A quick update on Putin’s ‘January Revolution’


How can we know for sure what he’s thinking?

I don’t have the time to write anything substantive here, nor the inspiration, given that I’ve already penned three articles on this week’s news. For those of you who may be interested, these are:

The hunt is on for Putin’s successor – a hot take in the Spectator’s Coffee House blog in which I observe that he is “in the classic trap of any authoritarian strongman (or, indeed, any mafia don): when your wealth, status and above all security depend on your position, how can you step down or even back?” and thus is looking for a new ‘father of the nation role’ and a suitable successor: “Putin is looking for his own Putin.”

Far from clinging desperately to power, Putin is now looking for a way out – in the Telegraph, this covers similar ground, but in particular is trying to push back against what I felt were sometimes cross “Putin wants to be president for life” takes.

Two cheers, maybe, for Putin’s ‘January Revolution’? – the third and longest instead considers what the intended but also unintended consequences may be, in Raam op Rusland. I suggest that talk of a “constitutional coup” is wide of the mark, and that although “most revolutions are not carried out in the name of the tsar’s security and longevity”, that ‘January Revolution’ label may indeed some day be seen as accurate.



Correspondences between the Donald and the Ivan: a not-deeply-thought-through musing

I would not suggest that Donald Trump and Ivan the Terrible are that similar, but reading the US president’s frankly rather bizarre letter to Nancy Pelosi about impeachment, I was struck by a similarity.

In 1564, Tsar Ivan IV, Grozny (usually translated as ‘Terrible’ although ‘Awesome’ or ‘Dread’ are probably more accurate) upped sticks from Moscow and headed for the fortified village of Alexandrova Sloboda, writing a letter to the boyars, the aristocrats, in which he savaged them for their purported (and probably real) embezzlement, vindictiveness and disrespect. He made a great show of abdicating the throne.

This was a calculated and cunning gamble. His relationship with the boyars had been rocky to say the least: he mistrusted them deeply (and in fairness probably with good reason), but also needed them to manage his country for him. He wanted not to destroy but to break them. Many may have viewed Ivan’s departure with a certain relief at first, but it soon became clear that they could not do without him. They had no spare tsar in reserve, and an angry Moscow mob was looking ready for some lynchings. So in 1565 they capitulated, begging Ivan to return, and in effect granting him everything he wanted: his own kingdom-within-a-kingdom, the Oprichnina, and the power of life or death over his nobility.

In a way – in a way – the other letter may be read the same way. Sure, in part it is a semi-coherent sermon of spleen, a Trump twitter-thread’s big brother. Whatever his tenuous relationship with manners and grammar, though, he clearly does have a certain visceral political savvy. I read his letter as being in part, and in a way, a similar message: warning his boyars – the powers in the Republican Party – that they have no obvious Trump-substitute in the wings (VP Mike Pence was in that respect well-chosen as someone who scares even many of them), and that if they were not wholly and full-throatedly supportive of the president, they faced today’s answer to the Moscow mob, the rabid Trump base, who may be a minority, but are a loud, active, vindictive and effective one.

From fur robes to red ties, politics really doesn’t change all that much.


What does Boris Johnson’s win mean for…Russia?


Boris Johnson and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov

There are so many more salient questions – what will this mean for British politics, for the post-Brexit trade negotiations, for the NHS? – but it is perhaps worth dwelling briefly on first thoughts about possible implications for UK-Russia relations.

Is the weaponization of Russia done for the moment? Russia’s role in the election campaign was solely instrumental, mobilised by both main parties to smear the other. Johnson’s decision to shelve the Intelligence & Security Committee’s report on Russian influence, of which more below, probably because of embarrassing detail about links between the Conservatives and sundry rich Russians, some of whom may have got their money through questionable means, inevitably left him open to allegations that he and his party were all but bought and paid for. In response, after generally portraying Jeremy Corbyn as soft on Russia (not without grounds: his initial response to the Salisbury attack was, in my opinion, disgraceful), the Tories were able to use the claim that Russian-linked web accounts had been used to publicise a leaked report on UK-US trade talks to suggest that he had been played by Moscow, or even somehow in cahoots with the Kremlin. The Tories and their media cheerleaders gleefully demanded he “come clean” as if the leak had not been out openly on the internet for weeks before Labour came across them.

Of course it was never very likely that there would be a meaningful debate about Russia policy in the election, and it means nothing that there was not. Essentially, this was a debate kept squarely within the iron triangle of Brexit, the NHS, and leaders’ personalities. However, that supposed and darkly-speculated Russian connections were deployed so freely as smears speaks to a depressing degradation in the language of politics but also a worrying caricaturing of Russia and its role in the world. This may have just been campaign knock-about, but it risks getting in the way of subsequent proper policy debate. Russia is a challenge but it is not a mortal enemy, and the UK is a serious international player and its ambitions to be “Global Britain” should make it more, not less important that its leaders embrace and understand nuance. Washington has already succumbed to the pathology of viewing Russia almost entirely through the lens of domestic politics, and the hope must be that London can resist following.

Will Britain get soft on Russia? This is an inevitable concern, but I suspect not. Nor, though, do I think London will see any reason to adopt a stronger line on Moscow. The issue that I think will emerge is that a “swashbuckling” post-Brexit UK may well quietly roll back some of the progress in addressing the dirty money flowing into London – not just Russian – especially as the economy suffers from the inevitable dislocations. I deeply regret this, but it is hard not to assume this is a given. Of course, that facilitates the activities of all kinds of dodgy characters, from gangsters to oligarchs, money launderers to corruption brokers. However, I have seen no serious evidence that this actually has a meaningful impact on policy. We’ll see what the ISC report says when it eventually comes out, but I suspect that such influence/corruption as may exist tends to operate at a personal, not national level – individuals lobby for outcomes that help their own interests, not part of any coordinated Kremlin campaign.

So UK plc may well be soft on dirty Russian money, but not Russia itself. After all, Johnson was the foreign secretary on whose watch the coordinated post-Salisbury expulsion blitz was engineered by British diplomacy, and the UK remains a key practical backer of Ukraine. The UK strategy will remain managing and containing Kremlin mischief in the immediate term, while hoping to build more positive relations in the longer. That generally is assumed to mean post-Putin, but it would be interesting to see if Moscow has the imagination to launch a charm offensive now. (I suspect not.) Barring that, I doubt there will be any change, although it could be that a UK government feeling to need to demonstrate its international clout might try to position itself as a champion against Russian adventurism. I honestly hope not, though (unless there is some new casus belli, a second Salisbury or the like), because this would likely be driven, as noted above, by domestic considerations more than the needs of the international situation.

So will it affect European relations with Russia? Brexit will, frankly, be bad for the security of Continental Europe, especially as relates to Russia. NATO will endure (it is not so much brain dead as mildly concussed, and it will get over it), but the challenge from Moscow is not of tanks rumbling through the Suwalki Gap, but a continuing campaign of political war, of undiplomatic diplomacy, of overt pressure and covert subversion, of disinformation and discombobulation. While many countries are seeking to address this, and the EU is to an extent, this is a struggle which puts particular weight on good and tough diplomacy, on strong intelligence and security services, and on agility and a sneaky imagination – all of which are British strengths.

(Which is just as well, as Johnson’s promises of tax cuts, more money for the NHS, more police, etc, doesn’t look like it will leave much for increases to regular defence spending.)

Whatever the platitudes about “our European friends,” as the Brexit negotiations move into the detailed trade and political talks, the likelihood is that these will get tough and possibly nasty. This will inevitably have an impact on London’s willingness – and ability – to work with its European neighbours outside the NATO context on tricky security matters. I suspect this is one aspect of Brexit that Europe will come especially to regret.

Anyway, those are my first thoughts and like all hot takes will no doubt be overtaken by events. The assumption seems to be that there will be no major reshuffle, but it will be interesting to see who will occupy the positions of foreign and defence secretary. We’ll see.

‘Security Insights’ on Russia

Russia’s Security Council Where Policy, Personality, and Process MeetI’m fortunate to be part of a research project based at the George C Marshall Centre for European Security Studies looking at Russian strategic intentions and institutions, and as part of that I – like the illustrious other members of the team – are writing a series of short briefs that are being published under their Security Insights rubric.

There is a lot of good material there, but for those who might be interested, here are the ones of mine published to date, with their key points:


The Baltic States as Targets and Levers: The Role of the Region in Russian Strategy (2019)

  • Before the worsening of Russia-Western relations in 2014, the Russian speakers of Narva, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia, in particular, were willing to leverage their sense of being excluded and neglected in the name of mobilizing constituencies for political impact. However, they show no enthusiasm now for exchanging membership of prosperous, democratic European states for Kremlin rule.
  • Furthermore, Moscow appears to understand how unwelcome and dangerous direct intervention would be, over and above bringing Russia into direct conflict with NATO. As one recently retired Russian general staff officer noted, when asked about the state of contingency planning for such operations, “the trouble with the Baltic States is that they are full of Balts”; in other words, in his eyes, a feisty, contrary people who have already shown the will and capacity to resist under overwhelming odds.

The Intelligence and Security Services and Strategic Decision-Making (2019)

  • The intelligence and security communities have a disproportionate influence in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, exerted not only through their institutional roles within the system but also through their social and political authority.
  • They share certain common assumptions about the world—notably that it is essentially hostile and dominated by zero-sum competition—but also are deeply divided along generational, factional, personal, and ideological lines.
  • In broad terms, the strength of the agencies contributes to several key policy tendencies: a combination of strategic caution and tactical risk-taking, multitrack approaches driven by individual and institutional initiative, and an essentially isolated and covert decision-making mechanism that makes it difficult for alternative views to be considered.

Active Measures: Russia’s Covert Geopolitical Operations (2019)

  • Active measures—covert political operations ranging from disinformation campaigns to staging insurrections—have a long and inglorious tradition in Russia and reflect a permanent wartime mentality, something dating back to the Soviet era and even tsarist Russia.
  • A strategic culture whose participants see the world full of secret threats and an operational culture whose adherents regard the best defense as offense have ensured that both have become central aspects of modern Russia’s geopolitical struggle with the West.
  • Active measures are not solely the preserve of the intelligence services, but of other actors as well, and these actors are expected to generate their own initiatives aimed at furthering the Kremlin’s disruptive agenda.

Living in Different Worlds: The European Union and Russian Political War (2019)

  • Russia is waging a political war campaign of active measures intended to divide, distract, and dismay European states.
  • The institutions of the European Union (EU) have made very patchy and often reluctant responses to this campaign, in part as a result of a lack of consensus among member states.
  • A primary issue, though, is the dramatically different strategic cultures and operational codes of the EU and Russia.
  • The EU faces a campaign of Russian active measures—covert political subversion—that has been called “hybrid warfare” but is probably best understood as opportunistic political warfare. The aim is to divide, distract, and dismay the Europeans such that they cannot or will not resist Moscow’s wider political agenda. Against this campaign, in the words of an admittedly Euroskeptic British security official, “the EU is nowhere, simply nowhere.”

Russia’s Security Council: Where Policy, Personality, and Process Meet (2019)*

  • The Security Council, an autonomous element of the wider Russian Presidential Administration, is the central body responsible for managing the formulation and execution of security-related policies.
  • It has a variety of roles both formal and informal, as well as considerable influence—not least because of the trust Russian President Vladimir Putin places in its veteran secretary, Nikolai Patrushev. However, it does not have direct authority over the security agencies and ministries, and it is often more a broker of consensus than anything else.
  • As a structure, it can best be characterized as a conservative renovator: Its leadership is committed to preserving Russia’s existing strategic culture and operational code but also appreciates the need for technical reform to preserve the fundamentals.

* and on this one, an erratum: Viktor Zolotov is not a permanent member of the Security Council, but a non-permanent one, after the revision of what seems likely to have been a mistaken announcement of his appointment as the former.

What might study of gangsters possibly say about the Islamic State’s search for a new leader?

I should start with the necessary warning that I don’t see myself in any way as an expert on Islamic State, although I have done a little work on their efforts to radicalise in the North Caucasus and amongst Central Asian guest workers in Russia. However, reading some of the hot takes after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death and the discussion about succession to the leadership (especially in light of the reported death of the apparent heir), I was struck that there is a certain similarity with some of the debates about what happens after organised crime structures suffer decapitating strikes, and the Russian variety in particular, given its decentralised, networked structure.

So, here are a few observations just to add to the debate, not in any way to suggest that this is definitely what will happen in IS’s case:

1. The race to anoint a quick successor, even if not the real successor. There is often a terror of a leadership vacuum and with its risks of fragmentation, demoralisation and factionalism, and thus a scramble to anoint someone who has at least minimal legitimacy and capability. Often this person will turn out to be a placeholder, though, and the real successor will emerge later. So the first announced new boss may not be the person really to worry about.

2. The ugly contest. Candidates with an eye on the top job, or even simply to rise, will need quickly to demonstrate their capabilities: ruthlessness, ideological rectitude, charisma, and above all effectiveness. This opposite of a beauty contest is likely to be played out with appeals to the leadership and rank and file (we may see a bevy of new YouTube videos), but also with action to back words. We might be in for a bumpy time, as different individuals and factions carry out terrorist attacks to this end.

3. A window of opportunity. For some, this is an opportunity to rise to the top, for others a chance to seize resources, gain greater autonomy or even splinter away. Such times of transition tend also to lead to internal divisions, especially once the succession struggle is played out and a new boss – with his own favourites, allies, interests and power base – installed. Again, that can mean an upsurge in violence, but often black-on-black violence. A window of opportunity for ambitious insiders is also one for outsiders, though, as these conflicts can often create greater chances for states’s security structures to gather intelligence and even encourage internecine struggles within the group.

4. Organisational virility needs to be displayed. Ultimately, though, if we assume IS survives in a meaningful way, the new leadership will likely need to demonstrate its strength and will, and this may mean an offensive or a terrorist ‘spectacular.’

5. Degrading the job? But there is also a question as to whether a successor can ever have the same muscle as a founding leader. These days, in Russia, much is often made of the ‘crowning’ of vory v zakone, even though in reality this title is all but meaningless. Likewise, there is much debate as to who is the ‘number one thief’ even though said individual’s authority is very limited. Given the decentralised nature of IS and the shrinkage of the physical territory under its control, it may well prove that whoever ultimately succeeds al-Baghdadi will be a figurehead and spokesman more than an actual leader.

As I say, a few sideways thoughts: handle with care.


Quick thoughts about the GRU’s Unit 29155

GRUlogo2The New York Times has an interesting piece about a GRU unit known as Unit 29155, which is describes as “an elite unit inside the Russian intelligence system skilled in subversion, sabotage and assassination.” Apparently, its job is to “destabilise Europe.”

I am perfectly prepared to believe such a unit exists, but I have to say that attempts to frame it as some kind of all-Europe, all-roles kind of force sound a little bit of a stretch.

  • If this is the destabilising super-unit (and let’s set aside how far “destabilising Europe” as such really is Russia’s aim – I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that), then the implication is that it is behind everything from killings to hacks to disinformation. That means a massive and wide skill and capacity set. Apart from the fact that the GRU, perfectly sensibly, tends towards have specialist sections that do one thing well rather than jack-of-all-trades, the need to keep interacting with other units responsible for aspects of that would make keeping it “so secret, according to assessments by Western intelligence services, that the unit’s existence is most likely unknown even to other G.R.U. operatives” impossible.
  • The GRU tends to be quite strong in maintaining the integrity of operations within its territorial directorates, and the operations mentioned would cross the jurisdictions of the First Directorate (Europe) and the Second (Anglosphere). For specific, targeted missions such as a killing or a hack, that’s not an issue, but for quite complex and coordinated operations this gets into the unexciting but serious questions of jurisdiction and security. At the very least, keeping this a unit “so secret” is again going to be hard in such circumstances.
  • Was the attempted Skripal hit really about destabilising Europe? What was this “destabilization campaign in Moldova”?

The members of the unit cited and the nature of the operations to which one can plausibly link Unit 29155 look to me much more indicative of a dedicated Spetsnaz special forces unit committed to mokrie dela, ‘wet work’, assassinations and sabotage. (It is indicative that it is apparently now based at 161st Special Purpose Specialist Training Centre, a Spetsnaz facility, and its reported head, Maj. Gen. Aver’yanov, is an ex-commando, not a spook.) Sometimes officers might be deployed in ones and two, as in the Skripal case, sometimes what is sometimes called a boevaya gruppa, a larger ‘combat group’ such as for Montenegro. Ultimately, though, heavies deployed as and when needed in the pursuit of wider goals and typically charged by the territorial or other directorates (which, movie-style exaggerations notwithstanding, do not all have their own supplies of hard-eyed gunmen ready to sally forth at a moment’s notice).

This is a noteworthy story, I should stress, although others had already noted the existence of Unit 29155 before. But before Unit 29155 becomes the modern-day SMERSH, behind every real and alleged Russian covert operation, it is worth keeping it in perspective. The Russians are not unique (or “organically ruthless”) – although I wouldn’t want to draw too sharp a parallel, one could mention the Paramilitary Operations Officers within the CIA’s Special Activities Center – and the presence of such a team is an interesting insight but tells us nothing about Russian intents we didn’t already know. Moscow considers itself in a state of political war, and its various covert agencies as key operators in that conflict. However, that does not mean that they want to bring down the whole foundations of the international order, or bring anarchy to Europe…

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