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.


What Would A Russian Invasion Of Ukraine Look Like?

Will the Russians stop?

Will the Russians stop?

I’ve been asked this question a lot, and had the chance to expound on it at a recent event in Parliament sponsored by the Henry Jackson Society, so thought I’d briefly outline my thoughts here. That said, though, I should stress that the more time passes, the less likely I think such an attack becomes, because of the shifting political situation and also–as Kyiv moves forces east and mobilises reserves and volunteers–the military calculus. However, it cannot be excluded, so it is worth still considering, not least as the preparatory phases I outline below have all been carried out; the Russian General Staff may well not yet know if it is going to be invading, but it has made sure that if the word does come down from the Kremlin, it will be ready.

In brief, the aim would be a blitzkrieg that, before Ukraine has the chance properly to muster its forces and, perhaps more to the point, the West can meaningfully react, allows the Russians to draw a new front line and assert their own ground truth, much as happened in Crimea (though this would be much more bloody and contested). This would not be a bid to conquer the whole country (the real question is whether they’d seek to push as far as Odessa, taking more risks and extending their supply lines, but also essentially depriving Ukraine of a coastline) but instead quickly to take those areas where there are potentially supportive local political elites and Russophone populations, and consequently pretexts (however flimsy) to portray invasion as ‘liberation.’


11 alleged Russian spies indicted in New York: some first thoughts

Yesterday, eleven alleged Russian agents were indicted on charges of military technical espionage, specifically illegally exporting micro-electronics that are on an export control list (which can lead to a sentence of 20 years in prison without parole) through a Texas-based company. I reproduce the text of the FBI’s official release below, after the jump, and obviously we wait to see if the defendants are convicted in court. (Russian deputy foreign minister Ryabkov has said they’re not spies. Of course.)

Nonetheless, if it transpires that the prosecutors’ case is proven it says a few things worth noting:

  • Russian intelligence activity is sustained, aggressive and back to Cold War levels. It has been said before (not least, with great vigor, in Ed Lucas’s book Deception), but is worth saying again. It is striking how, after the decimation of their espionage apparatuses in the late 1980s and then 1990s, the Russians have rebuilt them, and also how much latitude they are granted. To be blunt, while Moscow would rather its operations not get publicly blown and complicate Russia’s international relations, it does not see this as important enough to restrain its activities. Nor does this apply just to the USA, with alarm bells ringing across the West, from Prague and Tallinn to Brussels.
  • Multiple Russian intelligence organizations operate in the USA. The agency involved in this case has not been named, but while most espionage is carried out by the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, the specific purpose of this operation might suggest GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff — military intelligence. The domestic security service, the FSB (Federal Security Service) also operates in a very limited way abroad, though — largely monitoring real and perceived security threats such as supporters of North Caucasus terrorists and, rather less creditably, some allies of the opposition movement at home.
  • Economic and technical espionage is an increasing priority. At a time when the SVR is also investing money into systems to monitor and also influence the internet and social media, this is in many ways the new battleground. The Chinese intelligence community understood this first, but the Russians are renewing an interest in high-tech targets which had slipped somewhat in the closing days of the Cold War and since.
  • Russian intelligence seeks to use naturalized US citizens of Russian descent as agents. Most of the alleged agents were Russian-born, naturalized citizens. Of course, the overwhelming majority are good, loyal US citizens, but nonetheless there is likely to be an increased drive to seek to place or recruit such agents following the 2010 roll-up of a long-term illegals operation in the States.
  • This may have some political fallout back in Moscow. It is another potential intelligence debacle, after several others. If it does turn out to be the GRU, then that will add to the problems of a service already struggling to retain its status and relative autonomy. This may be the last straw and see it demoted to a regular directorate of the General Staff and perhaps lose portions of its networks to the SVR. But the SVR is likewise not in the best odor, especially after the recent arrest of two alleged agents in Germany. Although Mikhail Fradkov’s position as its director is probably not in jeopardy, there may be yet another round of inquests and find-the-scapegoat in its Department S, responsible for illegals — undercover agents abroad — or else its technical intelligence division. There may be another bid by the FSB to take it over, but I still don’t see this as happening. Either way, the spooks don’t seem to be giving great value for money at the moment.


Shuffling the siloviki: who may be the winners and losers in 2012?

With Putin’s presidential election over, now the question becomes who will make it into the new government, at a time when some insiders are suggesting there may be some substantial change. On the whole, the siloviki tend not to experience particularly rapid reshuffles, but there are some who are looking more vulnerable. In a couple of columns for the Moscow News, I look first at the three key silovik ministers (Serdyukov at Defense, Nurgaliev of the MVD and Prosecutor General Chaika), and secondly at the chiefs of the main security and intelligence services (FSB, SVR, GRU, FSKN, FSO). After all, it’s not just about personalia: the decisions about who stays and goes and more to the point the nature and origins of any new hires will say a lot about what Putin plans for the future, and what he fears.

Tracing the Faultlines within the Russian Security Community

This week I’m speaking on ‘The Security Services and Russia’s Perceptions of Security Challenges and Threats’ at What Future for Russia?, which promises to be a very interesting event put on by NUPI. Apart from castigating myself for the bad planning of agreeing to go to Scandinavia in what seems to be the midst of Fimbulwinter, and flying there via Iceland, at that, this also got me thinking about the very notion of lumping ‘the security services’ together into one camp.

Of course, there are some broad traits which unite them, from a commitment to Russian national security to a common interest in talking up the challenges to it, in order to guarantee continued budgetary priority and political privilege. However, especially now that more and more the prospect of a post-Putin era is being contemplated — not that he’s likely to be going any day now, but people are no longer blithely regarding another twelve years as inevitable — then a variety of internal faultlines become increasingly significant.



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