September Publications Round-Up

Here’s September’s articles and miscellaneous acts of punditry:

An expert’s guide to Putin’s propaganda playbook’, CNN Opinion, 29 September

Putin Is Playing by Grozny Rules in Aleppo,’ Foreign Policy, 29 September

Expert: Putin’s Reported Plan to Restore KGB May Reflect Fear of Overthrow’Voice of America 26 September [interview]

Mark Galeotti on the Russian elections,’ IIR video briefing, 23 September

Why Putin might be trying to recreate the Soviet-era KGB — and why he might regret it,’ Vox, 20 September

‘”New KGB” plans betray Putin’s anxiety,’ ECFR Commentary, 19 September

RFE/RL Facebook Live video broadcast on the Russian elections, 18 September

Kremlin Kabuki,’ RFE/RL Power Vertical podcast, 16 September

Goodbye, Bastrykin?,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 15 September

Window on the East: Russia votes for a new Duma. Will it result in protests or status quo?’, Business New Europe podcast, 15 September [podcast]

Russians can make a difference in Sunday’s elections: by staying at home,’ Business New Europe, 14 September

As the Russian military faces cuts, Putin will lose muscle,’ Business New Europe, 12 September

Putin’s Original Sin,’ RFE/RL Power Vertical podcast, 9 September

Incidentally, just a reminder to people that from 1 September I have been a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague — I am no longer at NYU. Do follow the IIR’ twitter feed (@IIR_PRG) for a Central European take on international affairs.

August publications round-up

August is traditionally the slow season (although rarely so when it comes to Russia), but also is the month in which I was moving to Prague to take up my new position as a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. Nonetheless, here are my various publications:

Putin’s perverse win-win in the Olympic doping scandal‘, Vox, 23 August

“This Is a Strategy of Tension” – Galeotti on FSB Statement,’ interview on Hromadske TV, 20 August

Can government reshuffles bring any hope for Russia?,’ IntelliNews Business New Europe, 19 August

Putin’s incredible shrinking circle,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 16 August

Ossified Putinism,’ interview for Sean’s Russia Blog (SRB) podcast, 13 August

Vladimir and Nicholas: Putinism enters a new historic phase,’ ECFR Commentary, 9 August

What Turkey can learn from Russia about coup-proofing the military,’ War On The Rocks, 2 August

Confessions of a Kremlin conspiracy theorist,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 1 August

Also, the RFE/RL Power Vertical podcasts of 5 August, 19 August and 26 August.

Gangster, upstart, folk hero: Rovshan Janiev (Lenkoransky) finally put to rest

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 20.56.46Azeri-born gangster Rovshan Janiev, also know as Rovshan Lenkoransky, was killed in an ambush on 17 August in Istanbul, while returning from a trip to Dubai (which, incidentally, seems to have become the Russian/Eurasian gangsters’ haven of choice). His Range Rover was caught in the crossfire of at least two gunmen firing automatic weapons; he was killed, riddled by some twenty bullets, his driver seriously wounded.


Who killed him? Heaven knows: there were enough serious people after his blood. Three Azeris and a Turk have apparently been arrested, but who they are and why they carried out the hit remains to be seen.

What made Janiev interesting is that around him cohered a loose coalition of hungry young and youngish gangsters, who felt the relative stability of the post-90s status quo – and the end of the rapid social mobility caused by periodic turf wars and gangland killings – was locking them out of the big time. Janiev ended up challenging Moscow-based godfather Aslan Usoyan, ‘Ded Khazan,’ and may indeed have been behind his attempted assassination in 2010 and/or his successful one in 2013. Certainly Usoyan’s heirs have continued to be on the hunt for him.

However, Janiev’s ambitions and his open desire to overturn the current underworld order also may have led to his becoming a target of Georgian Tariel Oniani (‘Taro’), one of the most powerful and vicious of Moscow’s gangsters, and even the major Slavic gangs. It did not help that he was persistently accused of sometimes cooperating with the Russian security apparatus (presumably the FSB), when they wanted to bring a little indirect pressure to bear.

And as if that were not enough, it is also worth mentioning that three years ago, near enough to the day, one of Janiev’s bitter enemies, Azeri kingpin Alibala Hamidov (‘Goji Baku’) was murdered in Istanbul. This may prove to have been a delayed revenge.

Local hero

With so many people (literally) gunning for him, and a reported $5 million bounty on his head, perhaps the greatest surprise was that Janiev survived as long as he did, especially since according to some accounts of late he had relaxed some of his security precautions. In February 2013, he had been reported as killed, just one of many tall tales around him, but this proved to be a hoax; it seems unlikely history will repeat itself.

However, also striking was the way his funeral back in his home town of Lenkoran saw up to 25,000 attending to pay their respects. In part, this reflects the Robin Hood-like legend of the local boy who was able to protect the Azeri market traders in Moscow from the Russians and the Georgians (which he did, up to a point, and for a price), in part the Azeri who was able to take on those Russians and Georgians (and Armenians) at their own game.

There was more than just romantic appeal involved, though. Azeri businessman Mubariz Mansimov, President of the Palmali Group of Companies, lent his private jet to deliver the body home, and it is clear that Janiev also had connections with elements of Azerbaijan’s business and thus by definition political elite.

Impact back in Russia?

Janiev had stayed out of Russia for years, but had maintained his operations there, especially connected with the produce markets of the city. With him gone, there is every chance that the sporadically-violent struggles to control them will flare up again. Recent arrests hitting Shakhro Molodoi’s organisation have, after all, already created instability in this underworld sector.

Indeed, it is not impossible that Janiev’s death will actually turn out not to have been because of any of his old feuds, but because of the new pressures on the Russian underworld. As times get tight, the competition over those businesses still making money is only getting commensurately tighter, and Janiev may have posthumously discovered.

Ivanov: rustication with respect, from a good friend but a poor patron


Talking to the other retirees…

OpenDemocracy have just run ‘Putin’s incredible shrinking circle,’ a short commentary of mine on the meaning and context of Sergei Ivanov’s departure as head of the powerful Presidential Administration. Ivanov was one of the few people to which Putin still seemed to listen and who was willing and able to push his own ideas. Often, sadly, they were hawkish and conspiratorial ones, to be true. It will be interesting to see if his successor, Anton Vaino, is willing or able to stop so much nonsense reaching Putin’s desk, something that inevitably coloured policy and exacerbated his already-inflated belief in a hostile world trying to do Russia and him personally down. The trouble is that the machine is now used to operating that way: will Vaino find it easier to go with the flow, or indeed not have the muscle to do anything about it? We’ll see.

One specific point I would make is about the manner of Ivanov’s going. I see it as rustication with respect. Yes, he is being taken conclusively out of the running as a potential successor, but with honour. It would be hard to see the 63-year-old Ivanov being able to use his position as presidential plenipotentiary for transport and the environment as the basis for any intrigue against Putin, even if minded to do so. For all that, though, this is not disgrace. His new position is something of a sinecure, but both important (transport is a crucial portfolio in Russia) and suited to his interests (Ivanov’s commitment to the environment is genuine). It is a position that lends itself to agreeable jaunts around the country and, if he is minded, opportunities to pocket some handsome bribes to make retirement more comfortable. Meanwhile, he is kept on the Security Council, a special dispensation that is not only keeping him at the heart of the state (the council is not really a decision-making body but it gives him access to key discussions and papers), but also a sign of respect.

So what? If one looks at four sometimes-former Putin cronies who have left the scene, we see a variety of trajectories. Vladimir Yakunin of Russian Railways, offered a not-very-important legislator’s position, and when he declined allowed to spend more time with his money. Viktor Ivanov of the FSKN drug service, ignominiously left high and dry when his service was rolled into the MVD. Customs chief Andrei Belyaninov, sacked and under investigation. Sergei Ivanov, given a handsome sendoff and a reasonably significant role. Can one draw any conclusions?

Viktor Ivanov and Andrei Belyaninov had a professional connection with Putin but were not really close. He turned to them because he knew them, but essentially they were servants, not allies. They were thus wholly dispensable when no longer useful.

Yakunin and Sergei Ivanov, on the other hand, had a real personal relationship with Putin. Yakunin may have flounced a little when he turned down a position on the Federation Council, but he and Ivanov nonetheless realised that when it was time to go, you accept it and demonstrate continued loyalty to the boss.

The moral of the story is that Putin is actually a pretty poor patron, or at least a wholly pragmatic one. So long as you are loyal and useful, you can get away with (sometimes literally) murder. However — unless you have that personal bond — as soon as that changes, you’re out and quite possibly under investigation or in disgrace.

At the moment, Putin appears to be carrying out a general rotation and renewal of the senior cadres of the Russian state, in some cases presumably as auditions for even more important positions in his next presidential term. He may know them, as bodyguards and bagmen, bringers of papers and bearers of umbrellas, but they are servants and not confidantes. It can hardly have escaped their notice just how ruthless the boss can be with their below-stairs sort. And ultimately, if Putin is not will to show loyalty to them, can he really count on loyalty from them?

Putin’s regional reshuffle: the rise of “men in epaulettes” or just a search for reliable cadres?

The most recent reshuffle of regional officials is at once precisely what presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov called the “usual cyclical rotation” and also an interesting snapshot into the staffing policies and priorities of today’s Kremlin.


Who’s out? The old and the dirty?

It was usual in that as with most reshuffles, one or two dismissals or retirements tend to create cascading reappointments, as people move up, down or across the system. In this case, Federal Customs Service (FTS) chief Andrei Bel’yaninov’s dismissal courtesy of a corruption probe probably triggered an overdue bout of reorganization. Mikhail Zurabov, ambassador to Ukraine, had been in place for seven years and the position really needed new blood (perhaps an unfortunate expression…), while Siberian polpred (presidential plenipotentiary) Nikolai Rogozhkin, at 64, was also due for retirement. Kirov governor Nikolai Belykh, also under investigation for corruption, was another figure hanging on by his fingertips. Given that the Kremlin had little love for this liberal businessman – the jury is still out on whether his arrest was a put-up job – he was hardly likely to survive. Finally, Sergei Yastrebov, governor of Yaroslavl region, whose future is still unclear, has certainly been the target of some gossip and allegations in the past (though who isn’t?).

On the whole, then, it is striking that those dismissals not explained by age actually appear to reflect genuine questions about their effectiveness and honesty. Belykh’s case is unclear, admittedly. This is hardly conclusive, but it does incline me further to believing that – while corruption allegations and the like remain a weapon of personal feud and state repression – there is at the same time a real, quiet campaign to redefine the social contract with the elite such that they “steal a little bit less, do their job a little bit better.”

Who’s in? The uniformed…?

Predictably, considerable attention has focused on the security service background of many of the new appointees. According to Stanislav Belkovsky “All the figures appointed today are Putin’s personal bodyguards.” Hardly.

New FTS chief Vladimir Bulavin was previously polpred to the North-Western Federal District, but he had been a Colonel General in the FSB. New acting governor of Kaliningrad region Evgenii Zinichev had been head of the region’s FSB directorate, but before that one of Putin’s bodyguards in the FSO. Dmitri Mironov, incoming governor of Yaroslavl region, had been deputy interior minister, but before than an FSB officer. Finally, new National Guard deputy commander Sergei Melikov had been a career MVD Interior Troops officer and commander of the Moscow ‘Dzerzhinskii Division’ before becoming presidential plenipotentiary to the North Caucasus. Viktor Vasil’ev, head of the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadaster and Cartography (Rosreestr), and a former KGB veteran, became the new governor of Kirov.

But it is worth questioning the quick and easy assumptions that this shows some “rise of the siloviki.” First of all, two of these positions – deputy commander of the Rosgvardiya and head of the FTS – were almost automatically going to go to candidates with a military, security or law enforcement background. So really we are talking about three siloviki in the remaining seven significant promotions.

But while the others certainly have significant current or recent time in the “organs,” Vasil’ev served in the KGB 1985-early 1990s, largely in foreign intelligence. Although there are the usual litanies that “once in the KGB, always in the KGB,” that is demonstrably not true. That over twenty years ago he was in the KGB hardly makes him “one of them” these days, so to be honest I’d exclude him from the roster. So in practice, two out of seven.

Finally not forget that two of the outgoing figures – KGB veteran Bel’yaninov and soldier and Interior Troop commander Rogozhkin – were also siloviki. Indeed, Bel’yaninov was generally considered to have a personal connection of sorts to Putin following time in St. Petersburg. Take out the career diplomat and you have two of four senior dismissals coming from a silovik background, too.

…Or just the trusted and efficient?

Of course we can point to other recent leapfrogging promotions granted to siloviki, notably from the FSO: Viktor Zolotov to head the Rosgvardiya and Alexei Dyumin to become acting governor of Tula. (Though Dyumin’s move was probably a consolation prize for failing to become head of military intelligence.) Nonetheless, it does seem that the case for a “spookification” of the government is hardly made.

Rather, I would suggest the truth is a little more nuanced. In the run-up to the Duma elections and then the 2018 presidentials, at a time of growing tension in the Moscow elite and also between Moscow and the regions, Putin is looking to renovate the regional cadres and reaffirm central control. The governors and the polpredy are crucial to this process on the political level, just as the National Guard is on a coercive one.

So he is casting about for candidates he feels he can trust, who are honest (enough), loyal (enough) and efficient (enough). In part, this means not just the uniformed services but the ones he knows personally; it is striking, for example, not just how he now turns more often to the FSO even than the FSB, proportionate to the size of the respective agencies, but also that he no longer seems to be appointing soldiers.

With the exception of new North-Western Federal District polpred Nikolai Tsukanov, around whom a reasonable cloud of scandals swirl, most of the rest do share a reputation for a degree of efficiency that elevates them from their peers. None of them could be called liberals or freethinkers, necessarily, but nor are they all close-minded Kremlin clones. Some (notably new North Caucasus polpred Oleg Belaventsev and his Siberian counterpart Sergei Menyailo) are meant to be close to Sergei Shoigu. Others (including Vasil’ev) are meant to have an almost Medvedevian belief in the importance of rule of (tough) law, and for that matter Dmitri Ovsyannikov, who moves from deputy minister for trade and industry to governor of Sevastopol, was given his big break by Medvedev. (He was presumably appointed to try and do something about the city’s economy, after all.)

Putin generally and genuinely believes his “new aristocracy” of security officers are more likely to be loyal and efficient, but I think to believe that what we are seeing “The Men in Epaulets Take Over” mistakes cause and effect. Putin is indeed looking to remont, to repair the Power Vertical and he may look first to the siloviki for the human resources he needs, but he will also look beyond. I suspect this is a man building a new regional elite, likely also with an eye to a post-2018 order, not rewarding “his boys” willy-nilly.


July 2016 Publications Round-Up

I think I can get away with doing this a couple of days before the end of the month…

How to Start a Russian Purge,’ Foreign Policy, 29 July 2016 (with Anna Arutunyan)

What the Olympic doping scandal says about the decline of Putin’s Russia,’ Guardian (New East Network), 27 July 2016 (originally written for the ECFR)

Why Putin’s DNC Hack Will Backfire,’ Foreign Policy, 26 July 2016

Russia’s new rules dictate “steal a bit less, do your job a bit better”‘, IntelliNews Business New Europe, 25 July 2016

European security concerns bring Russian mafia back onto agenda,’ ECFR Commentary, 25 July 2016

Trump wants America to stop being the world’s policeman — and start being its rent-a-cop,‘ Vox, 25 July 2016

‚Nechápu, proč Česko nezakročí proti ruským špionům‘‘, interview in Echo24 with Martin Weiss, 22 July [in Czech]

Russia Is Only A Threat If We Let It Be One,’ The National Interest, 21 July 2016, also run in War Is Boring

Hybrid Business — The Risks In The Kremlin’s Weaponization Of The Economy,’ RFE/RL Commentary, 20 July 2016 (with Anna Arutunyan, previously published in Russian)

Turkey’s military hand Erdogan ultimate power,’ IntelliNews Business New Europe, 16 July 2016

How Vladimir Putin is being outfoxed by a Chechen warlord,’ Vox, 11 July 2016

Nato is a symbol that Russia is always an outsider,’ IntelliNews Business New Europe, 11 July 2016

Russia’s Slow Indecisive Purges Mask a Policy Void,’ Moscow News, 5 July 2016


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