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!

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Russia in 2018…

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A quick note that my latest, end-of-year vlog video here, a mere eight-to-nine minutes long, is of my thoughts about what may face Russia in 2018, and what to look for. Putin and succession, active measures, Ukraine, why Russia is not Mordor, and, yes, even a mention of the World Cup…

First thoughts on this weekend’s local elections (and looking for signs of hope)

hqdefault2This weekend saw local and gubernatorial elections in Russia (and a few by-elections, too), and here is my latest vlog “hot take.” Kremlin-friendly incumbents held the governors’ positions, which was no surprise given not least that potentially-credible rivals had already been excluded. However, the local elections, especially in Moscow, threw up some interesting results. It’s too easy to see Russia in the grip of historically-mandated autocracy, so it’s a useful (if sometimes tricky) challenge to look for positive signs of change and growth, but I think we can see some here. No, no suggestion of some imminent and dramatic shift, but in a way those should always be mistrusted. Rather, an incremental evolution. We’ll see.

Managing Russia’s Political War

CHOREOGRAPHING-CHAOS---GRAPHICIn the year-and-a-bit that I was a visiting fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations, I was working on a tetralogy of reports on different aspects of Russia’s “political war” (not a hybrid one, really) against the West: first looking at the intelligence services (‘Putin’s Hydra‘), next the use of the military with coercive intent (‘Heavy Metal Diplomacy‘), then Russian organised crime groups’ role in policy (‘Crimintern‘). For the final, capstone report, ‘Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe,’ I have taken a look at how far the active measures campaign is truly coordinated (answer: sometimes, and often retrospectively), how unified the message (answer: there’s a core intent to divide and distract the West, but national goals, as in the figure below) and when it is, from where (answer: the Presidential Administration). I’m very pleased with this report, and the series as a whole (and grateful to the ECFR for the chance to focus on it), and I hope it is useful to scholars, policy makers, and everyone interesting in just what the blazes is going on!

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Vlog: Navalny and Strelkov, the disappointing debate that was what politics is all about

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Just a quick note that another in my sporadic series of vlogs is up on my YouTuble channel – you can find this one here. It’s a little longer than most, in part because I’m trying to tease out why Alexei Navalny chose to debate with nationalist militant and likely war criminal Igor Girkin (‘Strelkov’) and why what was a pretty dull debate stuck with me. Spoiler alert: the answer? Because in a way this is precisely what real politics are about, and that’s faintly encouraging.

Iron Fist: the Rosgvardiya

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 16.09.27Behind a paywall, I’m afraid, but my latest piece on the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) has come out in the latest Jane’s Intelligence Review (August 2017), including a pretty extensive order of battle, with which I am quite pleased. Here, with permission, are the Key Points:

  • The establishment of the National Guard in 2016 created a sizeable and well-positioned force for tackling outbreaks of unrest across Russia, but has created logistical problems and is likely to lead to bureaucratic competition.
  • Although the National Guard incorporates the most effective units within Russia’s internal security forces, it also includes a large number of conscript units of limited effectiveness, as well as units, for example in Chechnya, of questionable loyalty to the centre.
  • The outlook for the National Guard will depend primarily on the extent to which Vladimir Putin continues to regard domestic unrest and potential rivals within Russia’s elite as the main threats to his position.
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