‘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…

A first thought on “Vadim Sokolov”: FSB

tass35094529On 23 August, Chechen-born Georgian-citizen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a long-time enemy of the Kremlin and its Chechen satrap Kadyrov, was gunned down in Berlin. The assassin shot him in the shoulder, and then twice at close range in the head, using a silenced 9mm Glock 26 pistol.

The killer then ditched gun, wig and his very 21st century escape vehicle – an electric bike – in the river Spree. What could have been a clever move to change his look and profile and make sure he was not caught with the murder weapon on him proved his undoing. He was observed doing this suspicious thing, reported to the police, and soon arrested.

sokolov-photoIt turns out he is a Russian going by the name ‘Vadim Sokolov’, although with characteristic speed Bellingcat has burned through this legend. There seems to be no such person, the address he gave for his visa was spurious, and his passport seems to be a cover one issued for the purpose.

Inevitably, given their role in the Skripal case and certain similarities about the way the passport was issued, some have assumed this is another GRU*, military intelligence, operation. My own take, though, this that this looks more like an operation carried out by the FSB, the Federal Security Service. Why?

  • When it’s not actually Chechens tasked by Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s more often the FSB (whose anti-terrorism/political security remit gives them primacy on Chechnya-related cases, and which is increasingly interpreted to include foreign operations) that goes after Chechens
  • The tattoos on ‘Vadim Sokolov’ (crown, snake, panther) preclude him from being a regular intelligence officer, and also don’t sound like military ones of the sort some ex-para/ex-Spetsnaz GRU officers sport. Rather, they sound like criminal/prison tattoos.
  • The FSB has form hiring gangsters to kill Chechens, something I explore in my ECFR Crimintern report, such as the carjackers from Moscow who murdered Ruslan Israpilov in Turkey in 2016.
  • There has been the suggestion this may have actually been a settling of personal scores, but the capacity to have a fake passport** issued is not totally beyond criminal figures, but increasingly expensive and problematic. It would have been much easier to use a hitman already in Europe.

Of course, these are just first thoughts, and we’ll have to see how the case develops.

(*Yes, I know technically they are called just GU these days – but everyone still uses the older name, and it is likely to be restored.)

(**Yes, from a the FMS office that previous provided GRU fake passports, but I suspect this just means it’s the “spook’s office” rather than specifically servicing only one agency.)

Some thoughts on the security side of Saturday’s Moscow crackdown


I enjoy going to Moscow for all kinds of reasons. One of, perhaps, the most recondite is the chance to take an up-close look at the security forces when there are some major public order deployments. I’m not in Moscow at the moment, so I’ve been mainlining photos and videos of Saturday’s heavy-handed operations (some especially evocative and useful ones here), and here are a few observations:


1. There seems to have been something of a split between the police and the National Guard. Both were deployed in riot gear, but the regular police seemed less enthusiastic to get heavy with the crowd. When actually in close quarters, they didn’t seem to hold back (in fairness, equips someone with a stick and put them in a scary, high-adrenaline situation, and they generally won’t), but they were much less likely to launch actual sallies.

Now, in part that may well be because that wasn’t their role. Remember, all the dedicated stormtroopers such as the OMON are now blue-camouflage Rosgvardiya, so these would be regular cops given some riot training. I’m sure those organising the operation would be more likely to use OMON and other Rosgvardiya assets for the more aggressive missions, while the police handled processing arrests and the like. But it also speaks to a wider issue, in that for a while now there have been quiet indications that the police (and the MVD as a whole) is not comfortable with the stormtrooper role. Indeed, this was one of the reasons for the creation of the National Guard out of the MVD’s OMON, Interior Troops, etc. We’re nowhere near the point where the regime seriously needs to worry about defections and refusals to obey orders, but it’s an interesting straw in the wind.


2. Sticks and stones may break their bones, but gas and guns were absent. The authorities have no lack of other means to deploy, from tear gas and water cannon, to armed officers and more exotic means. This was an entirely old school shield-and-baton operation, suggesting that the authorities wanted to ensure a degree of control and didn’t want to let the city look under siege. Once you start wafting gas into the air and blasting the streets with water cannon, then you may look powerful, but you also look desperate. They were happy for Hong Kong to steal the international front pages (there’s one positive outcome of the Sino-Russian accord…). As near as I can tell – and again, I have to acknowledge the problems of working just from third-hand info – they didn’t even have armed snatch squads kept behind the lines as backup, suggesting they knew full well that they weren’t going to face serious trouble from the protesters.



3. Who was in charge? Just as there are real questions as to how far Mayor Sobyanin actually made the decision about this protest, so too there seems a distinct lack of clarity about the chain of command amongst the security forces. The FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order along with the Investigative Committee is taking point on prosecutions, but while Lt. Gen. Oleg Baranov, Moscow’s police chief (and a career cop with no particular security/public order background), took “personal control” of the operation by some accounts, there have been other suggestions that this may not have been the case. It would be interesting to know, for example, what the command structure between police and National Guard was, and how far this was being driven by the MVD or the Kremlin. Time will tell.


4. Who was there? There were regular police, National Guard Interior Troops and National Guard OMON.* Without being able to peer at badges, look at truck registration plates, etc, it’s hard to be categorical, but the police all appear to have been from the Moscow City force – they don’t seem to have brought people in from the Moscow Region. Likewise, the OMON appear to have been Moscow City or Region. The other National Guard troops were largely from Moscow (1st ODON, the so-called ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, and other Moscow region units). So what? This was clearly not an operation anywhere near the kind of force drain that the 2011-12 Bolotnaya Protests were, which necessitated bringing in forces from other locations to secure the capital. In short, the security forces are nowhere near yet being at overstretch.


* Simplistic and unreliable way quickly to tell them apart: police are in dark blue uniforms, NG in blue stripy urban camouflage, but OMON generally wear black body armour, and other troops camouflage vests. This doesn’t always apply, though, so caveats aplenty!

New Book (4): Armies of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Armies of Russia's War in UkraineIt’s actually been out a couple of weeks now, but a quick note that my latest Osprey book, on this dismal, running conflict, is now out. The usual Osprey approach: some history, some analysis, orders of battle (I was quite pleased with the listings of forces on both sides that I compiled, although given how fluid things were, this is always a work-in-progress), photos and pretty artwork plates, in this case by Adam Hook.

Of course, as ever with this conflict, terminology had its own challenges. Is this a Russian-Ukrainian war? (It’s not that simple: yes, Russia agitated, facilitated, arms and pays, but it is also a civil war.) Should one use fighters or militants, militias or terrorists? (I regularly get hassled for now using the last term for the L/DNR fighters, but it really isn’t appropriate, this would be a political epithet, not a correct term of art). Alexander or Olexander? (I let myself be guided by what the individuals themselves use.) Anyway, it was an interesting project and a challenge to try and fit this complex, sprawling, multi-dimensional conflict into 64 pages, but I hope it’s of use.

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