Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe

C9s92ljW0AAhnPtMy latest report for the ECFR is out. While I am waiting for the bidding war for the film rights, I’ll settle for pointing people in its direction – you can download it free here – and offer up the summary:

  • Over the past 20 years, the role of Russian organised crime in Europe has shifted considerably. Today, Russian criminals operate less on the street and more in the shadows: as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
  • The Russian state is highly criminalised, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
  • Russian-based organised crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of ‘black cash’, to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.
  • European states and institutions need to consider RBOC a security as much as a criminal problem, and adopt measures to combat it, including concentrating on targeting their assets, sharing information between security and law-enforcement agencies, and accepting the need to devote political and economic capital to the challenge.

I confess I am pleased with the ‘Russian-based organised crime‘ notion, that I think fills an ontological niche, in that it is clear that there is a difference between those gangs which still have strong connections to Russia — who could as easily be Georgians, or Dagestanis, or whoever — and those who have essentially moved out of the country. It is the former who are especially susceptible to use by the Russian security apparatus, and who genuinely worry me. (And yes, I’m also pleased with the title…)

A Few Quick and First Thoughts on the US Airstrike on Syria

missileThe use of chemical weapons against civilians cannot continue with impunity, but is a 50-missile strike the right response? My thought is that it is not a great response – but that in the circumstances nothing better was available. (Though at almost $15 million, an expensive one.)

First of all, such a one-off strike is unlikely to be militarily decisive, even if it has made a real dent in the Assad regime’s airpower advantage. It is essentially more symbolic than kinetic, an act of communication, drawing red lines and reiterating that the USA is a serious force (and putting paid to the silly claims that Russia has become the regional hegemon in the Middle East).

That’s not at all a bad thing, but the question is what the message was meant to be, and how it is received, and that depends heavily on Moscow.

Its initial response was to huff and puff and call it unprovoked aggression, of course; it could do nothing less. But it is noticeable that its much-vaunted air defence systems – which could have been deployed against the Tomahawk missiles although not take all 50 out – was not even activated. Moscow might not like Washington’s response, but nor was it willing to stand in the way of it. That is a heartening sign of realism.

And how does Damascus respond? The chemical attack was as politically stupid as it was morally bankrupt, suggesting either that Assad’s regime is tone deaf (not impossible) or that it had some more nefarious intent, precisely to try and force a response in the hope of solidifying Russian support (a little conspiratorial, but not impossible).

Much depends on the backchannel messages from Moscow to Damascus. Will they be “don’t worry, this was just a one-off, let business continue as usual, but lay off the chemicals” or “what the hell were you doing, stop making this worse for us all”? Obviously no one will tell us openly, but we should be able to divine from what happens next whether the Russians are in control or not (and usually, to be honest, imperial backers have at best imperfect control of their supposed clients and proxies) and whether tactical successes on the ground mean more to them than the wider geopolitical context.

With Tillerson due in Moscow next week, this is an opportunity for Moscow to show some kind of flexibility and willingness to come out of the trenches. Assad’s move allows them the cover to withdraw slightly from him. If they are willing to take it. A big if. My money, sadly, on their not being willing or able to make the move.

The reports of the death of the Russian defence budget have been greatly exaggerated

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No more new toys? (c) Mark Galeotti 2014

Yesterday HIS Jane’s (disclosure: I have written them for decades, and respect their work) came out with the eye-catching assertion that “Russia announces deepest defence budget cuts since 1990s.” It continues that the “Federal Treasury have [sic] confirmed that Russia’s defence budget has been cut by 25.5% for 2017, falling from RUB3.8 trillion (USD65.4 billion) to RUB2.8 trillion.”

A 25.5% cut? Even if “Despite the cut, the 2017 budget will remain about 14.4% higher than the level of defence spending seen in 2014 in nominal terms” that is still a massive story, and spells the end to planned modernisations, especially given the inelasticities in the budget (upkeep and maintenance, salaries, etc). And in December, it had been agreed to but the budget not by the 10% MinFin wanted but a moderate 6%.

So what happened? Needless to say, all is not quite what it seems. After all, it is important to note that the Federal Treasury (Federal’noe kaznacheistvo) is not so much a budget-setting as accounting office, essentially a comptroller, and operates under some quite strict parameters. It accounts funds allocated and spent along specific budget line items, and in the process its apparent defence spend tallies do not, it seems to me, reflect the impact of debt repayment. It is also worth noting that the Treasury tracks money spent, and if one looks at 2016, according to the Ministry of Economy, the State Defence Order was only 88% executed. That alone may look like a 12% procurement cut through the Treasury prism. So, the data may well not truly show planned so much as predicted spending.

Let’s note that even more so in the West, Russian defence and security expenditures often appear under different budget lines and obscure headings. Pre-conscription physical and skills training outsourced to schools through the revived GTO (Ready for Labour and Defence) programme comes out of the education budget, much support for military science is under education, science and research, and part of the aid and development budget is likely paying for mercenaries in Syria.

Finally, it is crucial to appreciate that much of the defence spend, especially on procurement, is not just about military power but economic and political necessity. Key industries, on whose health cities and regions depend, are kept afloat through military procurement. Any major cuts, which would inevitably have to be focused on buying new toys, would have a disastrous impact…and do so in the year-long run-up to the next presidential election, intended as something of a triumphant coronation and celebration of Putin.

So the upshot is, yes, under budgetary pressure (and the probable need to have money to spend on buying votes in 2018), the defence budget is being pruned. But not by a quarter.

From Trump’s Washington to the Capitals of Europe, Corruption is Russia’s Greatest Ally

The steady drumbeat of Russian contacts with Trump’s team on one level should not surprise. The Russians – like most real and wannabe global powers – assiduously network, hoping to gather insights and make connections that can later be parlayed into access and impact. This is, however, a case study of the way that the dirty little vices of modern democracy, from the inter-connectivity of transnational and untransparent business interests to the use of money and flattery to buy a voice, all the ways in which democracy becomes distorted by money, serve as a force multiplier for predatory authoritarian kleptocracies.

In fact, my view is that for the West today, the greatest security threat is not Russian tanks or Russian disinformation, it is our own corruption – and the ways Russia seeks to use it.

Let’s look at the Trump White House. I still have serious doubts about some of the headline allegations kicked off by Steele’s ‘Trump dossier,’ from the ‘salacious’ stuff (that has become the code word of choice, after all…), to the suggestion that Trump has been given 19% of oil giant Rosneft as the bribe of the millennium in return for lifting sanctions. (Though that would mean we know the market value of the White House: about $11 billion.) Much more plausible is the general picture of regular, lower-level contacts between Russian officials and American movers and shakers, regardless of the serious tensions between their countries.

There are all kinds of contacts which are appropriate, unavoidable, and wholly acceptable. Some of the administration’s more strident critics need to be reminded that not every Russian is a spy or a gangster. However, all the mysterious bouts of amnesia or dependence on covert meetings suggests that even the participants realise they are transgressing the acceptable, and that they are probably not meeting simply to further international cooperation or exchange banalities about the weather.

In a dark past, America was ripped apart by the search for reds under the beds. Much of this was paranoid witch-hunting, but there were indeed those motivated by ideology, a sense that the Soviet Union represented something greater for humanity. Today? Sure, some imbecilic racists and blinkered social conservatives may believe that Putin’s Russia stands for their values, but the people we are talking about, the people who matter, are in the main neither simpletons nor idealists, but pragmatically self-interested.

Those in Trump’s campaign and his administration who retain links with Russians do so not because they are dazzled by Putin, less yet by Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. They do so because it suits and pleases them, because the Russians offer something: flattery, information, personal gain.

This is not necessarily the crude corruption of a suitcase of cash in return for documents or a favourable vote. It is rather the more insidious corruption of hooking people on the notion that the Russians can help you get closer to your financial and personal goals. After all, the biggest differences between this new Cold War and the old one is that there is little real ideological dimension, and our societies and economies are now incestuously connected. Russians buy penthouses in London and New York, Americans buy Russian stocks, Russian-funded media buy insert spreads in Western newspapers, and so forth. Much of this is essentially innocent, or at least as innocent as modern capitalism can be, but these are the wellsprings of the global rivers in which Moscow’s spies and agents of influence can freely swim.

In other words, the real story is about the way that the rich and the powerful may regard Russia as a geopolitical antagonist, and yet be happy to cut deals with Russians if it helps them become richer and more powerful.

But this is not just an American story. In Europe, too, corruption is Moscow’s friend. From the lobby groups which agitate against the Ukraine sanctions because they are suffering as a result, to the politicians happy to mobilise anti-US and anti-EU sentiment with the aid of Russian money and airtime to their own ends, this is a widespread issue.

The greatest danger, I would suggest, is not so much the overt ‘Putin-understanders’ such as the Czech Republic’s President Miloš Zeman or Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Of course, they are convenient for Moscow, not least because their words can be retransmitted for propaganda purposes, and their sentiments erode the European consensus on punishing Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. But at the same time, these are not fifth columnists looking to hand over their country to Putin.

The real threats are those motivated not by naïve or contrarian but probably genuine and consistent beliefs, but by corruption. These are the cynics and opportunists, and they are dangerous for several reasons. First of all, unlike the Zemans and Orbans of this world, they may be subtle and covert, couching their lobbying and sabotage in the language of good business sense, or European resistance to American ‘bullying,’ or whatever other rationalisation seems more appropriate. They can also be used as deniable fronts for Russian operations; the continuing (if unproven) belief that then-head of Lukoil in the Czech Republic Martin Nejedly funded Zeman’s campaign on Moscow’s behest (for which he was later recompensed) is a perfect example. Was this just a case of a Czech funding a Czech campaign, openly and entirely within the law, or foreign interference? And how do you prove the latter?

Secondly, they are self-propelled. They do not look to the Kremlin for instructions, although inevitably sometimes Moscow will seek to direct them. They will look for ways to advance their own causes, sometimes actually by seeking new ways to make themselves useful, because usefulness is rewarded. If it is true that members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to get him elected, did the Russians drive the whole process, or at what point did their American interlocutors begin to make suggestions and requests? You do not need to corrupt those who are already corrupt, and who will instead approach you and see what you are willing to offer.

Thirdly, they not only take advantage of the fluidity of modern capital and ideas, the difficulty modern states have in proving where money came from, where ultimately ownership of an asset lies. They actively seek to protect and extend this system. The drug lord, the spy, the terrorist, and the ruthless financial-political player all have a shared interest in foiling efforts to reverse this process. From the struggle to extend anti-kleptocracy laws in London, to the death-of-a-thousand-amendments facing new transparency laws in Prague, this is a battle being fought across the West, and yet one we have yet properly to appreciate is about security as much as fighting crime or controlling corporate malpractice.

The difficulty in regulating finances, the challenges addressing disinformation, and the failure often to monitor and limit campaign contributions, are all aspects of a common and systemic problem of corruption. The Russians – and not only the Russians – are taking fullest advantage of this, and this makes it one of the most important battlefields of a conflict which is as much as anything else about values, laws and ideas. What is being played out in Washington is as much as anything else a case study in how pernicious and wide-spread the challenge has become.

New book: The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016

mra-cover-smallToday is Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Russia and, as if cunningly planned (but in fact a completely fortuitous coincidence) my latest book, The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016 (Osprey) was released. Available as a paperback or ebook, it includes once again colour plates by the excellent Johnny Shumate, an order of battle, and my general take on the evolution and prospects for Putin’s army. It was able to include early developments from Syria and the Donbas. The table of contents is:

Introduction.
Born in Crisis – the 1990s: creating a new army in the wreckage of the USSR – First Chechen War – peacekeeping missions – the damaging ‘grandfather’ culture in the ranks.
‘Reform Tomorrow’ – the 2000s: slow beginnings of reform under Putin – Second Chechen War – uncertainty and inertia at the top – the Cossack revival. The Georgian Turning Point – 2008: profiting from errors and lessons – Defense Minister Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff Makarov force through reforms.
The Russian Army Today: structures, organization, chain of command – major annual exercise cycles, and what they teach us.
Two Armies: the reformed one-third, and the unreformed two-thirds. The human dimension: volunteer soldiers and conscripts – Ukraine – continuing problem of crime in the military.
Intervention Forces: Air Assault and Naval troops – Spetsnaz – anti-piracy operations – Crimea – ‘non-linear war’ doctrine.
Tools of the Trade: weapons, vehicles, specialist AFVs – latest ‘Ratnik’ uniforms and equipment – drones.
Select Bibliography

Video: Russia’s Hybrid War: What Does it Really Mean, And How Should the West Respond?

hybridwarjan2017On 10 January 2017, I spoke at an event organised by the Institute of International Relations Prague (UMV) at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (to whom I must express my thanks for the use of the splendid Mirror Hall).

The video is now available at the IIR’s YouTube page, here. The blurb is below, and you can find the report around which I was speaking here.

The challenge of Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ remains one of the main concerns of Western policy-makers, yet quite what does this mean, and how can it best be resisted? Dr Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and one of the world’s leading experts on Russian security has recently completed two major analyses of the issue, his comprehensive report Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right (Mayak) and Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s political use of its military in Europe since 2014 (European Council on Foreign Relations).

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