Blowback’s a bitch: MH17 and the east Ukraine campaign’s long-term costs for Russia

MH17Policy makers, especially policy makers who have never seen action, are often seduced by covert operations. They see them as the perfect policy instrument: cheap, deniable, effective. Yes, there can be tremendously effective covert or at least non-conventional operations and campaigns, but just as all intelligence operations must come to terms with the fundamental truth that nothing is guaranteed to stay secret for ever, so too these sneaky campaigns can very easily either fail or, even more likely, have unexpected consequences that may overshadow the intended outcome. After all, while Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden cannot entirely be charted back to the US campaign to support Islamist rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan–had the social, political and intellectual climate not been ready for the message of jihad then they would have remained on the fringes–nonetheless there is a strong connection.

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Retirement of FSO’s Murov may exacerbate Russia’s underground silovik conflicts

General Evgeny Murov - the stabilising silovik

General Evgeny Murov – the stabilising silovik

It’s not been confirmed, but there are reports that Evgeny Murov, head of the FSO (Federal Guard Service) is stepping down from his position, probably this autumn. Not a great surprise–he’s turning 69 this year and there have been reports that he’s wanted to step down for a few years now. Nonetheless, I view this with some concern because this is a time in which there are considerable pressures bubbling beneath the surface of the Russian intelligence and security community and Murov–the longest-serving of all the security agency chiefs currently in place–performed a quietly useful role as a stabilising force. Yes, his men are the besuited bullet-catchers with earpieces of the Presidential Security Service, the black-clad marksmen up on the roofs around the Red Square on parade days, the goose-stepping Kremlin Guard at the eternal flame and the guys guarding the State Duma and the like. But the FSO also plays an unofficial role as the watchers’ watcher, the agency that keeps tabs on the other security services to keep them in line, and gets to call bullshit if one or the other is briefing too directly for their institutional advantage–I discuss the FSO’s role in more detail here.

Murov’s reported successor is Alexei Mironov, his deputy and the head of Spetssvyaz, the FSO’s Special Communications Service. Fair enough: this should ensure a smooth handover at a time of tension. But it remains to be seen if Mironov has the stature, thick skin and independence of mind both to stay largely out of the silovik-on-silovik turf wars and also to help the Kremlin keep the agencies in check. If not, and this is a theme I’ll be touching on in a talk at Chatham House on Friday, there may be troubling times ahead both for Russia (as the spooks may end up in another internal war) and the outside world (as they may seek to gain traction with the Kremlin by aggressive moves abroad). I’ll be developing these issues more later.

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”

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)

The mystery that is Zaslon

Russian security guard in Iraq with a freed hostage, or a Zaslon operator? No way of knowing...

Russian security guard in Iraq with a freed hostage, or a Zaslon operator? No way of knowing…

There is quite a cult that has grown up around Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces, with books, movies and exposes both serious and farcical alike. Names such as Alpha and Vympel have become well known. Indeed, some could almost be considered franchises: as far back as the 1990s, veterans of the Alpha spetsgruppa had set up  private security firms, trading on their unit’s formidable reputation (see, for example, Tsentr-Al’fa). The one exception appears to be Zaslon (‘Screen’), a very shadowy unit established, by what accounts we have, in 1998 as a special forces unit for the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). Trained to operate abroad, in everything from hostage-rescue to assassination missions, it continues to shun publicity. Even while researching my forthcoming book, Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991 (yes, consider that a plug: out in August and available for pre-order), I was unable to find anything much on it in Russian and foreign sources alike, even a unit badge. They seem to deploy wearing civvies or the uniforms of other units, including embassy security details.

Now I hear a hint that a Zaslon team (the whole unit only seems to number some 280 or so operators) has been or is about to be deployed to Syria (I report on this here, for Blouin). That implies that Moscow either anticipates serious threats to its nationals (not just the embassy, but also numerous civilian and military advisers working with the Syrian government) or else, readying for an endgame, it wants special forces operators on the ground to spirit out Russian or Syrian officials and/or incriminating documents (as they reportedly did in Iraq) or high-tech equipment they don’t want falling into rebel and thus Western or Iranian hands… Watch this space.

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.)

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