Of Strelkov and Stolypin

StrelkovBanner

Banner celebrating Strelkov and the ‘Strelkovtsy’. Can a movie deal be far behind?

Strelkov, the military commander of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, imperial adventurer and historian-with-a-gun, and Stolypin, the reforming reactionary prime minister who, I would suggest, represented tsarist Russia’s last chance for survival: two imperial(ist) figures of the moment, both of whom see the revival of something past or passing in reshaping the future, by violent means if need be. (There’s a reason why the ‘Stolypin necktie’ became a slang term for the hangman’s noose.) I mention them not just because Russian imperialism seems very much in vogue, but because of purely self-interested promotion.

I have a piece over at Russia! magazine that throws out some thoughts about Strelkov and what role he plays: ‘“War nerd,” “military romantic,” “god of war,” “monster and killer”: no one seems entirely sure to make of Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, the “defense minister” of the equally-unrecognized “Donetsk People’s Republic.” And so they project what they expect to see.’

Petr Stolypin

Petr Stolypin

And my fledgling new column for Business New Europe now has a title. The Economist has Charlemagne; BNE now has Stolypin! I hope to bring the same brand of ruthlessly clear-eyed pragmatism to bear as Stolypin, as I explore Russia’s domestic and foreign affairs each month. Even if I  cannot hope to match his impressive facial hair. My most recent column, on Ukraine of course, is here.

 

Those Mysterious Tanks in Ukraine

UkraineRussianTanksThe appearance of three mystery tanks in east Ukraine may be a serious escalation of the conflict (as Russia throws extra military hardware into the fray) or another one of those desperate attempts to prove a Russian presence. I honestly don’t know, but until we have more solid data, I hope people will be cautious about accepting the “they must be Russian tanks” line uncritically. I hope, but don;’t expect: even if some caution ends up buried in the text, the headlines are already taking it at face value that Russian tanks have rolled into Ukraine. But:

1. We’ve been here before. Remember the “Russian lieutenant colonel“? There have been many hurried assertions of direct Russian roles that ended up having to be retracted. Just for the record: of course there is a serious Russian role, both direct and indirect, but with the possible exception of the initial insertion of Vostok (which has since started “Ukrainianification”), it tends to be in the form of facilitating, arming, supporting, not directly intervening.

2. The evidence presented so far has been pretty thin. For example, NATO has released imagery with a strong implication that it points towards Russian involvement (as it contributes to the “effort to ensure Russia remains publicly accountable for its actions”), but the suggestions are based on:

i. That there were some Russian tanks near the border beforehand. OK, fair enough and I wouldn’t discount this, but apparently all the wizardry of NATO image interpretation still can’t say if they are the same T-64 tanks we’ve seen inside Ukraine. After all, given that the T-64 has actually been phased out of Russian service, that would be a big deal if they fielded some. If NATO can show that they were T-64s, then that to me really would be as close to real proof as we can get from such imagery.

ii. The tanks we’ve seen do not have Ukrainian markings. Sure, had they just defected or been stolen they’s presumably have markings, but that presumably was not the case. To add, as NATO does, that “this is consistent with Russian vehicles and equipment that were deployed to Crimea” is rather circumstantial.

iii. There are no Ukrainian armoured units in the east. The State Department spokesperson said “no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area.” OK, but not only do Ukrainian mechanised units also include tanks, there certainly are reserve stocks and depots for tanks awaiting modernisation or scrap. (The Malyshev Tank Works, for example, which produced T-64s, and now offers conversions, is in Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine.)

3. Why just three? If Moscow is wiling to up the ante–which it might well–then why in such a minimalist fashion, enough to alarm the West and give Poroshenko more leverage, but not enough to have a significant impact on the conflict? It is not that they lack stored weapons? Why not thirty? Or, better yet, why not artillery? Had the Ukrainian forces been on the ball, after all, they could have caught those tanks on the road with their Mi-24 helicopter gunships or, better yet, Su-25 ground attack aircraft and destroyed them in one raid: tanks can be phenomenally powerful used in the right way, but they are also strikingly fragile in other ways.

I am, I must stress, not stating definitively that these are not tanks the Russians dragged out of their reserve stocks and sent into Ukraine. All I am doing is issuing a plaintive and no doubt fruitless appeal that in these days of hyperspeed 24/7 news cycles, we should not assume that a press release from the White House (or the Kremlin) represents definitive proof…

PS: Testing the Waters? In the comments below, Malcolm Davis makes a valid point that the Russians could just be seeing what (if any) Western response the first intrusion draws. Maybe. But my sense is that Putin/the Russians actually tend to work the other way, to act fast and decisively (when they are going to act) in order to define the truths on the ground and then sit back and present the outside world with a fait accompli. Indeed, this predates Putin: think of the 1999 “Pristina Dash.” Dribbling in a few tanks here and maybe a few more there actually allows the West (and Kyiv) to be able to construct some kind of meaningful response. And as I say above, three tanks accompanied by a single truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun (with no radar guidance or the like) and a truck or two of troops actually could have been very vulnerable. I think the Russians think like Heinz Guderian, whose rule of thumb was Nicht Kleckern sondern Klotzen! (Boot’ em, don’t spatter’ em!)…

Breaking up the Khinkalnaya sitdown: Georgians being warned off trying for a slice of the Crimean pie?

Rys' SOBR of the kind deployed to break up the skhodka

Rys’ SOBR of the kind deployed to break up the skhodka

On 24 May, Moscow police including Rys’ SOBR commandos broke up a skhodka–sit down–of mainly Georgian gangsters reportedly at the Khinkalnaya restaurant on Savvinskaya embankment, briefly detaining 38 of them. (The perennially well-connected Life News has the list of detainees here.) In part they were there apparently in another bid to resolve the long-running and periodically-violent feud between the Tbilisi clan of “Dead Ded” Khasan (Aslan Usoyan) and Tariel Oniani’s Kutaisi clan. However, they were also going to talk about expanding their activities in Crimea and how to apportion the profits. These may well be significant, not only in diverting some of the massive investment being channelled there to make it a showcase “why it’s great to be in Russia” region, but also if Sevastopol comes to rival Odessa as a smuggling hub. I suspect that this latter agenda item is why the meeting had to be raided. After all, the ethnic Russian networks are also moving into Crimea, looking to strike deals with local gangs, and they are a much more known and trusted factor for the government. It’s futile to try and keep the Georgians out of Crimea, but I imagine that a pernicious alliance of ethnic Russian mobsters and the government will try to minimise their role there.

Is Putin Trying To Regain Control In Eastern Ukraine?

Vostok Battalion 2.0

Vostok Battalion 2.0

It seems contradictory: on the one hand Moscow is moderating its rhetoric on Ukraine and calling for talks with newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko, on the other we have reports that a large contingent of heavily-armed Chechens, the ‘Vostok Battalion,’ is now in eastern Ukraine, something that could not have happened without Russian acquiescence–and which probably was arranged by them. However, I think that they actually fit together to suggest that the Kremlin is looking to position itself for potential talks with the new presidency in Kyiv, something that requires reversing not just the rhetorical trend towards hyperbole but also the slide towards warlordism on the ground. After all, for Moscow meaningfully to make a deal, it must be able to offer more than just a willingness not to destabilise the east any more, it must be able to deliver at least a partial peace on the ground.

(more…)

A Roundup of Ukraine-related Writings

A new chill in the Moscow air?

A new chill in the Moscow air?

Just a quick round-up of some recent, largely Ukraine-centred writings. What can one read into the latest Victory Day celebrations? In Deconstructing Victory Day for Russia! magazine, I suggest the answer is a country increasingly able to fight modern hybrid wars, but with a people disinclined to do so, despite the increasingly ideological tone of Putin’s Empire of the Mind, explored in Foreign Policy. This helps explain why Moscow’s War in Ukraine Relies on Local Assets, as I wrote in the Moscow Times, even if this means, as I discuss in Foreign Policy, that Ukraine’s Mob War even means that organised crime has become part of Russia’s resources, just a particularly extreme example of The New Great Gamers: covert, clueless and civilian soldiers of the new battlespace. Of course, this all contributes to the toxic mess that will be left when the conflict is over, such that one can almost Pity the Winner in Eastern UkraineNonetheless, this poses a serious challenge to the security institutions of the West, as I explore in NATO and the new war: dealing with asymmetric threats before they become kinetic, and even its security and intelligence community, in that if we are to understand How MI5 and CIA Can Fight the Russian Threat, this will have to start with understanding the nature of that threat. After all, one of the key lessons of Putin, Ukraine and asymmetric politics, as I discuss in Business New Europe, is that this is Not a New Cold War: Great Game II, closer to 19thC geopolitics but fought with 21stC means and memes.

BTRs, Banners and Blizzards: the practice for the 2014 Victory Day parade in Moscow

A random selection of inexpert pictures from this morning’s practice for Friday’s Victory Day parade, before the unseasonal snow all but obscured the hardware.

All photos (c) Mark Galeotti 2014

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