Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops into Ukraine earlier this year, but the invasion continues to prove far more challenging than expected. With the Russian military suffering heavy losses and failing to achieve its key objective of seizing major Ukrainian cities, reports have indicated that divisions in the heart of the Kremlin now threaten to unravel Putin’s grip on power. Remarkable claims emerged from Ukraine in March that furious members of the Russian elite were hatching a plot to assassinate Putin, and that his replacement had already been lined up in the shape of Alexander Bortnikov.
This claim was made by the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine.
The intelligence brief claimed that the Kremlin insiders had become increasingly frustrated due to the impact of sanctions on Russia’s economy.
They also wanted to remove Putin from power in order to try and mend relations with the West, it claimed.
Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence said: “It is known that Bortnikov and some other influential representatives of the Russian elite are considering various options to remove Putin from power.
“In particular, poisoning, sudden disease, or any other ‘coincidence’ is not excluded.”
Bortnikov is the director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) – the main successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB and widely criticised for corruption, human rights violations and secret police activities – and has served in this role since 2008.
He is one of the most powerful members of Putin’s inner circle, having also received the title of Hero of the Russian Federation in 2019, and holds the rank of army general, the highest grade in the Russian military.
According to a report by the Dossier Center, an organisation funded by the exiled Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Bortnikov’s FSB is both the brain and the heart of the Putin regime, and a “state within the state.”
Not a great deal is known about Bortnikov, but his biography states that he distinguished himself from his classmates at school with his “logical thinking and highly developed intuition.”
In 1973, Bortnikov graduated from the Leningrad Institute for Railroad Transport Engineers, and then later trained to become a KGB spy.
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Bortnikov is now at the heart of speculation about a split in Moscow.
In March, the Moscow Times noted that Bortnikov had disappeared from public view along with other senior officials.
In response, state TV programs subsequently broadcast a purported March 24 security council meeting including brief appearances by many of the missing men, including Bortnikov.
However, this appeared to simply be an edited version of the earlier March 11 security council meeting.
Then, in April, suspicions of a Kremlin divide were once again brought to the fore when it was reported that Putin removed more than 100 intelligence officials from their roles in anger at the failed invasion.
The FSB purge was reported by Christo Grozev, executive director of Bellingcat, the investigative organisation that unmasked the two Salisbury poisoners in 2018. He did not reveal the source of his information.
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Putin accused his purged security servicemen of “reporting false information to the Kremlin about the real situation in Ukraine before the invasion.”
Mr Grozev also told Popular Politics: “I can say that although a significant number of them have not been arrested they will no longer work for the FSB.”
Another name that has been proposed as a potential Putin replacement is Nikolai Patrushev.
He is a Russian politician, security officer and intelligence officer who has served as the secretary of the Security Council of Russia since 2008, and is Bortnikov’s predecessor as head of the FSB.
Rebekah Koffler, a former DIA intelligence officer, wrote an article for the New York Post in April, saying Patrushev “rivals Putin as a villain” and is “more barbaric than his master.”
She added: “Both men have likely authorised the poisonings and killings of many Russian ‘enemies’.”