On Russia, Ukraine, sanctions and war

Just a quick heads-up. There is now a report on my talk in parliament in London on ‘The Military Dimension of Russia’s Policy toward Ukraine: Should the West Be Worried?‘ under the auspices of the Henry Jackson Society here and also a full transcript of my opening remarks. Although the US government and NATO commander seems still to be suggesting Russian military action is imminent, my view is that the danger of that is receding; I hope I will be proved right. The next day, I spoke at the European Council on Foreign Relations about the political impact on Russia of sanctions, and you can hear a podcast of my comments here. I still suspect that future historians may conclude that when Putin took Crimea he lost not only Ukraine but, ultimately, the Kremlin.

Prague, Moscow, and the value of speaking firmly, clearly and with one voice

A cliché, yes, but a cool one

A cliché, yes, but a cool one

It is, of course, a hackneyed cliché to talk about the “Russian bear.” Nonetheless, it is fair to say that prodding either with a stick is equally ill-advised. However, the usual advice on encountering a bear is to give it its space, be submissive, be quiet. That doesn’t work so well with Moscow. By the same token it is a dangerous caricature to suggest (as some sadly still do) that force or assertiveness is “all Russia understands.” However, what is certainly true is that meekness and the appearance of division tend to encourage Moscow to become more confrontational. Consider, for example, the marked failure of the US government’s “re-set” policy, which has failed to deter Russia from buttressing Syrian tyranny, spying on and perhaps murdering its critics abroad, publicly outing US agents, hounding Ambassador McFaul and doing everything but kicking sand in Obama’s face.

In this context—and given that I’m in Prague for the summer, I’m especially interested in Czech-Russian relations—I was perturbed by the details of the extradition to Moscow of Russian businessman Alexei Torubarov in May, especially in the context of what seems a growing assertiveness by Russia in Central and Southern Europe.

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Russian prisons getting more lethal

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate?

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate?

To use the mildest of understatement, Russian prisons are not pleasant places. They are over-crowded, often antiquated, rife with violence, petty abuses and disease (including strains of drug-resistant TB). That said, the prison population has begun to fall, which is an encouraging sign, and there have been some limited efforts made to reform the system overall. So is the news good?

Not really. Let’s briefly unpick the depressing news that 4,121 prisoners died in prison or pre-trial detention in 2012. The combined prison and pre-trial detention (SIZO) population as of June 2012 was 731,000, suggesting a mortality figure of 564 prisoners per 100,000 inmates. If we look at US death rates as of 2008-9 (the last compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics), then the total death tally was 4,755 (admittedly from a substantially larger prison population), with a death rate ranging from 257/100k in state prisons, through 229/100k in federal prisons, to 127/100k in jails).

Given that the death toll back in 2010 was 4,150, then this might look like a slight improvement. But while the death toll has fallen just 0.7%, in that time the prison population in 746 corrective colonies, 230 SIZO, 7 prisons and 46 juvenile colonies shrunk by 17.5%. In other words, despite a falling prison population, some reform and more money, Russia’s prisons are getting even more lethal…

They whack him here, they whack him there… The Azeri Pimpernel

I think it fair to say that Rovshan Janiev is less dashing

I think it fair to say that Rovshan Janiev is less dashing

It is as much as anything else a sign of the pressures in the Russian underworld and the lack of clarity in what will follow the murder of Aslan Usoyan (‘Ded Khasan’) that one of the potential instigators of the attack, Rovshan Janiev (‘Rovshan Lenkoransky’) is various reported killed in Moscow, killed in Turkey, detained in Baku and, according to his brother, alive and well in Dubai

As of writing, I don’t know which of these is true, if any. Thanks to a conversation with someone in Moscow who I feel would know, I feel fairly confident that he was briefly arrested in Baku, as much as anything else as a warning to scale down his leadership campaign within the ‘mountaineer’ (Caucasus) underworld community. There seems to be a growing body of reports in the Russian press about his death in Turkey, but these could easily simply be feeding off each other. That said, he is an ambitious man, a destabilizing force, and as a result has many enemies over and above Dmitry Chanturia (‘Miron’), Usoyan’s heir. Following the murder of his lieutenants Astamur Gulia (‘Astik Sukhumski’) in Abkhazia and Rufat Nasibov (‘Rufo’) in Moscow, Janiev may well be a tempting target.

We’ll see. However, worth noting at this point is the dog that isn’t barking: the ethnic Russian and Slavic gangs who make up the majority of the Russian underworld and who are presumably happy to see their southern rivals tearing each other apart, and the Chechens, who while ‘mountaineers’ essentially keep themselves apart from the others. They could be a force for stability, preventing the mob war from escalating, or they could seek to capitalize on it by making land grabs of their own, further ratcheting up the tension…

Rovshan Janiev’s arrest in Baku: efforts to avert a mob war?

Rovshan behind bars again

Rovshan behind bars again

Dmitry Chanturia (‘Miron’ or ‘Miron Yaroslavsky’), the new head of Aslan Usoyan’s criminal network, seems to believe that the Azeri gangster Rovshan Janiev (‘Rovshan Lenkoranskiy’) is responsible for his uncle’s murderAs I’ve written elsewhere, it may be his genuine belief, or simply because Janiev is a more politically-palatable and practical target than the more likely culprit, Tariel Oniani (‘Taro’). Either way, there is likely to have been a connection to the recent murder of Janiev’s ally  Astamur Gulia (‘Astik Sukhumski’) in Abkhazia.

Many of the grandees of the Russian underworld are keenly aware of the many dangers which could follow if a new mob war erupts, from the way it would spread to the likelihood that it may force the state to crack down. They have been trying to negotiate a truce of sorts. However, the Russian state is also keen to avert any such catastrophic collapse of the present cold peace within the underworld. This was probably one of the reasons for the unusual decision to break up a gathering of bosses from the Oniani network when they sat down at a restaurant in Nikolina Gora, west of Moscow. The 23 mobsters were duly released after being detained, but the key thing was this this breach of the usual cop-godfather etiquette was likely a signal that they were being watched and their intent — to plan how they would capitalize on the murder ‘Ded Hasan’ — was one on which the authorities frowned.

I cannot help but suspect that a similar motive may be behind Janiev’s unexpected arrest in Baku on 28 January, when he flew in for a birthday celebration. Whether or not Janiev ends up being charged in Azerbaijan, let alone convicted, may to an extent be beside the point. Janiev clearly did not expect arrest and normally he would probably have been safe. However, were Moscow eager to make a point and damp down the potential embers of a criminal conflagration, persuading the Azeri authorities to give him a warning but also to take him off the streets might well be a useful step…

Sergei Shoigu: Russia’s tailor-in-chief?

They certainly look the part of the 21st century men at arms

They certainly look the part of the 21st century men at arms

Sergei Shoigu’s early initiatives as defense minister all seem to have a distinctly sartorial bent. First, he decreed that the traditional portyanki foot cloths wrapped around the foot every morning, washed and hung up to dry at night, be fully replaced by socks by the end of 2013. Then it was bruited around that the traditional — indeed, iconic — ushanka fur hat with side-flaps would be phased out and replaced with new headgear. Then we have confirmation that a new set of field uniforms including these changes would indeed be issued, with 100,000 soldiers getting them this year (earlier this year it was just 70,000), the rest in 2014.

It is easy to belittle such moves. Efficient and comfortable uniforms rank with decent housing, adequate food and proper medical care amongst the kinds of quality-of-life issues taken for granted in most Western militaries yet contributing to the terrible reputation of army service in Russia (and hence recruitment of volunteers). It is also in line with the kinds of reforms Serdyukov had been trying to introduce. After all, he had wanted to phase out the portyanki and introduce new, better uniforms.

The full array of new Russian uniforms, to be phased in from 2013

The full array of new Russian uniforms, to be phased in from 2013

However, there is much more to being defense minister than being tailor-in-chief, and the initial omens about Shoigu’s priorities are less inspiring. After Serdyukov had spent much political capital cutting down the bloated, top-heavy officer corps, it seems that the army, navy and air force command staffs will be increased fully 2-3 times. However much this is spun as a measure to improve training and coordination, it is a victory for the top brass and a step away from creating a leaner military.

Furthermore, the notion of importing better foreign-made equipment seems out of favor, with the decision to scale back purchase of Italian LMV65 light armored vehicles and new criticism of the French Mistral deal. Regardless of the qualities of these particular deals, trying for military autarky makes absolutely no sense in terms of military reform (Dmitry Gorenburg has some astute comments on this on his blog). The only people it pleases are the defense-industrial complex industrialists, who became such an enemy of Serdyukov’s.

In other words, for the moment Shoigu seems either to be playing it safe or else lacks the political muscle to take on the two conservative lobbies — the generals and the ‘metal-eaters’ — whose interests are actually antithetical to proper military reform. He may be biding his time, but for the moment he seems content to be tailor-in-chief. Maybe because he’s already window-shopping for the kind of suit fit for a prime minister. Or even a president?

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