A Hurricane in the East: are rebels getting BM-27 ‘Uragan’ Rocket Systems?

UraganUS intelligence sources are claiming that Russia has actually stepped up its material support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, including heavier rocket systems. I suspect these may the BM-27 Uragan (‘Hurricane’) systems, the very kind that Moscow has been criticising Kyiv for using in recent days. This is a truck-mounted multiple-tube rocket launcher system akin to the previously-used BM-21 Grad on steroids, able to ripple-fire its 16 220mm rockets in 20 seconds. As such, it represents a substantial upgrade to rebel firepower.

A few quick observations.

1. OK, so maybe Putin won’t be backing away from the rebels…but it may be the storm before the calm. A willingness to supply heavy hardware, coupled with the uncompromising rhetoric from the Kremlin, does suggest that Putin has chosen not to back away from his adventure in eastern Ukraine. However, it’s not impossible that the hope is that allowing the rebels to give Kyiv’s forces a bloody nose will allow Moscow to negotiate some terms for a ‘peace with honour’ extrication from the mess on stronger terms, given that at present, between the seizure of Slovyansk and the moral charge provided by MH17, the Ukrainian government is in unyielding mood. This can be disastrous (witness Russia clinging on in WW1 in the hope that “next battle” would provide one such victory), but can work.

2. The government forces outnumber the rebels, but their key advantages are airpower and long-range artillery. With systems such as the now-infamous Buk and the BM-27, Moscow is clearly trying to neutralise them (the BM-27 is a useful counterbattery weapon, able to silence Ukrainian guns). The idea is presumably to put Kyiv into the situation of facing a nasty–and higher-casualty–old-fashioned close-quarters battle in Donetsk if it wants to wipe out the rebels, hoping that Poroshenko won’t be willing to accept the costs. (Though I suspect he would, if need be.)

3. This would make the rebels more dependent on Moscow. Larger, higher-tech kit like the BM-27 needs maintenance, spare parts, etc. They also need ample ammunition to be effective, and unlike assault rifle rounds, these aren’t widely available in looted stockpiles and the black market. This gives Moscow more potential authority over the rebels, and also embeds the Russians more deeply in the fight.

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.

Courtesy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Putin is now coming to terms with the blowback from his Ukrainian adventure, a hybrid non-linear political-military campaign fought largely through local proxies, and this is something that will dog him for as long as he is in power. I plan to look at these in more detail at a later date, but in summary, the consequences are:

1. You don’t have control over events on the ground but (rightly) get blamed when bad stuff happens. The MH17 shootdown is generating an unprecedented level of anger.Even if ultimately it is unable to muster the unity, determination and moral courage to act resolutely–although I hope they do–I do not believe the West will look at Putin the same way again. Furthermore, the pliant choir of “useful idiots” arguing the Russian case, whether out of self-interest or because of a naive and perverse disillusion with their own society, will find their lives harder and their audiences less tolerant.

2. You inject yourself into the negotiations, but can’t deliver on a deal. At this stage, Kyiv will be looking for more from Moscow than “we won’t send any more people or weapons in to join the fight” but it is questionable whether the Russians can do more than extract those elements of the rebellion which really are direct covert operatives and try to persuade the rest. Given that Moscow doesn’t really care about the east Ukrainians but is instead using them to put pressure on Kyiv, it is unlikely to put a great premium on looking after them and their interests–but it must then sell them the consequent peace terms.

3. You create chaos on your border. Even if Kyiv is able to win a military victory or else is willing and able to arrange some kind of peace deal (which is all the harder now), eastern Ukraine will be suffering from the effects of this nasty conflict for years to come. Bad blood between communities, civilians angry at either the separatists or government after being caught in the crossfire, a haemorrhage of weapons which will arm gangsters, terrorists and random lunatics for years to come… Considering the close ethnic and economic connections across the border, that will inevitably have an impact on Russia.

4. You disappoint people you previously counted as fervent supporters. It’s not just Strelkov who expressed disappointment at Russia’s stance. There are already concerns within the ultra-nationalist wing in Russia, people who previously saw Putin as the ideal ruler, not least given his recent shift towards a messianic Russian exceptionalism and a commitment to asserting Russia’s rights to protect Russians abroad. This is very much a fringe movement, and poses no serious threat to Putin, but it does mean that he no longer can rely on their active support.

5. You undermine your persona as the infallible tsar. Of course the Russian media will spin whatever decision he chooses to make, but we shouldn’t presume that the Russian population are wholly clueless. If he has to accept the crushing of the insurrection and, even more alarming, a further Ukrainian drift towards Europe without having been given some grounds to claim”Mission Accomplished”, then he will look bad. (To that end, if the aim is an early end to hostilities, it would make sense for Kyiv to ponder what face-saving package it can give that it is willing to give: simply a nicely package assertion of things already said, such as the protection of Russia’s status as a state language; as well as what is a practical inevitability, such as ruling out NATO membership for at least 8 years, might be enough.)

6. You look weak before your other neighbours, undermining claims to regional hegemony. Just as the 2008 Georgian War was as much–if not mainly–about asserting Moscow’s will and capacity to punish those Near Abroad states challenging its regional hegemony, a perceived failure in Ukraine cannot but embolden those other nations. Let’s face it, Moscow has in the main relatively little positive soft power: no one especially likes Russia or looks up to it as a model. Instead, there are some countries who regard it as either too useful or too dangerous to flout. That pragmatic arithmetic may shift.

7. You are held accountable for your actions (maybe). We’ll have to see quite how robust the further Western response will be. The current sanctions regime and diplomatic chill is a little irksome but entirely bearable, but if we start seeing more concrete measures, whether the cancellation of contracts (can Paris really still deliver modern assault carriers to Russia with good conscience?), expanded travel bans or even sectoral sanctions, then this will hit Russia and Russians. Short-term bravado will give way to longer-term concerns in this case. Either way, those voices in the West who warned that Putin’s Russia was that dangerous thing, a compound of the aggressive and erratic, have been proven right, and NATO now looks more relevant than at any time since not even 1991, but arguably since Gorbachev’s accession to power.

One way or the other, while the concept of non-linear war is still entirely valid and will be a crucial factor in 21st century statecraft, in this case it has gone very wrong. Bad luck for Moscow, to a degree, but handing powerful weapons to undertrained, undisciplined and gung-ho rebels is in many ways an invitation to such bad luck. And ultimately Putin has no one to blame but himself (although I’m sure he’ll find someone.)

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.

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.

Ukraine: a perversely “good” war for the GRU

GRU logoIt would seem on the surface that the GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff–in other words, Russian military intelligence–is coming in for some flak for its operations in Ukraine. Kyiv has just outed and expelled a naval attache from the Russian embassy, Kirill Koliuchkin, as a lt. colonel in the GRU, while the GRU’s chief, Lt. General Igor Sergun, was on the latest EU sanctions list.

Personally, I’d assume the ‘Aquarium’–the GRU’s headquarters at Khodinka–must be delighted.

(more…)

Maybe not the smoking gun: that video of a Russian lt. colonel in Ukraine

The Russian (probably) lt. colonel (maybe)

The Russian (possibly) lt. colonel (maybe)

Feelings are running high about Russia’s campaign of pressure and destabilisation in Ukraine and perhaps not surprisingly foreign journalists and pundits sympathetic to Kyiv are eager to pounce on anything which appears to offer proof about the much-discussed but surprisingly elusive direct Russian role. As a result, sometimes pictorial or video evidence is being taken at face value when it needed a little more cautious scrutiny: witness the video purportedly of Russian soldiers in Ukraine being blocked by plucky Ukrainians, which turned out to be Ukrainian troops being harangued by ethnic Russian militants. (The uniforms were a give-away then.) The latest “smoking gun” is a video in which a man in Russian camouflage introduces himself to the defecting Horlivka police as a lt. colonel in the Russian army and introduces them to their new chief. So far, so straightforwardly damning. However, while this may appear to the holy grail of proof, I’m afraid that I think it ought to be taken with some caution.

The soldier does indeed wear appropriate Russian camo, but–and I know here I sound like I am channelling Putin’s disingenuous comments when challenged about the “little green men” in the Crimea–that’s no great feat. I could pop to my local voentorg store and pick up the same. He has none of the other accoutrements of soldierly kit than one might expect, but this is not in itself vastly significant as it is not a combat situation. On the other hand, his cap is definitely not military issue; why is such a senior officer not at least wearing his issue camouflage baseball cap instead of something looking pretty civilian to me? (more…)

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