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.

Ivan Golunov, Jan Kuciak, and the politics of the last straw (or the last straws…)

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I’m always wary of grand claims that “everything has suddenly changed”, not least because specific events tend rather to be the dots on the graph that show us wider processes and trends rather than true historical junctures in their own right. But I have just got back from Slovakia, where the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírováled to the downfall of a government and — arguably — the political backlash against a cronyist status quo that saw the rise of the brand-new Progressive Slovakia party, and the election of their presidential candidate, Zuzana Čaputová. People knew that their politics were corrupt, that cosy deals between businesspeople, gangsters are officials were commonplace, and that it was not necessarily safe to probe too deeply into them. The 27-year-old Kuciak did, though, and when he died, it somehow catalysed a long-building public anger at the status quo. Somehow, this felt different, and not just within Slovakia’s relatively small and tightly-knit political and media classes.

So too the arrest of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov feels as if may be another of these catalytic moments. He dug a little too deeply into too many corrupt deals in Moscow, and the shabby and pretty transparent frame-up and subsequent beating at the hands of the police has become a cause celebre. People have queued up to protest ever since the arrests, cultural figures are openly criticising the case, and three heavyweight newspapers – Vedomosti, RBC and Kommersant – are all running covers tomorrow that say “We are Ivan Golunov.”

On the one hand, it is easy to be a little skeptical. After all, such cases happen all the time in Russia, alas — but not usually in Moscow. That people are still willing to be investigative journalists in the provinces, a career every bit as safe and comfortable as being a war correspondent, continues to inspire and amaze me. Their cases fail to make the same splash, though, even when they lead to murder, not mishandling. It would be easy to snark, to say that Golunov’s status as a member of the Muscovite media family is what made this one prominent, that it is his friends and colleagues who have made this such a big deal — or those who fear they might be next. But so what? It is not just journalists who are protesting, and there is often a degree of arbitrariness as to which stories catch the public attention and which do not. Several people in Slovakia, after all, said that Kuciak’s age was a crucial issue, that even for members of the elite they could feel that it could have been one of their children.

On the other, it is easy to get carried away, to see this as some tipping point, the beginning of the end for a corrupt system. Obviously, we’ll have to see, as the truth of the matter is that we rarely spot those pivotal moments at the time. The scale of the protests and the way these newspaper have coordinated their very public responses are striking, to be sure, but I don’t think this is the cause of some sea change. Rather — and actually I think this is a more optimistic perspective — I think it is a symptom.

I faced some pushback last week when, in response to a story about Levada polling that showed growing willingness to join protests, I suggested that even though many of the issues ostensibly causing them were very specific and local, this should be seen as demonstrating a shift in attitudes. Ultimately, however much even the protesters might try to deny it, everything is political.

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The social contract of late Putinism allows a degree of protest, activism, even democracy — as long as it does not seem to be a threat to the core interests of the state and Putin and his close cronies personally. Civil society, even politics, exist, but the etiquette is to protect that there is not a direct connection between the irritants, whether road tolling, environmental damage, or whatever, and the overall political situation. Of course, though, everyone knows there is; everyone understands that the fundamental root causes are corruption, inefficiency, clientelism and unresponsiveness within the ruling elite.

The Kremlin presumably assumes that, like the fake party politics of the Zyuganov ‘n’ Zhirinovsky circus, this bleeds off pressure and helps maintain the status quo. But a key difference is that these protests are generated from below, not choreographed from above. Little by little, they create the organisational habits, structures and skills of protest, and also a culture of calling power to account. When an especially egregious case such as Golunov’s comes along, one that has the right characteristics — it’s in Moscow, it’s patently unfair, it’s close to the heart of the mobilising media, and it fits general assumptions about how “they” punish “us” — then not only does it push these processes forward a little, but we get to see them at work.

It is not likely to be the last straw, by any means. In Slovakia’s case, after all, there was a free media and genuine democracy not only to turn popular dissatisfaction into political change, but also to help encourage people that such an outcome was possible and worth fighting for. But it may prove to have been one of them.

Mueller, Putin, Trump, and the Russian ‘adhocracy’

Picture1For some time now I have been pushing the notion that Putin’s Russia is best understood as an ‘adhocracy’, which I define in my ECFR report Controlling Chaos as a system

in which the true elite is defined by service to the needs of the Kremlin rather than any specific institutional or social identity. They may be spies, or diplomats, journalists, politicians, or millionaires; essentially they are all ‘political entrepreneurs’ who both seek to serve the Kremlin or are required to do so, often regardless of their formal role.

The activities of the ‘adhocrats,’ and those of the myriad lesser ‘political entrepreneurs‘ who aspire to that role, are occasionally directly tasked by the Kremlin, sometimes indirectly tasked through hints, nods and winks, and often their own initiatives, acting in ways that they hope will please the boss(es). I talk about this system more fully in my new book, We Need To Talk About Putin.

In this context, an initial quick skim of the ‘Mueller Report’ is gratifyingly supportive of this notion. Of course, the report does highlight cases of clear, direct, Russian government action, notably the GRU’s hack-and-leak operation. Far more frequent, though, are indications of a Kremlin that not only did not want or expect Trump to become president (in my opinion the Russians were convinced Clinton would win and were simply trying to disrupt her assumed presidency, fearing she would embark upon a concerted campaign against them), was if anything worried about its lack of traction with the campaign, and relied on the actions of sundry political entrepreneurs.

Consider, for example, what Petr Aven, head of Alfa-Bank, said:

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Later

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In other words, the Kremlin was disconnected from the campaign, and felt that this was a concern. Figures such as Aven saw this as both a threat to their own interests, and also an implicit instruction from the Kremlin, and acted accordingly.

So all kinds of different actors set out to use whatever opportunities they had to try and open lines of communication, from the lawyer Veselnitskaya, through to Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev:

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But here’s the thing: not only was it in the direct interests of these individuals to try and build bridges with presidential contender and then the transition team of the president elect, it was also entirely normal. All kinds of countries, businesses and interests were doing the same, from the Saudis and Emiratis to Marine Le Pen. If anything, the evidence of the report – and of subsequent developments, in which once one strips away Trump’s bizarrely enthusiastic rhetoric about Putin, one can see that US policy towards Russia is tougher than at any point since 1991 – is of a Kremlin as bewildered by the prospect of the new presidency as anyone else, and thus interested to see if any of its adhocrats could get a meaningful line into the campaign and transition teams. And, despite various meetings and overtures, the answer is that they did not.

So, please, put away those onion-dome-on-the-White-House graphics, abandon those excitable claims of Trump as a Russian agent and the Trump Tower Moscow project as anything but the overheated hype and hopes of some grifters who didn’t understand how modern Russia works. Trump and his circle can be damned in all kinds of ways, from obstruction of justice to incompetence. But this is an American story and sin, not a Russian import.

 

New Book (3): Russian Political War: moving beyond the hybrid

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The third of my crop of books out this month is Russian Political War: moving beyond the hybrid from Routledge, a study of what I think we should be talking about instead of ‘hybrid war’ (let alone the mythical ‘Gerasimov Doctrine‘). It builds off my earlier report, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? to argue that while the Russian military – like everyone else – is looking at the opportunities in non-kinetic means to prepare the battlefield (after all, has any war not been ‘hybrid’?), the real challenge the West faces is different. The current campaign being waged against the West is not a preparation for eventual military conflict, but rather a wholly non-military campaign that echoes ‘political war’ as described by George Kennan at the start of the Cold War, and which has its spiritual home and command and control centre within the Presidential Administration and Russia’s civilian national security elites.

New Book (2): Kulikovo 1380: the battle that made Russia

IMG_20190129_212026The second of the three books of mine coming out in February is in the Osprey ‘Campaign’ series. CAM 332, Kulikovo 1380: the battle that made Russia looks at this battle that was a genuine triumph for Muscovite Prince Dmitri Donskoi, but was turned into a much more decisive victory over the ‘Golden Horde’ through centuries of successive myth-making, as it became used first to launder Moscow’s reputation – from the Mongols’ prime agents to paladins of a new Russia – and then to claim credit by the Orthodox Church and to create a story of national military glories.

That mythology made writing the book all the more of a challenge, as so much of the received wisdom about the battle, from the clash of champions at the beginning onwards, is questionable, the accumulations of generations of chronicles embellishing the last. But that is also one of the things that made it a fun exercise in historical detective work. The irony is that the battle doesn’t need much titivation, as it’s a fascinating story of political opportunism, tactical cunning and brutal butchery, of ambush and subterfuge, Armenian archers and Genoese mercenaries, Lithuanian exiles and Mongol-Tatar horsemen, Russian boyars and militias, sacrifice and plunder…

Russia: an increasingly ‘normal’ country…with an abnormal regime

One of my regrets of 2017 was, for reasons beyond my control, not getting to speak at the Yeltsin Centre in Ekaterinburg. I confess I am not the greatest fan of Yeltsin-the-Man – for all his successes bringing down the USSR and crushing some of its more unpleasant remnants, he was a destroyer rather than a creator, and as Tony Wood trenchantly demonstrates in his Russia Without Putin, in many ways Putin is an heir not just to the failures of the 1990s but also the policies. Nonetheless, the Yeltsin Centre appears committed to the best ideals of Yeltsin-the-Symbol in hosting a series of very interesting lectures, especially on the social and political processes shaping Russia and the world.

Recently the indefatigable Ekaterina Schulmann – whom every serious Russia-watcher should follow – delivered a fascinating lecture on the evolution of Russian society, and fortunately Znak has published a detailed summary of her comments. There is much in the lecture to explore and enjoy, and I will not try and do it full justice. Rather, what I want to focus on is her core point, that especially since 2014, Russia has been moving towards what Westerners might consider ‘normalcy,’ with less of the atomisation, survivalism and dependence on state institutions that has so consistently dogged Russian politics and society. In terms of the global values map reproduced below, the country is slowly but surely moving to the right.

I think she is absolutely correct, and one of the – many, many – tragedies of the current geopolitical struggle between the Kremlin and the West is that hysteria and paranoia, on both sides, have obscured all the reasons to be cheerful. The corollary that Schulmann raises is that Russia doesn’t need (indeed, should avoid) some new revolution. Ket me reproduce, in my clumsy translation (if in doubt, go to the original), some of her closing paragraphs:

We do not need to make a new revolution to improve our lives. We have a really low quality of public administration, but it is sub-standard relative to our level of social development. We are at heart a healthy society. We are an urban country: 74.4% of our fellow citizens live in cities. Our literacy rate is 99%, and more than half of the population has a higher than average education. In this sense, we are at the level of Israel and Canada. Most of our fellow citizens are not engaged in physical labour. We even have a falling prison population. We could have a political system which suits us more, life could be much better without any revolutionary upheavals. The authorities should meet society’s needs, and the society does not need mass repressions, control over public space, censorship, or bans on meetings – none of this is needed. This is just unnecessary.

In fact, the simple observance of the Constitution and the rolling back of the repressive measures of 2012-14 will give us, without any grand struggles and huge sacrifices, a much more responsive political system. People want to be listened to, people want political participation and competition. They want to go to rallies and not get their skulls cracked by the National Guard, they want to go to vote and see candidates who represent them on the ballots. People want a party system that meets their needs, people want a public sphere, in which they can talk about what matters to them, not the ‘crimes of the Kyiv junta’ committed some year or other.

We are closer to normal than we ourselves think. Our ideas about fears of a disastrous future are based on nothing. Apocalyptic expectations, which, of course, are also pushed by the state-run media, do not conform to reality. It does not mean from this that nothing bad could happen to us. It could – and that would be even more painful, because then there would have been no rhyme or reason, it would just have come out of the blue, and for nothing. It could have been different and it could have been much better.

Of course, saying Russia ‘just’ needs the Constitution upheld and Putin’s recent repressive counter-proto-revolutionary measures rolled back is a little like saying the economy ‘just’ needs rule of law and an end to corruption – easy to say, not so easy to do. But this is an absolutely crucial point. For all the arbitrary authoritarianism and capricious kleptocracy of the Putin years, this has coexisted with a too-often-unsung process of social development, even a still-unfinished but not insignificant degree of legalism. It may take years, it may take political generations, but the foundations for a process of democratisation, liberalisation, normalisation, Westernisation, whatever one wants to call it, are there.

And this is, of course, a challenge for the Kremlin and the upper levels of the elite whose power and privilege depends upon it. While he may not – probably does not – think of it in these terms, much of what Putin does these days is, if not to reverse this process, to obscure it. The increasingly paranoid quest for fifth, sixth (seventh?) columnists at home, the rabid and xenophobic propaganda too visible on state TV, the presentation of the world as a hostile place, committed to keeping Russia bound and subordinated, all of these are distractions. But the good news is that the very reason why the volume and pitch of these distractions is getting greater and greater is that it has at best limited impact. Russians are still organising and forming bonds of social cohesion, they are supplementing the TV’s vision of the world with one they gather on the internet or through personal experience, they pin on a St George’s ribbon on Victory Day but have no willingness to see blood and treasure expended in Syria, Venezuela and, probably, the Donbas.

A normal society and an abnormal regime. For now, the latter gets the airtime, but in the long term, the former will win out.

 

 

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