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!


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


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.


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.


Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe

C9s92ljW0AAhnPtMy latest report for the ECFR is out. While I am waiting for the bidding war for the film rights, I’ll settle for pointing people in its direction – you can download it free here – and offer up the summary:

  • Over the past 20 years, the role of Russian organised crime in Europe has shifted considerably. Today, Russian criminals operate less on the street and more in the shadows: as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
  • The Russian state is highly criminalised, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
  • Russian-based organised crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of ‘black cash’, to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.
  • European states and institutions need to consider RBOC a security as much as a criminal problem, and adopt measures to combat it, including concentrating on targeting their assets, sharing information between security and law-enforcement agencies, and accepting the need to devote political and economic capital to the challenge.

I confess I am pleased with the ‘Russian-based organised crime‘ notion, that I think fills an ontological niche, in that it is clear that there is a difference between those gangs which still have strong connections to Russia — who could as easily be Georgians, or Dagestanis, or whoever — and those who have essentially moved out of the country. It is the former who are especially susceptible to use by the Russian security apparatus, and who genuinely worry me. (And yes, I’m also pleased with the title…)


Sanctioning the GRU, a decent step, but hamstrung by the need for symmetry

GRU logoThe “Lame Duck” president has proven to have a surprisingly sharp and accurate peck, and as the USA strikes back against the Russian hacking and its role in the US elections with a welcome series of sanctions. Two point are worth bringing up: the way the issue instantly and depressingly becomes a partisan one. It also suggests that the incoming administration is woefully ill-informed about the Russian intelligence community, or willing to leap through rhetorical hoops to protect it; and the needless and limiting philosophy behind the sanctions.

The Sanctions and the GRU (more…)


Russian banks warned of risk of cyberattack: a crime or security concern?

russianhackerRussian banks are being warned by the FSB to prepare for possible cyberattacks. That may seem to be a given in these days of virtual criminality, and follows a recent theft of 2 billion rubles ($31.3 million) from correspondent bank accounts at Russia’s Central Bank, but actually Russian financial institutions have until now had it pretty easy. That’s not least because part of the unwritten deal between the state and the hacking community (along with the need to pitch in when ‘patriots’ are expected to attack some foreign target) is that they are fine so long as they don’t commit their crimes against domestic institutions.
However, I wonder if there is also a security dimension here. Just as the Central Bank was involved in recent mobilisation exercises, predicated (rightly) on the fact that any major conflict with the West would also be fought with economic instruments, I wonder how far Moscow is coming to terms with the fact that the one-way ‘political war‘ currently being waged against the West might become a two-way one, at least to a limited extent. Those who live by the hack risk dying by it, too.

Evgeni Zinichev: Putin’s new man at the FSB


Evgeni Zinichev, in that brief moment when he was a governor…

Remember Evgeni Nikolaevich Zinichev? He was the former Putin bodyguard made acting governor of Kaliningrad region, who, I’d expect, had a record-breaking brevity of tenure. Appointed in July, on October he left the position at his own request, citing family reasons (although even at the time, locals suspected it was more that he didn’t like the job). Well, it doesn’t seem to have done him any harm: at the end of October he was appointed to a new, specially-created sixth deputy director position at the Federal Security Service, although it only just seems to have been reported.

The 50-year-old Zinichev served in the Soviet KGB, then the forbears of the FSB, before moving to the Federal Guard Service (FSO) in 2006, working as a bodyguard in Putin’s Presidential Security Service (SBP), increasingly the wellspring of a new generation of the elite. In June 2015, he became head of the FSB’s regional directorate for Kaliningrad. (Where, incidentally, he received what for him may have been some rather uncomfortably press scrutiny, not least about his slightly suspect educational record).

Just over a year later, on 28 July 2016, he was appointed acting governor of Kalingrad region, as part of a general reshuffle I cover here. His first press conference notoriously lasted just 49 seconds, at which he called for inward investment and the ‘stabilisation of the socio-economic situation.’ Brevity was clearly to be his defining characteristic: on 6 October, less than two and a half months later, he stepped down even before his own inauguration.

At the end of October, though, he was appointed deputy director of the FSB, with the rank of lieutenant general. There were no spare slots, so a whole new position was created for him, seemingly without portfolio.

First of all, I wonder if this means Zinichev is being considered for higher office, cycling with frankly insulting speed through the gubernatorship just to tick that box on his CV before rushing him back to Moscow, where all real power lies. There certainly seems not only to have been no negative fallout from his lack of staying power in Kaliningrad, but also a particular eagerness to find him a comfortable and powerful berth at the FSB.

It also may be an uncomfortable situation for FSB director Alexander Bortnikov. Back at the start of 2015, the FSB backed its sometimes-rival GRU when it tried to fight off efforts by the Kremlin to parachute another ex-bodyguard, Alexei Dyumin, in to head it. That initiative was foiled, in part because Dyumin had no credible experience within military intelligence. Is Zinichev – who, after all, has real FSB experience – being installed either as Putin’s ‘political commissar’ within the FSB as a control agent, or else as a potential successor to Bortnikov.

Either way, the bodyguards continue to rise.

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