‘Orion’, MH17, and the GRU

bellA fascinating and imaginative joint international open source investigation, led by Bellingcat, has identified the figure with the callsign ‘Orion’ connected to the downing of the MH17 airliner over the Donbas as Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, a Russian GRU military intelligence officer. And, indeed, a busy little soul, as he also appears to be the ‘Andrey Ivanovich Laptev’ who served as chair of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia’s Security Council between 2004 and 2006, and then its Minister of Defence and Emergencies until 2008. Beyond a first-class exercise in open-source sleuthing, this once again emphasises the role of the GRU today and four of its particular features:

It is aggressive and adventurous. A significant element of the GRU is its Spetsnaz special forces and other battlefield reconnaissance assets. While by no means every GRU officer has a Spetsnaz pedigree, it has infused the service with a certain degree of forward-leaning élan. This was especially encouraged by former head Igor Sergun, not least as a way of recovering the GRU’s prestige after a time in Putin’s disfavour.

It has a particular role in the ‘Near Abroad’ – and especially its rougher corners. The regular spies of the SVR are barred by treaty from operating within the CIS, and frankly are happier in diplomatic cover and white-collar legends. The GRU is thus, along with the FSB, particularly active in the former Soviet ‘Near Abroad’ and even more so in the battlefields, contested territories and pseudo-states. As soldiers first and foremost, they are less deterred by the risks and conditions, and more suited to the kinds of less-subtle operations these territories permit. In 2012, Ivannikov was appointed director of the Russia-Caucasus Research Centre of the International Institute of the Newly Established States, a Moscow-based think tank which appears to be a GRU front or affiliate agency (in some ways akin to the ways RISI is connected to the SVR) also championing an expansion of Russian influence in ‘Near Abroad.’

It concentrates on the sharper end of the ‘political war.’ While the FSB and SVR engage in campaigns of disinformation, subversion and demoralisation, rely on the GRU for the more kinetic stuff. Just ask Montenegro (where the GRU was involved in backing the abortive pre-NATO coup), or the good citizens of the Donbas, or the Georgians. It is hardly a coincidence that Ivannikov’s graduate thesis was on ‘The Complex Nature of the Information War in the Caucasus: socio-philosophical aspects’ and in the Donbas he appears to have been the ‘curator’ handling not just Igor Plotnitskii, then defence minister of the LNR, but the Wagner pseudo-mercenary force.

It is, like all Russian intelligence agencies, its compatriot spooks’ friends and rivals at once. In the Donbas, the GRU and FSB are clearly in competition, and ‘Orion’ was part of the former agency’s network of handlers and operators. One point not in the report which may or may not be significant, is that I certainly heard some suggestions that the FSB were aware of Bellingcat’s attempts to track and identify ‘Orion’. That Ivannikov was still using a phone tagged to his address and even confirm his name when rung on spec implies either poor operational security – which is not generally a GRU characteristic – or else that this warning had not been passed on to their ‘cousins’…

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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!

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.

 

Is the Russian National Guard suddenly acquiring sweeping new powers? No, not so much

Rosgvardiya1A new Presidential Decree with the snappy title ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of forces of the National Guard of the Russian Federation‘ has suddenly caused something of a fuss because of a clause which allows the president to subordinate military units to the Rosgvardiya. From Versiya, for example, there came the outraged cry that “Nothing like this has happened in the country’s history” and that it was “impossible to imagine” the “Russian imperial army commanding the gendarmes, and NKVD the Red Army.” In Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, the warning was that “it has become clear that sooner or later war plans require the use of troops against the population. Russian officers do not want to shoot at their fellow. And the officers of the General Staff, it seems, did their best to slow down the adoption of the policy documents. But the Kremlin was anxious. And the National Guard conquered the army.”

Of course the creation of the National Guard from the basis of the MVD’s Interior Troops and public order forces was a worrying sign of the paranoias of the Kremlin. It is a force of some 180,000-190,000 security troops and special police, by the way, not 400,000 – there are perhaps as many private security officers, but they are not all armed, are scattered around the country, and in some cases are other Rosgvardiya officers moonlighting in a second job. It was clearly established both in case the Kremlin wants to break heads on the streets, and also to represent an additional obstacle to any elite political coup.

But let’s not get caught up in the hyperbole. The present presidential decree does indeed say that the president has the right to transfer army units to Rosgvardiya command for specific operations at home. However, the decree starts by enumerating the existing decrees relating to the MVD Interior Troops that it supersedes. One is the 2005 decree ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of the Interior Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russian Federation,’ as amended. And guess what: that decree allowed the president to subordinate military units to the Interior Troops…

In other words, this was just a piece of legislative tidying-up, find+replacing National Guard for Interior Troops. Not so unprecedented, not so impossible to imagine, not demonstrating any sudden new bloodlust. And I very much doubt the General Staff were trying to fight it off.

Sure, there are always grounds for concern, especially when figures such as blowhard ex-general and Rosgvardiya hanger-on Yuri Baluevskii trumpet how Russia is beleaguered by Western attempts at regime change through coloured revolutions. But sadly this is nothing new and even reflected in Russia’s national security doctrine. This is a regime which fears and mistrusts its people, and which is at least willing to contemplate the use of violence to maintain power. But at the same time, let’s not fall prey to the temptation to think the sky is breaking every time the thunder peals.

The reports of the death of the Russian defence budget have been greatly exaggerated

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No more new toys? (c) Mark Galeotti 2014

Yesterday HIS Jane’s (disclosure: I have written them for decades, and respect their work) came out with the eye-catching assertion that “Russia announces deepest defence budget cuts since 1990s.” It continues that the “Federal Treasury have [sic] confirmed that Russia’s defence budget has been cut by 25.5% for 2017, falling from RUB3.8 trillion (USD65.4 billion) to RUB2.8 trillion.”

A 25.5% cut? Even if “Despite the cut, the 2017 budget will remain about 14.4% higher than the level of defence spending seen in 2014 in nominal terms” that is still a massive story, and spells the end to planned modernisations, especially given the inelasticities in the budget (upkeep and maintenance, salaries, etc). And in December, it had been agreed to but the budget not by the 10% MinFin wanted but a moderate 6%.

So what happened? Needless to say, all is not quite what it seems. After all, it is important to note that the Federal Treasury (Federal’noe kaznacheistvo) is not so much a budget-setting as accounting office, essentially a comptroller, and operates under some quite strict parameters. It accounts funds allocated and spent along specific budget line items, and in the process its apparent defence spend tallies do not, it seems to me, reflect the impact of debt repayment. It is also worth noting that the Treasury tracks money spent, and if one looks at 2016, according to the Ministry of Economy, the State Defence Order was only 88% executed. That alone may look like a 12% procurement cut through the Treasury prism. So, the data may well not truly show planned so much as predicted spending.

Let’s note that even more so in the West, Russian defence and security expenditures often appear under different budget lines and obscure headings. Pre-conscription physical and skills training outsourced to schools through the revived GTO (Ready for Labour and Defence) programme comes out of the education budget, much support for military science is under education, science and research, and part of the aid and development budget is likely paying for mercenaries in Syria.

Finally, it is crucial to appreciate that much of the defence spend, especially on procurement, is not just about military power but economic and political necessity. Key industries, on whose health cities and regions depend, are kept afloat through military procurement. Any major cuts, which would inevitably have to be focused on buying new toys, would have a disastrous impact…and do so in the year-long run-up to the next presidential election, intended as something of a triumphant coronation and celebration of Putin.

So the upshot is, yes, under budgetary pressure (and the probable need to have money to spend on buying votes in 2018), the defence budget is being pruned. But not by a quarter.

New book: The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016

mra-cover-smallToday is Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Russia and, as if cunningly planned (but in fact a completely fortuitous coincidence) my latest book, The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016 (Osprey) was released. Available as a paperback or ebook, it includes once again colour plates by the excellent Johnny Shumate, an order of battle, and my general take on the evolution and prospects for Putin’s army. It was able to include early developments from Syria and the Donbas. The table of contents is:

Introduction.
Born in Crisis – the 1990s: creating a new army in the wreckage of the USSR – First Chechen War – peacekeeping missions – the damaging ‘grandfather’ culture in the ranks.
‘Reform Tomorrow’ – the 2000s: slow beginnings of reform under Putin – Second Chechen War – uncertainty and inertia at the top – the Cossack revival. The Georgian Turning Point – 2008: profiting from errors and lessons – Defense Minister Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff Makarov force through reforms.
The Russian Army Today: structures, organization, chain of command – major annual exercise cycles, and what they teach us.
Two Armies: the reformed one-third, and the unreformed two-thirds. The human dimension: volunteer soldiers and conscripts – Ukraine – continuing problem of crime in the military.
Intervention Forces: Air Assault and Naval troops – Spetsnaz – anti-piracy operations – Crimea – ‘non-linear war’ doctrine.
Tools of the Trade: weapons, vehicles, specialist AFVs – latest ‘Ratnik’ uniforms and equipment – drones.
Select Bibliography

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