Press Start: a chance to play a part in supporting proper journalism around the world

Copy of PressStart_001_colour_tagline.aiMany people write off the Russian media as nothing but state-controlled obscurantism, banality and propaganda. They are wrong: especially in the print and online media, there are still many smart, dedicated journalists doing first-class work, sometimes at genuine risk to their health, careers and even lives. But in many ways, Russia is one of the luckier places — try doing the same reportage in Iran, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Somalia or Vietnam. Generally speaking, media freedom is in retreat, at a time when arguably we need it all the more, not least as regimes get more used to limiting debate and transparency. To this end, here’s a public service announcement, letting everyone know about the altogether-worthwhile Kickstarter crowdfunding appeal for an excellent new initiative, Press Start. Here’s the announcement:

Do you live in a country where the media are not beholden to political or business interests? Where journalists are free to write they want, without fear of fines, beatings, imprisonment, or worse?

If so, consider yourself one of a privileged few – a mere 14 percent of the world’s population, according to Freedom House.

Today, the vast majority – more than six billion people – live in countries where journalists risk their careers, and sometimes lives, to report on governments, businesses, and other powers, exercising what is a democratic right in other nations.

But there are still those brave enough to do it anyway, despite the threats. They deserve our attention and support – especially as authoritarian states and movements grow bolder in the world and are ever more ready to clamp down on those who would hold them to account.

In response, we have introduced Press Start, the first global crowdfunding platform specifically created to fill that gap. This is a project designed to create a new and revolutionary way to fund independent journalism in emerging democracies and societies that are not free.

And now is the time for transformative initiatives. Without reporters serving as watchdogs, corruption and bad governance will flourish, anger will build among disgruntled and disenfranchised citizens and fragile states will continue to deteriorate, with unforeseen consequences for the rest of the world.

Russia, Turkey, Deconfliction and Distrust

Su24shootdown2I have promised myself to do no work tomorrow, Thanksgiving, so before I retreat into recreational seclusion, just a few thoughts on how the Su-24 shootdown crisis is shaping.

1. The Russians gave the Turks the opportunity to show their teeth – but the Turks were waiting for it. Even taking Ankara’s account at face value, the Su-24 was in their airspace for just 17 seconds before being attacked, and was making no hostile moves against the Turks. Incursions, even if usually in less politically-tense contexts, happen all the time, and generally you’d expect warning shots fired and then attempts to force the intruder to leave national airspace or to land. That the Turks fired and did so with such speed – and Turkish President Erdogan says he gave the orders to fire himself, which in 17 seconds is pretty quick on the draw – to me very strongly suggests they were waiting for a Russian plan to come into or close enough to Turkish airspace with the aim of delivering a pretty pyrotechnic message.

In this respect, unusually enough, I find myself agreeing with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov when he called it a “provocation” and an “ambush.” Let’s be clear, Moscow was foolish to let its planes stray so close to the border, doubly foolish if its rules of engagement allowed pilots to dip into Turkish airspace when it was operationally useful (and I suspect the latter was true). But Turkey’s response went way beyond the usual practice. Don’t believe me? In 2012, the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet which had entered its airspace, and Erdogan’s furious response at the time was that “a short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.”

(At the time, incidentally, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called it “another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms.” Somehow I don’t expect a similar critique of Ankara.)

2. No one wants this to escalate, and both Ankara and Moscow are working to that end. Presumably Erdogan feels satisfied the point has been made, and presumably Moscow, while no doubt harboring its grudges, is aware it has a great deal of lost diplomatic ground to make up and wants to be able to strike a deal with the West over Syria and Ukraine. To this end, while Putin was angry (“a stab in the back”) and Erdogan mulish (“everyone should respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders”), their respective foreign ministers are doing what foreign ministers do and trying to bring things back to the diplomatic track.

Pavel Felgenhauer has conjured the specter that “further dogfights are possible during which Russian planes will attack Turkish planes in order to protect our bombers. Sea battles between the Turkish and Russian fleets are possible.” But in fact, the mechanisms in place to control conflict remain robust. NATO is aware that Turkey is an ally, but is not piling in to increase the tension; Russia knows that at present it may have a certain moral authority in this incident, but if it turns to military pressure then NATO must back its maverick ally.

3. There are striking similarities between Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia, not least their ability and propensity to move conflicts into the covert arena. I’ve written elsewhere (not least in this Wikistrat report) about the cynical intent behind Russia’s intervention into Syria. However, the Turks are acting in support of their national interests in Syria with equal ruthlessness, often neglecting attacking ISIS for hitting the Kurds (who are in so many ways the most effective force against the jihadists), smuggling weapons in the guide of humanitarian convoys (something we saw the Russians doing in Ukraine), and being willing to support groups which are often jihadist in their own terms, too. MIT, Turkish military intelligence, is every bit as cynically opportunist as the Russian GRU, and Erdogan every bit as erratic, brutal and ambitious as Putin.

But this is not just a problem because, as Fiona Hill and Kemal Kirişci have put it, “the personalities and political styles of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to complement if not mirror each other” such that these “similarities … have now come into play in a dramatic way.” It is also a problem because while the overt clashes may be headed off by the usual machinery of diplomacy, both countries – with large, extensive, secretive and brutal intelligence apparatuses and a history of working with both gangsters and terrorists – may well instead simply transfer these tensions to the covert arena. I would expect that in Syria itself, the Russians will put greater emphasis on hammering those groups under Ankara’s patronage. Today’s reported strike on a Turkish aid convoy – or should that be “aid convoy”? – may be the first manifestation of this. Meanwhile, the Turks will presumably arm and encourage those groups most able to give the Russians a bloody nose. What wasn’t really a proxy war before is likely to become one. Meanwhile, Moscow may put greater emphasis on countering Turkey’s efforts to establish regional influence (Azerbaijan is an obvious place of contention) and could support problematic non-state actors inside Turkey, from Kurds to criminals (those criminals not already tied to the Turkish state…).

This is a conflict that Ankara triggered, and while it is being managed, it is not going to go away. Nor is it just going to become another chapter in the histories of Russo-Ottoman rivalry. (There’s an excellent digest in the Independent here.) Instead, expect to see this play out in snide, deniable, but nonetheless bitter actions for months to come.








Turkey shoots down a Russian jet and we return to the 19th century


Su24shootdownIs the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 ‘Fencer’ bomber by a Turkish fighter – the first direct NATO vs Russia combat incident – a big deal or not? My first thoughts are that the answer is probably not, at least not in the long term, but we can expect a fair amount of overt sound and fury on the one hand, and probably some covert retribution from Moscow, too. WW3 is not, however, on the cards.

The Russians are saying it was on the Syrian side of the border, the Turks say the plane was on theirs. I have no idea at this stage which is true, although it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the Russian jet had intruded. Putting aside the (remote) possibility of pilot error, Moscow has been willing to cross into NATO airspace in the past and may even had an operational reason for doing so, perhaps trying to set up an attack run on a rebel convoy or facility on the Turkish border. After all, let’s not forget that Ankara is playing an active role in the Syrian civil war, and in its eagerness to hammer Kurds, wherever they may be, arguably supporting some pretty toxic elements.

Moscow may well have been assuming the Turks would be as restrained as other NATO members, which was an undoubted mistake. Putting aside any cultural stereotypes, Ankara is not only embarked in a campaign to assert itself as a regional power, it also sees Moscow as a sometimes partner-of-convenience, but also local rival. Russian intelligence officers have assassinated Chechen fundraisers in Turkey, and generally the Kremlin has shown little signs of seeing in Ankara a serious ally, partner or player, even in the days when Putin and Erdogan were getting along. Only this Friday, Russia’s ambassador had been given a dressing down about the bombing of Turkish-backed rebels. It may well be that Ankara leapt at the opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and also show that it was a serious player.

Putin’s immediate response has been mordant and tough, accusing Turkey of stabbing Russia in the back, of in effect protecting ISIS, and running to its NATO powers as if it has been one of its own aircraft that had been shot down. We can expect some kind of retaliation on the political-economic front (maybe stopping Turkish airliners coming to Russian airports?) and maybe also some unloading of additional serious ordnance on Turkish-backed elements in Syria. However, I suspect neither Moscow nor, at the very least, the other European NATO powers will want to let this go too far. Russia cannot fight hot diplomatic wars on too many fronts, and Europe clearly wants Moscow to be part of the solution in Syria and maybe Ukraine, too. And, frankly, there is in many capitals concern about Turkey, its agenda and its role in the region. Much will depend on where Washington falls, of course, but if Moscow can get even a crumb of contrition from Ankara or sympathy from Europe, then we can expect this to be splashed on Russian TV and allow the Kremlin to let this slide a little.

But even in this best-case scenario, I don’t imagine that will be the end to it. Moscow has already been willing to operate inside Turkey covertly, and is engaged in political tussles over influence in the South Caucasus as well as Middle East. I would expect some uptick in ‘mischief’ – perhaps some support for the Kurds or other violent extreme movements, for example – as well as a more assiduous campaign to push back and stymie Turkish regional ambitions.

It’s often said, with good reason, that Putin really wants a return to 19th century geopolitics, when might made right and realpolitik was all. Let’s not forget that one of the defining 19th century conflicts was that between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which were sometimes openly at war, sometimes ostensibly at peace, but never anything than enemies. Here we go again.

A Tale of Two Cities and their security conferences

 This has been definitely the week of Central European security, with both the Warsaw Security Forum and the Riga Conference. I was delighted and honored to be invited to attend and speak at both, a chance to do the usual networking, hear a variety of interesting perspectives, pontificate, and also to see Warsaw for (to my shame) the first time and renew my acquaintanceship with Riga (always a pleasure). At the WSF, I participated in the opening panel on ‘The Rise of the West in a post-Western World’ alongside two former presidents (Saakashvili of Georgia and Landsbergis of Lithuania) and a former foreign minister (Jeremič of Serbia) ably chaired by Katarzyna Pisarska.  Am not sure whether or not the session will be made available on line (I’ll update this blog with a link, if so), but the event also provided an opportunity for Brian Whitnore of RFE/RL and me to record an episode of The Power Vertical podcast face to face, for a change. (more…)

If US Intelligence on Russia is Broken (A Bit), What Can Be Done To Help Fix It?

How can we know what he's thinking?

How can we know what he’s thinking?

General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently gently but unmistakably reprimanded the US intelligence community for its “lack of ability to see into Russia, especially at the operational and tactical level.” While he acknowledged change was under way, even then he made it clear that this was very, very much a work in progress: “We’re gently turning the nose of this ship to get back to what we need to be looking at.” Is Russia befuddling US intelligence, and if so what should be done about it?


The Early Autumn Publications Roundup

For the next instalment of my kinda-regular roundups, here are (to the best of my knowledge) all my publications from mid-August to the end of October 2015, linked where possible.

Russian bear should be more cuddly, less snarly,’ Moscow Times, 12 August

Why Russia is not an existential threat for the West,’ Russia! magazine, 18 August

Museums show Russia’s big security problem,’ Moscow Times, 25 August

Boozing through the Soviet Afghan war was more horrifying than you can imagine,’ War On The Rocks, 5 September

Kremlin’s “shadow power” tarnishes its image,’ Moscow Times, 6 September

STOLYPIN: Can Putin really be syrious?‘, Business New Europe, 7 September

Yakunin and the Systemic Virtues of a Generous Retirement‘, Russia! magazine, 16 September

Book Review: Global gangs: street violence across the world. Edited by Jennifer Hazen and Dennis Rodgers‘, International Affairs, 16 September

Putin and Trump have a lot in common,’ Moscow Times, 22 September

Russia to defend core Syrian government areas,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, 22 September (with Jonathan Spyrer: he wrote the stuff from Damascus’s perspective, I wrote the Russian material)

Zaslon — Russia’s ultra-secretive special ops in Syria,’ War Is Boring, 5 October (not technically by me, but essentially recycling my findings)

Russia in Syria: Putin’s hard sell of quick victory against Isis could come back to haunt him,‘ International Business Times, 6 October

West must play it cool with Putin,’ Moscow Times, 6 October

Wikistrat Report: Russia in Syria — tactical masterstroke, strategic risk,’ Wikistrat, 7 October

STOLYPIN: The limits of Russia’s “patriotic mobilization”‘Business New Europe, 12 October

Crime, Kleptocracy, and Politics: Developments in Modern Russia‘, videocast talk at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative, 13 October

West has lost the right to lecture Putin,’ Moscow Times, 20 October

Most of Russia’s military still “rubbish” despite Ukraine, Syria deployments‘, Reuters, 20 October — connects to podcast I recorded for the War College series, playable through this page or available on iTunes.

‘Russia: Economics may dent Russian police reform,’ Oxford Analytica, 26 October

‘Putin’s Spies and Security Men: His Strongest Allies, His Greatest Weakness’, Russian Analytical Digest No. 173: Russia and Regime Security, October


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