First thoughts on Nemtsov’s posthumous “Putin. War.” report on Russian operations in Ukraine

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Putin. War., the report on the Ukrainian adventure that Boris Nemtsov was working on when he was murdered, has been released, completed by Ilya Yashin and other allies and cohorts. It’s an interesting document, even if it essentially fleshes out what we already knew rather than saying anything truly novel (the section on the MH17 shoot-down, adding to the chorus of voices blaming the rebels, largely draws on existing, available studies, for example). That’s not in any way to undermine the genuine bravery of those people involved in the project, including not just Yashin but a range of opposition-minded figures from Oleg Kashin to Ekaterina Vinokurova. But I think it does put paid to the suggestion that Nemtsov was assassinated to prevent the report from coming out, especially as now it will probably get more coverage than it would otherwise.

Anyway, here are a few first thoughts on the report:

I’m not convinced contingency plans necessarily mean intent. Of course the Crimean operation had been carefully planned, and that takes time. The report implicitly places a desire to annex Crimea in the context of slipping political support for the regime, even hinting at summer 2013, let alone before Yanukovych’s fall. This is one area which failed to convince me. Military establishments have plans for all kinds of contingencies, ranging from the probable to the plausible; there is a Russian plan for war with China, for example, but not for a moment do I think anyone in the Kremlin is lunatic enough to want such a nightmare. I understand there was a long-standing plan in the vaults of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, and that as soon as the friendly regime in Kiev looked in trouble, it was taken out and updated. But I also understand that the final stage was something of a rush job. This was an opportunist move, not part of some long-term strategy.

Russian troops were involved from the get-go. Of course it has been clear that this has been a Russian-engineered operation from the first. Moscow says otherwise, but then again Moscow said the “polite people” weren’t Russian troops…until Putin chose to boast that they were. (All states lie; but today’s Kremlin seems to do so with particular poker-faced enthusiasm.) The report usefully explores the level of Russian forces in-country, with some good analysis of the “vacationer” mercenary/volunteer presence, as well, worth reading alongside other reports.

Russian casualties: tragic but supportable politically, yet potentially a burden militarily. The report suggests at least 220 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine (and implies rather more), with some impressive detective work to determine who, where, and from which units (essentially paratrooper divisions). Tragic, to be sure…but as many Russians die on the country’s roads every two and a half days (a horrifying stat in its own right). While of course political impact isn’t simply a matter of numbers (if it were, Moscow would be doing a lot more about those roads), combine relatively few casualties with media control, and I don’t think the sheer number of “load 200” deaths will in itself become too great a problem.

That said, most of the forces there are paratroopers or Spetsnaz, the cream of the Russian military. If the toll continues, never mind escalates, even if it is not a political issue, then it will begin to gnaw away at military effectiveness. Yes, real combat is an excellent way to identify and develop good leaders, battle harden your troops, test your weapons and tactics. But the negative effects of losing elite troops, added to exhaustion and possible demoralization (the Afghan War proved that no one likes fighting undeclared and unadmitted conflicts) can outweigh these.

The ruble costs: serious, escalating and having a real impact. For me, perhaps the most interesting section was the last one, on the economic costs of the “Donbass operation.” (Obviously Crimea is a whole other story.) Their estimates are obviously just that, and based on a fair amount of extrapolation and guesstimation, but this section was drafted by a serious economist, Sergei Aleksashenko, the former deputy chair of the Russian central bank, and deserves to be taken equally serious. The headline claim is that Moscow spent at least 53 billion rubles (say $1 billion) on the actual operation, with another Rs 80 billion ($1.5 billion) on support for refugees, etc.

Together, they represent only just under 1% of the total federal budget (Rs. 15 trillion), which might seem not so much. However, that’s roughly as much as the government will spend on its environmental protection and tourism programs for the whole year. Furthermore, the report explores the wider impact, not least how sanctions imposed because of the conflict have triggered inflation, and the cost of this to Russia and also to individual Russians. In many ways the economic implications of the war are having by far the most serious direct impact on Russia, and this report does valuable service in helping us understand and quantify it.

“Vladimir Putin is a TV star.” The section on propaganda and the war likewise may not say much that is new, but it says it very well, and rightly focuses on the crucial impact of TV in the modern propaganda campaign.

Moscow Correspondence (3): ‘Donbas: 365 days of the ATO’

On one of my last days in this trip to Moscow, I went to the VDNKh (no one seems to call it by its new, post-Soviet title of VVTs, even the posters read VDNKh). It was a cold, wet day and most of the people around were workers sprucing the place up for the later spring and summer, but my objective was the Ukraine pavilion which, with a certain vicious irony, is now the home of ‘Donbas: 365 Days of the ATO‘ [Anti-Terrorism Operation — what Kiev calls its military campaign against the rebels]. Past some of the toughest security checks I encountered this trip, I found an exhibition which took the undoubted horrors of the campaign (and let’s be honest, Kiev pulled few punches, and the often-indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets has helped harden rebel sentiment in the region) but often turned it into a haunted house-style horror show in the name of propaganda. We’re talking replicas of bombed out strobed with red lighting, pictures of dolls in rubble, the works. In many ways, I suppose, this is a metaphor for much of the worst kind of Russian propaganda: taking a basis of truth, but then turning into a macabre spectacle of one-sided caricature. An interesting experience, and worth the time spent schlepping there through the rain, but an unsettling one for both the intended and unintended reasons.

Moscow Correspondence (2): Taste and Hear the Patriotism

As the 70th anniversary Victory Day celebrations near (counted down on the video display board on Kutuzovsky Bridge), themes of victory, the Great Patriotic War and the St George’s ribbon proliferate. Here is just a small sample, from concerts to ice creams.

Moscow Correspondence (1): Russian Railways on the Patriotic Bandwagon

While I’m here in Moscow for a couple of weeks teaching a course for MGIMO-University, I’ll take the opportunity to post some random observations. The first is that the “70 years since the end of the Great Patriotic Bandwagon” is as predictably a Big Thing as one would expect but also, and I suspect not least thanks to the current national (or at least Kremlin) mood become a competition of sorts. Equally predictably, Russian Railways (RZhD) boss Vladimir Yakunin, everyone’s favourite KGB veteran/Putin chum/Orthodox Chekist booster, is not going to let such an opportunity pass by and RZhD “we are proud and remember” billboards greet you at the airport and dominate several city landmarks, including a massive video one that provides a veritable multi-stage history of the railways and WW2…

At Sheremetevo airport

At Sheremetevo airport

The massive video display board at the corner of Novy Arbat and Nikitsky

The massive video display board at the corner of Novy Arbat and Nikitsky

No Coups Today…

"Nah, nah, he's only resting."

“Nah, nah, he’s only resting.”

Putin’s continued absence from the public scene and his unexpected calling off of a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart led to a tsunami of rumour, supposition, denial and outright fantasy. He was dead. He had had a stroke. He was in Switzerland on the birth of his latest love-child. He was hiding from having to make difficult decisions between Kadyrov and the FSB. There had been or was a coup… I’ve no idea where Putin is now, and what’s his health like. Unless the Armenian president is part of a conspiracy — not impossible, but unlikely — then we do know that he (or, if you really want to follow the paranoid route, and go for a really, really unlikely possibility, a gifted mimic) had a phone conversation with Putin on Thursday 12th. A phone conversation could have been patched through from wherever, and Putin could have spoken from a sick bed, so other options could still apply, but at least this suggests no need to start planning the state funeral.

What about a coup, especially a military one? Again, I’m unconvinced. Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup; that seems to me much more likely than a willing retirement (assuming his health lasts), let alone stepping aside after losing an election (hah!). However, this seems far too soon to me. It will have to be something like the move that ousted Khrushchev, a reflection of near-enough elite consensus, and we’re not anywhere near that now. Things will have to get worse, for longer, for that to become a possibility. And as regards a military coup, that is one thing Russia is actually quite inoculated against. The military does not have a tradition of political involvement (remember, most held back from active support of the 1991 August Coup and Yeltsin’s 1993 coup against the Supreme Soviet alike), Shoigu is hardly the kind of bloody-handed adventurer we’d see as a likely prospect, and there is a powerful control network. The FSB and FSO (Federal Guard Service) both monitor the loyalties of the military and the balance of forces in Moscow itself (two army divisions, the FSO’s Kremlin Guard, the Interior Troops’ ODON ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, plus the police and FSB) is to a large extent an exercise in ensuring no one agency could mount a swift seizure of power itself.

Besides, were this happening or even possible, we’d see troop movements, unexplained dismissals or ‘accidents,’ and public rhetoric to match. Russians would have been hearing that Putin was ill, as a prelude to the announcement of his ‘retirement,’ or else they’s be being warned of the prevalence of ‘traitors’ in the ranks, to rationalise the subsequent purge. Instead, there is nothing of the sort.

Whatever the reason for Putin’s current absence — and it could yet be something serious — this is being handled clumsily, yes, but the Kremlin spin is definitely that there is nothing to see here, move right along. It is instead I feel a mark of the heightened and even feverish mood amongst the Muscovite chattering classes and their Kremlin-watching interlocutors and counterparts outside the country that this is being made something more than it probably is.

And yet that mood in itself matters. The news of the phone call — and the rumours of another mini-Putin — have helped dampen the flames, but still the longer before we get a real, credible evidence of Putin’s health (so no still publicity shots, nor yet footage of insider meetings that could easily have been taken previously), then the more the speculation will rage, and the more likely it is that the tsar is, if not dead, somehow seriously impaired. And then all bets are off; so much of Putin’s self-image but also public persona are tied into his image as the bare-shirted Chuck Norris of leaders, that although there may be no practical reason why he could not still rule, he will probably get a first-hand lesson in how far politics is a subjective rather than objective art.

Known Knowns and the Nemtsov Murder

Nemtsov-deathI write this post in some trepidation. I have become increasingly concerned and even somewhat irked by a lot of the easy misstatement of basic facts around Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the way that those determined to see this as a “Kremlin hit” are interpreting every fact or inference as proof thereof. I’m on record as saying that I do not know, but think it unlikely it was a state-sanctioned assassination. (Though that does not wholly exculpate the Kremlin for stirring up the toxic passions which I think were more likely to have led to the killing.) Many of the aspects of the murder which “prove” to some Putin’s direct fingerprints as questionable and I think that it is important to understand what we do and do not know, what we can legitimately claim as fact and what is actually just opinion. This does not in any way “prove” that the Kremlin didn’t have Nemtsov killed, just that none of this necessarily proves anything either way. The very “death of neutrality” about which I wrote in my previous post on the murder ensures that there will be those who regard this as tantamount to running interference for the Kremlin, alas. If anyone is interested, my “agenda” is simply that I happen to believe that facts and the truth are important. “And the truth shall set your free” is, to me, a much more compelling slogan than “And a more effective use of lies will set you free”… (Oh, and also for the record: all those ludicrous claims that Nemtsov was killed by the CIA, or by the Ukrainian SBU, or by other oppositionists looking for a martyr. They are even more ridiculous and, unlike the “Putin dunnit” claims, usually offensively so.) Read the full post »

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