re all in it together and do the same things. So it looks like something has broken down in the Russian military. That might help explain the really bad performance. And again, all the problems with bad planning and the chain of command were also a big factor.
Back in 2014, the Russians outperformed the Ukrainians by a long distance. For some reason, they’re not doing that now. There are so many mysteries. I’ll give you another example: why hasn’t a big cyberattack happened? It would make perfect sense, because it could produce panicked crowds of people jamming the roads and making it difficult for the Ukrainian military to move around. But that chance was missed completely. Disinformation operations have also not been good. They didn’t have lots of stories prepared for this war. This is very different from what we saw just eight years ago. I do not have an explanation, but it looks like several elements just went completely wrong.
OR: What you’re saying suggests massive disarray within the Russian state, the military, the political apparatus, and the intelligence services, as though everything is breaking down.
Soldatov: That’s my impression.
OR: Do you believe the reports that Russia is now shifting its military strategy and aims in Ukraine toward consolidating control over the east and abandoning the center and the west?
Soldatov: My fear is that they’re just playing for time. I think that when you have a guy in the Kremlin who is being absolutely delusional about the real situation in Ukraine, you can’t speak in terms of a coherent foreign policy. Let’s say he does secure the Donbass, this chunk of land that nobody wanted. He might even make it a part of Russia. So what? It’s never had the symbolic value for Russians that Crimea has. It’s not a big win. And the price is all these sanctions and all these problems with the rest of the world.
OR: So you’re saying that one shouldn’t talk about Russia shifting its strategy because there is no strategy? That Putin is just making things up as he goes along?
Soldatov: Yes. Because strategically speaking, I don’t quite understand his end game. Maybe you have some ideas, but I don’t get it.
OR: Is it possible that his maximalist objectives were just a smoke screen, and that his real objective has always been to establish a land bridge between Crimea and Russia proper and to permanently destabilize Ukraine—to turn a fairly successful, Western-leaning, increasingly liberal democracy into a failed kleptocratic state?
Soldatov: Maybe, but I have a problem with this argument. Because let’s say you want to destabilize Ukraine, or you want to create a land bridge between Crimea and Donbass. That could all be achieved with air strikes. You could do what the Israelis did to Lebanon in 2006, which is to bomb the infrastructure of the country into the ground. Just bomb all its bridges, all its railroads, everything. And if you did that, a lot of countries, especially in Europe, would say nothing about it. Remember that before the war, the French said, “Well, air strikes are bad, but they don’t qualify as a real invasion.” Only after the tanks started rolling into Ukraine did people in Europe say, “Okay, this is a real thing.” So why invite all these horrible sanctions on yourself when you always had the option to use your formidable aviation, which completely outmatched Ukraine’s? I don’t get it.
OR: How, then, do you see the war ending?
Soldatov: Putin’s usual way out of trouble is to escalate even more. I think that people in Moldova and in the Baltics should be extremely, extremely nervous right now. I think it’s absolutely possible that he might start something there, just like he did with the Donbass as a way out of Crimea.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.