Russia heading for the apocalypse? I think not

Post Apocalyptic Russia by myjavier007Everyone who is serious about Russian studies knows about the indispensable Johnson’s Russia List, a daily mailshot of a collection of the day’s relevant English-language stories, good, bad, and sometimes ugly. I may sometimes cavil at David Johnson’s determination to include a – to me – disproportionate selection of determinedly ‘counter-mainstream’ bloggers determined to find anti-Kremlin conspiracy at every turn, but one of the List‘s great virtues is precisely to puncture those comforting bubbles of consensus with which it is so easy to surround ourselves. We can be surprised.

And good heavens, I was surprised by a piece in the latest, ‘Putin is Here to Stay, and the Russian State Will Die with Him,’ by one Brandon J. Weichert in the American Thinker of 8 September. I confess I don’t know Mr Weichert, nor for that matter more than the name of the American Thinker. I have no idea if it is considered a purveyor of fringe nonsense or a serious intellectual powerhouse. I have my suspicions which is more likely. I could go and google it, but frankly I was more fascinated – entranced – horrified by the analysis put forward.

Let’s set aside the fact that if ‘Putin is Here to Stay’ then it becomes pretty irrelevant if ‘the Russian State Will Die with Him.’ Instead:

Even today, as Putin increases his grasp on power, the country continues fraying along its periphery.  It is only the silnaya ruka – the iron fist of centralized power – that keeps the vast expanse known as the Russian Federation together.

Really? And the evidence for that is…?

Following the autocratic ethos of one-man rule, Putin has purged Russia of any potential successors to his reign.  … The younger generation of leaders are all Putin lackeys.  Like Medvedev, they are unimaginative, and, aside from holding power in Russia, these folks are unexceptional.  …  Putin’s autocracy has neutered Russia of any competent leadership for after he leaves office.

Again, I suspect this really means “I don’t know enough about Russia’s elite to be able to identify who could be any good.” Their strengths are asymmetrical, their prospects varied, and their morals typically questionable, but I could think of a bunch of figures who could be competent presidents. Shoigu would be an interesting choice, who I think would be more Ike than Generalissimo in office. Sobyanin, for all his uncharismatic style, would be a competent manager. Shuvalov could offer some market-pleasing glitz so long as he had an enforcer, although Oreshkin would do it better. Even Medvedev would be a reasonable choice as a consensus-brokering chairman of the board. And if I could vote for Nabiullina, I would in a shot. Beyond that, who knows who is likely to emerge in the next few years. Will Vaino surprise us (I doubt it, I confess)? Will daddy’s help see Dmitry Patrushev rise (again, I have my doubts)? Which regional governor or presidential bodyguard will next catch the boss’s eye?

This is a system which does not encourage mavericks, and which virtually demands what could be described as a flexible approach to personal enrichment, but that doesn’t mean that it produces weaklings or imbeciles.

Given the weakness of potential autocratic successors to Putin, Russia will likely break up along its constituent parts.  It will become a chaos state, armed with stores of nuclear – and other – weapons of mass destruction.

Unh? If Russia survived the 1990s, can we really assume that, post-Putin, the entire federation will become a Mad Max remake?

After all, what is his closing injunction?

Dear Pentagon: Prepare for Russian Collapse and Loose Nukes

After all, apparently,

After Putin, it is unlikely that Moscow will be able to maintain central control over its military

so we can expect not just “loose nukes” but also

European leaders will have to contemplate how best to respond to the inevitable refugee flows that will emanate from a completely collapsing Russia.

But wait, in the immortal words of the advert, that’s not all

Meanwhile, Asia will have to brace for the time when China takes the lion’s share of natural resources and land from Russia’s Far East.  At that point, China will not only be an economic juggernaut, but will overnight become a natural resources superpower, thereby making it a true challenger to the United States.

russia apocalypse 1472x1121 wallpaper Art HD WallpaperSo, China gobbles up Russia east of the Urals, somehow without any of these maverick generals firing loose nukes their way, the rest breaks up into warring principalities, steadily depopulated as millions of miserable refugees flock westwards, flooding Europe. These kinds of apocalyptic fantasies were common in the 1990s, and not wholly beyond the realms of possibility. But now? I see a pretty coherent, ruthless and often quite competent elite, with little option but to follow Putin’s ‘make Russia great again’ crusade but actually pretty pragmatic. Outside the North Caucasus, it’s hard to see any serious separatism. Tatarstan and the like may want to renegotiate their deal with Moscow, but they’re not looking for secession. And the armed forces are more disciplined and possessed of a greater esprit de corps than in the 1980s, never mind the 1990s.

Look, it’s a very poor article, and on one level it is unfair to give it such a kicking, and a waste of my time to write and yours to read. Except. Except that, however much this is an extreme example, I have begun to see a new thread of such excited eschatology creeping into the fringes of the debate, and what bothers me is that precisely within other bubbles of consensus, that may begin to become canon. Russia is not teetering on the edge of collapse; it is not some vicious threat to the global order; it is not a dictatorship desperately holding back a tide of anarchy and atomisation. It’s an authoritarianism but not the worst of them, in which a kleptocratic elite preside over a country slowly returning to Europe.

If we start to treat it as some monstrous aberration, one that cannot be dealt with and can only be feared, mastered, or contained, then that does none of us any favours.





Putin the Recruiter and Trump the Potential Asset? Agent-handling and the Helsinki summit

putin-trumpAny political leader meeting another is seeking to get something out of the exchange, whether a specific deliverable or simply developing the relationship. In this respect, the Helsinki summit will be no different from any other. What makes it more noteworthy is the personalities of the two interlocutors and that one was trained to recruit and run assets – and the other seems almost custom-built to be managed and manipulated.

Of course one can push the fact that Putin was a KGB case officer too far. Not every KGB officer is the same, it was a long time ago, and by all accounts he was at best an adequate one. He was not a high-flier, and former foreign intelligence chief and then KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov once tellingly said that he had never heard of Putin when he was in service.

Nonetheless, when Putin said that his particular talent was “working with people,” there is more than a little truth in that. He has managed his own elites very effectively, and also has had considerable successes framing relations with other leaders, as well as leveraging his carefully-created ruthless, cool, macho image.


‘Orion’, MH17, and the GRU

bellA fascinating and imaginative joint international open source investigation, led by Bellingcat, has identified the figure with the callsign ‘Orion’ connected to the downing of the MH17 airliner over the Donbas as Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, a Russian GRU military intelligence officer. And, indeed, a busy little soul, as he also appears to be the ‘Andrey Ivanovich Laptev’ who served as chair of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia’s Security Council between 2004 and 2006, and then its Minister of Defence and Emergencies until 2008. Beyond a first-class exercise in open-source sleuthing, this once again emphasises the role of the GRU today and four of its particular features:

It is aggressive and adventurous. A significant element of the GRU is its Spetsnaz special forces and other battlefield reconnaissance assets. While by no means every GRU officer has a Spetsnaz pedigree, it has infused the service with a certain degree of forward-leaning élan. This was especially encouraged by former head Igor Sergun, not least as a way of recovering the GRU’s prestige after a time in Putin’s disfavour.

It has a particular role in the ‘Near Abroad’ – and especially its rougher corners. The regular spies of the SVR are barred by treaty from operating within the CIS, and frankly are happier in diplomatic cover and white-collar legends. The GRU is thus, along with the FSB, particularly active in the former Soviet ‘Near Abroad’ and even more so in the battlefields, contested territories and pseudo-states. As soldiers first and foremost, they are less deterred by the risks and conditions, and more suited to the kinds of less-subtle operations these territories permit. In 2012, Ivannikov was appointed director of the Russia-Caucasus Research Centre of the International Institute of the Newly Established States, a Moscow-based think tank which appears to be a GRU front or affiliate agency (in some ways akin to the ways RISI is connected to the SVR) also championing an expansion of Russian influence in ‘Near Abroad.’

It concentrates on the sharper end of the ‘political war.’ While the FSB and SVR engage in campaigns of disinformation, subversion and demoralisation, rely on the GRU for the more kinetic stuff. Just ask Montenegro (where the GRU was involved in backing the abortive pre-NATO coup), or the good citizens of the Donbas, or the Georgians. It is hardly a coincidence that Ivannikov’s graduate thesis was on ‘The Complex Nature of the Information War in the Caucasus: socio-philosophical aspects’ and in the Donbas he appears to have been the ‘curator’ handling not just Igor Plotnitskii, then defence minister of the LNR, but the Wagner pseudo-mercenary force.

It is, like all Russian intelligence agencies, its compatriot spooks’ friends and rivals at once. In the Donbas, the GRU and FSB are clearly in competition, and ‘Orion’ was part of the former agency’s network of handlers and operators. One point not in the report which may or may not be significant, is that I certainly heard some suggestions that the FSB were aware of Bellingcat’s attempts to track and identify ‘Orion’. That Ivannikov was still using a phone tagged to his address and even confirm his name when rung on spec implies either poor operational security – which is not generally a GRU characteristic – or else that this warning had not been passed on to their ‘cousins’…

VoA Ukraine service interview on Russian organised crime

Below are clips of an interview I recorded last week for Voice of America’s Ukraine service (in English, subtitled) on Russian organised crime’s international reach and activity, and its relationship with the state, as part of my launch tour for The Vory (of which more shortly)

New page for ‘The Vory: Russia’s super mafia’

VoryJust for convenience, I have a new page here on this blog for updates about my forthcoming book: launch events, some short promotional videos, reviews, excerpts, and more, updated as and when.

Launch events in London for ‘The Vory’

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 14.09So, although alas it will be be weeks before I get to see the final version myself, the advance copies of my new book, The Vory: Russia’s super mafia (Yale University Press) are here, and the count-down to its release begins. It will be published on 10 April in the UK, and 22 May in the US. Meanwhile, I just wanted to flag up some launch events in London next month.

The actual launch will be at Pushkin House at 7pm on Monday 16 April, at which I’ll be talking about the writing of the book and, especially, the historical and cultural evolution of this organised crime subculture, and how far it has come to permeate Russia today.

Then, at Waterstones Gower Street on 6:30pm on Tuesday 17 April I’ll be in conversation with Matt Potter, author of the excellent Outlaws, Inc. (on Russian arms-and-everything-else air smugglers) on gangsters, Russia, and writing about these shadowy topics. Note that the price of a ticket includes a copy of The Vory and a drink – a bargain!

There will then be a closed session at Chatham House on Wednesday 18 April, which will soon be up on their events schedule, discussing the current Russian organised crime situation. I’ll update with a link when it is available.

***PLEASE NOTE – MY US TRIP HAS ALAS HAD TO BE CANCELLED, AND THESE EVENTS WITH THEM. For those of you in the States, I would also parenthetically mention that I’ll be giving a book talk at the NYU Jordan Centre on the Advanced Study of Russia at 12:30 on 4 April, and another talk on Russian organised crime at Colgate University on 2 April at 4:30pm.***

Beyond that, there are one or two other possibilities still under discussion, and again I will update this post if, as, and when they firm up. You can also keep up to date by following me on twitter (@MarkGaleotti) or on my Facebook page Mark Galeotti on Russia.

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