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.)

Modern Counter-Terrorism in Sochi: more like counter-espionage

syromolotov

Gen. Syromolotov. I am charmed that his surname means “Cheese Hammers.”

Much has been made of the fact that Sochi Olympic security was put under the overall operational command of Oleg Vladimirovich Syromolotov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and head of its Counter-Espionage Service (SKR), rather than a counter-terrorism specialist. Somehow, this has been taken to be a mistake or else a sign of some kind of retrograde thinking, that Moscow really thinks the threat to Sochi comes from foreign espionage agencies or even that it wants primarily to use the Games for its own nefarious purposes. Let me disagree.

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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”

The “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, the rise of Russian jihad, and a mix of crime and terrorism

Not really about Sochi, for a change. I’ve just published a piece in Russia! about the emerging threat of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in parts of the country outside the North Caucasus — and the recruitment of Slavic Russian converts into a new (if still very rare) kind of jihadist terrorism.

Of late I’ve felt I ought to be on retainer from the Sochi Olympic administration, given the effort I’ve been putting into trying to address some of the more lurid and hysterical accounts of the “terrorist threat.” For the record, my view is that Sochi is, thanks to the massive security operation, as safe as such an event going to be, in such a location, facing a near(ish)-by jihadist insurgency. That is not to say that Russia is safe from terrorism, by any means, as the events as Volgograd and Pyatigorsk have shown; indeed, I’d be surprised if the next month didn’t see some kind of incident(s) outside the North Caucasus themselves (where they are, sadly, a regular occurrence). One of the more alarming long-term trends is the apparent rise of jihadism outside the North Caucasus, among both the scattered Caucasus and Central Asian communities of Russia but also—doubly alarming for a security apparatus all-too-often dependent on clumsy racial profiling—amongst ethnic Russian converts.

Read the rest here. (And in case you’re wondering about the crime angle, a group currently on trial, the so-called “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, staged armed robberies to raise funds for the insurgency.)

“Новосибирск Джамаат», рост российского джихада, и сочетание преступностью и терроризмом

Sochi, “Black Widows” and Double Standards

140120182228-russia-black-widow-grab-story-topApparently the police inside the Sochi security zone are hunting one Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova,  widow of a member of a North Caucasus insurgent. Indeed, according to some accounts she is only one of 4 such female terrorists there. Cue, first of all, the “black widow” meme: apparently, being the widow of an insurgent instantly makes a suicide bomber out of you. Almost every bombing in Russia seems to be attributed to such a “black widow” at first, even if such claims are often dropped. But I’m more exercised by the media flurry that followed the news. I get it: news media want splashy stories, and “Russians hunting suicide bomber in Sochi as countdown to Games tick down” has a pleasingly 24esque vibe and also provides the usual opportunity to question the competence of the Russian security measures and, for some US sources, a chance to talk up the need for some kind of contingency emergency evacuation plan for their athletes. But…

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“Keep Calm and Carry On”

Russian Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanCould there be a more quintessentially English meme? Anyway, I just wanted to flag up a piece of mine under this title in Russia! magazine, which hopes that the Russian state and people hold their nerve and don’t over-react to the recent terrorist attacks.

At least for the moment, the Volgograd and Pyatigorsk explosions have managed to shape the Sochi narrative, at least for the international media. Debates as to whether the Winter Olympics will be dangerous for athletes and spectators overshadow any sporting considerations. (Apparently the US team have engaged a US private security company to extricate them if need be; I wonder how Americans would react if the running shoe were on the other foot and Russian athletes wanted Spetsnaz commandos on call…) The Kremlin has every reason to be peeved, but it would be best served by remaining calm and avoiding the temptation to change policy in response to every reversal. After all, it needs to remember four key points:

Read the rest here.

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