‘The Great Fear’ redux

stalin-reborn-as-putinThere is a great deal of nonsense about “a new 1937” brewing in Russia (frankly, paralleling Putin with Stalin is both foolish and also profoundly demeaning to the memory of the millions of victims of the latter’s murder-machine). Nonetheless, bureaucratic engines of repression in authoritarian regimes do have some structural and cultural similarities, and thanks to a recent one of the excellent SRB podcast series I came across James Harris’s equally-excellent The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (OUP, 2016).

A few aspects of Harris’s explanation for the bloodbath are depressingly relevant today:

The Fear. Stalin and his cohorts genuinely felt at risk and assailed, knowing that the Japanese and the Germans wanted to take their land and resources, believing the British, French and the Americans wanted to see them at war, assuming the fifth columnists at home were powerful, networked and bloodthirsty. This was not just a mobilizing propaganda theme, though it was that as well, it was a strongly held belief that inclined the regime towards more murderous and maximalist policies than otherwise might have been.

The Threat Lobby. Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet political police, and his successors not only tended to assume the intertwined domestic and external threats to be more serious than they were, they also had a clear bureaucratic-factional interest in talking them up. At a time when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was up in arms about the impact of the Chekists’ activities, and there was talk of tighter subordination to the organs of justice, what better time to stoke the fear, to present it as a choice between security or legal and political niceties?

The Kremlin Echo Chamber. Harris treads a fine line between the top-down and bottom-up (or strong state/weak state) explanations for the Great Purges. I’m not entirely convinced that squaring the circle by saying it was a strong state that thought itself weak quite works, although there is an undoubted elegance to the suggestion, but it is clear that most of the repression was not directed specifically from the top. Stalin was the impresario, but the performers were largely ad libbing. In this context, local agencies were often driven by the hope of correcting interpreting and predicting the Kremlin’s wishes and also the imperative to tell Moscow what it wanted to hear. Increasingly, the scope for loyal dissent shrank and shrank.

There are clear parallels today. Putin is not about to start a campaign of mass murder or try to modernise his economy on the back of slave labour, of course. But we need to recognise, even if just to help us understand and predict this regime better, the extent to which it genuinely believes itself actively threatened, not just by the impersonal forces of economics and demographics, but by Western machination. It is encouraged to do this by a security apparatus that has learned to play to the more paranoid and defensive instincts of the regime and a bureaucratic culture that seeks to identify what an often gnomic Kremlin truly wants. These were dangerous political pathologies in 1937, and they are again so today.

June 2016 Publications Round-Up

Here we go again.

Why Vladimir Putin is cheering Brexit — and why he might soon regret it‘, Vox, 28 June 2016

Better repressive laws in Russia than repression?‘, Business New Europe, 28 June 2016

Гибридный бизнес Кремля‘ [‘The Kremlin’s Hybrid Business’], with Anna Arutunyan, Radio Svoboda, 24 July 2016 [English version to appear soon]

No, Russia is not preparing for all-out war,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 21 June 2016

Ryssland vill bli erkänt som en global stormakt‘, interview with Utrikesmagasinets , 13 June 2016

Nationalists versus Putin,’ Business New Europe, 10 June 2016

‘Red Alert: Russian military underpins foreign policy,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, June 2016

Also, a couple of notes about video presentations available online. ‘Russia’s “New Way of War”: Not so new, and not just war‘ was a joint session with Alexander Golts, at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, and ‘Russia’s Wars,’ while only made available in June, was a panel of which I was a part at this year’s Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn in May.

Russia’s “Little Green Fan” Problem: football hooligans, the new nationalism, and the Western narrative

The open enthusiasm of some Russian politicians about the thuggish behaviour of their football fans in France speaks volumes about the boorish nationalism and crude us-versus-the-world mentality that has been liberated by Putin in recent years. Compared with the ongoing war in the Donbas or the crackdown on independent media and NGOs, it may seem trivial to focus on Liberal Democrat parliamentarian Igor Lebedev’s tweeted comment that he didn’t “see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!” or indeed Putin’s disingenuous question as to “how 200 Russian fans could beat several thousand of the British.”

But of course this is all part of a common pattern of mulish and wilful refusal to accept any fault or responsibility, a determination instead to blame everything on everyone else. And the result is a vicious circle that sees the rest of the world, although especially the West, all the less tolerant of Russia (witness the doping-related sanctions on its athletes). This, in turn, fuels Russia’s querulous persecution complex and the adolescent tantrums through which it is manifest.

And yet for all that, there is also a dangerous Western narrative that the Kremlin is the malign grandmaster behind everything that goes wrong, from Brexit to migration. The hooligan crisis has likewise been inserted into this unfolding narrative, notably in an article based wholly on anonymous and unsupported “Whitehall experts”, that “It looks like a continuation of the hybrid warfare deployed by Putin.”

Let’s put aside the fact that calling Russia’s approach hybrid warfare is unhelpful and inaccurate. The tissue-thin evidence on which this is based is that “a number of [the fans] are in the uniformed services” and that “UK police spotters saw some 150 Russia fans ‘tooling up’ with gum shields, fingerless martial arts gloves and bandanas.”

Russia has an inglorious and brutal history of very violent fan-hooligan activity. Any football match where stakes are high and rivalries long-standing tends to be the focus of a massive and heavy-handed police operation that involved truckloads of Interior Troops, hundreds of “cosmonauts” – riot police in full armour – and water cannon at the ready. These fanaty, alas, are more interested in the fight than the game, and train, prepare and kit themselves out accordingly. You don’t have to have been issued a Kremlin playbook to ‘tool up’ – and frankly if the Russians were training them as “hybrid warriors” I’d imagine they could come up with better advice than wearing bandanas.

It also ignores the point that for all the crass public statements from Russian politicians, the government apparatus was actually involved in sharing information with their French counterparts and back in May had already published a bill – since passed in the State Duma – on publicising blacklists of known hooligans. It is also worth mentioning that after first trying to make light of the problem, the embattled Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, then admitted that those involved in the violence “brought shame on their country.”

After all, what benefit would Moscow gain from such “hybrid warfare”? It hardly endears Europe to the Russians, and is not the scale of an issue that meaningfully distracts it from any other activities. It exploits and opens no internal fault lines. All it does is contribute to a sense that Russians are inherently unpleasant, uncivilised, untrustworthy. Indeed, it raises once again the question as to whether Russia is a safe and justified venue for the 2018 World Cup, the last thing the Kremlin wants. (Both for reasons of national pride and also because it is another vehicle for controlled embezzlement by favoured members of the elite.)

So the truth of the matter is complex. The current nationalist line obviously encourages those who choose to see it as granting them license to take their prejudices to the streets. Sometimes, the government actively seeks to use them, especially to intimidate the opposition. Yet the Kremlin is also keenly aware of the risks in uncontrolled violence and its populism has distinct limits. Furthermore, there are many within the government who are simply doing their jobs and embarrassed by and opposed to these law-breakers.

Let us in the West by all means decry the cheap and nasty rhetoric of the Lebedevs of this world, and acknowledge the deep social malaise which engenders this subculture of violent, right-wing, racist and homophobic tribalism. But let’s not try to twist and distort it into a narrative of weaponised everything, not only because it is wrong – though it is – but also because the more we lie to ourselves, the less able we are to deal with the real challenges before us. Every time someone decides to see a shadowy Kremlin hand in something over which it has no real authority, we empower Putin. Whether in over-stating his military might or, as here, seeing every tattooed hooligan as a “little green fan,” we build him up far more than he deserves.

May 2016 Publications Round-Up

A belated summary, delayed by lots of travel and events.

The main publication for May was my lengthy report for the ECFR, Putin’s Hydra: inside Russia’s intelligence services, which I’m pleased to say has become its most-read product yet. The summary is:

Far from being an all-powerful “spookocracy” that controls the Kremlin, Russia’s intelligence web-russias-intelligence-architecture-graphicservices are internally divided, distracted by bureaucratic turf wars, and often produce poor quality intelligence – ultimately threatening the interests of Vladimir Putin himself.

Drawing on extensive interviews with former and current intelligence officials, “Putin’s hydra: Inside Russia’s intelligence services” explains how the spy agencies really work, and argues that Europe’s view of them is patchy and based on outdated caricatures.

The paper punctures the myth that the agencies are the power behind the throne in Russia. They are firmly subordinated to the Kremlin, and Putin plays them off against one another. They are not a united bloc but a disparate group, whose solidarity disappears as soon as there is an opportunity to make money or avoid blame.

The agencies often replicate each others’ work, engaging in bloody competition rather than sharing intelligence. The need to please the Kremlin and deliver quick results leads to shoddy information gathering and analysis. Intelligence chiefs must shape and sugarcoat the facts to suit the president – or risk their jobs.

Fighting for territory, and locked in a Cold-War mindset where “If the West loses, we gain”, Russia’s spy agencies take extreme measures abroad – even assassinations. Their actions in the West may seem tactically effective but are strategically disastrous, painting Russia as an unpredictable threat.

European governments can moderate the agencies’ actions in their countries by adopting a tougher approach. This means investing not just in in counterintelligence but also addressing the governance weaknesses that facilitate the Kremlin’s campaigns, including placing tougher controls on their sources of dirty money.

Articles about the report have appeared in Pan-European Network, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Газета.ру, and (a very kind note by Edward Lucas), the Centre for European Policy Analysis website.

Beyond that:

Spain versus Russia’s kleptocracy,’ ECFR blog, 4 May

Don’t Feed the Troll, and Don’t Reward a Tantrum,’ Russia! magazine, 4 May

The Russian patriot’s dilemma,’ Business New Europe, 9 May

Putinism won’t end with a bang, but a warrant‘, openDemocracy: Russia, 10 May

Why the departure of Putin’s chief bodyguard actually matters,’ ECFR blog, 26 May

Russia’s pessimism paradox,’ Business New Europe, 30 May

Also, the video of a joint event with Alexander Golts at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Russia’s “New Way of War”: Not so new, and not just war, can be watched here.



Dmitri Kochnev: the elusive new FSO director, and thus Putin’s primary protector

Evgeny Murov, the long-time head of the Federal Guard Service (FSO) finally got his wish, to retire, and in the process Russia may have become a little less stable — I explain why in a piece over on the ECFR website, here, but the essence is:

In short, however perverse it may sound, this most Praetorian and loyalist of agencies actually helped keep Putin grounded and the system stable. But Murov personally was clearly a driving force, not least because he evidently had no thoughts of personal advancement in mind. Is Kochnev able to play the same role? Willing? Even aware of it? That’s hard to see, and the 51-year old Kochnev, whose entire life has been spent within the FSO, is less likely to see his future as being heading the FSO for the next nine-plus years. Even if he is content with his new office, will any of his rivals believe it, anyway?

Now we are getting a little more granular information about the background of his successor, Dmitri Viktorovich Kochnev, although the official line raises as many questions as answers them. This is what the official bio on the FSO website says:

He was born in Moscow in 1964

He served in the military 1982-84

Then he went straight into “the security agencies of the USSR and the Russian Federation,” 1984-2002

In 2002, he has been in the FSO, in 2015 becoming deputy director of the FSO and head of the Presidential Security Service (SBP). He became a colonel in 2006 (expect that to change soon) and he is married.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 18.27.30

Not exactly a lot to go on.According to his income declaration, in 2015, he earned 3.3 million rubles, but his wife more than 58 million. (The average monthly wage as of January 2015 was 31,200 rubles, for an annual 375,000 rubles, so he did OK.) There have been suggestions Kochnev was close to former SBP chief and now National Guard praetorian-in-chief Viktor Zolotov, and counter suggestions that he wasn’t (see Vedomosti here).

The real question is what he was doing in that shadowy period 1984-2002. Was he part of the KGB’s Ninth Directorate (the precursor of the FSO)? In that case why not simply transfer across to the FSO when it was established in 1996 out of the GUO (Main Guard Directorate, 1993-96)? There has been the suggestion he worked in RUBOP, the old (and in some ways quite notorious) Regional Directorate for the Struggle Against Organised Crime. These were formed in 1992, and so he may have jumped, through the 1991-92 chaos, from KGB to the Moscow RUBOP. In 2001, the RUBOPs were folded into the MVD’s regional Main Directorates (GUs), though, so this might explain another shift, if there was no room for him in the MVD or he simply preferred a more exalted service.

But then why not say so? I honestly don’t know. It is not as if being in RUBOP is some monstrously embarrassing past indiscretion. I feel there has to be something there, maybe simply that he was in proximity to some scandal or the like. Eventually, it will out: Russian journalists are no less tenacious than their Western counterparts and perhaps precisely because of the difficult environment in which they operate can be even shrewder in ferreting out the facts. I doubt this is especially important in itself, but the very opacity says something about the culture of today’s Russia, that even a public figure’s resume from twenty years back can be considered none of our business.

Meanwhile, let’s see how he measures up to the job…





April 2016 Publications Round-Up

Slightly premature, as there may be an eleventh-hour addition, but here is the April tally:

The Panama Papers show how corruption really works in Russia,’ Vox, 4 April

Moscow’s mercenaries in Syria,’ War On The Rocks, 5 April

Zolotov: Kadyrov’s Golden Roof?,’ Russia! magazine, 12 April

Russia’s ‘Panamization’ of politics,’ Business New Europe, 13 April

Bastrykin’s manifesto for the ‘North Koreanisation’ of Russia‘, Business New Europe, 18 April

Марк Галеотти: «Иногда мафию от бизнеса даже не отличишь»‘, interview in Slon, 19 April [in Russian]

The Putin myth: the Russian leader isn’t nearly as powerful as you think,’ Vox, 19 April

Assessing the myth of Vladimir Putin,’ interview with NPR, 28 April

Rusijos ekspertas Markas Galeotti: „Vladimirui Putinui Baltijos šalys nerūpi“‘, interview with 15.min, 28 April [in Lithuanian]

What makes Vladimir Putin so special?‘, interview podcast for Reuters War College, 29 April [ADDED]

I’d also add that I am now a contributing editor for Russia for Intellinews Business New Europe, so expect to see more of my thoughts there in the future…


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