New article: ‘Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?’

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 09.23.14Just a quick note, that an article of mine has appeared in the latest issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 27, no. 2, a special issue on ‘Proxy Actors, Militias and Irregular Forces: The New Frontier of War?’ pulled together by Alex Marshall of Glasgow University. It emerged from an excellent workshop that Alex convened last year on this important and under-researched topic and the issue includes, along with all sorts of first-rate material, the always-great Vanda Felbab-Brown on Afghan militias and an interesting conceptual piece by Robert and Pamela Ligouri Bunker. My contribution, Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?, places recent Russian practice very firmly within an historical tradition going back to pre-Soviet adventures. Here’s the abstract:

Russia’s recent operations in Ukraine, especially the integrated use of militias,
gangsters, information operations, intelligence, and special forces, have created
a concern in the West about a ‘new way of war’, sometimes described as ‘hybrid’.
However, not only are many of the tactics used familiar from Western operations,
they also have their roots in Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian practice. They are
distinctive in terms of the degree to which they are willing to give primacy to
‘non-kinetic’ means, the scale of integration of non-state actors, and tight linkage
between political and military command structures. However, this is all largely a
question of degree rather than true qualitative novelty. Instead, what is new is
the contemporary political, military, technological, and social context in which
new wars are being fought.

February 2016 Publications Round-Up

As ever, a quick summary for those interested:

Ramzan Kadyrov: the Kremlin’s Public Frenemy Number One,’ ECFR commentary, 1 February 2016

Why the Litvinenko Enquiry Was Not a ‘Farce’‘, Russia!, 1 February 2016

What Putin’s Security Appointments Say About How Russia Works‘, War On The Rocks, 9 February 2016

Free Sergei Lavrov!‘, Foreign Policy, 17 February 2016

Welcome to the stagnation of Retro-Brezhnevism,’ Business New Europe, 17 February 2016

Imagining 2030: Taking the Trans-Siberian to Moscow,’ PS21, 21 February 2016

Don’t Buy the Hype: Russia’s military is a lot weaker than Putin wants us to think,’ Vox, 23 February 2016

No Easy Fix for Syria,’ Moscow Times, 25 February 2016

‘Shadowy Spec Ops,’ AK-47 and Soviet Weapons, 2016


Kadyrov the Terrible? Is he really going, or is this just a curtain call?


Time for Kadyrov to do the decent thing?

Today, on the anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s murder — almost certainly at his orders or else retrospectively blessed by him — Chechen warlord-ruler Ramzan Kadyrov has said that it is time for him to go, that “my time has passed” and “The nation’s leadership needs to find another person so that my name isn’t used against my people.” Yes, it’s goodbye. Gosh. This certainly comes as a surprise, albeit an inordinately welcome one, but raises a range of questions, first and foremost quite why, and why now?


Russia under pressure: more crime, more petty

Police BadgeAccording to the MVD’s latest figures, January saw total numbers of recorded crime rise by 4.6% on last year’s (to almost 172,000) but the proportion of serious crimes fall by almost 3%. Some quick and preliminary thoughts:

The absolute level of serious crime is still up–yes, it fell as a proportion, but of a total that rose even faster–yet much less so than other crimes. These other crimes tend to be low-level instances of unpremeditated inter-personal violence and petty theft such as shoplifting. In other words, crimes which are often a pretty good indicator of underlying levels of social and economic pressure on the general population.

Last year overall, the crime rate was 8.6% up. In part, I think this reflects continued improvement in actually recording offences, cutting down on so-called “latent crime” (despite all the challenges, there is still progress), but in the main I think this is a genuine rise, even if not quite as high as that figure suggests.

So, does the January figure actually reflect an improvement? Maybe, but looking month-by-month, January tends to be a less “elastic” month anyway, perhaps because of holidays, higher levels of street policing in the main cities, etc. It’s too soon to say for certain, although it is also worth noting that there is considerable anecdotal evidence of a resurgence in petty police corruption because of the direct and indirect economic pressures on them (I talk about this a little here), which could also lead to renewed under-reporting. It will be interesting to see how the February and March figures pan out.

Taking the Trans-Siberian to Moscow in 2030

The PS21 Project for the Study of the 21st Century has an interesting little series of thought experiments, short fictionalised narratives imagining aspects of the world in 2030.

I jotted down a quick account of a trip on the new high-speed Trans-Siberian to Moscow, via Zabaikalsk, Novisibirsk and Kazan, for their latest, complete with some general thoughts about Russia’s political evolution (as I’ve speculated before, Putin to kleptocrat to reformer), its economic place in the world, and the rise of the ‘novy gipster’…. It is a rather different Moscow from that in the picture on the left I should add:

The Trans-Siberian Express isn’t just a train, it’s a metaphor. Once, a metaphor for the Tsarist empire’s determination to claim Siberia and the Russian Far East. And now? The double-headed eagle proudly glitters on the bullet-nose of the new, high-speed trains, and the conductors on the Moskovskaya strelka, the ‘Moscow Arrow,’ wear uniforms derived from those of their imperial forebears. But the CRH-49 locomotives are a Chinese design, built in the now Chinese-owned Uralvagonzavod works with a loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, running along a new track built by a Russo-Chinese consortium, and largely by Uighur labourers.

That said, the proud and pricklish days when Moscow thought it could pivot east yet remain the ‘elder brother’ are long gone. When Putin’s stroke delivered power into the laps of kleptocrats who had never had any real enthusiasm for his imperial project, they eagerly looked to rebuild relations in Asia and the West alike. This was just the last hurrah of Russian ‘wild capitalism’—lenders were too canny, opportunities elsewhere were more appealing, and the oligarchs and bureaucrat-entrepreneurs behind President Shuvalov’s figurehead government soon fell to feuding amongst themselves.

Read there rest here.

I’m a great believer in this kind of practical daydreaming; we absolutely may not — probably won’t — get it right, especially not in detail. But it provides us a way of considering the might-bes, the black swans, the surely-nots and the wonder-ifs. Given how unpredictable the future is, either we throw up our hands and stick to reading the newspaper, or else we might as well embrace the fact that we are really in the business of creating the most plausible science fictions we can…

A Quick and Provisional GRU Update

Update: the afternoon I wrote this, it was announced that Lt Gen Igor Korobov has been appointed. Needless to say, I take full credit for forcing the Kremlin’s hand😉. Meanwhile Dyumin, perhaps as a consolation prize, perhaps because his position at the defence ministry had thus become untenable, moves across to become acting governor of Tula. So the military win this round – but apparently not easily.


GRU logoA month ago tomorrow, military intelligence chief Igor Sergun died of heart failure in the suburbs of Moscow (not in Lebanon, not anything exciting…). That the announcement of his successor would be delayed because of the long Christmas-to-Orthodox-New-Year holidays was expected. But despite a couple of times hearing suggestions that a name was about to be announced, no one yet.

It’s bad enough that we don’t even know what the agency should be called — it’s traditional form, the GRU, that even Putin uses, or the more anonymous GU (“the Main Directorate”) in official parlance? I talk a little about this in War On The Rocks here. But as the leadership vacuum continues to resist being filled, it is hard not to assume this is because the appointment is proving contentious. As near as I can tell–and all this needless ought to be taken with caution, as the people who really know aren’t going to tell–there is a three-cornered, asymmetric fight:

Steady As She Goes. The obvious stakeholders want the obvious choice: defence minister Shoigu, CoGS Gerasimov (probably) and the bulk of the GRU itself want one of Sergun’s deputies to succeed: Vyacheslav Kondrashev, Sergei Gizunov, Igor Lelin, or most likely, Igor Korobov. Obviously the new director’s interests and personality would have an impact, but essentially this is the continuity choice. (more…)


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