In Putin’s wartime Russia, military corruption is suddenly taboo

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Russia’s war in Ukraine has turned out to be a powerful anti-corruption initiative — at least at the Ministry of Defense.

For years, Russia tolerated rampant graft within its military and Defense Ministry. But in a bid to be certain that the country’s ballooning military and security spending results in more soldiers, weapons and other equipment and supplies on the front line, the Kremlin has suddenly undertaken an aggressive crackdown — purging officials with extravagant lifestyles or who have been critical of the military command.

Last month, President Vladimir Putin reassigned his longtime defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to be head of Russia’s national security council. In Shoigu’s place, Putin appointed a former economy minister, Andrei Belousov, with a mandate to use the country’s growing defense budget “sparingly yet effectively.”

More dramatically, however, five top officials including a deputy defense minister have been arrested since April as the Kremlin sends a sharp message that neither excess nor disloyalty will be tolerated in wartime.

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The most senior official to be arrested, Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov, led an ostentatious lifestyle — typical of Russia’s elite but impossible on a public salary.

Ivanov’s taste for Western luxury clashed with Putin’s drive to forge a new ideology based on traditional values and in opposition to liberal, Western permissiveness.

Ivanov, head of military construction group Oboronstroi from 2013 until 2016 and then deputy minister of defense, has been accused of taking especially large bribes and of fraud. He led rebuilding projects in Mariupol, an occupied Ukrainian city left in ruins by Russia’s intensive bombardments.

Ivanov has partied with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and other elite Russians, built luxury homes stuffed with rare antiques, and enjoyed annual summer vacations in St. Tropez with his family, where he allegedly spent nearly $1.4 million from 2013 to 2018 on luxury villas, yachts and a Rolls-Royce — details that were revealed in reports by the Anti-Corruption Foundation founded by the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Along with vast increases in military and security spending, which will rise to 8.7 percent of total economic output this year, Putin has demanded greater efficiency. The Federal Security Service or FSB, and the Investigative Committee, a top national law enforcement body, have established a special investigation force to root out military corruption — and more arrests are likely, according to Kommersant, a Russian newspaper.

Although Putin lately has emphasized his anti-corruption drive, analysts see no fundamental shift in his regime’s kleptocratic tendencies, including the Kremlin’s patronage for a coterie of loyal oligarchs and security officials.

“Everyone — everyone — must work as if we are on the front line,” he said, demanding a new sense of mobilization and urgency from top officials in the Council for Strategic Development and National Projects and commissions of the State Council on May 29.

“Everyone must act as mobilized personnel, and this is the only way for us to achieve the goals we set for ourselves,” he said, adding: “We are all aware of the fact that the main objectives of the country’s future are largely addressed on the front line.”

On Feb. 19, Putin ordered the FSB to probe corruption in defense procurement and state projects. In April. he exhorted a board of the Interior Ministry to step up the fight against corruption, which he said was “poisoning our society” and “stealing the money we need for the defense of the country.”

High-level corruption was intrinsic to Russia and was used as a means of political control, said Kirill Shamiev, a military analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote a report analyzing failures in repeated efforts to reform Russia’s military. “When someone needs to be removed, they can almost always use corruption and say this person has committed an offense and needs to be put in jail,” Shamiev said.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation obtained six years of emails of Ivanov’s second wife, Svetlana Maniovich, including embarrassing videos and images of elite champagne-soaked parties and vacations, as well as invoices for payments for jewelry, horse livery, furniture, designer outfits and yacht rentals.

Several months after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Ivanov divorced Maniovich and was quickly attached to Maria Kitaeva, who had three children with another deputy defense minister. Both women are glamorous former TV hosts, who posted frequently on Instagram, displaying their expensive tastes.

Ivanov’s lawyer told a Russian court that the former defense minister set up a household with Kitaeva and she gave birth to a child — his fifth — in January.

According to the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s account of Maniovich’s emails, she held a birthday party in 2019 in Moscow’s elite Rublyovka district, where Peskov made a toast, wearing a Richard Mille watch on his wrist. Ivanov hurried over and covered the watch with Peskov’s sleeve, according to a video, which was viewed more than 9 million times.

Peskov did not respond to questions from The Washington Post about the incident and anti-corruption drive.

The foundation reported that Olimpsitistroi, a big construction contractor hired by the Ministry of Defense to rebuild parts of Mariupol, offered kickbacks to Ivanov: luxury materials to build a country mansion near Tver and other properties.

The case against Ivanov is based on the Tver bribes, according to Russian media. Ivanov’s lawyer told Russian media that “films” led to Ivanov’s arrest, an apparent allusion to the foundation’s reports. Two businessmen, including Alexander Fomin, co-founder of Olimpsitistroi, were also arrested, as were other military officials in unrelated cases.

Lt. Gen. Yuri Kuznetsov was charged with taking especially large bribes — a house and land — from a businessman, in return for military contracts. Investigators reported finding gold coins, a collection of watches and other luxury items in his home.

Lt. Gen. Vadim Shamarin, head of military communications, was charged with taking especially large bribes from a telecom company in exchange for state contracts. Another Defense Ministry official, Vladimir Verteletsky, head of the department in charge of defense orders, was arrested for abuse of office.

Also arrested and charged with large-scale fraud was the ex-commander of the 58th Army, Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, who was fired last year after criticizing Russia’s military command in the wake of last year’s rebellion by mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin.

Investigators found no cash or luxury items in Popov’s home, Russian media reported, leading many to conclude that Popov was targeted for disloyalty. He is accused of stealing more than 1,700 tons of metal purchased for defensive structures on the front line.

The reassignment of Shoigu to another top position highlighted the premium Putin places on loyalty. Shamiev, the analyst, said the recent arrests were intended to instill fear and respect after Belousov’s appointment as defense minister.

“It also gives a message to the Russian public that all the failures in the war are because of the military, nothing else, especially not Putin himself,” he said.

Dimitri Minic, an expert on Russia’s military at the French Institute of International Relations, said the arrests were part of an effort to maximize military resources. But Minic said that corruption was used as a pretext to remove incompetent officials or to settle political scores. Often, it signaled infighting between agencies, he said.

A buildup of grievances over the handling of the war “open the way for all-out settling of scores conducted with the Kremlin’s acquiescence, against the backdrop of an influx of resources into the Ministry of Defense and infighting for their control and capture,” he said.

Other top generals with property that seems to far exceed what they could afford on their official incomes were investigated by the Anti-Corruption Foundation and have not been charged.

Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, denied any purge or anti-corruption campaign in comments at a daily conference call with journalists. “The fight against corruption is a consistent effort,” he said. “This isn’t a campaign. It’s constant, ongoing work.”

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