New Report: ‘Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right’

19823811_cover-frontminiI’m today releasing a report of mine, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right that, as the title suggests, explores the whole issue of Russia’s non-linear challenge to the West and make recommendations about possible responses. It is not the last word, of course, and is as much as anything else written to try and further the debate. A key point I do make is that I feel what we tend to call Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ (it’s not the best term, but we seem to be stuck with it at the moment) is not only that not special in Russian eyes, but in many ways ought perhaps to be considered as two similar but distinct ways of wielding similar instruments: as a preparatory stage before proper kinetic warfare operations (‘hybrid war’) and as a purely non-kinetic variety of aggravated and confrontational diplomacy (‘political war’). Ukraine faced the former, the West the latter. Either way, these are wars…

I reproduce the Executive Summary below, but the report is available in both PDF and hardcopy here.


Executive Summary

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies.

This is often described as ‘hybrid war,’ a blend of the military and the political, but in fact there are two separate issues, two separate kinds of non-linear war, which have become unhelpfully intertwined. The first is the way—as the Russians have been quick to spot—that modern technologies and modern societies mean that a shooting war will likely be preceded by and maybe even almost, but not quite, replaced by a phase of political destabilization. The second, though, is the political war that Moscow is waging against the West, in the hope not of preparing the ground for an invasion, but rather of dividing, demoralizing and distracting it enough that it cannot resist as the Kremlin asserts its claims to being a ‘great power’ and in the process a sphere of influence over most of the post-Soviet states of Eurasia.

The two overlap heavily, and maybe they could usefully be regarded as the two sides of a wider form of ‘non-linear war.’ The instruments which make up ‘political war’ are also crucial to the earlier phases of ‘hybrid war.’ Nonetheless, while a comprehensive analysis of the full arsenal and objectives of Moscow’s ‘political war’ against the West are beyond the scope of this report, a study of ‘hybrid war’ as the Kremlin sees it is essential to explore the nature of the potential threat not just to the West but other countries. In addition, it is central to understanding the way war is changing in the modern age, and what we can do in order to deter, defend and, if need be, defeat any ‘hybrid’ challenge.

To this end, his report initially considers the way Russian operations in Crimea and south-eastern Ukraine led to the rise of concerns about ‘hybrid war’ and the belief that it represents something substantively new before questioning many of these assumptions by considering Russian thinking on the matter. To Moscow, it is the West which led the way in pioneering political-military operations focusing on destabilizing hostile regimes, and it has taken its cues from its sometimes-acute, sometimes-deeply-mistaken perceptions about our thinking.

What has emerged, if not wholly new, is certainly a distinctive way of war, one that is rooted, as discussed in the second part of the report, in response to five particular challenges or conditions with which Moscow must contend, from the mismatch between assets and ambitions, to the deinstitutionalization of Putin’s state. Part three then looks at the particular assets the Russians can deploy in their pursuit of ‘hybrid’ operations short of all-out warfare, from the special forces and thuggish gangster auxiliaries who seized Crimea in 2014 to spies, propagandists and spinmasters.

The point of trying to understand this threat is to respond to it, and the final part presents a series of observations and re-commendations for Western policy. The aim must be deterrence if possible, but such is the nature of this diffuse and undeclared form of war that this will often be by denial—developing ‘hybrid defenses’—and the right mix of forces ready for a conflict that could as easily be fought in cyberspace or the courts as on the battlefield.

Nor is this simply a threat that will subside as and when Putin’s regime implodes or subsides, however inevitable this undoubtedly is. There are other revisionist powers in the world and likely to emerge. ‘Hybrid war’ is a convenient and catchy term, even if of questionable scholarly rigor, but if anything it simply reflects the way conflict is evolving, and the sooner the West adapts to the Russian challenge, the better it will also be positioned to face the one coming next after that.

Gangster, upstart, folk hero: Rovshan Janiev (Lenkoransky) finally put to rest

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 20.56.46Azeri-born gangster Rovshan Janiev, also know as Rovshan Lenkoransky, was killed in an ambush on 17 August in Istanbul, while returning from a trip to Dubai (which, incidentally, seems to have become the Russian/Eurasian gangsters’ haven of choice). His Range Rover was caught in the crossfire of at least two gunmen firing automatic weapons; he was killed, riddled by some twenty bullets, his driver seriously wounded.

Whodunnit?

Who killed him? Heaven knows: there were enough serious people after his blood. Three Azeris and a Turk have apparently been arrested, but who they are and why they carried out the hit remains to be seen.

What made Janiev interesting is that around him cohered a loose coalition of hungry young and youngish gangsters, who felt the relative stability of the post-90s status quo – and the end of the rapid social mobility caused by periodic turf wars and gangland killings – was locking them out of the big time. Janiev ended up challenging Moscow-based godfather Aslan Usoyan, ‘Ded Khazan,’ and may indeed have been behind his attempted assassination in 2010 and/or his successful one in 2013. Certainly Usoyan’s heirs have continued to be on the hunt for him.

However, Janiev’s ambitions and his open desire to overturn the current underworld order also may have led to his becoming a target of Georgian Tariel Oniani (‘Taro’), one of the most powerful and vicious of Moscow’s gangsters, and even the major Slavic gangs. It did not help that he was persistently accused of sometimes cooperating with the Russian security apparatus (presumably the FSB), when they wanted to bring a little indirect pressure to bear.

And as if that were not enough, it is also worth mentioning that three years ago, near enough to the day, one of Janiev’s bitter enemies, Azeri kingpin Alibala Hamidov (‘Goji Baku’) was murdered in Istanbul. This may prove to have been a delayed revenge.

Local hero

With so many people (literally) gunning for him, and a reported $5 million bounty on his head, perhaps the greatest surprise was that Janiev survived as long as he did, especially since according to some accounts of late he had relaxed some of his security precautions. In February 2013, he had been reported as killed, just one of many tall tales around him, but this proved to be a hoax; it seems unlikely history will repeat itself.

However, also striking was the way his funeral back in his home town of Lenkoran saw up to 25,000 attending to pay their respects. In part, this reflects the Robin Hood-like legend of the local boy who was able to protect the Azeri market traders in Moscow from the Russians and the Georgians (which he did, up to a point, and for a price), in part the Azeri who was able to take on those Russians and Georgians (and Armenians) at their own game.

There was more than just romantic appeal involved, though. Azeri businessman Mubariz Mansimov, President of the Palmali Group of Companies, lent his private jet to deliver the body home, and it is clear that Janiev also had connections with elements of Azerbaijan’s business and thus by definition political elite.

Impact back in Russia?

Janiev had stayed out of Russia for years, but had maintained his operations there, especially connected with the produce markets of the city. With him gone, there is every chance that the sporadically-violent struggles to control them will flare up again. Recent arrests hitting Shakhro Molodoi’s organisation have, after all, already created instability in this underworld sector.

Indeed, it is not impossible that Janiev’s death will actually turn out not to have been because of any of his old feuds, but because of the new pressures on the Russian underworld. As times get tight, the competition over those businesses still making money is only getting commensurately tighter, and Janiev may have posthumously discovered.

Breaking up the Khinkalnaya sitdown: Georgians being warned off trying for a slice of the Crimean pie?

Rys' SOBR of the kind deployed to break up the skhodka

Rys’ SOBR of the kind deployed to break up the skhodka

On 24 May, Moscow police including Rys’ SOBR commandos broke up a skhodka–sit down–of mainly Georgian gangsters reportedly at the Khinkalnaya restaurant on Savvinskaya embankment, briefly detaining 38 of them. (The perennially well-connected Life News has the list of detainees here.) In part they were there apparently in another bid to resolve the long-running and periodically-violent feud between the Tbilisi clan of “Dead Ded” Khasan (Aslan Usoyan) and Tariel Oniani’s Kutaisi clan. However, they were also going to talk about expanding their activities in Crimea and how to apportion the profits. These may well be significant, not only in diverting some of the massive investment being channelled there to make it a showcase “why it’s great to be in Russia” region, but also if Sevastopol comes to rival Odessa as a smuggling hub. I suspect that this latter agenda item is why the meeting had to be raided. After all, the ethnic Russian networks are also moving into Crimea, looking to strike deals with local gangs, and they are a much more known and trusted factor for the government. It’s futile to try and keep the Georgians out of Crimea, but I imagine that a pernicious alliance of ethnic Russian mobsters and the government will try to minimise their role there.

Poor Dmytro (Firtash)?

Firtash may be caught by the throat, but most other oligarchs are feeding merrily still

Firtash may be caught by the throat, but most other oligarchs are feeding merrily still

Can one feel sorry for a multi-millionaire ($673M according to some, $2.3B according to alternative accounts, and $3.8B to others) suspected of bribery, who reportedly admitted consorting with wanted gangsters and once boasted of his close ties to Yanukovych? If so, then spare a thought for Ukrainian gas and titanium tycoon Dmytro Firtash, arrested in Vienna on a US warrant on bribery and organised crime charges. Why on earth might one feel any sympathy for him? Not for the philanthropy, not even for the massive donations to my alma mater at Cambridge to endow Ukrainian studies. Rather than Firtash would seem to be a businessman of the regular Ukrainian oligarchic variety. What does that mean? It means certainly not clean by Western standards, but nor, in any meaningful sense, an organised crime figure himself. So what might he have been?

When he first started building his energy empire, bringing Russian gas into Ukraine, the infamous financial crime lord Semen Mogilevich was a shadowy but indispensable fixer and broker. His  involvement was pretty much essential to make any Russo-Ukrainian gas deals work. So, of course, I was entirely unsurprised when the accounts (subsequently denied) of an admitted connection arose. If nothing else, there had been widespread rumours beforehand. Furthermore, Mogilevich–who has an interestingly unique role as, in effect, the boutique personal banker of choice to post-Soviet crooks of every stripe–would conceivably also have been a useful contact and service provider for subsequent sub rosa activities such as moving money abroad discreetly, evading taxes or doing any of the other patriotic parlour games at which post-Soviet plutocrats excel. (more…)

The risk of a gangster “Transdnestrianisation” of the Crimea

Now, does he look like a gangster to you?

Now, does he look like a gangster to you?

Just a quick note to the effect that over at Russia! magazine I have a piece looking at the allegations that de facto Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was in the 1990s a gangster known as ‘Goblin’ in one of the two main gangs in Simferopol. I go on to consider, regardless of the truth of these allegations, the risk that an annexed or even maximally-autonomous Crimea might become a criminalised pseudo-state like the ‘Transdnestr Moldovan Republic’, just distinctly larger and more closely linked to Russia.

Will ‘Goblin’ Make Crimea a “Free Crime Zone”?

The claims that Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was once a gangster with the underworld nickname of ‘Goblin,’ has at once been a gift to headline-writers and also a potentially alarming portent for the peninsula’s future.

Aksenov, head of the Russian Unity party, was installed as Crimea’s new premier despite his being elected to the regional parliament in 2010 with only 4% of the vote. His role appears to be the face of Russian interests in the peninsula, but he faces claims that he is also the front man for regional organized crime.

Read the rest here.

The Other Greek Tragedy: Georgian and Russian/Eurasian organized crime

Flags_Georgia_GreeceWith news of the arrest in Thessaloniki of Georgian vor v zakone David Mazanashvili (“Dato Rustavsky”), a member of the same Kutaisi “clan” targeted in this summer’s Europe-wide raids under Operation Skhodka, it is worth briefly remembering that Greece, while not on quite the same scale as–until recently–the Spanish coastline or Germany, is very much an area of interest to gangsters from Russia and post-Soviet Eurasia. Although Russian gangsters were attracted there in the 1990s by the climate, not-too-intimidating law enforcement and, let’s be honest, relative ease of acquiring forged documents and local passports–most notoriously the contract killed Alexander Solonik, who was murdered there himself in 1997–increasingly the country has come within the orbit of ethnic Georgian gangsters. To some extent this reflects the 1990s influx of ethnic Greeks (Pontian Greeks), especially from Georgia , who became bridges between the two underworlds.

(more…)

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