Igor Rodionov, 1936-2014: soldier, scapegoat, minister, hard-liner and reformer, all at once

RodionovArmy General Igor Nikolaevich Rodionov, the former defence minister who in many ways epitomised what was both the best and the worst of the Soviet officer corps, died today after a lengthy illness. A career soldier, he commanded the 40th Army in Afghanistan 1985-86 and went on to become defence minister 1996-97, then chair of the Popular Patriotic Party of Russia (NPPR)/Rodina, as nationalist a group as the name would suggest, retaining links with the Communist Party (who came out with the first fulsome obituary). His reputation was as a meticulous and no nonsense soldier, of the austere rather than jovial variety, but as a nobody PhD student who wrote to him while he was heading the General Staff Academy in 1988, I found him unexpectedly thoughtful and receptive (I’ll be honest: I wrote on the very off-chance and was amazed to get a reply of any kind).

He was awarded 12 medals, including the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of the Red Star, and the Order For Service to the Homeland in the Armed Forces of the USSR, but his public reputation was dominated by the fact that while he was commander of the Transcaucasus Military District, his troops were deployed brutally and lethally to suppress protesters in Tbilisi in April 1989. Nonetheless, the orders came from Moscow, and the 19 deaths reflected not his orders but the troubles that can happen when paratroopers without public order training find themselves facing mobs–just ask the British paras behind the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry…

Yes, of course Rodionov was a solid supporter of Soviet power, with all the authoritarian instincts one would expect. However, he was by no means an unthinking or unreasonable one. In some ways, he was the military’s equivalent of KGB chief repressor-but-also-patron-of-reform Yuri Andropov and, like Andropov, may have been one of those interesting “what if?” characters. His command of the 40th Army coincided with the start of de-escalation as a prelude to the withdrawal. Although his successor Boris Gromov would be associated with the withdrawal, Rodionov began the process and also clearly came to appreciate the challenges of trying to use force in such circumstances. After April 1989, the “butcher of Tbilisi” needed to be found a quiet berth away from the public eye and he was appointed to head the General Staff Academy, where the syllabus and his writings demonstrated not just considerable intellectual rigour but also an awareness of the need for fundamental reform.

He brought this awareness to the defence ministry when Yeltsin appointed him in 1996 to replace underperforming and overpromoted “Pasha Mercedes” Grachev. Presumably he was appointed precisely as a sober professional (unlike Grachev) who was willing to stand up for rational military reform (unlike Grachev) and avoid being a mere yes-man (unlike Grachev). However, Yeltsin never showed much lasting enthusiasm for such people. Rodionov’s repeated public statements that reform was impossible without adequate resources sealed his fate, and he was soon dismissed.

His subsequent engagement with nationalist politics was predictable, if a little depressing. However, it is worth noting that Rodionov in many ways had the last laugh. The Russian military did, finally, start a proper reform process, and with the resources it needs. Furthermore, its new way of war owe much to Rodionov’s own writings, including his growing interest in informational warfare, as well as his prescient understanding, from back in 1995, that “The world exists and is developing today not in accordance with the ‘new political thinking’ or the ‘priority of universal human values,’ but amid global rivalry and a struggle for strategic survival in the 21st century.” He was a hawk, but a hawk willing to look at the world as it really is, and also a hawk who was neither personally corrupt nor willing to abandon his principles for political favour, both relatively unusual characteristics in the late Soviet and post-Soviet high command.

Politicians found Rodionov worrying. Soldiers I spoke to almost invariably used the word “professional” and held him in high esteem. I suspect he would have found that juxtaposition a pleasing epitaph.

Putin, the Rouble Crisis and Ukraine: will he be tempted to up the ante?

Zenrus, 13:06, 16 December 2014

Zenrus, 13:06, 16 December 2014

A worrying thought. The Western sanctions are clearly not the deciding factor in the rouble crash, that accolade goes to the oil price slump, but they are undoubtedly a factor. So Moscow would want them lifted, but the political cost of simply backing away from their ill-starred and ill-considered Donbas adventure is likely to be considered too great. So, I cannot wonder if the temptation will be to escalate the conflict, possibly throwing in a brigade or two of troops. Why? Short-term, this means things get worse, but I suspect the West would think twice about serious extra sanctions, fearful of the risk of collapse and chaos in a fragile Russia. But, the calculation would go, it might be enough to force Kyiv to make a deal, which would allow Putin to claim success and withdraw from the region (keeping Crimea, of course), claiming peace with honour. This in turn could be leveraged to get the sanctions regime lifted or at least eased, hopefully providing a degree of macroeconomic relief. After all, the alternative would seem to be a frozen conflict and indefinite sanctions. So, will the Kremlin think short-term escalation may bring medium-term relief, as a better option to long-term sanctions? We’ll see if units around Ukraine start to be brought back to full operational readiness. Or if Strelkov comes back in from the cold!

‘Russia’s Wars in Chechnya, 1994-2009′ out today!

A quick moment for self-publicity: my new book Russia’s Wars in Chechnya, 1994-2009  is out today, published by Osprey in their Essential Histories series and available as both a paperback and Kindle e-book. A slim, yet I hope comprehensive overview, it covers not just the causes and conduct of both Chechen wars, but also the wider implications for Russia and also a sense of the impacts on those involved, from Chechen civilians to Russian combatants. Here is the blurb:

Osprey Chechnya CoverFeaturing specially drawn full-color mapping and drawing upon a wide range of sources, this succinct account explains the origins, history and consequences of Russia’s wars in Chechnya, thereby shedding new light on the history – and prospects – of that troubled region.

Mark Galeotti, an expert on the conflict, traces the progress of the wars, from the initial Russian advance through to urban battles such as Grozny, and the prolonged guerrilla warfare based in the mountainous regions that is common to both wars. He assesses how the wars have torn apart the fabric of Chechen society and their impact on Russia itself, where they have influenced presidential elections and widened the gulf between the military and the rest of society. These were savage conflicts which combined at different times the characteristics of an imperial war, a civil war and a terrorist campaign. The rich tradition of banditry in Chechnya, exemplified by the disproportionately large numbers of Chechens in the Spetsnaz special forces, gave the conflict its particular character, as did the steady shift from the initial nationalism to being inspired by a wider Islamic jihad.

My next Osprey book, by the way, due out in mid-2015, is Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces for their Elite series.

Kolokoltsev’s Populist Lurch

Apparently these guys will save Russia from nasty "American-style democracy". Bless 'em

Apparently these guys will save Russia from nasty “American-style democracy”. Bless ‘em

It’s sad to see a professional making like a populist, but presumably in a bid to fight back against the whispering campaign against him, and the efforts by hardliners to see First Deputy Interior Minister Zolotov fast-tracked into his position, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev has leapt on board the xenophobia bandwagon. Interviewed in RBK, he talked up the MVD’s successes in 2014, which was only to be expected, and then talked up the Interior Troops as a bulwark against efforts to implant evil foreign democracy, which was not. In his words,

“We see the tragic consequences that bedevil the country in which the experiment is conducted to graft on ‘American-style democracy’.. We see the collapse of their economies, a terrible social situation, the actual destruction of the state.”

Do I hear “Ukraine”? Of course no mention of the extent to which those terrible outcomes reflect not democratisation (and if “American-style democracy” is so bad, what about British- or German-) but the consequent active and armed destabilisation of said state by a malign and aggrieved next-door neighbour. In any case, as far as Kolokoltsev is concerned, “this will never, in any scenario, happen in the Russian Federation.” Why is that? Well, his main answer seems to be not because the Russian people wouldn’t stand for it, but because the Interior Troops are ready for rapid deployment to deal with any situation. Lovely: no democratisation here, because we have men with guns and sticks to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I honestly have no idea whether or not Kolokoltsev has always held these beliefs. He has essentially stayed away from wider political discussions, in keeping with his reputation as a serious and committed career policeman. I have never assumed he was some kind of closet liberal (let’s face it: very few senior cops anywhere are), but he has shown that he understands the need to reconstitute the social contract between police and the policed and has done nothing to prioritise political policing over law enforcement (that tends to fall to the FSB and Investigations Committee). These latest pronouncements are thus unusual and can only be understood as attempts to shore up his political flank and pitch himself as being a tough political enforcer. We’ll see not only if it works but whether it becomes more than just rhetoric, in which case the police reform programme is likely to become increasingly threadbare.

Capsule Review: Brothers Armed: military aspects of the crisis in Ukraine

BrothersArmed_fullColby Howard & Ruslan Pukhov (eds), Brothers Armed: military aspects of the crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, Minneapolis: 2014; viii+228pp; index, map, timeline; $89.95)

Is it too soon to write anything meaningful of book length about the annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine? I would have said so, until I read this excellent collection of studies from CAST, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Its nine chapters range from an historical context of the conflict through autopsies of the decay of the Ukrainian armed forces—and let’s face it, if Kyiv or the local commanders had opted to put up a fight in Crimea, they’d have lost, but they might have forestalled the subsequent eastern Ukrainian adventure—to detailed assessments of the Russian military. There’s even a useful colour map of respective forces in Crimea.

As such, this offers not just an essential basic reference on the conflict, it also places it in the wider picture of Russia’s changing force structures and very way of war. Much of the Russian military may still be, speaking charitably, only partially reformed, but there is a core of effective, modern and flexible intervention forces that give the Kremlin new options that can offer no great comfort to its neighbors or to a NATO that is having desperately to consider how an alliance built for a “big war” can respond in an age of blended political-economic-information-military hybrid or non-linear operations.

CAST is an outstanding research outfit, and one of the few in Russia that is looking at security issues with genuine independence and acuity. This book is just more evidence of that. Very highly recommended.

Is Kolokoltsev in or out? Either way, the rumours surrounding the Russian interior minister’s fate signify something

Is there a Sword of Damocles hanging over Kolokoltsev?

Is there a Sword of Damocles hanging over Kolokoltsev?

As I write this, rumours abound that Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev has resigned, is going to resign or is going to “be resigned.” I have no idea which, if any, are true, although it is striking that not only did the rumours, first aired on Dozhd (the last independent TV station, clinging on by its fingertips) get their real boost when Presidential press-spokesman and all-round Mouth of Sauron Dmitry Peskov publicly acknowledged them when he said that he did not know about them. Besides which, Peskov failed to follow up with any tribute to Kolokoltsev, any statement that of course he had the president’s unstinting support. When added to the possibly-but-hardly-probably coincidental claim that Kolokoltsev plagiarised his graduate thesis (hardly unusual in Russia–much the same has been said about Putin–but still another wound), the implication is that either the Kremlin is preparing the ground for his removal or else that he has powerful enemies trying to claw him down. It is also striking that his rumoured replacement is a close Putin client and a man associated with security rather than law enforcement.

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