Maybe not the smoking gun: that video of a Russian lt. colonel in Ukraine

The Russian (probably) lt. colonel (maybe)

The Russian (probably) lt. colonel (maybe)

Feelings are running high about Russia’s campaign of pressure and destabilisation in Ukraine and perhaps not surprisingly foreign journalists and pundits sympathetic to Kyiv are eager to pounce on anything which appears to offer proof about the much-discussed but surprisingly elusive direct Russian role. As a result, sometimes pictorial or video evidence is being taken at face value when it needed a little more cautious scrutiny: witness the video purportedly of Russian soldiers in Ukraine being blocked by plucky Ukrainians, which turned out to be Ukrainian troops being harangued by ethnic Russian militants. (The uniforms were a give-away then.) The latest “smoking gun” is a video in which a man in Russian camouflage introduces himself to the defecting Horlivka police as a lt. colonel in the Russian army and introduces them to their new chief. So far, so straightforwardly damning. However, while this may appear to the holy grail of proof, I’m afraid that I think it ought to be taken with some caution.

The soldier does indeed wear appropriate Russian camo, but–and I know here I sound like I am channelling Putin’s disingenuous comments when challenged about the “little green men” in the Crimea–that’s no great feat. I could pop to my local voentorg store and pick up the same. He has none of the other accoutrements of soldierly kit than one might expect, but this is not in itself vastly significant as it is not a combat situation. On the other hand, his cap is definitely not military issue; why is such a senior officer not at least wearing his issue camouflage baseball cap instead of something looking pretty civilian to me?

He presents has passport as “proof” of his status, even though it does nothing of the sort. All his passport can say is that he is a Russian: it would be like my presenting my passport to prove that I was a professor. Why is he not showing his military ID? Indeed, given the Russian emphasis on at leasts the appearance of punctiliousness, why not some rubber-stamped document from the Horlivka “mayor” confirming his authority?

This is potential political dynamite, and a relatively senior Russian officer trusted enough to be deployed in Ukraine as a kind of proconsul would presumably have some political savvy. So why is he allowing himself to be videoed doing this, as the filming doesn’t look as if it was covert?

I do not doubt that there are Russian government agents and covert operators in the field in eastern Ukraine, but I am unconvinced this guy is one of them. If I had to guess, I’d say that if he really is a lt. colonel, it’s in the reserve and he is just one of the growing number of Russian “war tourists” that Moscow is happy to encourage, without specifically directing, who’s just throwing his weight around in a complex and confusing situation. This is, after all, the nature of the current messy, semi-unguided ‘Great Game II’--Moscow can to a degree simply rely on chaos and autonomous actors, reserving direct action for crucial moments, while individuals can seize the moment and find themselves in unexpectedly important positions. (‘The Man Who Would Be King‘, anyone?)

My first comment piece for Business New Europe: on Putin’s guerrilla geopolitics

In what will be the first I hope of a regular series of comments for Business New Europe, today I explore to greater depth the way that Putin’s political techniques in Ukraine in many ways are a counterpart to the military tactics of the successful guerrilla. Here are the first and last paragraphs as a taster:

Successful guerrillas master the art of asymmetric warfare, making sure that the other side has to play the game by their rules and doesn’t get the opportunity to take advantage of its probably superiority in raw firepower. Appreciating the massive military, political and economic preponderance of the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin is demonstrating that he is a master of asymmetric politics.

In this new Great Game, spies and political operators will be every bit as crucial as tanks and helicopters. More to the point, it demands flexibility, ruthlessness and clarity of aim. This is, let’s be honest, the ideal kind of contest for Vladimir Putin and his Russia.

(I’ve also explored this theme from different angles elsewhere, including a blog post here on “Great Game II” to a consideration of the tools and techniques used not just by Russia but in what is, I think, a wider global trend, in Russia! magazine: “The New Great Gamers“.

 

Are Russian troops in eastern Ukraine? (Some, probably, but I don’t think that’s really the point)

ukraine-pro-russia-activists-seize-kramatorks-interior-ministry-buildingAs western Ukrainian security forces reportedly seek to dislodge ethnic Russian paramilitaries from government buildings in Slaviansk (although that’s now being questioned) and anti-Kyiv forces muster in other eastern Ukrainian cities, allegations are flying thick and fast about the presence of Russian troops in these disturbances. (I should mention that The Interpreter‘s liveblog is an invaluable service in keeping track of all the claims, counterclaims and reports on the ground.)

The facts on the ground are confused, the claims are often overblown, but there does seem to be some basis for believing that limited numbers of Russian agents and special forces are present. However important that undoubtedly may seem, I think focusing on actual bodies on the ground misses the main point: Russia’s real role in this new Great Game is not so much direct but to incite, support and protect the local elites and paramilitaries who are driving the campaign against Kiev.

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A short review of ‘Soviets’ by Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev

Soviets coverDanzig Baldaev’s drawings—dark-lined, stippled, blunt, often disturbing—have become most familiar through his renderings of Russian criminal tattoos and later horrific scenes of life and death in the Gulags. A life working in the Soviet prison system would, one might think, squeeze the capacity for humour out of a man. Nonetheless, this posthumous collection of his cartoons and pictures secretly drawn from the 1950s to the late 1980s, show a sense of humour that is sometimes sly, often crude, but which nonetheless captures the surrealism, inanity, contradictions and cruelties of Soviet times in a powerful and passionate way that never fails to move and sometimes disconcert.

This is a realm of cynical and self-serving bureaucrats, of bullies and informants, of victims of the system seeking refuge in the bottle, collaboration or denial. But it is interesting that Baldaev also seems to have some, perhaps vestigial, respect for Lenin and the ideals of the original Bolshevik Revolution, just as his drawing demonstrate a—possibly short-lived—hope in Gorbachev’s reforms, or at least an appreciation of the anger and dismay with which they were greeted by the bloated and corrupt officials.

The art is rarely subtle, with pigs’ snouts, devils’ horns and beasts’ fangs abounding. Indeed, the physical caricaturing is very reminiscent of the crude ways that official Soviet propaganda cartoons so often portrayed Western imperialists, Zionist conspirators and the like, physical grotesqueries indicating moral and political degeneration. But not only was Baldaev a man of his times and environment, his use of such techniques also subverts and appropriates the propaganda he so obviously abhors, something especially evident in the section devoted to his scathing portrayals of the Soviet imperial adventure in Afghanistan.

Supplemented by useful explanatory notes from the editors and contemporary pictures from photographer Sergei Vasiliev, taken for the newspaper Vecherny Chelyabinsk and thus very much in the official Soviet idiom (not least the parade when the local factory produced its millionth tractor!) this book is a fascinating, unusual and—I keep coming back to this word—disturbing alternative take on the later years of the doomed Soviet experiment. As well as an important document in its own right, I think it will have great value as a tool for educators. The cliché of a picture being worth a thousand words really does apply here. Strongly recommended.

Soviets. Danzig Baldaev & Sergei Vasiliev. London: FUEL, 2014

Not a new Cold War: Great Game II

This is just a short introductory excerpt from a longer piece published on the EthZ International Relations and Security Network (ISN) here.

GreatGameSuddenly the talk is of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, as Crimea is quietly written off as “lost” for the foreseeable future and the diplomatic focus moves to preventing a further—and potentially devastating—move into eastern Ukraine. While an understandable metaphor, though, this is a dangerous one. The Cold War, for all its brinkmanship and proxy conflicts, was a relatively stable and even rules-bound process. Instead, in this new “hot peace,” perhaps a better, if less comfortable analogy would be the Great Game, that (since mythologized) nineteenth-century era of imperial rivalry over Central Asia between Britain and Russia,, the freewheeling nineteenth-century struggle for authority in Central Asia.

One of the particular characteristics of the original Great Game was that there was little real distinction between the instruments of conventional conflict and competition such as wars, diplomatic missions and treaties and those of the informal realm, from subsidized bandit chieftains to third-party intelligence freelancers. Although even during the Cold War there was a place for the mercenary, gangster and assassin this was, it has to be said, very much at the periphery. Even proxy wars fought by irregulars, such as the mujahideen resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Viet Cong in Vietnam, were more-or-less formally acknowledged by their patrons. Now, though, Great Game II is one in which open state actions, deniable missions by state agents and the activities of mercenary agents (from computer hackers to local warlords) blend much more seamlessly. Furthermore, the nature of those operations ranges from military missions and shows of force, through espionage and sabotage, to subversion and misdirection by paid mouthpieces and front companies.

On Russia, Ukraine, sanctions and war

Just a quick heads-up. There is now a report on my talk in parliament in London on ‘The Military Dimension of Russia’s Policy toward Ukraine: Should the West Be Worried?‘ under the auspices of the Henry Jackson Society here and also a full transcript of my opening remarks. Although the US government and NATO commander seems still to be suggesting Russian military action is imminent, my view is that the danger of that is receding; I hope I will be proved right. The next day, I spoke at the European Council on Foreign Relations about the political impact on Russia of sanctions, and you can hear a podcast of my comments here. I still suspect that future historians may conclude that when Putin took Crimea he lost not only Ukraine but, ultimately, the Kremlin.

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