The reports of the death of the Russian defence budget have been greatly exaggerated

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No more new toys? (c) Mark Galeotti 2014

Yesterday HIS Jane’s (disclosure: I have written them for decades, and respect their work) came out with the eye-catching assertion that “Russia announces deepest defence budget cuts since 1990s.” It continues that the “Federal Treasury have [sic] confirmed that Russia’s defence budget has been cut by 25.5% for 2017, falling from RUB3.8 trillion (USD65.4 billion) to RUB2.8 trillion.”

A 25.5% cut? Even if “Despite the cut, the 2017 budget will remain about 14.4% higher than the level of defence spending seen in 2014 in nominal terms” that is still a massive story, and spells the end to planned modernisations, especially given the inelasticities in the budget (upkeep and maintenance, salaries, etc). And in December, it had been agreed to but the budget not by the 10% MinFin wanted but a moderate 6%.

So what happened? Needless to say, all is not quite what it seems. After all, it is important to note that the Federal Treasury (Federal’noe kaznacheistvo) is not so much a budget-setting as accounting office, essentially a comptroller, and operates under some quite strict parameters. It accounts funds allocated and spent along specific budget line items, and in the process its apparent defence spend tallies do not, it seems to me, reflect the impact of debt repayment. It is also worth noting that the Treasury tracks money spent, and if one looks at 2016, according to the Ministry of Economy, the State Defence Order was only 88% executed. That alone may look like a 12% procurement cut through the Treasury prism. So, the data may well not truly show planned so much as predicted spending.

Let’s note that even more so in the West, Russian defence and security expenditures often appear under different budget lines and obscure headings. Pre-conscription physical and skills training outsourced to schools through the revived GTO (Ready for Labour and Defence) programme comes out of the education budget, much support for military science is under education, science and research, and part of the aid and development budget is likely paying for mercenaries in Syria.

Finally, it is crucial to appreciate that much of the defence spend, especially on procurement, is not just about military power but economic and political necessity. Key industries, on whose health cities and regions depend, are kept afloat through military procurement. Any major cuts, which would inevitably have to be focused on buying new toys, would have a disastrous impact…and do so in the year-long run-up to the next presidential election, intended as something of a triumphant coronation and celebration of Putin.

So the upshot is, yes, under budgetary pressure (and the probable need to have money to spend on buying votes in 2018), the defence budget is being pruned. But not by a quarter.

From Trump’s Washington to the Capitals of Europe, Corruption is Russia’s Greatest Ally

The steady drumbeat of Russian contacts with Trump’s team on one level should not surprise. The Russians – like most real and wannabe global powers – assiduously network, hoping to gather insights and make connections that can later be parlayed into access and impact. This is, however, a case study of the way that the dirty little vices of modern democracy, from the inter-connectivity of transnational and untransparent business interests to the use of money and flattery to buy a voice, all the ways in which democracy becomes distorted by money, serve as a force multiplier for predatory authoritarian kleptocracies.

In fact, my view is that for the West today, the greatest security threat is not Russian tanks or Russian disinformation, it is our own corruption – and the ways Russia seeks to use it.

Let’s look at the Trump White House. I still have serious doubts about some of the headline allegations kicked off by Steele’s ‘Trump dossier,’ from the ‘salacious’ stuff (that has become the code word of choice, after all…), to the suggestion that Trump has been given 19% of oil giant Rosneft as the bribe of the millennium in return for lifting sanctions. (Though that would mean we know the market value of the White House: about $11 billion.) Much more plausible is the general picture of regular, lower-level contacts between Russian officials and American movers and shakers, regardless of the serious tensions between their countries.

There are all kinds of contacts which are appropriate, unavoidable, and wholly acceptable. Some of the administration’s more strident critics need to be reminded that not every Russian is a spy or a gangster. However, all the mysterious bouts of amnesia or dependence on covert meetings suggests that even the participants realise they are transgressing the acceptable, and that they are probably not meeting simply to further international cooperation or exchange banalities about the weather.

In a dark past, America was ripped apart by the search for reds under the beds. Much of this was paranoid witch-hunting, but there were indeed those motivated by ideology, a sense that the Soviet Union represented something greater for humanity. Today? Sure, some imbecilic racists and blinkered social conservatives may believe that Putin’s Russia stands for their values, but the people we are talking about, the people who matter, are in the main neither simpletons nor idealists, but pragmatically self-interested.

Those in Trump’s campaign and his administration who retain links with Russians do so not because they are dazzled by Putin, less yet by Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. They do so because it suits and pleases them, because the Russians offer something: flattery, information, personal gain.

This is not necessarily the crude corruption of a suitcase of cash in return for documents or a favourable vote. It is rather the more insidious corruption of hooking people on the notion that the Russians can help you get closer to your financial and personal goals. After all, the biggest differences between this new Cold War and the old one is that there is little real ideological dimension, and our societies and economies are now incestuously connected. Russians buy penthouses in London and New York, Americans buy Russian stocks, Russian-funded media buy insert spreads in Western newspapers, and so forth. Much of this is essentially innocent, or at least as innocent as modern capitalism can be, but these are the wellsprings of the global rivers in which Moscow’s spies and agents of influence can freely swim.

In other words, the real story is about the way that the rich and the powerful may regard Russia as a geopolitical antagonist, and yet be happy to cut deals with Russians if it helps them become richer and more powerful.

But this is not just an American story. In Europe, too, corruption is Moscow’s friend. From the lobby groups which agitate against the Ukraine sanctions because they are suffering as a result, to the politicians happy to mobilise anti-US and anti-EU sentiment with the aid of Russian money and airtime to their own ends, this is a widespread issue.

The greatest danger, I would suggest, is not so much the overt ‘Putin-understanders’ such as the Czech Republic’s President Miloš Zeman or Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Of course, they are convenient for Moscow, not least because their words can be retransmitted for propaganda purposes, and their sentiments erode the European consensus on punishing Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. But at the same time, these are not fifth columnists looking to hand over their country to Putin.

The real threats are those motivated not by naïve or contrarian but probably genuine and consistent beliefs, but by corruption. These are the cynics and opportunists, and they are dangerous for several reasons. First of all, unlike the Zemans and Orbans of this world, they may be subtle and covert, couching their lobbying and sabotage in the language of good business sense, or European resistance to American ‘bullying,’ or whatever other rationalisation seems more appropriate. They can also be used as deniable fronts for Russian operations; the continuing (if unproven) belief that then-head of Lukoil in the Czech Republic Martin Nejedly funded Zeman’s campaign on Moscow’s behest (for which he was later recompensed) is a perfect example. Was this just a case of a Czech funding a Czech campaign, openly and entirely within the law, or foreign interference? And how do you prove the latter?

Secondly, they are self-propelled. They do not look to the Kremlin for instructions, although inevitably sometimes Moscow will seek to direct them. They will look for ways to advance their own causes, sometimes actually by seeking new ways to make themselves useful, because usefulness is rewarded. If it is true that members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to get him elected, did the Russians drive the whole process, or at what point did their American interlocutors begin to make suggestions and requests? You do not need to corrupt those who are already corrupt, and who will instead approach you and see what you are willing to offer.

Thirdly, they not only take advantage of the fluidity of modern capital and ideas, the difficulty modern states have in proving where money came from, where ultimately ownership of an asset lies. They actively seek to protect and extend this system. The drug lord, the spy, the terrorist, and the ruthless financial-political player all have a shared interest in foiling efforts to reverse this process. From the struggle to extend anti-kleptocracy laws in London, to the death-of-a-thousand-amendments facing new transparency laws in Prague, this is a battle being fought across the West, and yet one we have yet properly to appreciate is about security as much as fighting crime or controlling corporate malpractice.

The difficulty in regulating finances, the challenges addressing disinformation, and the failure often to monitor and limit campaign contributions, are all aspects of a common and systemic problem of corruption. The Russians – and not only the Russians – are taking fullest advantage of this, and this makes it one of the most important battlefields of a conflict which is as much as anything else about values, laws and ideas. What is being played out in Washington is as much as anything else a case study in how pernicious and wide-spread the challenge has become.

New book: The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016

mra-cover-smallToday is Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Russia and, as if cunningly planned (but in fact a completely fortuitous coincidence) my latest book, The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016 (Osprey) was released. Available as a paperback or ebook, it includes once again colour plates by the excellent Johnny Shumate, an order of battle, and my general take on the evolution and prospects for Putin’s army. It was able to include early developments from Syria and the Donbas. The table of contents is:

Introduction.
Born in Crisis – the 1990s: creating a new army in the wreckage of the USSR – First Chechen War – peacekeeping missions – the damaging ‘grandfather’ culture in the ranks.
‘Reform Tomorrow’ – the 2000s: slow beginnings of reform under Putin – Second Chechen War – uncertainty and inertia at the top – the Cossack revival. The Georgian Turning Point – 2008: profiting from errors and lessons – Defense Minister Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff Makarov force through reforms.
The Russian Army Today: structures, organization, chain of command – major annual exercise cycles, and what they teach us.
Two Armies: the reformed one-third, and the unreformed two-thirds. The human dimension: volunteer soldiers and conscripts – Ukraine – continuing problem of crime in the military.
Intervention Forces: Air Assault and Naval troops – Spetsnaz – anti-piracy operations – Crimea – ‘non-linear war’ doctrine.
Tools of the Trade: weapons, vehicles, specialist AFVs – latest ‘Ratnik’ uniforms and equipment – drones.
Select Bibliography

Video: Russia’s Hybrid War: What Does it Really Mean, And How Should the West Respond?

hybridwarjan2017On 10 January 2017, I spoke at an event organised by the Institute of International Relations Prague (UMV) at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (to whom I must express my thanks for the use of the splendid Mirror Hall).

The video is now available at the IIR’s YouTube page, here. The blurb is below, and you can find the report around which I was speaking here.

The challenge of Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ remains one of the main concerns of Western policy-makers, yet quite what does this mean, and how can it best be resisted? Dr Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and one of the world’s leading experts on Russian security has recently completed two major analyses of the issue, his comprehensive report Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right (Mayak) and Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s political use of its military in Europe since 2014 (European Council on Foreign Relations).

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“Propaganda needs to be clever, smart and efficient” But Russian army’s ‘information troops’ are not just propagandists…

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Ready to go full Strangelove?

News that (surprise, surprise) the Russian military has a dedicated information warfare force (VOI: Войска информационных операций, Voiska informatsionnykh operatsii) and, indeed, that it has been operating for four years has been heralded as evidence of a ‘propaganda command.’ While the whole issue of disinformation (aka “fake news”) is obviously the bugbear of the moment in the West, and Defence Minister Shoigu chose to talk about the propaganda side of things (“propaganda needs to be clever, smart and efficient”), it is worth briefly noting that when the Russians talk about information operations, they mean something different from us.

To the Russians, information operations (IO) means everything involving information, so not just propaganda and counter-propaganda, but also disinformation, psychological operations, and even cyberwarfare. Things we tend to silo (and also label with weasel expressions such as “strategic communications,” which could perhaps be glibly described as “propaganda we like”), to the Russians are all part of one seamless domain relating to the human, morale-and-will side of warfare.

The Russians first really came to realise this was needed after the 2008 Georgian War, but in light of the current ‘hybrid’ “political war” being waged against the West, their role within Moscow’s strategy is only increasing. Though at the same time, the Russians continue to deny that they have any offensive cyberwarfare capability. As, for that matter, does pretty much everyone else, just as implausibly…

 

The NYT story on “Trump associates” and Russian spooks: some questions

The latest story about Trump-Russia links comes from the New York Times and says that according to anonymous “current and former American officials”, “at least three” “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates” “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. Sounds very alarming, but the lack of any real information, the anonymous sourcing, and the minimal digging from the NYT means that it is all terribly insubstantial. It could be a massive story, it could be a trivial nothing (or a smear) – as is, we do not yet know enough to say. The result is that this is another one of those stories that really tell us more about ourselves than anything else, as we see in it what we expect or want to see.

To reach any serious conclusions, we need to know the answers to at least three basic questions:

Did the Trump associates know they were dealing with Russian spooks? They could have been Russian embassy officials, journalists, businesspeople, even non-Russians. It makes a huge difference. After all, one would expect spooks to be trying to gather information on the campaign, likely future policy trends, etc – it’s what spooks do.

Are these associates of any real substance? The only one cited is the usual Paul Manafort, who seems to have been of only brief and slight importance. Are these close aides or simply someone who raised funds in New Jersey for a few months?

Is there any suggestion they were told what to do or otherwise tasked or rewarded by the Russians? In other words, were they made active assets, or did they simply have a few conversations with someone who wanted to hear their views?

Based on the answers to these questions, we might begin to know whether there is evidence of a long-term conspiracy or simply the inevitable sniffing around of foreign intelligence officers, especially with an essentially unprofessional and inchoate campaign. Finding that out needs to be the focus of a serious and unbiased enquiry. But how possible is that in the current environment?

The NYT’s sources “spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.” In other words, they leaked a current intelligence investigation. One can hardly claim that this is whistleblowing in the public interest, because the enquiry is ongoing; it is not a matter of exposing a cover-up or the like. Instead – and I say this as someone with absolutely no liking for the Trump regime – this is essentially a political hit. As the US intelligence community, or at least parts of it, increasingly appears at war with the White House, this is inevitably going to have a corrosive effect for years to come.

Whether or not the Kremlin was trying to suborn the Trump campaign, this crisis within the US ‘silovik’ community, this opening rift in Washington, cannot help but be useful to them. All they need do is buy popcorn and watch the show.

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