I’ve written elsewhere about the extent to which I feel Vladimir Putin is already dwelling, possibly dangerously, on his future place in history, if that doesn’t sound too much like an oxymoron. He has compared himself or allowed comparisons to be drawn with figures such as Pyotr Stolypin, the early 20thC tsarist reformer-with-an-iron-fist or Peter the Great, the early 18thC… tsar reformer-with-an-iron-fist. However, reading his eulogy to Prince (and Saint) Vladimir I (ironically, of Kiev), who forcibly baptised his population and thus brought Orthodox Christianity to the Rus’, delivered yesterday (28 July 2015) on the thousand-year anniversary of his death, I wondered if Putin had a new role model:
“By stopping fratricidal wars, crushing external enemies, Prince Vladimir laid down the foundation for creating a single Russian nation and paved the way for the construction of a strong, centralized Russian state.”
Stopping fratricidal wars? To Putin, his brutal but victorious (kind of) Second Chechen War and general reassertion of central authority represented that, so check.
Crushing external enemies? Georgian 2008, and maybe in his mind NATO-Ukraine 2014, so check.
Strong, centralised Russian state? Check.
Technically, Russian rulers named Vladimir have been either Grand Princes (in other words, before the institution of the title and position of tsar) or, well, Lenin. So the title of Tsar Vladimir I is, technically, open…
Posted by Mark Galeotti on July 29, 2015
The unfolding story of Mukachevo (Mukacheve) is in many ways both a tragic consequence for Ukraine’s recent trajectory and also grounds for potential optimism.
The tragedy is that while post-Maidan Ukraine was never the neo-fascist construct believed of Pervy Kanal TV (and a note to the trolls: don’t conflate the Maidan with the Poroshenko regime; the one toppled Yanukovych, the other was subsequently elected), there is no escaping the crucial role played by various ultra-nationalists that, yes, did include fascists. Subsequently, in the name of responding to the Russian-orchestrated rebellion in the Donbas, and also because it did not dare challenge this fraction given its lack of connection with its own security forces, the government granted them considerable autonomy and has continued to do so.
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Posted by Mark Galeotti on July 13, 2015
Johnny Shumate’s preliminary sketch for colour plate of a Spetsnaz sniper
I’m very happy to be able to note that my latest compact book from Osprey is out this week. Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces is, in my admittedly hardly humble opinion the most comprehensive work on Russia’s special forces yet out in English, taking to task many of the myths both old and new about these guys (not least, the idea that they are all some kind of Slavic ninjas), exploring their role in operations ranging through Civil War pacifications, through Afghanistan and to the seizure of Crimea, and considering what they can and, just as importantly, cannot do. Orders of battle, anecdotes about some of their members and operations, and Johnny Shumate‘s amazing colour plates, what more could you want? Available in both paperback and ebook formats.
Here’s the official blurb:
When the shadowy, notorious Spetsnaz were first formed, they drew on a long Soviet tradition of elite, behind-the-lines commando forces from World War II and even earlier. Throughout the 1960s-70s they were instrumental both in projecting Soviet power in the Third World and in suppressing resistance within the Warsaw pact. As a powerful, but mysterious tool of a world superpower, the Spetsnaz have inevitably become the focus of many ‘tall tales’ in the West. In this book, a peerless authority on Russia’s military Special Forces debunks several of these myths, uncovering truths that are often even more remarkable. Now, since the chaotic dissolution of the USSR and the two Chechen Wars, Russian forces have seen increasing modernization, involving them ever more in power-projection, counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism and the Spetsnaz have been deployed as a spearhead in virtually all of these operations. This book offers a unique, absorbing guide to the secrets of the Spetsnaz, their most noteworthy missions and personalities, but is also packed with details such as orders-of-battle, equipment and operational doctrine.
- Introduction: overview; background in Russian history and culture
- The Spetsnaz Tradition: special units of the Bolshevik Red Guard, and behind-the-lines NKVD operations in World War II
- Cold Warriors: foundation by GRU, 1950. Operations 1960s-70s: Angola, Czechoslovakia, etc, and order-of-battle 1980
- Operations in Afghanistan, and order-of-battle
- Spetsnaz after the USSR: the turmoil of the 1990s. Tajikistan and Moldova, imitation units in post-Soviet states
- Operations in Chechnya, the Chechen Spetsnaz
- Modern Spetsnaz: increasing strength and importance
- Naval Spetsnaz, and order-of-battle 2013
- Special Weapons
Posted by Mark Galeotti on June 26, 2015
A Very Dangerous Woman, by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield OneWorld Publications, 2015. $27.99 hardback, ISBN 978-178-0747-088. Also available on Kindle. Amidst all the hullaballoo about the Edward Snowden leaks and Chinese hackers’ regular breaches of supposedly-secure US government sites, it is worth reminding ourselves that the best information tend to come from human intelligence sources – good old spies. The best of them can juggle deception and commitment, securing access not only to files and figures but other people: to overhear conversations, act with initiative, ask questions, report on manner and nuance, and in general help us understand people, not just data points. They tend to give us the best stories, too, and the tale of Baroness Moura Budberg is a splendid one, not least as she herself was such an assiduous mythmaker. What emerges from this entertaining and well-researched book is a picture of a woman at once a big-game hunter of larger-than-life men (her bag included Robin Bruce Lockhart the spy, Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells the writers, and not one but two Baltic aristocrats) and also a devotee of a high life and a fast reputation. Read the full post »
Posted by Mark Galeotti on June 20, 2015
I never knew it could also come flambé; that makes the parallel even more apt
What can we call the miserable, simmering-occasionally-boiling-over war in south-eastern Ukraine? While writing something for a Serious Publication, I came up with the analogy of the baked alaska. For those of you who don’t know this delightful dessert, it’s ice cream on a cake base, covered with meringue which is then quickly cooked. Now, there is nothing delightful about the Donbass war, but the baked alaska does give us a useful simile even if one which, for wholly understandable reasons, the Serious Publication thought seems a little too light-hearted for such a bloody and miserable conflict.
I can’t see Minsk-2 or any other initiatives leading to a meaningful political settlement and the region’s reintegration into Ukraine for some time yet. But nor do I see a plausible “Crimean variant” with the Donbass incorporated into Russia. So, at heart, the conflict is already frozen.
At the same time, though, Moscow and its local proxies/puppets/allies (at different times, they have different roles, and we ought not to forget that they have a worrying degree of agency themselves) have adopted and will probably maintain a strategy of tension. At the borders of the region they control, we see constant small- and medium-scale attacks intended both to put pressure on Kiev and also as a form of political “reconnaissance by fire”. While a major offensive of the sort that would lead in all probability to an increase in the sanctions regime may be unlikely, if they see an opportunity for smaller-scale, local advances, they they can gladly exploit it. Again, I don’t see this changing.
Frozen at heart, decidedly hot at the edges: I give you the “baked alaska conflict.”
Posted by Mark Galeotti on June 18, 2015
The latest in an occasional series of longer articles of mine on Russian crime has recently been published. The articles, for RFE/RL’s Russian-language service, are then being published in English by the Henry Jackson Society. Last year, I wrote Crime and Crimea: Criminals as Allies and Agents, considering the extent to which organised criminal structures were involved in the Russian takeover and how they were affected by the annexation of the peninsula (here in Russian, here in English). This most recent piece, Tough Times for Tough People: Crime and Russia’s Economic Crisis, instead uses a series of individual cases to explore instead the impact of sanctions and hardship on organised crime inside Russia, both the losers and the winners (here in Russian, here in English). A third, future article will explore how corruption is changing.
Posted by Mark Galeotti on June 18, 2015