No infighting here Investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov says the Kremlin is punishing security officials for the bad intelligence that fueled the invasion’s early days. Now he’s a wanted man.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia militarized its approach to censorship. For more than three months now, it has been a felony to publish any information in the news media or on social networks that contradicts the Russian Defense Ministry’s propaganda. Investigative journalist and Russian security services expert Andrei Soldatov has tested these expanded limits on speech by reporting extensively on an alleged crackdown against a department within the Federal Security Service that provided Vladimir Putin with the bad intelligence that led the president to expect an easy campaign in Ukraine. Soldatov told Meduza that he believes the criminal case recently opened against him for spreading “disinformation” about the military is really the FSB getting back at him for exposing the agency scandal.
Note: What follows is a story by Liliya Yapparova, published on June 17, 2022. You can read the original text (in Russian) here.
A felony case against Andrei Soldatov for spreading “fakes” about the Russian Army was opened on March 17, 2022, but he didn’t learn about the investigation until three weeks later, when his banks suddenly informed him that all his accounts were now frozen. Soldatov discovered that his balances had flipped into the negative to the tune of 5 million rubles (more than $80,000) — equal to the maximum fine under the “military disinformation” criminal statute.
The authorities also seized his 1999 dark blue Opel Astra. Soldatov says the vehicle isn’t worth much (it’s now valued at 90,000 rubles — about $1,565), but it has sentimental meaning to him: this is the car in which a Moscow FSB agent once tried to convince him not to investigate the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage siege, and this is the car that needed air in its tires when he learned that his father had been appointed to serve as Russia’s deputy communications minister.
Unlike his personal savings and old car, Soldatov himself remains beyond the reach of Russian law enforcement, having fled abroad in 2020. In his home country, he’s now a wanted man, charged by the Federal Investigative Committee’s Main Investigations Department with spreading “disinformation” about the military in an interview with the YouTube channel Popular Politics, which Alexey Navalny’s team launched in March 2022.
The “disinfo” and subsequent charges
On March 11, Soldatov appeared on Popular Politics to discuss the Russian intelligence services’ role in planning the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. During the livestreamed conversation, Soldatov mentioned the National Guard’s participation in the war, arguing that Russia’s military setbacks in the invasion to that point were due in part to the National Guard being better prepared for beating up protesters than waging war. Soldatov argued that decision makers in Moscow had approached the invasion as a police operation, not a military campaign, because they believed the Ukrainians would actually welcome Russian forces.
Formally, Soldatov is charged with the crime of questioning the National Guard’s readiness for combat. Investigators say he spread this “disinformation” deliberately, motivated by “political hatred.” Soldatov’s interview, however, was devoted primarily to reprisals within the intelligence community against the departments considered responsible for Russia’s failed offensive against Kyiv.
This investigative work is the real reason for the felony charges, he told Meduza.
Two weeks into the invasion, say Soldatov’s sources, the authorities placed the head of the FSB’s Operational Information and International Laison Service under house arrest. This department, also known as the FSB’s “Fifth Service,” oversees the agency’s links with partners abroad. According to information collected by Soldatov and his colleague Irina Borogan, a unit inside the Fifth Service has operated since 2004 as part of a structure devoted to keeping the countries of the former USSR within Russia’s sphere of influence.
In early March 2022, Soldatov and Borogan reported that General Sergey Beseda, the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service, had been arrested together with a deputy shortly after the start of the February invasion, though other sources have denied these allegations, even publishing evidence that Beseda remains a free man. For example, the Dossier Center, an investigative news outlet launched by the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, spoke to individuals who say there’s not even a criminal case opened against the FSB general. Multiple sources claimed that Beseda was interrogated “for show” as part of an operation by the FSB’s Internal Affairs Bureau to find leaks in the agency. On April 29, moreover, Beseda attended the funeral for intelligence veteran Nikolai Leonov and even delivered a eulogy.
According to Soldatov, however, the FSB brought Beseda to the funeral merely to squash rumors about a conflict within Russia’s intelligence community. “It’s obvious that the purpose for a special operation like this can only be a desperate attempt to extinguish talk about fighting between the security forces, which in wartime conditions has apparently been deemed unacceptable,” Soldatov told Meduza.
Sources told Soldatov and Borogan that General Beseda is under investigation for misappropriating government funds allocated to finance the pro-Russian opposition inside Ukraine. “They can’t punish [him] for bad intelligence because there’s no such crime on the books,” explained Soldatov, “but you can make it about money.”
Soldatov reported Beseda’s alleged house arrest on March 11. Two days later, the FSB received the first criminal charges against Soldatov for “deliberately disseminating false information” about General Beseda. Claims that he also spread “fakes” on YouTube about the National Guard appeared only at the very end of the report (which was filed by the agency’s Internal Affairs Bureau — the same department allegedly investigating Beseda).
The report against Soldatov was then submitted to the director of the FSB’s Internal Affairs Bureau, Lieutenant General Alexey Vertyashkin — the same senior official who last year authorized the wiretapping of investigative journalist Roman Anin, his parents, and his girlfriend. (Anin was a witness in a criminal case launched after he reported for Novaya Gazeta in July 2016 about Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin’s ex-wife enjoying unusual access to a luxury yacht.)
The FSB didn’t open a felony case against Soldatov after this first report, however. It wasn’t until four days later, following a report filed by the Federal Investigative Committee’s Main Investigations Department, that the authorities formally began investigating Soldatov. “[The FSB] probably realized that it would end poorly if they started investigating us [for reporting about Beseda] because they’d have to talk about Beseda themselves. And they didn’t want to do that,” Soldatov told Meduza.
Though the defamation allegations concerning Soldatov’s claims about General Beseda’s alleged house arrest have disappeared from the formal charges, the FSB’s Internal Affairs Bureau continues to assist in the case.
A felony that should be hard to prove
Despite the authorities’ apparent attempts to tailor their accusations against Soldatov in order to divert attention from claims about infighting in Russia’s intelligence community, the journalist’s defense attorney, Valeriya Arshinova, says prosecutors could nevertheless face some awkward questions in court. For example, demonstrating that Soldatov “deliberately” lied about the National Guard’s combat readiness should require proof that the National Guard had the men and materiel needed for the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Also, how could Soldatov, a civilian, be expected to know the National Guard’s true wartime capacity? And what’s the proof of his “political motivations”?
In the three months that Russia has criminalized the spread of “disinformation” about its military, the authorities have launched roughly 60 felony cases, at least 10 of which have been against journalists. Of all Russia’s “disinformation” criminal cases against journalists, only three have started with reports filed by the FSB. Andrei Soldatov’s case is one of these.
Valeriya Arshinova says she expects the charges against Soldatov to go to court sometime soon. Investigators are now busy gathering evidence and collecting expert opinions. In the meantime, he’s advised his client to avoid countries that maintain good relations with Russia, despite the invasion of Ukraine. This includes places like Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Turkey, and Armenia.
“The main thing now is to ensure the security of our communication sources,” says Soldatov. “We were already very careful about this, but now we’ll need to redouble our efforts. We’ll have to check and recheck all our devices and communication methods.”
Summary by Kevin Rothrock