Sanctioning the GRU, a decent step, but hamstrung by the need for symmetry

GRU logoThe “Lame Duck” president has proven to have a surprisingly sharp and accurate peck, and as the USA strikes back against the Russian hacking and its role in the US elections with a welcome series of sanctions. Two point are worth bringing up: the way the issue instantly and depressingly becomes a partisan one. It also suggests that the incoming administration is woefully ill-informed about the Russian intelligence community, or willing to leap through rhetorical hoops to protect it; and the needless and limiting philosophy behind the sanctions.

The Sanctions and the GRU

Kellyann Conway, counsellor to President-Elect Trump, told CNN, while disparaging these so-called “symbolic” sanctions, that “the GRU doesn’t really travel here, doesn’t keep its assets here.” OK, let’s start with that.

If by “the GRU doesn’t really travel here,” she means senior officers such as the four figures directly sanctioned don’t pop over to Epcot for family holidays, that is perfectly true. If by “the GRU …, doesn’t keep its assets here” she means the agency as a whole doesn’t have McMansions in Texas and skiing chalets in Vermont, also technically true. But.

First of all, the GRU has many assets in the espionage tradecraft terms in the USA: agents, networks, safehouses, dead drops, etc. This is an expansive and aggressive agency that while focusing on military intelligence has broadened out into covering a wide range of other missions, not least because of the competitive dynamic I outline in my recent ECFR report Putin’s Hydra. So if we are talking about the GRU as a whole — and Conway’s phrasing suggests she was — then of course the GRU has huge (even yuge) assets in the States, including its rezidentura, its base within the embassy in DC.

Secondly, the point about sanctioning the guys at the top of the GRU is not because you’re worried about them popping over the take advantage of the New Year sales on Fifth Avenue, but to demonstrate commitment. Yes, this is “symbolic” but much of politics is precisely about symbolism.

Punish the Criminal, Not the Instrument

However, here’s my beef with the current philosophy of sanctions, the need artificially to create comparability and demonstrate direct connection. What does it matter if the hacks were done by the GRU (and as I understand it, they got the emails, but it was the FSB that pushed for their leakage and handled the dissemination and exploitation side of the operation)? These are simply arms of a single, authoritarian state? Why not hit people in the Presidential Administration, Duma, Senate, Putin’s friends, his dogwalker, whoever?

When we convict a thug of punching someone, we don’t punish him by breaking his arm, we punish the criminal as an entire person. By the same token, sanctions should target the state, not its individual instruments. This is a reasonable set of sanctions, and can be welcomed. But for real effectiveness, for deterrent impact, arguably sanctions ought to be unreasonable, and directed at the source of the attack, not the instrument.

One-and-a-Half Cheers for new Czech centre to resist Political Warfare

mvcrOn 1 January, the Czech Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) is formally opened, within the Ministry of the Interior (MVČR). With a 20-strong staff, its main focus will be to tackle disinformation and political manipulation through the media–and yes, essentially this means Russia’s current ‘political war’ on the West–and to respond openly. My snap verdict is that this is a worthy start, but the Czechs, like other European countries, need also to move beyond this fashionable but essentially reactive approach and think more strategically and perhaps also robustly about fighting this political war.

The Centre’s website has a handy and in some aspects disarming summary of what it is and is not:

  • What will the Centre do?

  • It will essentially be a specialised analytical and communications unit. Given the competencies of the Ministry of the Interior, the Centre will monitor threats directly related to internal security, which implies a broad array of threats and potential incidents relative to terrorism, soft target attacks, security aspects of migration, extremism, public gatherings, violation of public order and different crimes, but also disinformation campaigns related to internal security.

  • Based on its monitoring work, the Centre will evaluate detected challenges and come up with proposals for substantive and legislative solutions that it will also implement where possible. It will also disseminate information and spread awareness about the given issues among the general and professional public.

  • What the Centre is not and what it will not do:

  • The Centre will not be a new law enforcement agency, nor an intelligence service.

  • The Centre will not have a button for “switching off the internet”.

  • The Centre will not force the “truth” on anyone, or censor media content.

  • It will not remove content from the internet or other (printed) media.

  • It will work primarily with open sources available to all and will openly communicate with civil society, the media, and other subjects.

  • The Centre will not lock anyone up, interrogate anyone, or lead any proceedings with anyone.

  • The Centre will not spread any kind of propaganda, but only expertise relating to the field of internal security, and is modelled on similar strategic communications teams that already exist in the Baltic states or in the United Kingdom.

  • The Centre will also inform about serious cases of disinformation and will provide expert opinions for the public and for government institutions. These opinions, as those of a government institution, will be based on the constitutional order of the Czech Republic.

So far, so open and laudable. The first thing to say is that it is a very welcome move when any Western country demonstrates a willingness to recognise that there is a political campaign under way to undermine and divide Western nations and institutions, and to do something about it.

At the same time, though, there is something a little discouragingly conventional about this approach, especially if a recent story in the Guardian is right that “The specialists will scrutinise disinformation and attempt to counter it, via a dedicated Twitter account and a new section of the interior ministry website devoted to communicating the government viewpoint.” This is a much more limited mission than that implies by the first paragraph in its own self-description, and I hope it is not the main role of the Centre.

The current fad for “mythbusting” and countering “fake news” is understandable, but it frankly is often more the product of a desire to do something, or at least to be seen to do something, than the best thing. The idea that gullible consumers of Russian disinformation will be swayed from their wayward path because a government agency tweets a counter is pretty far-fetched. On the whole, the targets are unlikely to follow such a feed, much less believe it, and while there is value to letting news media know, the problem is that today’s information is too quick and voluminous. For every story spotted, evaluated and countered, ten, fifty more will have appeared. To be sure, sometimes there are lies so significant but also so possible to counter with objective data — the infamous German “Lisa Case” is the obvious example — that it is worth it. But more often this smacks rather more of the kind of metrics beloved of all bureaucracies, of being able to report this many stories checked and that many rebutted, rather than actual impact.

Beyond that, again quoting the Guardian, “The centre will also train civil servants to avoid blackmail and resist foreign lobbying.” This is an interesting angle, because it begins to speak to the element missing from the counter-disinformation angle: dealing with culture and mindsets. Civil servants need to realise that this is a potential threat, and be sensitised to recognise it, and to know how to respond. (Of course, so too do politicians, but that is — alas — not within the CPTHH’s remit!)

This same approach ought also to be taken over disinformation. Sure, have a specialist centre within the MVČR, but arguably even more useful would be task forces within the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sports and the Ministry of Culture, to train young Czechs to consume media wisely and sceptically and crack down on the purveyors of “fake news,” respectively. In some ways, the parallel is with fighting the drug problem. The MVČR’s approach is the analogue of arresting pushers: necessary, but an endless and thankless task in isolation, and the real, long-term answer is to educate and uplift potential users and break trafficking networks in order to tackle the market and the demand, not just the street-side supply.

But let me close by being provocative. The CPTHH is very clear that it is not a police or an intelligence service, won’t arrest people, won’t take content off the net. Why not? To put it another way, is there not also scope for such methods? given the tight relationship between the Kremlin’s media and intelligence assets, and the degree to which arguably its political war could prove more dangerous to the Czech Republic and other European states than any mere military threat, why is there not scope for such measures? If a radical preacher grooms a would-be terrorist to carry out an atrocity, that is rightly seen as something deserving of full-scale law-enforcement activity. If a government-funded disinformation network starts to pump dangerous lies into the information space which could undermine a government, foment civil tension, or even lead to the break up of alliances crucial to national security and prosperity, ought that not be treated with similar seriousness, even if not blood is directly shed?

This does not mean blacklisting websites because they dare cover alternative perspectives, or witch-hunting those who retweet a questionable story. It means going after those who actively and knowingly are engaged in the spread of disinformation directly harmful to national interests, as well as those other horsemen of the infocalypse: intelligence agents, those facilitating the covert spread of Russian economic penetration, etc. It also means the ČR needs to redouble its efforts generally to fight corruption — there is no point hoping to fight “Russian corruption” or even “foreign corruption”, so long as corruption remains a serious issue (which sadly it is, even if things are improving, and the recent claim that it “suffers from some of the worst corruption in the world” was a ridiculous exaggeration). One cannot depend on the patriotism of bribe-takers!

So in short, one-and-a-half cheers for the Czechs, for starting the process. In common with other Western states, though, they may want also to think more deeply as to what is the most effective way of dealing with the challenge on a deeper level, both educating the public, and also taking a more robust position with those knowingly engaged in political war.

Ambassador Karlov’s security and the Zaslon red herring

Moscow is currently grumbling that their ambassador was put at risk because for ten years the Turks have not allowed them to send members of the Zaslon special operations group to Ankara to provide security. This is such a red herring.

Zaslon is part of the SVR – the Foreign Intelligence Service – and while it sometimes provides some diplomatic security in very extreme cases (as in Damascus, for example), it is essentially an intelligence/sabotage/assassination force. No wonder Ankara didn’t want them there, and in any case it would have been a colossal waste, akin to using the SAS or CIA Special Ops Group as permanent bodyguards. Most security for diplomats in anything short of a war zone (and an art gallery in Ankara is hardly that) is provided by locally-engaged private security guards.

If the Russians really want to ask what went wrong, they should start with explaining why, if for a decade they have thought Turkey such a dangerous posting it needed Spetsnaz protection, they did not hire any security themselves, like their US and indeed UK counterparts? Or maybe they should be chatting with their good friend Erdogan why on-duty Turkish police were not on hand to deal with their wayward off-duty comrade-turned-killer?

New ECFR report: Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s Political Use of its Military in Europe since 2014

heavy_metalMy latest report for the ECFR was published this week, Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s Political Use of its Military in Europe since 2014. It addresses Russia’s blunt and threatening use of its military as an adjunct to its more conventional diplomacy in Europe in pursuit of the “4Ds” — to divide, distract, dismay and dominate — within the context of its wider political war. Here is the summary:

Since 2014, Russia has mounted an extensive, aggressive, and multi-platform attempt to use its military and the threat of force as instruments of coercive diplomacy, intended to divide, distract, and deter Europe from challenging Russia’s activities in its immediate neighbourhood.

The main elements are threats of potential military action, wargames which pointedly simulate such operations, the deployment of combat units in ways which also convey a political message, and intrusions close to and into European airspace, waters and even territory.

The actual impact of these policies is varied, sometimes counter-productive, and they depend on coordination with other means of diplomacy and influence. But they have nonetheless contributed to a fragmentation of unity within both NATO and the European Union.

‘Heavy metal diplomacy’ is likely to continue for the immediate future. This requires a sharper sense on the part of the EU and its member states of what is a truly military move and what is political, a refusal to rise to the bait, and yet a display of convincing unity and cross-platform capacity when a response is required.


Russian banks warned of risk of cyberattack: a crime or security concern?

russianhackerRussian banks are being warned by the FSB to prepare for possible cyberattacks. That may seem to be a given in these days of virtual criminality, and follows a recent theft of 2 billion rubles ($31.3 million) from correspondent bank accounts at Russia’s Central Bank, but actually Russian financial institutions have until now had it pretty easy. That’s not least because part of the unwritten deal between the state and the hacking community (along with the need to pitch in when ‘patriots’ are expected to attack some foreign target) is that they are fine so long as they don’t commit their crimes against domestic institutions.
However, I wonder if there is also a security dimension here. Just as the Central Bank was involved in recent mobilisation exercises, predicated (rightly) on the fact that any major conflict with the West would also be fought with economic instruments, I wonder how far Moscow is coming to terms with the fact that the one-way ‘political war‘ currently being waged against the West might become a two-way one, at least to a limited extent. Those who live by the hack risk dying by it, too.

New Report: ‘Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right’

19823811_cover-frontminiI’m today releasing a report of mine, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right that, as the title suggests, explores the whole issue of Russia’s non-linear challenge to the West and make recommendations about possible responses. It is not the last word, of course, and is as much as anything else written to try and further the debate. A key point I do make is that I feel what we tend to call Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ (it’s not the best term, but we seem to be stuck with it at the moment) is not only that not special in Russian eyes, but in many ways ought perhaps to be considered as two similar but distinct ways of wielding similar instruments: as a preparatory stage before proper kinetic warfare operations (‘hybrid war’) and as a purely non-kinetic variety of aggravated and confrontational diplomacy (‘political war’). Ukraine faced the former, the West the latter. Either way, these are wars…

I reproduce the Executive Summary below, but the report is available in both PDF and hardcopy here.

Executive Summary

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies. Read the full post »

%d bloggers like this: