Nemtsov’s Murder and Three Other Deaths

NemtsovThe shocking murder of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, literally in sight of the Kremlin, clearly marks the beginning of a new era in Russian politics and Russiawatching alike. And it is unlikely to be pretty.

Who killed Nemtsov, who was behind it? At this stage, I have absolutely no idea. The government? I find it hard to think Putin would actually order Nemtsov killed, not because Putin is a pacifist but because I see no real advantage. Already people are throwing around the parallel of the Kirov murder which at one stroke did away with Stalin’s greatest rival and gave him a pretext for purging the elite. But I don’t think Putin needs any excuses for whatever repressions he may want to do, and Nemtsov was certainly no threat. (I doubt he had the kind of “smoking gun” information on Ukraine some have suggested.) Besides, for a leader whose legitimacy is in part based on the way he ended the bespredel, the overt and violent lawlessness of the 1990s, this happening so close to the seat of power is an embarrassment. We’ll see if it dampens the mood of tomorrow’s planned opposition protests, but if anything I suspect it may galvanise them. Perhaps over-zealous security officers doing what they thought would please the boss? Maybe, but we have no reason to believe that. Nationalists or crazies inspired by the new mood of xenophobia and witch-hunting being stoked by the Kremlin? Much more plausible. Oppositionist figures wanting a martyr or, to go to the real extremes of the crazy spectrum, US agents likewise stirring trouble. I don’t believe that for a second.

But we don’t know. We know pretty much nothing but the facts, and so we are all tempted to interpret them based on our assumptions about Russia and Putin and the world. And that’s human, and inevitable, and dangerous. And it also points to the way I do think this is something of a watershed, marking three things that have been processes rather than sudden events, but as if often the way with processes become demonstrated through particular catalysts.

1. The death of neutrality. It is increasingly difficult not to be on one side or the other. We’ve already seen this over Ukraine (I’ve been castigated as a Kremlin stooge for not using the word “terrorist” to describe the rebels, and a Western shill for claiming that Russian troops are present, all for the same article!), but I think it’s also happening with Russia. Not to regard Putin as a murderous mafioso-fascist-tyrant-kleptocrat who kills for the hell of it is to be an apologist. To refuse to believe the State Department is actively trying to install Navalny in the Kremlin makes you a tool of Western “colour revolution.” Analysis increasingly, I’m sorry to say, takes second place to assertion of the world as the observer “knows” it to be.

2. The death of “stuff happens.” Nothing, it seems, is not part of a plan, a strategy, a ploy or a gambit. MH17 was a Ukrainian act of misinformation to demonise the rebels (arrant nonsense). Nemtsov must have been killed by the state because he was under 24/7 surveillance (very doubtful: that kind of surveillance would require a massive operation, out of proportion with his actual importance). The truth of the matter is that politicians and government are much less in control of events than they and we might think.

My working hypothesis is that Nemtsov was killed by some murderous mavericks, not government agents, nor opposition fanatics. But the reason they felt obliged to go and gun down a frankly past-his-peak anti-government figure is highly likely to be precisely because of the increasingly toxic political climate that clearly is a product of Kremlin agency, in which people like Nemtsov are portrayed as Russophobic minions of the West, enemies of Russia’s people, culture, values and interests. So, to loop things round, Putin is guilty, I suspect–and all the caveats about the lack of hard evidence yet–the same way that tobacco companies are considered guilty of cancer deaths after they may have known about the risks, or any hate-speaker may be when some unhinged acolytes take their sentiments and decide to turn them into bloody action. So maybe I am implicitly pointing to a third casualty:

3. The death of optimism. How does a regime soothe such feverish sentiments? Indeed, can it do so? I do not believe Putin is intent on World War III, or wants to create a neo-Stalinist terror-state, or do any of the other things the more extreme critics aver. But I suspect that in the name of holding onto power (his greatest ambition) and asserting the true sovereignty of Russia (his second greatest), regardless of the opposition of liberals at home, Ukraine, the West, or whoever, Putin has taken a step too far along a dark and dangerous path for him ever to be able to step back or even, worst yet, stop walking forward…

‘Russia, Ukraine and the new “Hot Peace” with the West’ – Prague, 17 March 2015

Galeotti_PIDEC

The Minsk-2 Accords: peace in our time? Hardly

All we are saying, is give war a chance

All we are saying, is give war a chance

So, a new ceasefire agreement emerges from the Minsk summit. Forgive me if I fail to applaud, especially as it allows another couple of days of mayhem before it even is meant to come into effect. The sad truth of the matter that what happened in Minsk has everything to do with optics, nothing to do with substance.

Getting Merkel, Hollande, Poroshenko and Putin together pretty much ensured that the summit had to lead to something. Had Putin simply dug in his heels and rejected every overture, then he would have been demonstrably the villain of the peace. More to the point, he would have personally snubbed Merkel and Hollande, and political credibility and amour proper would have forced them to push for a tougher line in Europe. As is, this ensured that Russia will not be on the agenda for the 12 February summit of EU leaders.

Now, though, they are at least for a few days committed to seeing this ceasefire agreement through, at least until—like the last one, let’s not forget—it is demonstrably a hollow sham.

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The Battle of the Big Beasts? Would an expanded MVD give the FSB a run for its money?

Time for bigger dogs?

Time for bigger dogs?

A report in RBK suggests that the Federal Anti-Drug Service (FSKN) and the Federal Migration Service (FMS) are to be rolled into the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Meanwhile (and this is an idea which has been floated before) former Putin bodyguard and judo sparring partner Viktor Zolotov will become the new Minister of Internal Affairs. Current minister Kolokoltsev is, after all, too much of a professional and too little of a close Putin crony for such a crucial position, the thinking goes, despite his recent efforts to reinvent himself as a populist authoritarian of sorts.

The official logic would be to save money through efficiency savings. Maybe, though rarely does that actually happen when any government makes this claim. The FSKN has done, in my opinion, an at best mediocre job, not least as its determination to focus on interdiction and destruction of the supply-side (at which, incidentally, it has failed) has also derailed efforts to address the demand, and Russia is now the world’s largest per-capita heroin market. Its main preoccupation often seems rather empire-building (even wanting its own external intelligence role) and turf wars with other agencies. But whether rolled into the MVD or not (and this might at least address some of the jurisdictional issues which do arise between the FSKN and the police), there will still be an FSKN-like agency. With the FMS, the logic is even less apparent, although with the growing public disquiet about foreign migrants and workers, it is likely to become a more politically-significant (and thus fraught) body; the FMS may be in for a rough time ahead of it, but it will certainly be in the public eye.

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First Thoughts on Arrest of Russian Spy in New York

SVRSo today the FBI charged three Russians with being spies, agents of the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). Two are already out of the country and were in diplomatic cover anyway, so the worse the US government could have done would have been to “PNG” them (persona non grata — in other words, kick them out). The third, though, Evgeni Buryakov, was in “non-official cover”, apparently* working undercover at Vneshekonombank, the Russian Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs. More will emerge about the case and I’ll have more time later to ponder it, not least thanks to tomorrow’s snow day, but here are some first thoughts:

This underscores my view that Russian espionage in the West is not only intensive and extensive, it is geared for the long haul. Many of the recruitment targets the SVR were after were not especially valuable now, they were being cultivated for years in the future or for potential future tasking.

This is proper espionage, by which I don’t necessarily mean especially skilled (it’s hard to tell so far whether it was or was not), but the methodical collection of information, leads and assets that truly establishes intel resources rather than the showy and expensive nonsense of the deep undercover illegals of the “Anna Chapman Ring” (not that she was their leading light).

Russia is still heavily using every state-affiliated agency available for its illegals. Vnesheconombank is a state agency rather than a real bank, by the way, and if you’re wondering why I assume this is where he worked, well, it’s because someone of the same name is listed on their webpage as a deputy rep:

Unless there are two Russians of the same name working in NYC in a Russian bank, I can assume this is a "gotcha"

Unless there are two Russians of the same name working in NYC in a Russian bank, I can assume this is a “gotcha”

Russians are very heavily invested in gathering economic and econ-political intelligence, as well as the usual political/military stuff. In part this is part of general assessment of Western capacities, but also to support Russian economic interests and, these days, to identify not only potential scope for sanctions but also ways of undermining the Western economy. One danger, after all, of the sanctions regime over Ukraine is that it has further strengthened Moscow’s awareness of the potential in the weaponization of finance…

More anon.

Russia’s Intelligence System – a presentation

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 12.03.10I was delighted to be invited to speak to the 2015 Annual Symposium of CASIS, the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies, in Ottawa. I was discussing Russia’s Intelligence System and to try and say something meaningful in just half an hour, I concentrated not just on the ‘who’–which agencies there were within the Russian intelligence and security community–so much as what was distinctive about how they operate in real life. My final conclusions were that the Kremlin ought to beware what it wished for, that it had agencies which were functional in appearance, but politically often counter-productive:

  • They are technically highly capable, even if sometimes badly tasked
  • They now reinforce Putin’s assumptions, not inform his world view
  • They reinforce the world’s view of Putinism
  • They are cynical opportunists at home, loyal to themselves

(To this end, I still suspect they may be key elements of what I have called the “Seventh Column,” the insiders who may ultimately turn on Putin.)

The slides for my talk (© Mark Galeotti 2015) are at: 150123-Galeotti-CASIS-RussiasIntelSystem

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