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. (more…)

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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The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War

But what happens when the bear looks like a stray dog, or a cute little kitten?

But what happens when the bear looks like a stray dog, or a cute little kitten?

Call it non-linear war (which I prefer), or hybrid war, or special war, Russia’s operations first in Crimea and then eastern Ukraine have demonstrated that Moscow is increasingly focusing on new forms of politically-focused operations in the future. In many ways this is an extension of what elsewhere I’ve called Russia’s ‘guerrilla geopolitics,’ an appreciation of the fact that in a world shaped by an international order the Kremlin finds increasingly irksome and facing powers and alliances with greater raw military, political and economic power, new tactics are needed which focus on the enemy’s weaknesses and avoid direct and overt confrontations. To be blunt, these are tactics that NATO–still, in the final analysis, an alliance designed to deter and resist a mass, tank-led Soviet invasion–finds hard to know how to handle. (Indeed, a case could be made that it is not NATO’s job, but that’s something to consider elsewhere.)

Hindsight, as ever a sneakily snarky knowitall, eagerly points out that we could have expected this in light of an at-the-time unremarked article by Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. In fairness, it was in Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’er, the Military-Industrial Courier, which is few people’s fun read of choice. Nonetheless, it represents the best and most authoritative statement yet of what we could, at least as a placeholder, call the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ (not that it necessarily was his confection). I and everyone interested in these developments are indebted to Rob Coalson of RFE/RL, who noted and circulated this article, and the following translation is his (thanks to Rob for his permission to use it), with my various comments and interpolations. (more…)

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.

Those Mysterious Tanks in Ukraine

UkraineRussianTanksThe appearance of three mystery tanks in east Ukraine may be a serious escalation of the conflict (as Russia throws extra military hardware into the fray) or another one of those desperate attempts to prove a Russian presence. I honestly don’t know, but until we have more solid data, I hope people will be cautious about accepting the “they must be Russian tanks” line uncritically. I hope, but don;’t expect: even if some caution ends up buried in the text, the headlines are already taking it at face value that Russian tanks have rolled into Ukraine. But:

1. We’ve been here before. Remember the “Russian lieutenant colonel“? There have been many hurried assertions of direct Russian roles that ended up having to be retracted. Just for the record: of course there is a serious Russian role, both direct and indirect, but with the possible exception of the initial insertion of Vostok (which has since started “Ukrainianification”), it tends to be in the form of facilitating, arming, supporting, not directly intervening.

2. The evidence presented so far has been pretty thin. For example, NATO has released imagery with a strong implication that it points towards Russian involvement (as it contributes to the “effort to ensure Russia remains publicly accountable for its actions”), but the suggestions are based on:

i. That there were some Russian tanks near the border beforehand. OK, fair enough and I wouldn’t discount this, but apparently all the wizardry of NATO image interpretation still can’t say if they are the same T-64 tanks we’ve seen inside Ukraine. After all, given that the T-64 has actually been phased out of Russian service, that would be a big deal if they fielded some. If NATO can show that they were T-64s, then that to me really would be as close to real proof as we can get from such imagery.

ii. The tanks we’ve seen do not have Ukrainian markings. Sure, had they just defected or been stolen they’s presumably have markings, but that presumably was not the case. To add, as NATO does, that “this is consistent with Russian vehicles and equipment that were deployed to Crimea” is rather circumstantial.

iii. There are no Ukrainian armoured units in the east. The State Department spokesperson said “no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area.” OK, but not only do Ukrainian mechanised units also include tanks, there certainly are reserve stocks and depots for tanks awaiting modernisation or scrap. (The Malyshev Tank Works, for example, which produced T-64s, and now offers conversions, is in Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine.)

3. Why just three? If Moscow is wiling to up the ante–which it might well–then why in such a minimalist fashion, enough to alarm the West and give Poroshenko more leverage, but not enough to have a significant impact on the conflict? It is not that they lack stored weapons? Why not thirty? Or, better yet, why not artillery? Had the Ukrainian forces been on the ball, after all, they could have caught those tanks on the road with their Mi-24 helicopter gunships or, better yet, Su-25 ground attack aircraft and destroyed them in one raid: tanks can be phenomenally powerful used in the right way, but they are also strikingly fragile in other ways.

I am, I must stress, not stating definitively that these are not tanks the Russians dragged out of their reserve stocks and sent into Ukraine. All I am doing is issuing a plaintive and no doubt fruitless appeal that in these days of hyperspeed 24/7 news cycles, we should not assume that a press release from the White House (or the Kremlin) represents definitive proof…

PS: Testing the Waters? In the comments below, Malcolm Davis makes a valid point that the Russians could just be seeing what (if any) Western response the first intrusion draws. Maybe. But my sense is that Putin/the Russians actually tend to work the other way, to act fast and decisively (when they are going to act) in order to define the truths on the ground and then sit back and present the outside world with a fait accompli. Indeed, this predates Putin: think of the 1999 “Pristina Dash.” Dribbling in a few tanks here and maybe a few more there actually allows the West (and Kyiv) to be able to construct some kind of meaningful response. And as I say above, three tanks accompanied by a single truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun (with no radar guidance or the like) and a truck or two of troops actually could have been very vulnerable. I think the Russians think like Heinz Guderian, whose rule of thumb was Nicht Kleckern sondern Klotzen! (Boot’ em, don’t spatter’ em!)…

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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