Purging Purgin, Pushing Pushilin (full version)

Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving?

Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving?

News just in that Denis Pushilin has just been elected interim speaker of the parliament (People’s Council) of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), replacing Andrei Purgin. Pushilin, who had held that role May-July 2014, used language fit for the 1930s, when he explained Purgin’s ouster as following an attempt by him

“to disrupt the meeting of the People’s Council, when the deputies had to listen to false declarations made with the aim of increasing tensions and destabilizing the situation.”

Maybe. Meanwhile there is all kinds of excitement in the area. There were suggestions that Russian paratroopers were seizing key locations in Donetsk (which is possible, but given the interpenetration these days of Russian and militia units, as well as the use of Russian kit by the latter, hard to confirm). Indeed, according to some reports, Purgin and his wife are under arrest. Alexei Alexandrov, the People’s Council’s chief of staff, has also been sacked (Pushilin presented him as some kind of Rasputin figure leading Purgin astray, so there may be a scapegoat in the making, if politics requires an eventual kiss and make up moment). Zakharchenko, the overall DNR supremo, was apparently not present, so a key question will be his fate and how he responds.

The anti-Purgin vote was a pretty definitive 70 votes out of a possible 73 according to TASS, “almost unanimous” in RIA’s words. However, this is unlikely to have been either a purely local initiative — in other words, without Moscow’s OK or initiation — or something determined by anything as bourgeois as votes in an anyway-illegitimate parliament.

So what might this mean? The politics of the DNR (and LNR, for that matter) have all the well-mannered and collegial constitutionality of a Brazilian prison riot), but the core leitmotif is the tension between local relationships and the local/Moscow relations. We should not assume that Moscow calls all the shots all the time. Indeed, often the very issue is that it finds itself manipulated, exploited, misled or ignored by its notional agents (as is always the way with empires). The knack, after all, is to get Moscow’s backing, but also be sufficiently autonomous to accrue power and money from the position. Pushilin’s track record is, if anything, more avaricious than Purgin’s, so this was as much a struggle over economic as political assets (though the point is, of course, that ultimately they really are one and the same).

The Purgin-Pushilin tensions and personal ambitions aside, though, there is an inevitable Kremlin dimension. There have been on-and-off indications that Moscow is concerned about tightening its grip on the region (witness the greater integration of military units, under regular Russian officers), and if what Brian Whitmore calls a “soft annexation” is increasingly the least-worst option the Kremlin is having to adopt, maybe it is time to ensure a compliant man at the top. Persistent rumours have linked Pushilin to once-and-future dramaturge-in-chief Vladislav Surkov, while Pushilin is presumably more of a Vyacheslav Volodin man. This may also thus signal not just a change in policy but also another swing of the pendulum as authority for the “Donbas adventure” is exchanged between the more straightforward and bullish Volodin and the more subtle, if sometimes too smart for his own good Surkov.

Alternatively, Purgin was just returning to Donetsk after meetings with Volodin, so it could be that this was a local elite and their metropolitan allies seeking to resist such a move. If so, I wonder how well those local legislators will fare, as Moscow — even if forced for the moment to accept the facts on the ground — will not forget this.

Overall, though, I suspect we are seeing another step towards the “Transniestrianisation” of the Donbas, something that conforms with the underlying mood I felt in Moscow this summer, a sense of resignation, that there were no magical solutions to the various problems now challenging Russia — economic, political, geopolitical — and they just had to be weathered.

[apologies, incidentally, for the premature publication of just half this post]

Lt. Gen. Yakunin on policing Moscow

Yakunin copLt. General Anatoly Yakunin (yes, the other Yakunin], Moscow city police chief, gave an interesting interview to the government newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta, which was published on 24 August 2015, and I think it is worth reproducing some passages from it. Notes and subhead in red are mine, other text my translations from the original [italics are questions in the interview].

Making cuts? Read the full post »

Quick Thoughts on Yakunin’s move from RZhD

“A hat goes with the job, incidentally”

So Vladimir Yakunin, the obscenely rich and, needless to say, deeply pious head of Russian Railways (RZhD), has stepped down and will now take the position of the Federal Council representative for Kaliningrad, an essentially honorific position. It will be interesting to see how this story plays out, but here are a few interpretations:

He fell from grace. Putin is good to his friends, and Yakunin has certainly been both personally close to the president and a great beneficiary of that closeness. However, despite signs in the past that there were those trying to claw him down (like the hoax dismissal in 2013), there have been no outward signs of his losing favour and frankly, Putin does tend to be very loyal to that tiny circle of people he genuinely sees as his friends and allies. I find this hard to believe. Yes, he’s built himself a ridiculously opulent mansion – who hasn’t? There’s a scandal brewing over the arrest on corruption charges of his friend, the former head of Latvian Railways – do we think Putin cares? You really need to do something quite extraordinary to lose Putin’s friendship once you’ve won it, and there hasn’t been any whisper of this.
Read the full post »

“Hybrid War as a War on Governance” – interview in Small Wars Journal

Usually, an interview means fifteen minutes spent on the phone with a journalist, the first ten of which are telling him or her the basics they should already know, and the outcome typically being a single slightly mangled and out-of-context quite in paragraph six. In this context, it was especially refreshing to have a long conversation with Octavian Manea on “hybrid wars” (not that the current conflict in Ukraine ought really to be called that) and generally the “new way of war” (or is it an old way, fought in a new world?), answering interesting and well-informed questions and then seeing the whole transcript posted on Small Wars Journal. How far more words translated into any more insight is for each reader to decide, but there it is for those of you interested in my thoughts.

A summer round-up of publications

In response to popular demand (well, one person hassling me, but enthusiastically, and you know who you are, ES!), I’ll post regular round-ups of my articles, hopefully to strike the right balance without spamming people’s inboxes. Anyway, for July and the first half of August 2015:

Why Russia is not an existential threat to the West,’ Russia!, 18 August 2015 [seriously, alarmism just plays into Putin’s hands]

Russian bear should be more cuddly, less snarly,’ Moscow Times, 12 August 2015 [“Russians have the wit, intelligence and subtlety to make friends and make their points at once”]

Russia’s biggest security threat: its security forces,’ Business New Europe, 12 August 2015 [“Frankly, if ever there was a time for a statesmanlike willingness to step back from military postures and, by slashing defence expenditures address at once the country’s geopolitical and economic threats, it is now. No statesmen of that sort seem to be occupying the Kremlin, alas.”]

Podcast: Russia’s Fragile Federation,’ 7 August 2015, Power Vertical podcast with Brian Whitmore and Paul Goble [I confess I am much more optimistic about the RF than Paul Goble…though that is not hard to do]

Time for a new strategy in Russia,’ Foreign Affairs, 4 August 2015 [on the sanctions regime]

Leaks and sneaks in the Nemtsov enquiry‘, Russia!, 4 August 2015 [on the “covert politics” around the case] – an edited version then ran in Guardian New East.

‘War of Attrition: Flare-ups likely in Russia-Ukraine standoff,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, August 2015 [an overview, alas not freely available online]

Time to think about “hybrid defence’.’ War On The Rocks, 30 July 2015 [“If the new threat is so complex, political, and subtle, shouldn’t the response be the same?”]

Prioritizing Russia’s navy is pointless,’ Moscow Times, 28 July 2015 [just what is it really for, after all?]

Kiev needs self-criticism and tough love‘, Russia!, 21 July 2015 [“does a good friend overlook his mate’s failings, accepting that “he’s going through a rough patch” and hope he snaps out of it, or does he tell some tough truths?”]

Can Russia scrap the draft?‘, Moscow Times, 19 July 2015 [probably it won’t, but it should]

Russia is not the threat the West thinks it is,’ Moscow Times, 14 July 2015 [it’s not about to invade, but divide us]

Putin’s Big Fat Greek Chinese Wedding,’ 10 July 2015, Power Vertical podcast with Brian Whitmore and Daniel Drezner [Greece, China, BRICs, and Russia’s weak, weak hand]

Apocalypse Not,’ Business New Europe, 8 July 2015 [on why WW3 isn’t just around the corner]

The true story of the Soviet engineer who became a CIA spy and saved the US $1 billion,’ Quartz, 7 July 2015 [review of David Hoffmann’s The Billion Dollar Spy]


Russian Paratroopers’ Day, 2 August 2015

Gorky Park, all dressed up for the VDV (c) Mark Galeotti 2015

Gorky Park, all dressed up for the VDV
(c) Mark Galeotti 2015

So it’s the second of August, and that means Den’ VDV, or Russian Paratroopers’ Day, a chance to honor the brave, mourn the fallen… and for drunk ex-paras to fall into fountains, brawl with the cops and race around town in cars mounting blue and green flags and sometimes even more exotic apparatuses, even fake turrets. VDV Commander-in-Chief Col. Gen. Shamanov issued a pro forma appeal to the paras to behave (I now find myself wondering if he is channeling Austin Powers)

In Moscow, there’s a parade and formal ceremony in Red Square, with sharply-drilled ranks, top brass, and a cavalcade of Russian Orthodox dignitaries, and then rather more informal celebrations, not least in Gorky Park. This year was another Big Anniversary, the 85th of the Air Assault Forces (VDV: Vozdushno-desantnye voiska) as a distinct force, so Gorky Park’s entrance was even decked out in the blue-and-white striped tank top, the telnyashka, which has become as much their trademark as their sky blue berets and formidable tattoos.

Yes, family and dogs too (c) Mark Galeotti 2015

Yes, family and dogs too
(c) Mark Galeotti 2015

In the afternoon, it was a relatively civilized event, regardless of the raucous heavy-military-metal band music, especially as this has become a family event of sorts, with WAGs (wives-and-girlfriends), kids and even the odd family pet sporting a telnyashka, while veterans were each given a watermelon for reasons unfathomable but touching. Nothing helps make boisterously tipsy muscle-bound ex-paras look less intimidating that seeing them all cradle oversized fruit. Not that it necessarily reassured the police, who inside the park patrolled in fours, while outside OMON riot police in body armor watched and waited. It is in the evening, after all, that time, alcohol and the relative absence of kids and civilians tends to lead to more muscularly aggressive rituals.

But I could not help but wonder why Russia has such a day. Let’s be clear, Russia has days for all kinds of professions and arms of military service (this weekend also saw Railway Workers’ Day) and these are meaningful things, not just ersatz events dreamed up in some Hallmark Cards brainstorming awayday to sell “Thanks for Being a Great Secretary” cards, as if that makes up for 364 days of patronizing subjugation and under-paid exploitation. No, these are big deals, but even so one does not see train drivers besporting themselves in public fountains or social workers (8 June) picking fights with tax inspectors (21 November).

Even though there are days for the army and the navy, the border guards and the radio-electrical warfare operators, the submariners and the interior troops, Den’ VDV is distinctive.

Cheery sorts by day (c) Mark Galeotti 2015

Cheery sorts by day
(c) Mark Galeotti 2015

In part, this is down to the kind of people who become paratroopers, typically blessed with a lack of introspective self-doubt, an amiably physical response to challenges and a willingness to take on authority. Add to that, a clannish culture that sees themselves – with reason – as a distinct elite (their motto is Nikto krome nas!, “Nobody, but us!”) and perhaps it is inevitable that they are going to express this esprit de corps in their own way.

It is also, I feel, an expression of Russia’s cult of hypermasculinity, something that has only been deepened by Putin’s bare-chested politics of sovereignty and nationalism. But beyond that, it is also a sign of the way that Russian society contains a variety of means whereby individuals and groups have ways of blowing off steam. Anyone who thinks Russia is a drably controlled police state has never, for example, seen a long-suffering cop being berated by a granny, and the ways in which Russians collude to get round the system – not even necessarily for personal gain, simply to do a good deed – likewise demonstrate a certain triumph of humanity over bureaucratism. And just like the Soviet one before it, today’s Kremlin realizes this on some level and to some degree. Even undemocratic systems need pressure gauges and vents, implicit flexibilities that allow them to conform, however briefly and slightly, to the wishes and needs of their populations. Even if it means letting them splash in your fountains and stagger drunkenly through your streets. It’s only one day a year.


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