How to Start a Russian Purge

For Russia's security forces, there's never a wrong time to take down domestic enemies. Here's how they might persuade Putin.


As the United States grapples with fears that the Kremlin is meddling in its political processes, it is worth mentioning that many in Vladimir Putin’s government believe the reverse: that agents of the West are attempting to engineer regime change in Russia, and that measures must be taken to stop them.

The last several years in Russia have abounded with scares of a “purge” of the elite. The sight of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s expanding campaign to eliminate actual and potential opposition in Turkey has only heightened such concerns. But how would such a purge actually begin, who would be behind it, how would they sell it to Putin, and in service of what ideology?

Foreign Policy has unexpectedly obtained a (fake!) working draft* of a memo to Putin that appears to be from powerful members high up in four of Russia’s security agencies (the Security Council, Federal Security Service, National Guard, and Investigative Committee) that urges just such a thing. The hyperlinks and explanatory notes in square brackets have been provided by the memo’s translators.

* (Again, this is a fake memo, people…)

Most Esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich!

Russia is struggling to survive the hybrid war waged by the United States and its allies. The war is already being fought on many fronts — political, legal, economic, and informational. The last thing we need now is betrayal at home. And yet, domestically, certain political elements are increasingly beginning to resemble a fifth column, undermining Russian resilience at a critical moment.

While continuing to respect your leadership and example, Vladimir Vladimirovich, the Russian people as a whole are increasingly uncertain about the direction of your government. Fewer than half now express confidence in the Duma — and this is on the brink of parliamentary elections in September, which will precede a series of unavoidable austerity measures that need to be introduced this fall.

Perhaps more serious is the restless mood within the business elite and officialdom. They appear to be more dismayed by the fall in their incomes than the historic challenges facing the country and their duty to serve it. Indeed, they continue to seek to maintain assets abroad, in defiance of your call for the repatriation of assets, and devote their energies to self-enrichment, even at the expense of the state. When they aren’t chipping away at the foundation of the state directly, through advocacy for so-called liberal economic models, their rampant and indiscreet corruption undermines it indirectly, by making a mockery of the masses who want to believe they have a government that looks out for their interests.

Recent events in Turkey have demonstrated how suddenly and unexpectedly a coup to wrest state power can strike. Russia, we feel, need not fear a sudden move on the part of the military, but it may already be in the throes of a slow-moving political-economic coup instigated by foreign-aligned elements within the liberal elite that want to see a different Kremlin, one that serves their own economic interests better, even at the expense of Russia’s historic mission. Just as the West has engineered and encouraged regime change from Egypt to Ukraine, there is little doubt they would like to see such a coup succeed.

The liberal economic model which [former Finance Minister and darling of the international economic elite Alexei] Kudrin espouses would shackle Russia to both the Western notions of “rule of law” and its economic primacy. Yet as you so rightly noted in response to him, Russia does not bargain away its sovereignty. We cannot sacrifice our distinctive culture and independence in the world in return for short-lived profits from the global economy.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, our view is that these unfortunate attitudes and behaviors in fact represent an opportunity. Now is the time to reaffirm the strength of the center, to focus on a state-driven modernization, and take back the country from interests more eager to enrich themselves than to serve the nation. If done correctly, a brief, demonstrative campaign to cleanse the state of elements who think they can place personal enrichment above national interests without regard for the nation and its priorities will preempt and prevent the creeping coup that is already underway.

There are those who claim we are seeking to bring back the indiscriminate [Stalinist] excesses of the 1930s, when millions perished or suffered in order to industrialize the Soviet Union, but they are mistaken. Instead, we look to the example of Yuri V. Andropov [one of Putin’s heroes, the former head of the KGB, Soviet leader 1982-84]. A patriot — like you, Vladimir Vladimirovich — Andropov also grappled with restless and selfish elites chafing under a slowing economy. Nonetheless, he did not shrink from demonstrating a stern willingness to publicly purge the upper cadres of the corrupt and the incompetent. His remedies were not to be found in the market but the state, and the tragedy of his premature passing led us into the chaos of the later 1980s. Andropov recognized that the public punishment of a single, egregious individual could be more powerful than a thousand sloppy, indiscriminate arrests, and it is to this model of targeted justice and public example that we look.

Our proposal

There are those whose corruption is so rapacious and visible that it tarnishes the whole state, as well as draining resources which could be better devoted to other purposes. There are those who simply cannot and will not do their jobs as well as is needed in these testing times. And then there are those whose commitment to your leadership, Vladimir Vladimirovich, is insufficient. These are all internal weaknesses, ready to be weaponized by outside forces.

So for, however, there’s been a lack of sufficient vigor and coherence in the state’s repressive strategy and its responses to Western-backed efforts to undermine our country from within. These efforts to date have been piecemeal, with repressions often focused on bit players rather than big names, or driven by personal and business rivalries. The arrest of [liberal governor of Kirov region] Nikita Belykh, who blatantly and unabashedly accepted bribes, accomplished little strategic purpose when others like him remain at large. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, despite two convictions, not only walks free but is petitioning you to allow him to run in the elections, in a clear violation of the law that forbids convicts to participate in politics. Dozens of minor bloggers have been jailed have been jailed haphazardly for reposting extremist content, but what message does it send when [radio host] Alexei Venediktov is allowed to vent anti-Russian views on a media outlet funded by a state-owned company [radio station Ekho Moskvy]? The state security apparatus has been turned into an instrument of the few to settle scores among them, when it should be put to use to serve the interests of a coherent national ideology.

We — the leaders of various branches of the state security apparatus — offer up our services. Our organizations — in particular, the new National Guard, the officers of the FSB [Federal Security Service] and the prosecutors of the Investigative Committee — are powerful, loyal, and ready to act. The package of laws passed recently under the useful rubric of “antiterrorism” extend our capacity to monitor and detain those dangerous to the state. We urge you to use these instruments in tandem, which will help put to rest rumors fabricated by fifth columnists of clan wars among security agencies.

We propose that no more than perhaps 50 figures should be identified and arrested, ideally in a single night, on financial and moral charges. The actual formulation of such a list — which will have to be kept wholly confidential beforehand — is clearly a matter for the highest political authorities, and not for us, and such a process must be done with an extreme care, to prevent it from being hijacked by those who seek to aim the power of the state at their enemies and shield their cronies. However, our suggestion is that while it may include figures in the media and politics, it should focus on businesspeople — particularly those whose views or activities are less than compatible with government policy, of course.

This must very clearly be presented as a campaign against corruption. Not all those to be targeted, after all, are necessarily active accomplices to the campaign to drag us back under the Western thumb. But perhaps more importantly, we know the Russian public is always eager to see those who exploit them brought to justice. We are confident that the relevant organs will be able to identify plausible financial irregularities in every case.

At the same time, we must make it clear that this is a limited and specific act. And we must make clear to local interests that Moscow will not tolerate the use of the campaign to prosecute local feuds or seek personal gain. Certain elements initiate anticorruption campaigns not to fight graft, but as weapons in rivalries within security agencies, or as business tools: Suddenly, a company is transformed from the competitor of an important client into an enemy of the people, and shutting its doors becomes a matter of the highest national purpose. Such self-serving behavior is unacceptable. The recent self-purification of the Investigative Committee [one of Russia’s main law-enforcement agencies], to weed out corruption, was enacted through the joint efforts of the Investigative Committee and the FSB to demonstrate both the cohesion of our security apparatus and our preparedness; having cleansed our own ranks, we are ready to strike at our internal enemies.

This sudden strike will perform several crucial functions. It will rally a population eager to see government demonstrably on their side against an exploitative and cosmopolitan upper class. We have learned that the modern communications technologies can be our friend as well as a problem. It will be important to seize the narrative quickly, with camera crews on hand to capture the mansions and possessions of those arrested — a CIA tactic used against our ally Yanukovych during the putsch in Ukraine — and a campaign on social media to mobilize the masses behind the purge. The targets’ thieving from the state can be used to explain — alongside the West’s ongoing campaign of economic warfare — the need for forthcoming austerity measures.

It will also remind the economic elite that they live their comfortable lives thanks to the indulgence of the state. While we appreciate that there are strategic interests in diverting certain contracts in particular directions, and a degree of personal and informal benefit for good work is appropriate. However, the scale must be curbed for the good of the state — and more importantly, defeatism and disloyalty among those who have fared so well as a result of state generosity should not be tolerated.

Finally, it is an opportunity to transfer strategic economic interests back into state hands. The economic policies of the Soviet Union brought isolation, but also protected our economy and our sovereignty. It is self-evident that the presence of foreign capital amounts to foreign ownership of significant parts of our economy and our strategic interests. It is right that the very patriotism and loyalty of Russian businessmen who facilitate this foreign investment into domestic companies should be scrutinized, and that such businessmen should be targeted first if Russia’s economy is to thrive in tandem with its national identity.

We humbly submit this proposal for your consideration.

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His recent books include We Need To Talk About Putin and the forthcoming A Short History of Russia. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti

Anna Arutunyan is a Russian-American journalist and writer, author of The Putin Mystique.

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