There was a rumour on one telegram channel on April 11th that Vyacheslav Surkov was under house arrest. The allegation is that he has been arrested on charges related to those applied to Sergei Beseda, the head of the 5th Service of the FSB. Unconfirmed rumours have it that Beseda was arrested shortly after the start of the military operation in Ukraine, although this arrest was later denied by the Chief Prosecutor. The arrest is related to the misuse of funds allocated for influence operations in Ukraine, with the sum of USD 5 billion mentioned.
The first thing to say about this is that it could all be fiction, just pixels on a screen, electrons in the internet. There is no official statement from any involved party that confirms any of its truth. This is how Russian media works, especially on Telegram.
What an analyst has to learn is to look at the source and consider its track record. The next question is whether the allegation rings true. What else has to be true in order for this statement to be true?
The original source on Beseda was a channel called VChK-OGPU, which specialises in revelations about the security services. I’m giving away a trade secret here, as this channel is used by a lot of analysts to sound knowledgeable about the inside workings of the FSB. I’m always a little cautious about using it as a source because although it has some real nuggets, it’s clearly also used for interested parties to leak an enemy’s dirty laundry and this may be how the channel’s owners make their money. I haven’t seen any discussion of who is behind it, and it would be interesting to know.
The announcement about Surkov came on a new channel for me: Druid. I don’t have an opinion about its reliability. The story has been confirmed by Ilya Ponomarev, but he is an opposition who is in Ukraine and may just be repeating existing gossip. The table below shows the timeline for the rumour on Telegram, things seem to have gone quiet since Kseniya Sobchak said that there was no arrest.
It’s interesting to discuss it, because it’s a good object lesson in how to look at these rumours and how careful you have to be. Too often these rumours will make it into the English speaking world as fact, even though the journalists haven’t confirmed them. However, because they confirm the journalist’s priors, they will happily feed them into the record. I was reading an article today about Kerimov that cited as support “statements by government officials and journalists” which didn’t instil confidence, especially since the government officials were likely relying on press reports, as we saw in the evidence submitted in favour of sanctions against Oleg Deripaska.
|11 April||Druid says Surkov under house arrest|
|11 April||Ponomarev also says Surkov arrested|
|13 April||Last Insider says he is not under arrest, story may come from Surkov himself|
|13 April||Peskov says he knows nothing about a Surkov arrest|
|19 April||Sobchak says he is not arrested|
Why did Sobchak’s post seem to lay the story to rest? Firstly, it’s a named source rather than an anonymous one. Ponomarev was a named source, but he may have been repeating the rumour from the Druid channel. Secondly, Sobchak is an insider of sorts. I wouldn’t trust her on high level policy information, but she does move in the circles where there would be people who are in direct contact with Surkov himself. So she would be a good person to use as a leak channel.
At the same time, Surkov is a more or less public figure who in a normal democracy would have his own press service, and Twitter or Telegram account. Twitter is blocked in Russia, but in any case, Surkov is not there, although there are some fake accounts in his name. Still, it should be easy for Surkov to engineer a public appearance, and he has chosen not to do this.
Just following up on this at the end of May 2022, there has been almost no follow-up on the story and it looks like it has died a death. But at the time it was being cited as fact, and there were multiple articles in the Western press about how the Beseda arrest was a sign of a major cleanup at the FSB. Nothing of the kind seems to have happened, and although nothing has been heard from Surkov, equally, there has been no information about his arrest. This episode is further proof that you have to be very careful when reading Russian sources that claim to have inside information, and even more careful when English language sources cite them.