Book Review: Open Participatory Security, by Jesse Paul Lehrke

9781538105290Open Participatory Security: unifying technology, citizens and the state by Jesse Paul Lehrke. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

According to Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, “No society is strong if it is not […] an open society, a participatory society.” Fair enough, although as usual with statements emanating from the EEAS, it is hard to see any sharp-edges of policy behind the billowing clouds of comfortable rhetoric. This is one of the problems; especially in the age of so-called, if much-misunderstood ‘hybrid war’ – which I could characterise as political warfare fought in the field of governance, with the aim of reducing the enemy’s capacity or will to resist – then the need to defend ourselves on a societal level is evident.

At the same time, though, experts want to retain their arcane authority, the military still want their tanks and missiles, and too often the debate gets rendered down into banal platitudes about not listening to ‘fake news’ and having good online passwords. In this respect, ‘participation’ becomes a call for citizens to do their duty, as defined by the experts and the government, not really engagement, and hardly especially ‘open.’

In his Open Participatory Security: unifying technology, citizens and the state, Dr Jesse Paul Lehrke of the Deutsches Forschungsinstitut für öffentliche Verwaltung (you can also follow him on twitter here), starts from the usual empty language of participation, and has written an imaginative, even daring book about just what security means in a future of global communications, multiple threats, and weak political ties. To put it another way, how security can be furthered not thanks to, but in spite of those aged, hide-bound, elephantine beasts we call states.

This is in part a cybersecurity question, or at least many of the basic premises emerge from the cybersecurity debate, but what makes this book important is the points it makes about taking those lessons and applying them to wider questions of security. About gamifying security awareness within the population, about democratising information gathering, about emphasising the transitory and uncertain nature of security. In other words, that no security is guaranteed, and that it will always be in what technical types call a ‘perpetual beta’ state – in other words, always being revised and improved as new threats and fixes emerge.

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Here’s a diagram inexpertly snapped from the book that neatly encapsulates his thesis, that we face a world of complex insecurity, marked by a lack of trust and also constant technological but also methodological innovation. The response is not trust in the state itself, so much as that this is a by-product of a series of necessary responses including, and this is crucial, the state’s trust in society. That is, in my opinion, a crucial point; in many ways the complexity of the modern threat picture has led to a pernicious combination of the sort of vaporous platitudes Ms Mogherini deploys along with a retreat, behind that smokescreen, of security into the hands of political, technical and intellectual elites. And that’s bad for society, and bad for security.

This is not always the easiest read, although Lehrke does a commendable job of tempering it with humour, but it is an important one. As with recent initiatives such as the Prague Insecurity Conference, there is something of a backlash against the securitised and secretised consensus that sees security as too important to leave in the hands of outsiders, and this is an important step forward in crafting a new concept of security – imperfect, unstable, democratic – for the emerging world.

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A Purely Personal ‘Best of 2017’ on Russia

new-year-400-e1419387976106Monstrously egotistical, I know, (though this is my blog, after all!), but here are the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 about which I am happiest, for various reasons:

 

 

Russia has no grand plans, but lots of ‘adhocrats’, in Intellinews Business New Europe, 18 January. I enjoy writing my ‘Stolypin’ column for BNE for all sorts of reasons, not least the chance it gives me sometimes to play around with my emerging ideas about how Russia works. In this one, I explored how it could be considered “a pluralistic authoritarianism, in which a variety of ‘adhocrats’ seek fame and fortune by finding their own ways of playing to Putin’s broad vision for the future. Sometimes that can lead to disaster, sometimes unexpected success.”

Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe, a Policy Brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations, 18 April. Beyond being happy with the title, as a paper bringing together Russia, gangsters, and spooks, how could this not have been a fun one to write?

Russia’s Nationalists: Putin’s Critical Children, co-written with Anna Arutunyan, published in English by the Henry Jackson Society, June. This is cheating, in a way, as this was originally published by RFE/RL in Russian in 2016, but since it only came out in English in 2017, I’m allowing it. Especially now that Igor Girkin, the infamous ‘Strelkov’ is increasingly open about his disenchantment with Putin, it is worth revisiting the nationalist critique of the Kremlin, the extent to which embezzlement, corruption, and inefficiency can all be attacked from a right-patriotic perspective, too.

The ‘Trump Dossier,’ or How Russia Helped America Break Itself in The Tablet, 13 June. There are many, many things to lament about the Trump presidency, in my opinion, and one is the way the debate about his legitimacy, supposed collusion with Russia and the like, is creating a toxic political environment that will outlast his time in power. For me, the issue is not about some supposed Kremlin masterplan to put a puppet in the White House (if it was, it has backfired badly) so much as the combination of a Moscow eager to undermine the USA and a candidate whose circle and business ethics leave them not so much wide open to connections with crooks and kleptocrats so much as eager for them. This is about moral and business corruption, not a ‘Siberian Candidate.’ (I explored this point earlier from a different angle in this CNN piece.)

Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe, a Policy Brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations, 1 September. The capstone of the four reports I wrote for the ECFR, and I was very pleased to be able to try and cut through much of the supposition and exaggeration and try and dig into the crucial questions of how far Russia’s ‘active measures’ campaign is coordinated (on the whole, it’s not) and insofar as it is, where the hub for managing the process really is.

What exactly are ‘Kremlin ties’? in The Atlantic, 12 July. Terms such as ‘Kremlin ties’ and ‘connected to Putin’ are used so widely and loosely these days, especially in terms of anyone even faintly connected to someone who knows Trump, such that I was delighted to have a chance to explore what this really means in such a diffuse, de-institutionalised system as Russia’s, full of political entrepreneurs hoping to find some angle.

Iron Fist in Jane’s Intelligence Review, August. Behind the IHS paywall, I’m afraid, but this was a pretty in-depth study of the Russian National Guard, the Rosgvardiya, and I was especially gratified to be able to pull a pretty comprehensive order of battle together – a testament to the fact that, whatever propaganda may slosh around the TV stations and government newspapers, there is a still a wonderful wealth of great open source reporting in Russia.

Kremlin’s puzzle: how to frame Putin’s re-election? in Raam op Rusland, 2 October. If you don’t know Raam op Rusland, it is well worth following, a Dutch collective seeking to raise the level of discussion about Russia, not least by translating some of the best writings to and from Russian. In my first column for them I presented the forthcoming presidential poll as “Schrödinger’s Election. The Kremlin is already engaged in the campaign, but is trying to keep its existence unclear and undefined until it knows what election it will be fighting. Who is the bigger threat, apathy or Navalny? Can it afford to give the appearance of a real election – or can it afford not to? For what will it stand, other than “business as usual”? While it tries to answer these questions, March gets closer and closer, and someday the box will be opened and we’ll see if the cat is alive.”

How Putin could yet save Britain from Brexit in The Guardian, 2 November. Arguably a piece of magical thinking, but it was fun to put together the likelihood that more evidence will emerge about Russian backing for Brexit and the possibility that some of the UK’s leaders will actually be willing to show leadership for a change and use that as the basis to slow or halt the lemming rush for the cliff edge. I don’t think that Russian interference was critical — but reality and appearance are two different things in politics…

The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016, book in the Elite series from Osprey Publishing. It tickles me immensely to write for Osprey, given how I devoured their beautifully-illustrated books as a child, especially when I have an excellent artist like Johnny Shumate doing the colour plates!

Russia in 2018…

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A quick note that my latest, end-of-year vlog video here, a mere eight-to-nine minutes long, is of my thoughts about what may face Russia in 2018, and what to look for. Putin and succession, active measures, Ukraine, why Russia is not Mordor, and, yes, even a mention of the World Cup…

From the ‘Brothers’ Circle’ to ‘Thieves-in-Law’: one myth succeeds another for the US Treasury

Vory(Of course I can’t not start with a plug: my book The Vory, on Russian organised crime yesterday, today, and tomorrow, comes out from Yale University Press in April for the UK, May for the USA. Now available for pre-order…)

So, on 22 December, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated as one of its Big Bad Global Criminal Targets, “the Eurasian criminal entity, the Thieves-in-Law.” Criminals such as Zakhary Kalashov and Lasha Shushanashvili are targeted as part of “a Eurasian crime syndicate,” a “vast criminal organization which has spread throughout the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States.” Sounds scary. And also faintly familiar.

Hang on, weren’t criminals such as, say, Zakhary Kalashov and Lasha Shushanashvili not already sanctioned? Why yes, come to think of it, they were: back in 2012, as members of “the Eurasian crime syndicate, the Brothers’ Circle,” which was described as “a criminal group composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups that are largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union, but also operate in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.”

At the time, I expressed deep skepticism about the existence of any such “Brothers’ Circle,” not a term one ever finds in this context in Russian sources, and suggested that given the essentially fluid nature of Russian organised crime, and the need for bureaucracies to have terms more substantive than “assorted Russian and Eurasian bad guys,” that it was simply invented, as “a convenient catch-all term, a way of making sure that Russian OC is included in the Order.” (I then returned to this theme here.)

That the “Brothers’ Circle” has apparently quietly morphed into the ‘Thieves-in-Law” seems to prove the point. Frankly, this is, I suggest, if anything worse. The Circle had the advantage of being essentially made up, but the Thieves exist…just not in the way Treasury suggests. First of all, it’s not an organisation, but a subculture and a social rank. It’s not even like using “Made Men” as a substitute for the Cosa Nostra, because the Thieves – the vory v zakone – represent a small and often not dominant fraction of some of the gangs in question. Secondly, that whole culture is dying, if not dead, the old titles losing their relevance and increasingly simply being bought. Thirdly, it is disproportionately a Georgian and to a lesser extent Russian fascination, which does not touch the Chechens, for a start.

I get it, OFAC needs a title, a label. But I never thought I’d actually be missing the old fantasy of a “Brother’s Circle.”

 

A brief dip into gun-nuttery: the ASh-12 CQB rifle

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ASh-12 with sound suppressor, because subtlety is clearly this cannon’s forte

Forgive me a brief descent into gun-wonk territory. A couple of years back, I heard about a new, big-bore Russian close-quarters battle (CQB) assault rifle that had been designed to FSB specifications for their special forces/counter-terrorism teams as a real man-stopper, including against targets wearing modern body armour. I’m no more than a three-quarters gun-nut, so it took me a while to hear what it actually is: the Tula KBP ASh-12, a bullpup design firing a massive 12.7mm round (remember, most modern assault rifles fire something from 5.45mm to 7.62mm), including armour-piercing and subsonic loads.

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It’s been in use since the start of 2012, but rarely seen until now. I feel I ought to be using this as the springboard to make some wider, wiser point, but no, this is just a combination of oh, so that’s what they were talking about and gosh, that’s a BFG… Back to normal service.

 

First thoughts on this weekend’s local elections (and looking for signs of hope)

hqdefault2This weekend saw local and gubernatorial elections in Russia (and a few by-elections, too), and here is my latest vlog “hot take.” Kremlin-friendly incumbents held the governors’ positions, which was no surprise given not least that potentially-credible rivals had already been excluded. However, the local elections, especially in Moscow, threw up some interesting results. It’s too easy to see Russia in the grip of historically-mandated autocracy, so it’s a useful (if sometimes tricky) challenge to look for positive signs of change and growth, but I think we can see some here. No, no suggestion of some imminent and dramatic shift, but in a way those should always be mistrusted. Rather, an incremental evolution. We’ll see.

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