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

Kellyann Conway, counsellor to President-Elect Trump, told CNN, while disparaging these so-called “symbolic” sanctions, that “the GRU doesn’t really travel here, doesn’t keep its assets here.” OK, let’s start with that.

If by “the GRU doesn’t really travel here,” she means senior officers such as the four figures directly sanctioned don’t pop over to Epcot for family holidays, that is perfectly true. If by “the GRU …, doesn’t keep its assets here” she means the agency as a whole doesn’t have McMansions in Texas and skiing chalets in Vermont, also technically true. But.

First of all, the GRU has many assets in the espionage tradecraft terms in the USA: agents, networks, safehouses, dead drops, etc. This is an expansive and aggressive agency that while focusing on military intelligence has broadened out into covering a wide range of other missions, not least because of the competitive dynamic I outline in my recent ECFR report Putin’s Hydra. So if we are talking about the GRU as a whole — and Conway’s phrasing suggests she was — then of course the GRU has huge (even yuge) assets in the States, including its rezidentura, its base within the embassy in DC.

Secondly, the point about sanctioning the guys at the top of the GRU is not because you’re worried about them popping over the take advantage of the New Year sales on Fifth Avenue, but to demonstrate commitment. Yes, this is “symbolic” but much of politics is precisely about symbolism.

Punish the Criminal, Not the Instrument

However, here’s my beef with the current philosophy of sanctions, the need artificially to create comparability and demonstrate direct connection. What does it matter if the hacks were done by the GRU (and as I understand it, they got the emails, but it was the FSB that pushed for their leakage and handled the dissemination and exploitation side of the operation)? These are simply arms of a single, authoritarian state? Why not hit people in the Presidential Administration, Duma, Senate, Putin’s friends, his dogwalker, whoever?

When we convict a thug of punching someone, we don’t punish him by breaking his arm, we punish the criminal as an entire person. By the same token, sanctions should target the state, not its individual instruments. This is a reasonable set of sanctions, and can be welcomed. But for real effectiveness, for deterrent impact, arguably sanctions ought to be unreasonable, and directed at the source of the attack, not the instrument.

One-and-a-Half Cheers for new Czech centre to resist Political Warfare

mvcrOn 1 January, the Czech Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) is formally opened, within the Ministry of the Interior (MVČR). With a 20-strong staff, its main focus will be to tackle disinformation and political manipulation through the media–and yes, essentially this means Russia’s current ‘political war’ on the West–and to respond openly. My snap verdict is that this is a worthy start, but the Czechs, like other European countries, need also to move beyond this fashionable but essentially reactive approach and think more strategically and perhaps also robustly about fighting this political war.

The Centre’s website has a handy and in some aspects disarming summary of what it is and is not:

  • What will the Centre do?

  • It will essentially be a specialised analytical and communications unit. Given the competencies of the Ministry of the Interior, the Centre will monitor threats directly related to internal security, which implies a broad array of threats and potential incidents relative to terrorism, soft target attacks, security aspects of migration, extremism, public gatherings, violation of public order and different crimes, but also disinformation campaigns related to internal security.

  • Based on its monitoring work, the Centre will evaluate detected challenges and come up with proposals for substantive and legislative solutions that it will also implement where possible. It will also disseminate information and spread awareness about the given issues among the general and professional public.

  • What the Centre is not and what it will not do:

  • The Centre will not be a new law enforcement agency, nor an intelligence service.

  • The Centre will not have a button for “switching off the internet”.

  • The Centre will not force the “truth” on anyone, or censor media content.

  • It will not remove content from the internet or other (printed) media.

  • It will work primarily with open sources available to all and will openly communicate with civil society, the media, and other subjects.

  • The Centre will not lock anyone up, interrogate anyone, or lead any proceedings with anyone.

  • The Centre will not spread any kind of propaganda, but only expertise relating to the field of internal security, and is modelled on similar strategic communications teams that already exist in the Baltic states or in the United Kingdom.

  • The Centre will also inform about serious cases of disinformation and will provide expert opinions for the public and for government institutions. These opinions, as those of a government institution, will be based on the constitutional order of the Czech Republic.

So far, so open and laudable. The first thing to say is that it is a very welcome move when any Western country demonstrates a willingness to recognise that there is a political campaign under way to undermine and divide Western nations and institutions, and to do something about it.

At the same time, though, there is something a little discouragingly conventional about this approach, especially if a recent story in the Guardian is right that “The specialists will scrutinise disinformation and attempt to counter it, via a dedicated Twitter account and a new section of the interior ministry website devoted to communicating the government viewpoint.” This is a much more limited mission than that implies by the first paragraph in its own self-description, and I hope it is not the main role of the Centre.

The current fad for “mythbusting” and countering “fake news” is understandable, but it frankly is often more the product of a desire to do something, or at least to be seen to do something, than the best thing. The idea that gullible consumers of Russian disinformation will be swayed from their wayward path because a government agency tweets a counter is pretty far-fetched. On the whole, the targets are unlikely to follow such a feed, much less believe it, and while there is value to letting news media know, the problem is that today’s information is too quick and voluminous. For every story spotted, evaluated and countered, ten, fifty more will have appeared. To be sure, sometimes there are lies so significant but also so possible to counter with objective data — the infamous German “Lisa Case” is the obvious example — that it is worth it. But more often this smacks rather more of the kind of metrics beloved of all bureaucracies, of being able to report this many stories checked and that many rebutted, rather than actual impact.

Beyond that, again quoting the Guardian, “The centre will also train civil servants to avoid blackmail and resist foreign lobbying.” This is an interesting angle, because it begins to speak to the element missing from the counter-disinformation angle: dealing with culture and mindsets. Civil servants need to realise that this is a potential threat, and be sensitised to recognise it, and to know how to respond. (Of course, so too do politicians, but that is — alas — not within the CPTHH’s remit!)

This same approach ought also to be taken over disinformation. Sure, have a specialist centre within the MVČR, but arguably even more useful would be task forces within the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sports and the Ministry of Culture, to train young Czechs to consume media wisely and sceptically and crack down on the purveyors of “fake news,” respectively. In some ways, the parallel is with fighting the drug problem. The MVČR’s approach is the analogue of arresting pushers: necessary, but an endless and thankless task in isolation, and the real, long-term answer is to educate and uplift potential users and break trafficking networks in order to tackle the market and the demand, not just the street-side supply.

But let me close by being provocative. The CPTHH is very clear that it is not a police or an intelligence service, won’t arrest people, won’t take content off the net. Why not? To put it another way, is there not also scope for such methods? given the tight relationship between the Kremlin’s media and intelligence assets, and the degree to which arguably its political war could prove more dangerous to the Czech Republic and other European states than any mere military threat, why is there not scope for such measures? If a radical preacher grooms a would-be terrorist to carry out an atrocity, that is rightly seen as something deserving of full-scale law-enforcement activity. If a government-funded disinformation network starts to pump dangerous lies into the information space which could undermine a government, foment civil tension, or even lead to the break up of alliances crucial to national security and prosperity, ought that not be treated with similar seriousness, even if not blood is directly shed?

This does not mean blacklisting websites because they dare cover alternative perspectives, or witch-hunting those who retweet a questionable story. It means going after those who actively and knowingly are engaged in the spread of disinformation directly harmful to national interests, as well as those other horsemen of the infocalypse: intelligence agents, those facilitating the covert spread of Russian economic penetration, etc. It also means the ČR needs to redouble its efforts generally to fight corruption — there is no point hoping to fight “Russian corruption” or even “foreign corruption”, so long as corruption remains a serious issue (which sadly it is, even if things are improving, and the recent claim that it “suffers from some of the worst corruption in the world” was a ridiculous exaggeration). One cannot depend on the patriotism of bribe-takers!

So in short, one-and-a-half cheers for the Czechs, for starting the process. In common with other Western states, though, they may want also to think more deeply as to what is the most effective way of dealing with the challenge on a deeper level, both educating the public, and also taking a more robust position with those knowingly engaged in political war.

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.

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…





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


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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