Modern Counter-Terrorism in Sochi: more like counter-espionage


Gen. Syromolotov. I am charmed that his surname means “Cheese Hammers.”

Much has been made of the fact that Sochi Olympic security was put under the overall operational command of Oleg Vladimirovich Syromolotov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and head of its Counter-Espionage Service (SKR), rather than a counter-terrorism specialist. Somehow, this has been taken to be a mistake or else a sign of some kind of retrograde thinking, that Moscow really thinks the threat to Sochi comes from foreign espionage agencies or even that it wants primarily to use the Games for its own nefarious purposes. Let me disagree.


Moscow continues its Amerikanskaya chistka: Tom Firestone expelled

In 2010 they award him; in 2013 they expel him

In 2010 they award him; in 2013 they expel him

There seems to be an Americanskaya chistka, an American purge in Moscow. After January’s quiet expulsion of an alleged CIA agent, Benjamin Dillon, and this week’s rather less quiet PNGing of Ryan Fogle, comes news (broken in the NY Times) that Thomas Firestone, a former legal counsellor at the US Embassy who had moved into private practice in Moscow, was barred from returning to the city and sent back to the USA. Tom is, for my money, one of the sharpest–in every sense–critics of corruption in Russian business and the dark arts of reiderstvo, ‘raiding’ in particular. (The practice of stealing assets through falsified legal claims.) He spent two tours at the US Embassy as resident legal adviser, then joined the Moscow office of Baker & McKenzie as senior counsel. Not only was he given a certificate of merit in 2010 by Federal Anti-Monopoly Service chief Igor Artemyev “for his outstanding work in advancing U.S.-Russian cooperation in combating cartels and unfair competition,” he also wrote some of the seminal scholarly studies of reiderstvo, notably ‘Criminal Corporate Raiding in Russia‘ (2008).

Apparently, he was returning to Moscow on 5 May and was detained, held  for 16 hours and then put on a flight to the USA. The news only seems to have broken today (Sunday 19 May). The story–so far–is that this follows efforts by the Federal Security Service to recruit him as an agent. Tom clearly enjoyed Moscow, with all its crass energy and sharp edges, but I confess I am astonished if the FSB really thought he was likely to be open to recruitment. Honestly I’d see it as much more likely that, as a perennial thorn in the side of corrupt officials and ‘raiders’ alike, certain interests finally decided they wanted him out of their city and out of their hair. No doubt we’ll get a better sense of the picture over time.

Meanwhile, though, although this predates the Fogle case, when put together it does begin to paint a worrying picture of increasing xenophobia in Moscow. Even if there is no connection between the Firestone case and those of Dillon and Fogle, a willingness to exclude a specialist in Russian and international law and an avowed enemy of the very “legal nihilism” the government is meant to be opposing offers no encouragement. Instead, it almost begins to look as if the Kremlin’s is beginning to believe its current propaganda campaign about its encirclement by foreign foes.

A compendium of spookery: Fogle and further phantasms

President George W Bush visits CIA Headquarters, March 20, 2001.All the spookish shenanigans in Moscow this week have coincided with the end of the academic year, grading, packing to head to Prague for the summer and general chaos, hence the lack of blog posts. However, I have been writing or interviewed in a few places, so in lieu of anything substantial here, I offer a list and links (updated as and when) to these other pontifications of mine on the FSB, the CIA, Russian intrigues and more:

  • Patriot Games in Moscow News, on what the case says about Russia and the West

(And coincidentally, I’d also mention this unconnected piece on Russian organized crime at home and abroad in BNE)

Why I don’t see any Russian plot behind the Boston bombings

I’ve been struck in the past 48 hours how many journalists’ queries I’ve fielded that seemed to take seriously the idea that the Russian state (or local agents in the North Caucasus) could somehow be responsible for the terrible Boston bombing. (I’m talking 6 serious journalists: not the kind of lunatics who, for example, claimed the real bombers were Navy SEALs.) The idea would seem to be that by encouraging, facilitating or downright arranging the attack, they demonize the Chechens, legitimize their brutal security campaign in the North Caucasus, and create a new, more favorable environment for dealing with the USA, in one fell swoop. A cute idea, worthy fodder for some lurid airport thriller, but in my opinion very, very hard to believe.

I can understand why the Tsarnaevs’ family and friends might want to believe that Tamerlan and Dzhokar were framed or set up. It’s the same impulse that leads to the disbelieving and perplexed statements that “he was a lovely man” or “he kept himself to himself” every time some serial killer or child abuser is arrested. Evil thoughts and plans, alas, do not always or even usually manifest themselves through sinister manner and demented cackles.

However, if we look at these particular suggestions (some of which also come from Russians), they seem to rest of a few basic assertions:

  • The FSB had suspicions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, so the fact that they let him into the country shows that they had some ulterior motive.
  • Putin was willing to blow up Russian apartment buildings in 1999 for political purpose, so he’d have no more compunction seeing terror in Boston.
  • The Russians want to make the world stop hassling them about their tactics in the North Caucasus: this gives them a perfect way of demonstrating that they are simply fighting evil jihadists.
  • In the most ridiculously extreme cases, it’s asserted that the Kremlin just hates the USA anyway, and likes seeing mayhem there.

Of course Moscow will seek to make political capital out of this event; that’s what countries do (I remember when offers of assistance to the USSR after Chernobyl were also accompanied by patronizing suggestions about how this wouldn’t have happened if the Soviets were less Soviet and more Western). That certainly doesn’t mean that “hardliners in Russia might want another Cold War with America, and they may even secretly rejoice at the idea of mayhem in the West.” The pragmatic art of diplomacy is often about making the best from whatever fate presents.

The Kremlin has not shown itself averse to the use of violence in domestic and international politics (I’m inclined to accept the 1999 apartment bombings were state terrorism), but this is a world apart from actually trying to instigate an attack on US soil. The risks so outweigh the potential advantages that I don’t think it would even have been seriously considered. There is one basic rule of covert operations: at some point, they become covert no longer. If Tamerlan had been an active, aware agent, what would have happened if he had been captured? Even assuming that he was instead a dupe, groomed for the purpose by Russian undercover agents posing as jihadists, what happens when the US authorities–who, we can safely assume, are turning the full weight of their massive intelligence capacity onto this case–get a sniff of this? Any political advantages are likely to be transient (think how quickly the post 9/11 amity evaporated); any political risks astronomical.

Besides which, the FSB flags up potential individuals of concern all the time. They don’t necessarily bar them from the country. One could just as easily (and foolishly) suggest that the FBI’s failure to pick up on the brothers’ jihadist sentiments in 2011, after the FSB had passed on a warning about them, showed that somehow the US authorities were involved. (And for the record, while the inevitable inquiry will say for sure, we need not assume the FBI “failed” here–Tamerlan may not have been fully radicalized by then, the FBI get many such warnings, and in any case they are often rightly skeptical of FSB tip-offs as the Russians often claim people are “terrorists” on the flimsiest grounds or just to smear political oppositionists.)

The world is usually a simpler place than people think, and covert actions less common and less attractive than the movies suggest. We’ll wait and see, but to me this is a case of an alienated young man looking for answers and sadly finding them in the ideology of global jihad, and apparently bringing his brother into the cause. In some ways this is harder to understand than deep plots and cunning stratagems, because it requires us to accept that the Western liberal democratic model does not satisfy everyone and that we cannot control the vagaries of lost souls…

(Oh, by the way: North Korea has denied being behind the bombing, too. So that’s alright, then.)

‘Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991′: writings and thoughts

One of Johnny Shumate's preliminary sketches for color plates in my forthcoming Osprey Publishing title Elite 197 'Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991', ISBN 978 1 78096105 7, to be published in August 2013

One of Johnny Shumate’s preliminary sketches for color plates in my forthcoming Osprey Publishing title Elite 197 ‘Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991′, ISBN 978 1 78096105 7, to be published in August 2013

Having been the kind of nerdy kid who frequented the library to scour the Osprey military history titles, who predictably enough grew up to be the kind of nerdy adult who buys them instead, it was a thorough delight to be able to write my first Osprey book, Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991, which is due to be published August 2013. (Elite series number 197,  ISBN 978 1 78096105 7). In part it gave me new respect for the series given the extensive detail and fact-checking involved, as well as the way the artists need to have a distinctive combination of the meticulous and the imaginative when producing the color plates which are such a feature of the books. The accompanying sketch, from the talented Johnny Shumate, is just the first rendering of an operator from the Saturn special forces group of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) in full riot kit. The color version is even more stunning…but you’ll have to wait and buy the book to see that!

However, the exercise also led me to think more about the rise in Russian security, special and paramilitary forces since the collapse of the USSR. The Soviets, after all, were hardly averse to maintaining large parallel armies and also sundry elite forces. However, there has been not just an increase in the numbers of many of these forces, there has also been a proliferation. There are OMON riot police (who do more than just quell riots), KSN/OMSN/SOBR special police response units, various special forces within the MVD’s Interior Troops, numerous commando ‘spetsgruppy’ within the security apparatus, from the FSB’s Alfa and Vympel to the SVR’s Zaslon. As if that were not enough, there are special forces within the FSIN, the FSKN anti-narcotics service, even of a kind within the MChS Ministry of Emergency Situations.

The irony is that the only special forces elements which have shrunk of late have been the regular military’s Spetsnaz — and even then, they still proportionately make up a larger share of the army than in Soviet times. The same is true of the security troops of the Interior Troops: there are fewer than in the Soviet VV, but more compared with the smaller size of Russia’s population.


Moscow’s Military Maneuvers: enter Shoigu and Gerasimov

I do hope Shoigu doesn’t take to wearing a soldier’s uniform, Ustinov-style

When the axe falls, it falls with abandon. Serdyukov’s dismissal as minister of defense has been followed by the retirement of his Chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, and a series of other dismissals, with more likely to follow. Overall, I feel Serdyukov deserves great credit for being the first Russian defense minister to go beyond just talking about reform, but Sergei Shoigu could well be a worthy successor given his great success building and developing the MChS and doing so in the teeth of both budgetary pressures and internal conservatism. However, there are grounds for caution and concern:

1. What is Shoigu’s game plan? Is Shoigu just the enthusiastic and efficient troubleshooter or might he have higher ambitions now that Putin’s position seems a little less certain and the behind-the-scenes discussions about who should be Medvedev’s successor as prime minister have undoubtedly begun. As I comment in my first column for Russia Beyond the Headlines, if Shoigu has more than just military reform in mind, he might well be tempted not to pick the fights that taking that project to the next level will demand, above all with the defense-industrial lobby. (And it it worth noting that the lobby’s current champion, Dmitry Rogozin, might also be eyeing the prime ministerial slot, muddying the waters further.)

2. What are Shoigu’s orders (and limits)? It was striking that when Putin met Shoigu and his new CoGS Gerasimov, he stressed the importance of new equipment and good relations with the defense industries. I think that Alexander Golts is right to interpret that as an injunction not to follow Serdyukov’s line — he was openly (and justly) critical of the defense industries for producing poor weapons at high prices, too late and too little reflecting what Russia’s military actually needed. Hence the decisions to buy French ships, Italian armored vehicles and Israeli drones — both to provide capabilities lacking and also to make a point. It sounds as if Shoigu is being told to make nice to the metal-bashers, who after all are a powerful, hungry political lobby. If so, then his room actually to use his budget usefully becomes much more confined.

3. What is Gerasimov going to do? One lesson of the Serdyukov era was that it was crucial that a civilian defense minister (and though Shoigu technically holds a general’s rank, he is a civilian) needs a tough and local chief of the general staff as his adviser and, if need be, enforcer. Makarov was in many ways a good choice as he had reputation and rank, but was an outsider from the ‘Arbat Military District’ circles of the Muscovite military elite, as well as a specialist on training (a key problem needing to be addressed). His successor, Valery Gerasimov, 57, comes from Kazan and was a career army officer, a tank commander, who was commander of the 58th Army in Chechnya 2001-3, but nonetheless managed to earn the praise of Anna Politkovskaya for his role in the arrest of Budanov. He was Makarov’s deputy 2010-12, but the word is they did not get along and this helps explain his appointment this year to head the Central Military District. Gerasimov is described as a “conservative” but it is sometimes hard to know what that actually means — very few generals in any armies are free-thinking hippies, after all.

As a veteran tank commander, he may well be lobbying for that arm of service, which would actually place him on the same side as the defense industries. (And, I’d suggest, the other side from logic: Russia needs good light infantry, airmobile forces, and wheeled tank destroyers/fire support vehicles.) Beyond that, it is hard at this stage to know for what he stands. However, I suspect that he is much more of an insider and a shop steward for the generals’ lobby than Makarov ever was and I don’t think he’ll be pushing for further troop reductions and other radical steps. On the other hand, he was responsible for all those parades through Moscow, so even if Russia is going to squander the opportunities Serdyukov has opened up and return to a notion of ‘reform’ that really meant little more than ‘buying shiny new stuff,’ then at least we can be assured that they will be prettily showcased rumbling through Red Square…

4. Is anything going to be done about corruption? In many ways this is more a ritual observation more than a real question, as it is hard to see any great evidence that it will. Serdyukov’s downfall had everything to do with personal (very personal) politics and little to do with allegations of embezzlement. One slight shred of optimism is that it seems Main Military Prosecutor Fridinsky — who has done more than anyone in uniform to shed light on corruption and fraud within the MoD, saying that 20% of the State Defense Order disappears through theft and kickbacks – seems to have been the main figure behind the decision not to appoint macho order-more-than-law General Surovikin to head the new military police, which may suggest he has more traction than I realized. And if the Russian arms industries are still to be paid for their junk, then the MoD might need to find the money somewhere. But overall, it is still hard to be optimistic on this point.


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