April 26, 2024 - 7:00am

The investigation into Russian Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov seems, at a glance, an open-and-shut case. This week, the man dubbed “the King of Kickbacks” by colleagues was arrested on charges of “grand bribery”, specifically having received a “bribe as part of an organised group while performing contracted and subcontracted work for the Defence Ministry”. If found guilty, Ivanov faces up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

The charge reportedly came as a surprise to Ivanov but perhaps should not have done, given the evidence against him. Named by Forbes as Russia’s richest person in uniform as far back as 2019, his “glamorous life” was the subject of an entire investigation by Alexei Navalny’s team in 2022, which further claimed that Ivanov’s responsibility for military infrastructure projects allowed him to profit from reconstruction in occupied Mariupol.

Indeed, one wonders what took Russian investigators so long to realise that Ivanov was leading a rather lavish lifestyle for a military man; a glance at social media revealed his wife’s passion for boutique shopping, European travel and — somewhat bizarrely – thrones.

Assuming that even the FSB is not that slow on the uptake, the question remains as to why the authorities would instigate an investigation now, Ivanov having long had a reputation for opulence. The answer may lie in his deep association with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. A close ally and confidante of Shoigu, Ivanov has worked with him across various agencies for over 10 years. The very public nature of Ivanov’s arrest — detained at his workplace, the case covered by state media, images broadcast from court — all imply that his downfall is a warning to others. TASS specifically noted that “Shoigu has been updated on the situation.”

Adding to the speculation, independent Russian media quoted FSB sources as saying that the actual reason for Ivanov’s arrest was not bribery but instead state treason. While the exact nature of such treason is unknown and the Kremlin dismissed the claims, it is interesting to note that Ivanov was reportedly involved in negotiations with the son of late mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin for Wagner’s control of natural resources.

Those sources further claimed that Ivanov only avoided arrest earlier thanks to his boss’s continued patronage, his detention a possible sign of Shoigu’s declining influence. Russian defence sources told Forbes that the arrest may herald further removals of those close to Shoigu and the Defence Minister’s own eventual departure. Last month, Vladimir Putin ordered the FSB — which arrested Ivanov — to root out corruption in state defence procurement, an easy cover for a purge.

These are not the only clues that Shoigu may be under pressure. His recent statements, following the passage of US military aid for Kyiv, that Russia “will increase the intensity of attacks” and “continue to carry out assigned tasks until the goals of the special operation are fulfilled” may, on reflection, be the words not of a committed soldier but of a man under pressure to demonstrate significant battlefield progress.

However, why would Putin — making gains on the battlefield — suddenly want to disrupt his military structure by purging any unfit or disloyal elements? Despite the momentum apparently being in Moscow’s favour, the President may be trying to optimise his army in preparation for the expected summer offensive or because he is unnerved by the prospect of new US aid to Ukraine. Whatever lies behind this Kremlin infighting, Ivanov’s case is far less simple than it first appears.