Russia’s “Little Green Fan” Problem: football hooligans, the new nationalism, and the Western narrative

The open enthusiasm of some Russian politicians about the thuggish behaviour of their football fans in France speaks volumes about the boorish nationalism and crude us-versus-the-world mentality that has been liberated by Putin in recent years. Compared with the ongoing war in the Donbas or the crackdown on independent media and NGOs, it may seem trivial to focus on Liberal Democrat parliamentarian Igor Lebedev’s tweeted comment that he didn’t “see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!” or indeed Putin’s disingenuous question as to “how 200 Russian fans could beat several thousand of the British.”

But of course this is all part of a common pattern of mulish and wilful refusal to accept any fault or responsibility, a determination instead to blame everything on everyone else. And the result is a vicious circle that sees the rest of the world, although especially the West, all the less tolerant of Russia (witness the doping-related sanctions on its athletes). This, in turn, fuels Russia’s querulous persecution complex and the adolescent tantrums through which it is manifest.

And yet for all that, there is also a dangerous Western narrative that the Kremlin is the malign grandmaster behind everything that goes wrong, from Brexit to migration. The hooligan crisis has likewise been inserted into this unfolding narrative, notably in an article based wholly on anonymous and unsupported “Whitehall experts”, that “It looks like a continuation of the hybrid warfare deployed by Putin.”

Let’s put aside the fact that calling Russia’s approach hybrid warfare is unhelpful and inaccurate. The tissue-thin evidence on which this is based is that “a number of [the fans] are in the uniformed services” and that “UK police spotters saw some 150 Russia fans ‘tooling up’ with gum shields, fingerless martial arts gloves and bandanas.”

Russia has an inglorious and brutal history of very violent fan-hooligan activity. Any football match where stakes are high and rivalries long-standing tends to be the focus of a massive and heavy-handed police operation that involved truckloads of Interior Troops, hundreds of “cosmonauts” – riot police in full armour – and water cannon at the ready. These fanaty, alas, are more interested in the fight than the game, and train, prepare and kit themselves out accordingly. You don’t have to have been issued a Kremlin playbook to ‘tool up’ – and frankly if the Russians were training them as “hybrid warriors” I’d imagine they could come up with better advice than wearing bandanas.

It also ignores the point that for all the crass public statements from Russian politicians, the government apparatus was actually involved in sharing information with their French counterparts and back in May had already published a bill – since passed in the State Duma – on publicising blacklists of known hooligans. It is also worth mentioning that after first trying to make light of the problem, the embattled Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, then admitted that those involved in the violence “brought shame on their country.”

After all, what benefit would Moscow gain from such “hybrid warfare”? It hardly endears Europe to the Russians, and is not the scale of an issue that meaningfully distracts it from any other activities. It exploits and opens no internal fault lines. All it does is contribute to a sense that Russians are inherently unpleasant, uncivilised, untrustworthy. Indeed, it raises once again the question as to whether Russia is a safe and justified venue for the 2018 World Cup, the last thing the Kremlin wants. (Both for reasons of national pride and also because it is another vehicle for controlled embezzlement by favoured members of the elite.)

So the truth of the matter is complex. The current nationalist line obviously encourages those who choose to see it as granting them license to take their prejudices to the streets. Sometimes, the government actively seeks to use them, especially to intimidate the opposition. Yet the Kremlin is also keenly aware of the risks in uncontrolled violence and its populism has distinct limits. Furthermore, there are many within the government who are simply doing their jobs and embarrassed by and opposed to these law-breakers.

Let us in the West by all means decry the cheap and nasty rhetoric of the Lebedevs of this world, and acknowledge the deep social malaise which engenders this subculture of violent, right-wing, racist and homophobic tribalism. But let’s not try to twist and distort it into a narrative of weaponised everything, not only because it is wrong – though it is – but also because the more we lie to ourselves, the less able we are to deal with the real challenges before us. Every time someone decides to see a shadowy Kremlin hand in something over which it has no real authority, we empower Putin. Whether in over-stating his military might or, as here, seeing every tattooed hooligan as a “little green fan,” we build him up far more than he deserves.

May 2016 Publications Round-Up

A belated summary, delayed by lots of travel and events.

The main publication for May was my lengthy report for the ECFR, Putin’s Hydra: inside Russia’s intelligence services, which I’m pleased to say has become its most-read product yet. The summary is:

Far from being an all-powerful “spookocracy” that controls the Kremlin, Russia’s intelligence web-russias-intelligence-architecture-graphicservices are internally divided, distracted by bureaucratic turf wars, and often produce poor quality intelligence – ultimately threatening the interests of Vladimir Putin himself.

Drawing on extensive interviews with former and current intelligence officials, “Putin’s hydra: Inside Russia’s intelligence services” explains how the spy agencies really work, and argues that Europe’s view of them is patchy and based on outdated caricatures.

The paper punctures the myth that the agencies are the power behind the throne in Russia. They are firmly subordinated to the Kremlin, and Putin plays them off against one another. They are not a united bloc but a disparate group, whose solidarity disappears as soon as there is an opportunity to make money or avoid blame.

The agencies often replicate each others’ work, engaging in bloody competition rather than sharing intelligence. The need to please the Kremlin and deliver quick results leads to shoddy information gathering and analysis. Intelligence chiefs must shape and sugarcoat the facts to suit the president – or risk their jobs.

Fighting for territory, and locked in a Cold-War mindset where “If the West loses, we gain”, Russia’s spy agencies take extreme measures abroad – even assassinations. Their actions in the West may seem tactically effective but are strategically disastrous, painting Russia as an unpredictable threat.

European governments can moderate the agencies’ actions in their countries by adopting a tougher approach. This means investing not just in in counterintelligence but also addressing the governance weaknesses that facilitate the Kremlin’s campaigns, including placing tougher controls on their sources of dirty money.

Articles about the report have appeared in Pan-European Network, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Газета.ру, and (a very kind note by Edward Lucas), the Centre for European Policy Analysis website.

Beyond that:

Spain versus Russia’s kleptocracy,’ ECFR blog, 4 May

Don’t Feed the Troll, and Don’t Reward a Tantrum,’ Russia! magazine, 4 May

The Russian patriot’s dilemma,’ Business New Europe, 9 May

Putinism won’t end with a bang, but a warrant‘, openDemocracy: Russia, 10 May

Why the departure of Putin’s chief bodyguard actually matters,’ ECFR blog, 26 May

Russia’s pessimism paradox,’ Business New Europe, 30 May

Also, the video of a joint event with Alexander Golts at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Russia’s “New Way of War”: Not so new, and not just war, can be watched here.

 

 

Dmitri Kochnev: the elusive new FSO director, and thus Putin’s primary protector

Evgeny Murov, the long-time head of the Federal Guard Service (FSO) finally got his wish, to retire, and in the process Russia may have become a little less stable — I explain why in a piece over on the ECFR website, here, but the essence is:

In short, however perverse it may sound, this most Praetorian and loyalist of agencies actually helped keep Putin grounded and the system stable. But Murov personally was clearly a driving force, not least because he evidently had no thoughts of personal advancement in mind. Is Kochnev able to play the same role? Willing? Even aware of it? That’s hard to see, and the 51-year old Kochnev, whose entire life has been spent within the FSO, is less likely to see his future as being heading the FSO for the next nine-plus years. Even if he is content with his new office, will any of his rivals believe it, anyway?

Now we are getting a little more granular information about the background of his successor, Dmitri Viktorovich Kochnev, although the official line raises as many questions as answers them. This is what the official bio on the FSO website says:

He was born in Moscow in 1964

He served in the military 1982-84

Then he went straight into “the security agencies of the USSR and the Russian Federation,” 1984-2002

In 2002, he has been in the FSO, in 2015 becoming deputy director of the FSO and head of the Presidential Security Service (SBP). He became a colonel in 2006 (expect that to change soon) and he is married.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 18.27.30

Not exactly a lot to go on.According to his income declaration, in 2015, he earned 3.3 million rubles, but his wife more than 58 million. (The average monthly wage as of January 2015 was 31,200 rubles, for an annual 375,000 rubles, so he did OK.) There have been suggestions Kochnev was close to former SBP chief and now National Guard praetorian-in-chief Viktor Zolotov, and counter suggestions that he wasn’t (see Vedomosti here).

The real question is what he was doing in that shadowy period 1984-2002. Was he part of the KGB’s Ninth Directorate (the precursor of the FSO)? In that case why not simply transfer across to the FSO when it was established in 1996 out of the GUO (Main Guard Directorate, 1993-96)? There has been the suggestion he worked in RUBOP, the old (and in some ways quite notorious) Regional Directorate for the Struggle Against Organised Crime. These were formed in 1992, and so he may have jumped, through the 1991-92 chaos, from KGB to the Moscow RUBOP. In 2001, the RUBOPs were folded into the MVD’s regional Main Directorates (GUs), though, so this might explain another shift, if there was no room for him in the MVD or he simply preferred a more exalted service.

But then why not say so? I honestly don’t know. It is not as if being in RUBOP is some monstrously embarrassing past indiscretion. I feel there has to be something there, maybe simply that he was in proximity to some scandal or the like. Eventually, it will out: Russian journalists are no less tenacious than their Western counterparts and perhaps precisely because of the difficult environment in which they operate can be even shrewder in ferreting out the facts. I doubt this is especially important in itself, but the very opacity says something about the culture of today’s Russia, that even a public figure’s resume from twenty years back can be considered none of our business.

Meanwhile, let’s see how he measures up to the job…

 

 

 

 

April 2016 Publications Round-Up

Slightly premature, as there may be an eleventh-hour addition, but here is the April tally:

The Panama Papers show how corruption really works in Russia,’ Vox, 4 April

Moscow’s mercenaries in Syria,’ War On The Rocks, 5 April

Zolotov: Kadyrov’s Golden Roof?,’ Russia! magazine, 12 April

Russia’s ‘Panamization’ of politics,’ Business New Europe, 13 April

Bastrykin’s manifesto for the ‘North Koreanisation’ of Russia‘, Business New Europe, 18 April

Марк Галеотти: «Иногда мафию от бизнеса даже не отличишь»‘, interview in Slon, 19 April [in Russian]

The Putin myth: the Russian leader isn’t nearly as powerful as you think,’ Vox, 19 April

Assessing the myth of Vladimir Putin,’ interview with NPR, 28 April

Rusijos ekspertas Markas Galeotti: „Vladimirui Putinui Baltijos šalys nerūpi“‘, interview with 15.min, 28 April [in Lithuanian]

What makes Vladimir Putin so special?‘, interview podcast for Reuters War College, 29 April [ADDED]

I’d also add that I am now a contributing editor for Russia for Intellinews Business New Europe, so expect to see more of my thoughts there in the future…

 

Russia and Europe: the problem with being family, not just neighbours

RussiaEuropeI’ve just transferred from Moscow to London on the next leg of my travels, and have been catching up on podcasts. In a recent one from the Sean’s Russia Blog SRB Podcasts series, Andrei Tsygankov from SFSU was discussing Russian foreign policy. I agreed with some of his views, disagreed with others, but what struck when he very vigorously made the case that Russia considers itself part of Europe, even if sometimes it finds itself strongly arguing with the ‘rest’ of the continent. I think this is absolutely right; regardless of talk of ‘Eurasianism’ and the like amongst the chattering and governing classes, in my experience Russians of every political complexion and socio-economic status look westwards and consider themselves part of a wider European civilisation. Of course, this leads to problems and miscommunications. I have lost count how many times in the past couple of years Russians have felt the need to tell me, almost invariably in sorrow rather than anger, that the West is treating Russia badly, almost invariably couched in terms of not just common interests but common identity. The very reason for the splenetic way that Moscow responds to what it sees as slights and insults from its neighbours is precisely because they are not neighbours but family. The most savage rows are always with family, after all.

But I’d add that this goes both ways, in a rather different fashion. I would suggest that the West does treat Russia differently from other inconvenient, authoritarian, even insurgent powers. It is not just that Putin is Putin, or that Russia a nuclear power, or even a legacy of the Cold War. The standards for democracy, transparency and rule of law that we expect from Russia — loudly complaining when they are not met, and funding NGOs and the like to uphold — are not the same as those we look for in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Azerbaijan, in Thailand, even in China.

I’m sure there are many reasons (beyond that Russia doesn’t buy our weapons, make our iPhones, or cozy up to us), but one is, I suspect, a kind of reverse Orientalism. In the main, Russian cities look like “our” cities; in the main, Russians look like “us”; in the main, Russian institutions at least appear to be based on the same premises as “ours.”

On some level, I imagine, we look at countries with clearly different ethnic, religious, cultural, historical, political foundations as the West’s and don’t really expect them to be wholly like us. In the modern Whig historical trajectory that places us as the pinnacle of human socio-political evolution, we give them a pass for being further down the road. But the Russians are enough like “us” that somehow we feel their — in our eyes — backwardness and even wilful wandering from the proper path as being all the more poignant and infuriating.

I am ultimately an optimist about Russia of a very European sort; I think they are genuinely embarked at last on a journey that, once the national traumas Putin represents have been worked through, will bring them squarely into a European democratic, liberal, rule of law cultural fold. But it won’t be immediate, it won’t be easy, and we need, without in any way condoning abuses, to accept that Russia cannot and will not be like “us” tomorrow. And if we do want to critique Moscow (as we ought), then we should apply the same standards across the board, and not single Russia out for specially critical scrutiny. That kind of familiar “tough love” does no one any favours.

Four Security-Related Take-Aways from Putin’s ‘Direct Line’ Show

IMG_7279Another marathon (3 hours 40 minutes) ‘Direct Line’ show is over as Putin fielded the usual array of carefully-selected questions from the nation. As ever, one has to give him credit for being willing to do this at all, however staged it is (I don’t see Western leaders lining up to emulate him), although in the main it is beginning to feel like the series of a long-running show just before it gets axed, the lines predictable, the leads tired, the magic gone…

As such, not a great deal worth flagging up from a security-related perspective, but Read the full post »

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