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.

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It’s not just about terrorism: “The Other Sochi Security Stories”

Bloomberg-SochiTerror threats, exploding toothpaste, siamese toilets and dog-hunting death squads not enough for you? It’s worth noting that the security-oriented implications of the Sochi Games stretch rather further, and range from ecological challenges to the near-certainty that intrusive new electronic security measures will end up being deployed against anti-government activists in Moscow and beyond.

Here’s something I’ve just had published by the International Security Network (ISN) at EthZ:

Global TV news coverage of the buildup to the Winter Olympics in Sochi has been dominated by terrorism, footage of the Volgograd station and trolley-bus suicide bombs, breathless and often alarmist speculation as to the likelihood of attacks, the safety of athletes and spectators. These are legitimate concerns given that the Games are being held only a few hundred kilometers from the North Caucasus, a region still torn by nationalist and jihadist insurgency and terrorism. Then there’s the Islamists’ open determination to disrupt an event into which President Putin has placed so much political capital. No public event can ever be wholly secured and Sochi is no exception. It is certainly possible that there could be some kind of attack, even if just to the outer perimeter of the much-vaunted “ring of steel” around the security zone. Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the Russian operation—25,000 police, up to 20,000 regular military and Interior Ministry troops, drones, divers and the full panoply of modern security—means that the risk is as minimal as is reasonably possible.

On the other hand, watch the news in Russia and the Winter Olympic narrative is a triumphalist tale of plucky athletes and their gilt dreams, sparkling facilities being opened and glitzy Sochi-themed adverts. Of course, the terrorist attacks were covered, but there is a determined resistance to letting them overshadow the event. Indeed, when Western concerns are noted, it is, if anything, with a not-unjustified irritation about the alarmist tone of many of the reports about what they would rather portray as “merry sporting events.”

Both of these narratives, though, ignore a range of other security-related issues raised or demonstrated by the Games.

Read the article here.

Не только о терроризме: “Другые Вопросы безопасности Сочи”

The “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, the rise of Russian jihad, and a mix of crime and terrorism

Not really about Sochi, for a change. I’ve just published a piece in Russia! about the emerging threat of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in parts of the country outside the North Caucasus — and the recruitment of Slavic Russian converts into a new (if still very rare) kind of jihadist terrorism.

Of late I’ve felt I ought to be on retainer from the Sochi Olympic administration, given the effort I’ve been putting into trying to address some of the more lurid and hysterical accounts of the “terrorist threat.” For the record, my view is that Sochi is, thanks to the massive security operation, as safe as such an event going to be, in such a location, facing a near(ish)-by jihadist insurgency. That is not to say that Russia is safe from terrorism, by any means, as the events as Volgograd and Pyatigorsk have shown; indeed, I’d be surprised if the next month didn’t see some kind of incident(s) outside the North Caucasus themselves (where they are, sadly, a regular occurrence). One of the more alarming long-term trends is the apparent rise of jihadism outside the North Caucasus, among both the scattered Caucasus and Central Asian communities of Russia but also—doubly alarming for a security apparatus all-too-often dependent on clumsy racial profiling—amongst ethnic Russian converts.

Read the rest here. (And in case you’re wondering about the crime angle, a group currently on trial, the so-called “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, staged armed robberies to raise funds for the insurgency.)

“Новосибирск Джамаат», рост российского джихада, и сочетание преступностью и терроризмом

Sochi has (almost) nothing to fear but fear itself – on CNN GPS

News potential female terrorists – so-called “black widows” – may be loose inside or around the Sochi Winter Olympics security zone has inevitably stirred up fresh concerns about the Games. Athletes and prospective visitors are wondering if they will be safe. The United States is preparing plans in case its citizens need to be evacuated. The more the conversation about Sochi is about the threat, though, the more the terrorists have won – and a cheap victory at that.

Just a note to the effect that an op.ed of mine on–what else?–the Sochi Winter Games is up on the CNN Global Public Square site, here.

Sochi, “Black Widows” and Double Standards

140120182228-russia-black-widow-grab-story-topApparently the police inside the Sochi security zone are hunting one Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova,  widow of a member of a North Caucasus insurgent. Indeed, according to some accounts she is only one of 4 such female terrorists there. Cue, first of all, the “black widow” meme: apparently, being the widow of an insurgent instantly makes a suicide bomber out of you. Almost every bombing in Russia seems to be attributed to such a “black widow” at first, even if such claims are often dropped. But I’m more exercised by the media flurry that followed the news. I get it: news media want splashy stories, and “Russians hunting suicide bomber in Sochi as countdown to Games tick down” has a pleasingly 24esque vibe and also provides the usual opportunity to question the competence of the Russian security measures and, for some US sources, a chance to talk up the need for some kind of contingency emergency evacuation plan for their athletes. But…

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Volgograd’s second bombing demonstrates terrorists’ strengths and weaknesses

Volgograd railway station, the moment the bomb explodes

Volgograd railway station, the moment the bomb explodes

The terrible spectacle–visible on CCTV footage–of the latest terrorist bombing in Volgograd is another tragedy in a blood-red litany of massacres and miseries associated with the North Caucasus. It is hardly a coincidence that as Sochi nears, so does the tempo of attacks outside the North Caucasus region itself: the Volgograd bus bombing in October, Friday’s car bomb in Pyatigorsk, now this.

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