The vast criminal network that is Russia’s power structure is starting to spin out of Vladimir Putin’s control.
The president hasn’t just turned a blind eye to corruption, he has systematically channeled the malfeasance to prop up allies, jail opponents, install cronies in positions of power and—according to some reports—to make himself the richest man on Earth.
The trouble with a national network of corruption—which has operated with impunity at every level of society for years—is that it’s very difficult for one man to contain.
A series of raids on police stations by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) over the last week made it clear that the Kremlin has ordered a crackdown on its own police. The nation’s law enforcement and security services have been turned against each other.
The reason for Putin’s sudden interest in clamping down on police corruption is a vain attempt to stop the massive black market in leaks and stolen data. For years, journalists, jealous spouses, lawyers and criminals have been using networks of private data, cellphone movements and passport numbers to track people and uncover their secrets. Now, there may be a new customer taking advantage of Russia’s spectacularly failed data security: Ukraine.
Colonel Amir Kolov, 57, who worked for the police for 25 years fighting corruption and economic crime, said it was a natural consequence of the endemic graft. “I could see bribes and corruption every step of the way, no surprise that policemen sell to Ukrainians, they come to police to take bribes,” he told The Daily Beast.
The Kremlin decided the issue could no longer be ignored after the targeting of prominent pro-war Russians Vladlen Tatarsky and Aleksandr Dugin. Tatarsky was killed by a statuette of himself that contained explosives. A car bomb attack killed Dugin’s daughter.
Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to Ukraine’s minister for internal affairs, told The Daily Beast that Moscow had been unsettled by the attacks, which Ukraine denies carrying out.
“The Kremlin is cleansing policemen selling addresses of specific officers to Ukrainian citizens after the assassinations of Tatarsky and Dugin,” he said. “They are afraid of assassinations.”
This black market in stolen data is known as probiv, which derives from the word for “pierce.” Some data can be bought for a few dollars via Telegram, some needs to be scraped from huge databases by bots, other more sensitive personal and official information might cost a couple of hundred dollars via the dark web.
The Kremlin has gone public accusing policemen of working for “organized criminal groups” as well as leaking information to Ukraine. And they’re sending in the notorious FSB.
The Daily Beast spoke with Russian police veterans, lawyers and investigative journalists about the corruption running rampant within the interior ministry, and Putin’s futile efforts to put the genie back in the bottle.
“Everybody is using the probiv of personal data, first it was some guy in the police, who you could pay to get any information about personal addresses, text messages, location, bank information—anything,” said Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer and ex-duma lawmaker. “Now the technologies are much more advanced, police officers leak databases without knowing who can use it.”
Gudkov said years of this have eroded the power of the state. Every government needs to be able to keep information secure, especially one with such autocratic tendencies. “Putin is paranoid about losing his power,” he told The Daily Beast. “You can’t keep any information secret in a corrupt country.”
Last week the FSB started rounding up policemen in Moscow. On Wednesday, the FSB raided police offices in the Central District of Moscow and interrogated police officers of the interior ministry in the Taganka and Arbat districts. Some senior policemen quit as a result of the raids, according to the BAZA Telegram channel, which covers news of law enforcement agencies in Russia. According to Russian state news agencies, the FSB and the security department at the Ministry of Internal Affairs were raiding the Internal Affairs Directorate for the Central District of Moscow, as well as the district police departments “due to the leakage of data from Russian security officials to citizens of Ukraine,” Stolica (capital) news website reported.
Stolica says that FSB investigators pulled off a sting operation, placing adverts online “for the sale of data, asking for ‘break through’ information about Moscow prosecutor’s office;” and that had allegedly helped the FSB investigators to identify that “the data was leaked from the Moscow police.”
The Russian news agency TASS reported that “policemen passed personal information of law enforcement officers to their clients, some of them were Ukrainian citizens.” TASS also cited BAZA, a Telegram channel known for covering news and leaking reports about Russian police and FSB, saying: “Ukrainians took the advantage of this and placed orders for information about security forces, judges and other special services.”
The claim that Ukrainians purchased the stolen data, which was briefed to the Russian media, could not be independently verified, although it stands to reason that enterprising Ukrainian assets could have made use of the thriving black market. Officials did not explain how the stolen data was used but it may be possible to compromise Russian military officials or even track senior commanders operating inside Ukraine or elsewhere.
Putin has been well aware of the damage that probiv can do to him personally—and to the Kremlin—since at least 2018, when the men suspected of trying to murder defected Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England were unmasked. Roman Dobrokhotov, who set up the celebrated Russian investigative site The Insider, teamed up with British investigative journalists at Bellingcat and used probiv to track the suspects, figure out their real names, and reveal that they were members of Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU.
“Our sources told us Putin was furious, when we identified ‘Ruslan Bashirov’ and ‘Alexander Petrov,’ since he personally had rewarded them as ‘Heroes of Russia,’” Dobrokhotov told The Daily Beast. “But three years later we identified more crimes: Christo Grozev and The Insider identified Alexei Navalny’s poisoners in a joint investigation. We were once again using the same probiv; the details of phone calls and flights. Grozev’s film Navalny was made after our investigation and won an Oscar.”
The corruption of Putin’s Russia blew up in the president’s face on the global stage, and he started to take action. Instead of plugging the holes in the system, however, the Kremlin just worked harder to persecute independent journalists and opposition leaders.
“We know from our sources that Putin was really mad, knew mine and Christo’s names, so a few months after our investigation was published in late 2021, our names appeared on the hit list; I had to leave Russia,” Dobrokhotov said.
Retired police captain Magomed Shamilov, head of the Independent Policemen’s Union in Dagestan, told The Daily Beast that he and his colleagues pushed for anti-corruption reform long ago. “We started speaking about organized crime and corruption at the highest levels of police ministers more than 10 years ago but nobody listened to us,” he said.
Shamilov said the problem has gotten even worse in recent years. “Nobody should feel surprised about policemen selling secrets, most of them forgot that they play the role of law enforcement, they admit that they get police jobs ‘to enrich’ themselves in all possible ways,” he said. “Now they can sell their soul, anything for money.”
The economics of this black market are changing fast. The Russian economy is shrinking, the middle class is fleeing the country in a historic exodus—more than 500,000 left during the first year of the war. Colonel Kolov says that the number of people able to pay bribes is rapidly shrinking, which leaves law enforcement agencies fighting each other over what’s left.
According to Transparency International, the value of the shadow economy is plunging. “Traditionally Russian law enforcement agencies charged the middle business with kickbacks. Now the economy is reshuffling, many Russian companies have left the country,” the head of Moscow Transparency International, Ilya Shumanov, told The Daily Beast. “The feeding field for the Russian Defense Ministry, prosecutors, police, National Guards and FSB is shrinking, which leads to major changes in ‘feeding chains,’ new allies. The war is a comfortable time to destroy the existing status quo for the law enforcement block and grab a tasty piece from each other.”
Kolov believes that judges in Rostov region did not pay their kickbacks on time to stay safe: “Probiv is normal, they’re arresting judges in Rostov and cops who did not kick up enough. And in Moscow they are running out of money, so the FSB is coming to raid the police.”
In spite of the FSB’s belated efforts, the truth about the crimes of Putin’s men continues to surface. Dozens of corruption fighters and investigative journalists are working to expose wrongdoing, whether it’s naming more assassins or uncovering politicians who are alleged to have enriched themselves. “Last year we used probiv, when we investigated the minister of digital development, Maksut Shadayev, who was hiding his wife—our investigation used probiv to figure out where he lives, to what address he and his secret wife order their food to find out what property and income he had been hiding from tax authorities,” Timur Olevsky, The Insider’s editor told The Daily Beast.
In some cases, corrupt judges get in on the act, ordering Russian cellphone operators to reveal the details of phone calls and text messages, including the caller, the caller’s location and the content of text messages, when requested by police officers who plan to sell the data on the black market. Every piece of information has a price.
One young defense lawyer—who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity—said lawyers like him also use the leaked databases. “I don’t think it is hard to find police officers who leak from inside the system but it is much harder to find who they sold the databases to,” he told The Daily Beast.
Nobody who has been using the probiv system believes that the leaked databases used all across Russia will cease to exist with the arrests of a few policemen in the center of Moscow.
“It is too late to arrest policemen and stop corruption, all the personal information of people in Russia is out there to be offered on the black market,” Olevsky said. “The cops and intelligence agents will not stop shaking the system, they are helping it to deteriorate—until it completely falls apart.”