Masha and the Bear are not coming to invade your homeland

On Guard For The Defence Of The Motherland!

Time for a Saturday spleen-venting. It’s always dangerous to predict that we’ve reached “peak” anything, because life will no doubt find a way to prove you wrong. But I truly with that a story in today’s Times could turn out to be peak…I don’t even know quite what to call it…cliché Russophobia.

The target of my ire is a short article, ‘Children’s show is propaganda for Putin, say critics,’ which uncritically relays allegations that the Russian animated cartoon Masha and the Bear is “a ‘soft propaganda’ tool for the Kremlin” because “the Bear symbolised Russia and was designed to replace a negative image of the country with a positive one in children’s minds.” Worse yet, “in one episode, Masha, wearing a Soviet border guard’s cap, patrols the Bear’s garden and chases out a hare that tries to steal carrots. Critics have seen this as a statement about Russia’s defence of its borders.” One Prof. Glees, of the University of Buckingham, is trotted out to deliver the punchline that “Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her slight weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.”

Well, actually it is pretty damn far fetched to see Putin in a little girl who cries when she doesn’t get what she wants and gets her pig to dress up like a baby. Even more so that the Kremlin would want that to be how people think of Putin. Needless to say, the only contrary view in the article is a note in the last paragraph that “Russia’s state media has ridiculed the concerns.”

For a start, such a take omits to consider that the cartoon series, which admittedly began in 2009, under Putin, is based on a long cycle of oral folk stories predating the 1990s. It would be a little like accusing Fawlty Towers as being pro-Brexit, because the representation of the incompetent Spanish waiter Manuel was a call for Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’…forty years later. Or perhaps that Bob the Builder, with its distinct absence of Polish plumbers and Romanian roofers, is likewise Brexit-Isolationist brain washing…

This is just one of a steady trickle of bizarre stories relating to Russia’s Machiavellian genius in weaponising everything. Remember those football hooligans who were somehow part of Putin’s ‘hybrid war’? Of course Russia is launching a active measures campaign against the West, but shoddy pieces like this that suggest that anything demonstrating that the Russians themselves are human beings like us, that their kids watch TV cartoons like us, that their hot-headed young men can get violent in support of their teams and in mutual displays of machismo like ours, that they live and love, dream and die like us, is somehow ‘soft propaganda,’ is depressing to the nth degree.

It’s also a problem. Why?

  1. It’s stupid. Just that; this is a desperate and silly idea that shouldn’t be reported except as such. And if it is going to be written about, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to find some kind of alternative take – that’s just proper journalism, no? (By contrast, The Herald had earlier ran a much funnier but also more balanced take.)
  2. It devalues the real propaganda. Of course Russia is maintaining a soft power campaign to try and influence foreign perceptions, ranging from presenting Putin as some kind of bare-chested champion of traditional values, to suggesting that the Europeans are being coerced into sanctions and other anti-Kremlin moves by an overweening America. Just as to defend all is to defend nothing, so too to see everything coming from Russia as propaganda is to make it impossible to make a serious case when it really is.
  3. It devalues us. When did it become necessary to dehumanise the Russians, to have to pretend that everything in and from Russia is evil, in order to critique and resist Putin’s regime? First of all, this – I would say – flies in the face of our own liberal world view.
  4. It helps Putin. Secondly, it is bad politics, it plays to Putin’s own legitimating narrative, that the West hates Russia and Russians, and that is why they need a strong state and a strong leader.

 

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GRU (GU) facing a little purge? If so, it’s not to spy less, but spy better

GRUlogo2As is inevitable, in the wake of the Dutch hacking bust, the US DOJ indictment, and Bellingcat’s claim that the second member of the Skripal hit team was a naval doctor turned spook, Alexander Mishkin, that there is talk of Putin’s displeasure, of GRU* director Gen. Korobov being on medical leave after being hauled over the coals, of heads about to roll. That may be, although so far we really only have one source, and that being one bankrolled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has his own axes to grind. But it’s not at all implausible given not just that several mission have failed of late, but that there has also been evidence of sloppy tradecraft. However, two points need to be made:

  1. Let’s not overplay the sloppiness. Sure, in hindsight it is always easy to see what was done wrong, just like every inquest after every tragedy, disaster or intelligence failure concludes that they were avoidable. That’s like saying every student could have passed an exam, if they had given the right answers: true but meaningless. Every service makes mistakes, and the GRU has, and if – as the Russians are – you’re operating at flat-out tempo, you’re going to make even more mistakes. Yes, there was some clearly sloppy tradecraft (though still the revelation of 305 GRU officers’ details in Moscow because they registered their cars at their unit’s address was arguably the biggest such breach), but keep it in perspective.
  2. And let’s not overplay any ‘purge.’ There is no evidence the GRU has been operating beyond Kremlin orders, none of the kind of paralysis that, for example, followed the Nemtsov murder. If Putin is showing his anger, it is not because they are spying and hacking and killing, but because they are not doing it well enough. Any purge would be for political purposes (to help distance the Kremlin from these operations) and also to encourage greater professionalism.

*Yes, I know that since 2010 it’s technically the GU, but everyone, even in the Russian military, still calls it GRU. It’s one of those MI6/SIS things.

Russia heading for the apocalypse? I think not

Post Apocalyptic Russia by myjavier007Everyone who is serious about Russian studies knows about the indispensable Johnson’s Russia List, a daily mailshot of a collection of the day’s relevant English-language stories, good, bad, and sometimes ugly. I may sometimes cavil at David Johnson’s determination to include a – to me – disproportionate selection of determinedly ‘counter-mainstream’ bloggers determined to find anti-Kremlin conspiracy at every turn, but one of the List‘s great virtues is precisely to puncture those comforting bubbles of consensus with which it is so easy to surround ourselves. We can be surprised.

And good heavens, I was surprised by a piece in the latest, ‘Putin is Here to Stay, and the Russian State Will Die with Him,’ by one Brandon J. Weichert in the American Thinker of 8 September. I confess I don’t know Mr Weichert, nor for that matter more than the name of the American Thinker. I have no idea if it is considered a purveyor of fringe nonsense or a serious intellectual powerhouse. I have my suspicions which is more likely. I could go and google it, but frankly I was more fascinated – entranced – horrified by the analysis put forward.

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Putin the Recruiter and Trump the Potential Asset? Agent-handling and the Helsinki summit

putin-trumpAny political leader meeting another is seeking to get something out of the exchange, whether a specific deliverable or simply developing the relationship. In this respect, the Helsinki summit will be no different from any other. What makes it more noteworthy is the personalities of the two interlocutors and that one was trained to recruit and run assets – and the other seems almost custom-built to be managed and manipulated.

Of course one can push the fact that Putin was a KGB case officer too far. Not every KGB officer is the same, it was a long time ago, and by all accounts he was at best an adequate one. He was not a high-flier, and former foreign intelligence chief and then KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov once tellingly said that he had never heard of Putin when he was in service.

Nonetheless, when Putin said that his particular talent was “working with people,” there is more than a little truth in that. He has managed his own elites very effectively, and also has had considerable successes framing relations with other leaders, as well as leveraging his carefully-created ruthless, cool, macho image.

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‘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’…

VoA Ukraine service interview on Russian organised crime

Below are clips of an interview I recorded last week for Voice of America’s Ukraine service (in English, subtitled) on Russian organised crime’s international reach and activity, and its relationship with the state, as part of my launch tour for The Vory (of which more shortly)

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