The arrest of Timur Ivanov is a signal for Sergey Shoigu

A senior Russian Defense Ministry official has been arrested in connection with the country's most serious corruption scandal since the invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. Timur Ivanov is suspected of receiving a bribe of 1 million rubles (about $10,800), according to Russian state media TASS. Ivanov appeared in court in Moscow on Wednesday, wearing military uniform and locked in a glass cage. He is accused of accepting a bribe in connection with a work contract for the Ministry of Defense. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison. The court decided to keep Ivanov in pre-trial detention until at least June 23. His lawyer announced his intention to appeal and requested house arrest for Ivanov.

Following the arrest, Ivanov was removed from his position in the Defense Ministry, state media TASS reported citing a ministerial source. Ivanov, in office since 2016, is considered a key ally of Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and one of the main architects of Russia's war in Ukraine. Despite this, the Ministry of Defense website still lists him as a minister in office without giving notice of his dismissal. The arrest of a longtime ally of Shoigu could embarrass the defense minister, who has often been criticized for his handling of the invasion of Ukraine.

Russian investigative journalist Andrey Soldatov suggested that the arrest could be part of an FSB tactic to discourage corruption among high-ranking officials. Ivanov was responsible for rebuilding Mariupol, a city in southern Ukraine devastated by Russian forces. His luxurious lifestyle and wealth have been the subject of investigations and criticism, especially by Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Despite sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Ivanov's ex-wife, Svetlana Maniovich, continued to live luxuriously in Europe, with sailing trips, skiing in the Alps and a residence in Paris. An investigation by Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation revealed 8,000 of the woman's emails sent over a period of more than twelve years. Among the documents are evidence of €850,000 in villa rentals in St Tropez, €250,000 in yacht rentals, €200,000 to buy and repair a Rolls-Royce, €104,000 for jewelery at a jeweler in Paris, €153,000 for a Dolce & Gabbana fashion show, 70,000 euros for a performance by Thomas Anders at their wedding and 178,000 euros for Ivanov's birthday party in Istanbul.

The incredible wealth and lavish lifestyle of Ivanov and his wife were well known to the public. Already in 2019, Forbes Russia magazine had listed him among the richest members of the national security apparatus. His conduct had not gone unnoticed, with numerous journalistic investigations exploring his alleged illicit activities. In 2019, investigative journalism site Proekt outlined a network of hidden real estate properties associated with him. Subsequently, with the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, Alexei Navalny's FBK reported the luxurious lifestyle of Ivanov and his ex-wife, Svetlana Zakharova, also known as Maniovich. The revelations included yachts, helicopters, Aston Martin luxury cars, exclusive birthday parties in St. Tropez, precious diamonds and a historic villa in Moscow, the same residence described as the home of the “Master” in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel.

The FBK claimed that their divorce was a strategic move to evade sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States in 2022. However, despite evidence and journalistic investigations, the Russian authorities had never taken concrete actions in response to the accusations of corruption and illicit enrichment. The 48-year-old Ivanov was considered practically an untouchable who always worked in sectors where money flows freely. After earning a degree in mathematics and cybernetics and working in the nuclear industry, he joined Sergey Shoigu's team in 2012, when the latter was governor of the Moscow region. Ivanov had continued to follow Shoigu even when the latter was appointed defense minister at the end of the year. First as head of the military construction company Oboronstroy and subsequently, since 2016, as one of 12 deputy ministers with responsibility for construction, Ivanov was involved in significant projects such as Patriot Park, the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, the Vostochny Cosmodrome , the lines of contact with Ukraine and the reconstruction of Mariupol. It is difficult to find an official who did more for Shoigu than Ivanov,” who worked directly with Ivanov, a former defense official told The Guardian, requesting anonymity so they could speak freely.

Ivanov's arrest represents the first major blow to the top government in two years of conflict with Ukraine and is the first time a deputy defense minister has been arrested since 1937. Although the arrest does not appear to have a direct impact on the Special military operation in Ukraine has fueled speculation about potential power struggle and internal conflicts within the Russian elite, ahead of Putin's new presidential term. But why did the handcuffs go off now? Ivanov's arrest has sparked various interpretations and speculations on the Russian political landscape. Some sources suggest that it could represent a sign of the rise of the FSB security services to the detriment of Shoigu, who until now has always resisted pressure from more radical groups and the mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner mercenary group. According to Forbes Russia, the arrest could be a prelude to the possible removal of Shoigu during the next government reshuffle expected after Putin takes office for a fifth term on May 7. However, sources in the Moscow Times suggest that although the extremely wealthy Shoigu's position has weakened, he is unlikely to be removed from office. As often happens, Vladimir Putin remains at the center of the political scene, managing to balance the various internal factions as a master in the art of “divide and conquer”. Ivanov's arrest could be presented as a victory in the fight against corruption and a sign of renewal and cleansing within the system. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, rejected rumors regarding further accusations of “high treason” and invited “not to speculate and wait for official communications”.