Turkey shoots down a Russian jet and we return to the 19th century


Su24shootdownIs the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 ‘Fencer’ bomber by a Turkish fighter – the first direct NATO vs Russia combat incident – a big deal or not? My first thoughts are that the answer is probably not, at least not in the long term, but we can expect a fair amount of overt sound and fury on the one hand, and probably some covert retribution from Moscow, too. WW3 is not, however, on the cards.

The Russians are saying it was on the Syrian side of the border, the Turks say the plane was on theirs. I have no idea at this stage which is true, although it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the Russian jet had intruded. Putting aside the (remote) possibility of pilot error, Moscow has been willing to cross into NATO airspace in the past and may even had an operational reason for doing so, perhaps trying to set up an attack run on a rebel convoy or facility on the Turkish border. After all, let’s not forget that Ankara is playing an active role in the Syrian civil war, and in its eagerness to hammer Kurds, wherever they may be, arguably supporting some pretty toxic elements.

Moscow may well have been assuming the Turks would be as restrained as other NATO members, which was an undoubted mistake. Putting aside any cultural stereotypes, Ankara is not only embarked in a campaign to assert itself as a regional power, it also sees Moscow as a sometimes partner-of-convenience, but also local rival. Russian intelligence officers have assassinated Chechen fundraisers in Turkey, and generally the Kremlin has shown little signs of seeing in Ankara a serious ally, partner or player, even in the days when Putin and Erdogan were getting along. Only this Friday, Russia’s ambassador had been given a dressing down about the bombing of Turkish-backed rebels. It may well be that Ankara leapt at the opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and also show that it was a serious player.

Putin’s immediate response has been mordant and tough, accusing Turkey of stabbing Russia in the back, of in effect protecting ISIS, and running to its NATO powers as if it has been one of its own aircraft that had been shot down. We can expect some kind of retaliation on the political-economic front (maybe stopping Turkish airliners coming to Russian airports?) and maybe also some unloading of additional serious ordnance on Turkish-backed elements in Syria. However, I suspect neither Moscow nor, at the very least, the other European NATO powers will want to let this go too far. Russia cannot fight hot diplomatic wars on too many fronts, and Europe clearly wants Moscow to be part of the solution in Syria and maybe Ukraine, too. And, frankly, there is in many capitals concern about Turkey, its agenda and its role in the region. Much will depend on where Washington falls, of course, but if Moscow can get even a crumb of contrition from Ankara or sympathy from Europe, then we can expect this to be splashed on Russian TV and allow the Kremlin to let this slide a little.

But even in this best-case scenario, I don’t imagine that will be the end to it. Moscow has already been willing to operate inside Turkey covertly, and is engaged in political tussles over influence in the South Caucasus as well as Middle East. I would expect some uptick in ‘mischief’ – perhaps some support for the Kurds or other violent extreme movements, for example – as well as a more assiduous campaign to push back and stymie Turkish regional ambitions.

It’s often said, with good reason, that Putin really wants a return to 19th century geopolitics, when might made right and realpolitik was all. Let’s not forget that one of the defining 19th century conflicts was that between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which were sometimes openly at war, sometimes ostensibly at peace, but never anything than enemies. Here we go again.

A Tale of Two Cities and their security conferences

 This has been definitely the week of Central European security, with both the Warsaw Security Forum and the Riga Conference. I was delighted and honored to be invited to attend and speak at both, a chance to do the usual networking, hear a variety of interesting perspectives, pontificate, and also to see Warsaw for (to my shame) the first time and renew my acquaintanceship with Riga (always a pleasure). At the WSF, I participated in the opening panel on ‘The Rise of the West in a post-Western World’ alongside two former presidents (Saakashvili of Georgia and Landsbergis of Lithuania) and a former foreign minister (Jeremič of Serbia) ably chaired by Katarzyna Pisarska.  Am not sure whether or not the session will be made available on line (I’ll update this blog with a link, if so), but the event also provided an opportunity for Brian Whitnore of RFE/RL and me to record an episode of The Power Vertical podcast face to face, for a change.
In Riga, I was speaking at the panel on ‘Quo Vadis 21st Century Russia?’ and again in exalted company: President Toomas Ilves of Estonia, Celeste Wallander (Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia at the US National Security Council) and Prof. Anton Malgin (Vice-Rector, MGIMO). The session is available at the LATO YouTube channel – my opening (and overlong) remarks start at around 24 minutes in. I also gave TV interviews for Latvian TV and also Ukraine’s Hromadske internet channel (update: this is available on the Hromadske YouTube channel here; my segment starts at around minute 45). This ended up in many ways divided between a focus on the here and now and Russia’s activities abroad and the longer term and Russia’s development at home. Prof. Malgin, who unfortunately but inevitably ended up being the proxy target for the room’s concerns with and angers towards Russia, tried to present Moscow’s role as positive and constructive, but overall — and given that this was in a Baltic state bordering on Russia, this is hardly surprising — the mood was critical and even alarmed.

There were differences between the two events. The WSF was closer to an official summit: more of the participants were current or former senior officials, and so the discussion from the podium tended to be at once more authoritative and more formal. RC, held in the splendid National Library of Latvia, was more informal and as a result the discussion felt more free and inclined to iconoclasm.

However, what was striking were rather the common ground between the events. There was a clear fear of Russia — not just a concern, or an irritation, but a fear, born presumably of the fact that both countries border Russia and have recent and painful memory of Soviet invasion and occupation. The prospect of direct Russian military action, while not seen as likely, was nonetheless considered to be sufficiently possible to merit serious discussion.

Given that the threat is not just military, though, there was also much discussion about societal security, about how to reduce the scope for Russian manipulation, part of what I have called “hybrid defense” and something that is much more advanced (again, for obvious reasons) in Scandinavia and the Baltic region than elsewhere. I’d still rather see more emphasis yet on the risks from organized crime and dirty money (Latvia, I’m looking especially at you here), but nonetheless very encouraging.

Overall, though,  perception of Russia seemed very starkly negative, again which shouldn’t surprise (although the region has some excellent scholars of the country) but which I found a bit less uplifting. I felt my pretty limited attempts to introduce some nuance and scale — for example, suggesting we should see Russia not simply as a rapacious kleptocracy, and driven as much by weakness and insecurity as some kind of imperialist agenda — fell in some cases on quite stony ground.

I was delighted to attend both events. Excellent discussions, a chance to meet old friends and make new ones, and how many conferences have their own ‘branded’ apples (Warsaw) or give copper sundials as gifts (Riga)? In particular, as next year I spend more time exploring not just Russian perspectives of the current crisis and their hybrid/full-spectrum/nonlinear/whatever-we-end-up-calling-it war approach, especially as relates to non-military means, from crooks and spooks to banks and think tanks, I plan also to tap the first-rate and practical expertise so evident in Central Europe, the Baltic and Nordic states.

If US Intelligence on Russia is Broken (A Bit), What Can Be Done To Help Fix It?

How can we know what he's thinking?

How can we know what he’s thinking?

General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently gently but unmistakably reprimanded the US intelligence community for its “lack of ability to see into Russia, especially at the operational and tactical level.” While he acknowledged change was under way, even then he made it clear that this was very, very much a work in progress: “We’re gently turning the nose of this ship to get back to what we need to be looking at.” Is Russia befuddling US intelligence, and if so what should be done about it?

Outside the movies, intelligence rarely gets a good press. On screen, the perceptive analyst or gung-ho field agent gets that one scrap of world-changing intel, realizes what it means, and suddenly—typically, just in the nick of time—policy spins on the proverbial dime, and all is put to rights in time for the closing credits. In practice, it is never quite so neat and clear, and the intelligence community tend not only to have to juggle multiple possible interpretations and “best truths” but they are also just a few voices in the mighty and often discordant choir of government.

Precisely because information and timely warning is its core business, the intelligence agencies tend to get the blame when governments are caught by surprise. And, let’s be honest, Washington has been caught by surprise again and again when Moscow is concerned, from the seizure of Crimea to most recently the Russian deployment to Syria.

Needless to say, the spooks have rushed to their own defense and affirmed that they were on top of all these developments and briefed to that end. To an extent, this is entirely true, but not necessarily the whole truth. Modern intelligence products often cover a range of possibilities, but there is a world of difference between including something as a potential option and clearly identifying it as the likely one. Consider, for example, the real and evident confusion which reigned when the “little green men” were taking Crimea while Moscow flatly disavowed responsibility: were they local militias, were they mercenaries, were they soldiers working for maverick local commanders? The answer was the simplest one – that Moscow was lying – but the period of uncertainty allowed Russia’s special forces to seize the peninsula in a smooth fait accompli. This did not suggest a strong and confident grasp of the unfolding situation in Washington.

Director of National Intelligence Clapper’s response to the charge of intelligence failure is instructive. In an interview, he said

“We tracked [the situation in Ukraine] pretty carefully and portrayed what the possibilities were and certainly portrayed the difficulties we’d have, because of the movements of Russian troops and provided anticipatory warning of their incursion into Crimea.”

Likewise, a CIA spokesman said:

“Since the beginning of the political unrest in Ukraine, the CIA has regularly updated policymakers to ensure they have an accurate and timely picture of the unfolding crisis. These updates have included warnings of possible scenarios for a Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Any suggestion otherwise is flat wrong.”

That’s all well and good, but tracking stuff happening, potential difficulties, possible scenarios and the like do not represent clear and unambiguous predictions, and the “anticipatory warning” does seem to have been pretty much as things happened, not early enough to do anything potentially to forestall the invasion. (Although in fairness, probably nothing could have done so.) Certainly on the eve of the invasion, US intel sources were briefing The Daily Beast that “From an intelligence perspective we don’t have any reason to think it’s more than military exercises.”

Of course often the problem is that smart and shrewd insights from the intelligence community get lost in the political process. The making of foreign policy is, after all, an arena in which diplomats and lobbyists, op. ed. writers and lawyers, soldiers and senators, overseas allies and domestic sentiment all get to pitch in. Given how rarely the intel products really can speak with the absolute confidence any good lobbyist or ignoramus can muster, no wonder they can get drowned out by other voices.

But it’s not quite that simple. There does seem to be a genuine intelligence problem with Moscow.

In part, this is because the Russians are very, very good at counter-intelligence. Just as they managed to fly their bombers into Syria undetected with transponders off, hidden beneath a larger cargo plane, so too they kept their Crimean operation off the US intelligence radar. A military exercise masked the movement of troops; orders were transmitted on paper, to sidestep America’s extraordinary signals intelligence capabilities; soldiers were even instructed to keep their cellphones and radios off, again to prevent the leakage of radioelectronic indications. The Russians may not be able to match most American intel capacities, but they are aware of them and put considerable thought into working out how to minimize them.

This is exacerbated by the extraordinarily small, tight circle within which most policy and especially security policy is made. We do not even know for sure exactly whose advice Putin takes. My own suspicion is that neither Foreign Minister Lavrov nor Defense Minister Shoigu are in the innermost circle, and instead we have to look to figures such as Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Federal Security Service Director Alexander Bortnikov. These are close-lipped loyalists, hardly likely to make incautious comments in public, nor easy to bring under human or electronic surveillance.

Furthermore, given that this is a regime which expects the elite and masses alike to rally round whatever is the policy of the day, it feels no need to signal policy in advance, to float ideas to gauge their response, or do any of the other kind of systematic foreshadowing exercises that might otherwise give us meaningful clues.

Finally, it takes time to come to terms with real, human-level change. Today’s Putin is not the Putin of his first two presidencies, when outspoken nationalist rhetoric was tempered by a much more pragmatic approach. Whether because we are seeing the real Vladimir or, more likely, because like most authoritarian leaders he has over the time become more insulated from reality, more steeped in his own mythology, this is a different man, heading a different team, for a different national purpose.

So what can be done to help “turn the nose of the ship”?

Given that the issue is human more than technical, I suspect that – for all the many challenges that poses – a greater concentration on building up HUMINT assets in Russia is a must. This poses risks of all kinds, from the potential for further embarrassing incidents such as the 2013 Ryan Fogle “wig-gate” case, through to the actual risk to agents and handlers. But if we are in a war of sorts with Russia – and the Russians certainly seem to feel so – then this cannot be without some danger and cost.

Secondly, play the analysis. Just as with so many other tectonic shifts which seem to have caught the USA and the West by surprise, from the collapse of the USSR to the Arab Spring, there are often no magic documents, no secret communiqués that would have revealed the future. Instead, what was needed was and is now an analytic capacity that is at least as strong as the technical intelligence capacity developed. It’s all very well building a $1.7 billion NSA computer facility in Utah, or planning a $2-4 billion next-generation spy satellite constellation – arguably you’d get vastly more bang for buck spending half as much on the best analysts around and giving them access to the huge amounts of open source information available. Predicting Russia’s next move will come by sneaking into Putin’s head; all the spy satellites will show is what he has decided as it starts to happen.

Thirdly, this means there needs to be as much creativity as possible in the intelligence process. If one accepts Clapper’s assertion that Putin is “kind of winging it, day to day,” then this becomes all the more important. One key area is the interaction with outside experts and perspectives, something which certainly happens, but often only under complex (and expensive) cut-outs which may help security but slow and reduce the flow of information. Furthermore, it is harder to be sure that iconoclastic insights actually inform the intel process; just as the CIA’s Red Cell is an attempt to challenge the groupthink that so often emerges, there is the scope to treat the outside analytic community – from journalists to academics to random bloggers – more often as analytic partners rather than just a passive resource.

Fibnally, the US government needs to listen more to its spooks, but also demand more from them. Consider the disastrous “reset” which, inter alia, put great emphasis on cultivating seat-warmer-in-chief, President-for-Halflife Dmitri Medvedev, something that helped infuriate and alienate Putin. As I understand it, this very much came out of the White House and State, without meeting with great enthusiasm from the intel community. At present, the spooks may not be listened to much, but then again there is a certain comfort for them in that. Time for them to take a more central role, but also to be expected to abandon the defensive tendency to offer ranges of possibilities like a fan of cards and asking the policy makers to pick whichever one they choose.

Of course, there is a corollary. I honestly don’t know – only insiders can – but I get the sense that just as Putin’s spooks seem to be competing for favour by pandering to his paranoiac and persecutionist world view, there may be more of a touch of that in Washington, too. It doesn’t matter how good your case officers and analysts, if the final intelligence products are smoothed down to suit a political consensus. One of the perennial problems has been how to manage and maximize the value of US intelligence for the policy process, and it is hard to believe that this has yet been cracked.

The Russian challenge is a bit of a Potemkin one, not — for all some of the over-the-top rhetoric of an “existential threat” — one that perhaps is likely to be so serious for years to come. So why is this such a concern? Put it this way: don’t crack the intel/policy problem this time round, and the USA will be scrambling to do it with a newly-resurgent Iran tomorrow, or perhaps China the week after…

The Early Autumn Publications Roundup

For the next instalment of my kinda-regular roundups, here are (to the best of my knowledge) all my publications from mid-August to the end of October 2015, linked where possible.

Russian bear should be more cuddly, less snarly,’ Moscow Times, 12 August

Why Russia is not an existential threat for the West,’ Russia! magazine, 18 August

Museums show Russia’s big security problem,’ Moscow Times, 25 August

Boozing through the Soviet Afghan war was more horrifying than you can imagine,’ War On The Rocks, 5 September

Kremlin’s “shadow power” tarnishes its image,’ Moscow Times, 6 September

STOLYPIN: Can Putin really be syrious?‘, Business New Europe, 7 September

Yakunin and the Systemic Virtues of a Generous Retirement‘, Russia! magazine, 16 September

Book Review: Global gangs: street violence across the world. Edited by Jennifer Hazen and Dennis Rodgers‘, International Affairs, 16 September

Putin and Trump have a lot in common,’ Moscow Times, 22 September

Russia to defend core Syrian government areas,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, 22 September (with Jonathan Spyrer: he wrote the stuff from Damascus’s perspective, I wrote the Russian material)

Zaslon — Russia’s ultra-secretive special ops in Syria,’ War Is Boring, 5 October (not technically by me, but essentially recycling my findings)

Russia in Syria: Putin’s hard sell of quick victory against Isis could come back to haunt him,‘ International Business Times, 6 October

West must play it cool with Putin,’ Moscow Times, 6 October

Wikistrat Report: Russia in Syria — tactical masterstroke, strategic risk,’ Wikistrat, 7 October

STOLYPIN: The limits of Russia’s “patriotic mobilization”‘Business New Europe, 12 October

Crime, Kleptocracy, and Politics: Developments in Modern Russia‘, videocast talk at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative, 13 October

West has lost the right to lecture Putin,’ Moscow Times, 20 October

Most of Russia’s military still “rubbish” despite Ukraine, Syria deployments‘, Reuters, 20 October — connects to podcast I recorded for the War College series, playable through this page or available on iTunes.

‘Russia: Economics may dent Russian police reform,’ Oxford Analytica, 26 October

‘Putin’s Spies and Security Men: His Strongest Allies, His Greatest Weakness’, Russian Analytical Digest No. 173: Russia and Regime Security, October

Crime, Kleptocracy, and Politics: Developments in Modern Russia

20151013_imageI was delighted to be able to discuss Russia, crime, corruption, politics, geopolitics and kleptocracy — all subjects close to my heart — yesterday at the Hudson Institute under the auspices of its Kleptocracy Initiative. The event was livestreamed and is now available through the Hudson’s YouTube channel here. The central point? That Russia is a kleptocracy in many ways but certainly not just a kleptocracy. There is also a rational state and people who want to do their jobs on one side, and a state-building project on the other, and what is distinctive about Russia today is:

  • the way that kleptocracy has been harnessed by the state as an instrument for both domestic and international purposes; and
  • the interconnected, post-ideological world in which Russia operates.

Is Ukraine being thrown off the bus? Not really, but France and Germany are right

Hollande-Merkel-PoroshenkoPoroshenko was in bullish form at the UN General Assembly but was apparently very worried about the Putin-Obama handshake, worrying that Washington would make some deal over Syria at Ukraine’s expense. Perhaps he should have been looking at Europe, instead. The ever-perceptive Leonid Bershidsky has an interesting piece in Bloomberg where he suggests that France and Germany have in effect told Ukrainian President Poroshenko that he has to make peace with the separatists, through pushing through a new election law for the Donbas and an amnesty for separatist leaders to allow them to contest the vote:

The way Merkel and Hollande see it, Poroshenko should be interested in working to reintegrate the rebel-held areas into Ukraine, which would mean contesting the election and, in case of an almost certain defeat, working with the winners. That’s the European way of doing things; trying to enlist outside support to defeat the separatists is not, especially when Europe has plenty of problems of its own.

Inevitably, Kiev’s partisans will see this as a betrayal and playing into Putin’s hands, as the new plan puts the onus on Poroshenko to get the law through his recalcitrant legislature. In the process, what seemed almost certain – that at year’s end, while Kiev comes into for some criticism, Moscow and the Donbas rebels get the lion’s share of the blame for the (inevitable) failure of Minsk-2 – now looks much less clear. After all, the burden is on Poroshenko and Minsk-2 implicitly just history.

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