On Sunday, the influential Russian “milblogger” Vladlen Tatarsky, a close associate of Wagner PMC boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed in an explosion at a café in St Petersburg – likely by a bomb planted in a statue which had been presented to him moments before. Tatarsky, whose real name was Maxim Fomin, had taken part in hostilities in Ukraine since 2014 and was fond of making statements calling Ukrainians “pigs” and “mentally ill Russians”, and whose most famous pronouncement was: “We’ll defeat everyone, we’ll kill everyone, we’ll rob everyone we need to. Everything will be the way we like it.”
In other words, he was not a very nice man, and Ukrainians won’t be shedding any tears over his death. This has led some to speculate that this, and the killing of Darya Dugina (also linked to Prigozhin) last August, may have been orchestrated by Kyiv. I think that’s extremely unlikely, and instead take the view that this is merely part of the ongoing power struggle in Russia that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as evidenced recently by the surge in the number of prominent individuals dying in suspicious circumstances.
Consider, for instance, Yegor Prosvirnin, who had a fatal window safety-inspection accident in December 2021. Prosvirnin was a nationalist blogger who had been critical of the regime, and had predicted a civil war and the collapse of the Russian Federation. One could scarcely make a credible claim that this was done by Ukraine, yet the similarities to Tatarsky’s death are fairly obvious. Like his associate Yevgeny Prigozhin, Tatarsky had been highly critical of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the conduct of the war. The public spat between Prigozhin and Shoigu has previously resulted in the arrest by the GRU of his most senior media manager, and more recently any mention of Prigozhin on Russian state TV has been banned, he has been prevented from recruiting from prisons, and Prigozhin has also claimed that his forces have been starved of ammunition, equipment and air transport by the Russian military high command.
Prigozhin has now claimed that the assassination of Tatarsky, which occurred in a café previously owned by him and which he had given to some of his protégés – a group calling itself “Cyber Front Z” – was not carried out by Kyiv, but by “a group of radicals who are unlikely to have any connections with the government”. It’s unclear if he means the Ukrainian or Russian government, but if he suspects Russian involvement then he’s not quite bold enough to say so.
He would, however, do well to suspect his own government. There is a history of truculent Russian fighters being eliminated, and even mostly co-operative ones can have a short lifespan when things go wrong. And it’s worth noting that the sheer scale of murderous in-fighting higher up the Russian chain of command, while being reported on here and there, has not been properly connected together into a broader picture. Consider the strange events in March 2022, when Shoigu and other senior figures such as Viktor Zolotov disappeared from public view, with Shoigu and the head of the GRU Igor Kostyukov allegedly suffering symptoms of poisoning. At the time, it was generally assumed that these events, and the sacking and reported arrest of Zolotov’s deputy Roman Gavrilov on March 17th, were signs of Putin’s fury at the disastrous attempt at a “thunder run” on Kyiv; but while I don’t disagree with that assessment (as far as it goes), if Putin really did try – and failed – to bump off Shoigu and Kostyukov, it might go a long way towards explaining why Shoigu remains in post and how he won the spat with Prigozhin. And why Tatarsky is now dead.
To understand why Shoigu and the GRU chief might have been targeted – if indeed that happened – we should understand that the GRU has become the most powerful foreign intelligence service of the Russian state, employing many more officers outside Russia than the official foreign intelligence service, the SVR, and being willing to carry out the most audacious attacks, such as poisoning Sergei Skripal on British soil. At the same time, their officers also operate domestically, and the organisation has some level of control over an estimated 25,000 Spetsnaz troops (based on pre-2022 numbers). However, unlike the heads of the FSB and SVR, the head of the GRU does not report directly to Putin, but rather to Shoigu. Perhaps Putin felt the need to eliminate Shoigu and the head of the GRU because he didn’t dare to simply sack them, being unsure where that might lead. If so, his failure will have shown weakness, and caused a realignment at the highest echelons of power – giving Shoigu greater freedom of action.
Of course, the notion that Shoigu and the GRU might now comprise an independent faction within the Russian state, in tension with Putin and with both sides fighting for their lives, might be quite a stretch for many. It is, in fact, a conspiracy theory. And after all, the received wisdom is that Putin is feared by all and is quite untouchable, having built his regime on FSB-instigated murder and terror. Normally, when it comes to this kind of speculation, I’m ‘Team Toby’, and subscribe to the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history. But in this instance I am predisposed to be suspicious of the GRU because, since 2021, I have been pondering snippets of evidence here and there which have pointed me towards the view that the GRU has been asserting itself in surprising ways – and that the FSB has become fatally corrupted, incompetent and ineffective due to a combination of fear and a concomitant need to please Putin.
Therefore, implausible as it may seem at first glance, if one believes that the GRU’s metaphorical fingerprints were on the statue that exploded, killing Tatarsky – to the benefit of Shoigu – then with this fairly open killing of a political opponent, it looks rather like Shoigu is able to do much the same as what brought Putin to power. Tatarsky was clearly an enemy of Shoigu, and ultimately in the Russian state (as in any mafia organisation) what counts is the ability to kill one’s enemies. However, I am not suggesting that Shoigu is an immediate threat to Putin, who still has constitutional authority. The Federal Protective Service – which controls Putin’s personal guard – is not likely to simply stand aside, and nor would the Russian populace be likely to tolerate a coup. What I am suggesting is that Shoigu may be an increasingly important power-broker, comparable in some respects to the former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who knew enough and was powerful enough to be unsackable, but who could never have attained the presidency.
However, Shoigu’s fate is more complicated and unpredictable, being bound up with the war in Ukraine. The only conclusion that one can draw – if one accepts the above premisses – is that, when the blame game for Russia’s increasingly likely military defeat comes to a head, he may not consent to be the fall guy.
Stop Press: MailOnline has published a handy guide to the various resistance organisations in Russia plotting Putin’s downfall.
Profanity and abuse will be removed and may lead to a permanent ban.