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

The Russian (probably) lt. colonel (maybe)

The Russian (probably) 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?

He presents has passport as “proof” of his status, even though it does nothing of the sort. All his passport can say is that he is a Russian: it would be like my presenting my passport to prove that I was a professor. Why is he not showing his military ID? Indeed, given the Russian emphasis on at leasts the appearance of punctiliousness, why not some rubber-stamped document from the Horlivka “mayor” confirming his authority?

This is potential political dynamite, and a relatively senior Russian officer trusted enough to be deployed in Ukraine as a kind of proconsul would presumably have some political savvy. So why is he allowing himself to be videoed doing this, as the filming doesn’t look as if it was covert?

I do not doubt that there are Russian government agents and covert operators in the field in eastern Ukraine, but I am unconvinced this guy is one of them. If I had to guess, I’d say that if he really is a lt. colonel, it’s in the reserve and he is just one of the growing number of Russian “war tourists” that Moscow is happy to encourage, without specifically directing, who’s just throwing his weight around in a complex and confusing situation. This is, after all, the nature of the current messy, semi-unguided ‘Great Game II’--Moscow can to a degree simply rely on chaos and autonomous actors, reserving direct action for crucial moments, while individuals can seize the moment and find themselves in unexpectedly important positions. (‘The Man Who Would Be King‘, anyone?)

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.

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Not a new Cold War: Great Game II

This is just a short introductory excerpt from a longer piece published on the EthZ International Relations and Security Network (ISN) here.

GreatGameSuddenly the talk is of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, as Crimea is quietly written off as “lost” for the foreseeable future and the diplomatic focus moves to preventing a further—and potentially devastating—move into eastern Ukraine. While an understandable metaphor, though, this is a dangerous one. The Cold War, for all its brinkmanship and proxy conflicts, was a relatively stable and even rules-bound process. Instead, in this new “hot peace,” perhaps a better, if less comfortable analogy would be the Great Game, that (since mythologized) nineteenth-century era of imperial rivalry over Central Asia between Britain and Russia,, the freewheeling nineteenth-century struggle for authority in Central Asia.

One of the particular characteristics of the original Great Game was that there was little real distinction between the instruments of conventional conflict and competition such as wars, diplomatic missions and treaties and those of the informal realm, from subsidized bandit chieftains to third-party intelligence freelancers. Although even during the Cold War there was a place for the mercenary, gangster and assassin this was, it has to be said, very much at the periphery. Even proxy wars fought by irregulars, such as the mujahideen resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Viet Cong in Vietnam, were more-or-less formally acknowledged by their patrons. Now, though, Great Game II is one in which open state actions, deniable missions by state agents and the activities of mercenary agents (from computer hackers to local warlords) blend much more seamlessly. Furthermore, the nature of those operations ranges from military missions and shows of force, through espionage and sabotage, to subversion and misdirection by paid mouthpieces and front companies.

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.’

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Putin 3.0

A man alone

A man alone

I don’t, alas, have time to give it a proper consideration, but my initial response from watching Putin’s Crimea speech is that this is another of those watershed moments. To me, we are seeing in foreign as well as domestic politics, a new Putin, let’s call him Putin 3.0, an idea I first developed in the most recent Power Vertical podcast. Putin 1.0, in his first terms in office, was characterised by assertive, sometimes ruthless, but essentially pragmatic policy. Putin was no fan of the West and its ideals, but nor did he regard himself as being at odds with it in any fundamental way, only when it tried to impede his own ambitions. Putin 2.0, after the “castling”, his return to office and the unexpected rise of the “non-system opposition”, was increasingly interested in foreign policy precisely as a way of assuaging or diverting domestic pressure. He genuinely seemed — and seems — to lack any real sense of how to build legitimacy in a time of increasing economic trouble, except through well-trumpeted triumphs, from Syria to Sochi. Even so, despite often-bruising rhetoric and such acts as the wilful persecution of US ambassador Mike McFaul (a man whose transparent well-meaning commitment to building bridges and spreading amity was akin to a “kick me” sign on his back in these days of bare-knuckled Moscow), anti-Westernism was a tool, a means to an end, deployed when useful, ignored when not.

Now, though, I can’t help but feel we have Putin 3.0, a man casting aside cerebral notions for a more gut sense of where next to go. A man whose self-image of himself as Russia’s saviour, as well as a growing belief in what we could call Russian exceptionalism, a belief that Russian civilisation has a distinctive and unique place in the world and must be protected from homogenising Western influence, have come to the forefront. From being a means to an end, anti-Westernism becomes an end in itself as is is just the flip side–to him–of preserving and exalting Russian civilisation. The way the usual litany of grievances now seems to have even sharper edge, the sense that Russia must act the way it acts not because it is right but because others did it wrong, a commitment to “re”taking Crimea in absolute contradiction to common sense and, to be blunt, Russia’s real best interests (as Ben Aris has pointed out, even before any sanctions, this crisis has already cost Russian over $400 B, or 8 Sochis…), all of these show a real change.

No, it’s not madness. It’s not even a global danger (remember, Russian civilisation, like the Russian Orthodox Church that buttresses it, is not an aggressively and pan-ethnically evangelistic religion). But as he signs the decree annexing Crimea, it does begin to recast Russia’s relations with the outside world, in a way that will be hard to manage, tough for Russia’s neighbours and also, I suspect, ultimately disastrous for this regime.

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