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.

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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.

Let’s set aside the fact that if ‘Putin is Here to Stay’ then it becomes pretty irrelevant if ‘the Russian State Will Die with Him.’ Instead:

Even today, as Putin increases his grasp on power, the country continues fraying along its periphery.  It is only the silnaya ruka – the iron fist of centralized power – that keeps the vast expanse known as the Russian Federation together.

Really? And the evidence for that is…?

Following the autocratic ethos of one-man rule, Putin has purged Russia of any potential successors to his reign.  … The younger generation of leaders are all Putin lackeys.  Like Medvedev, they are unimaginative, and, aside from holding power in Russia, these folks are unexceptional.  …  Putin’s autocracy has neutered Russia of any competent leadership for after he leaves office.

Again, I suspect this really means “I don’t know enough about Russia’s elite to be able to identify who could be any good.” Their strengths are asymmetrical, their prospects varied, and their morals typically questionable, but I could think of a bunch of figures who could be competent presidents. Shoigu would be an interesting choice, who I think would be more Ike than Generalissimo in office. Sobyanin, for all his uncharismatic style, would be a competent manager. Shuvalov could offer some market-pleasing glitz so long as he had an enforcer, although Oreshkin would do it better. Even Medvedev would be a reasonable choice as a consensus-brokering chairman of the board. And if I could vote for Nabiullina, I would in a shot. Beyond that, who knows who is likely to emerge in the next few years. Will Vaino surprise us (I doubt it, I confess)? Will daddy’s help see Dmitry Patrushev rise (again, I have my doubts)? Which regional governor or presidential bodyguard will next catch the boss’s eye?

This is a system which does not encourage mavericks, and which virtually demands what could be described as a flexible approach to personal enrichment, but that doesn’t mean that it produces weaklings or imbeciles.

Given the weakness of potential autocratic successors to Putin, Russia will likely break up along its constituent parts.  It will become a chaos state, armed with stores of nuclear – and other – weapons of mass destruction.

Unh? If Russia survived the 1990s, can we really assume that, post-Putin, the entire federation will become a Mad Max remake?

After all, what is his closing injunction?

Dear Pentagon: Prepare for Russian Collapse and Loose Nukes

After all, apparently,

After Putin, it is unlikely that Moscow will be able to maintain central control over its military

so we can expect not just “loose nukes” but also

European leaders will have to contemplate how best to respond to the inevitable refugee flows that will emanate from a completely collapsing Russia.

But wait, in the immortal words of the advert, that’s not all

Meanwhile, Asia will have to brace for the time when China takes the lion’s share of natural resources and land from Russia’s Far East.  At that point, China will not only be an economic juggernaut, but will overnight become a natural resources superpower, thereby making it a true challenger to the United States.

russia apocalypse 1472x1121 wallpaper Art HD WallpaperSo, China gobbles up Russia east of the Urals, somehow without any of these maverick generals firing loose nukes their way, the rest breaks up into warring principalities, steadily depopulated as millions of miserable refugees flock westwards, flooding Europe. These kinds of apocalyptic fantasies were common in the 1990s, and not wholly beyond the realms of possibility. But now? I see a pretty coherent, ruthless and often quite competent elite, with little option but to follow Putin’s ‘make Russia great again’ crusade but actually pretty pragmatic. Outside the North Caucasus, it’s hard to see any serious separatism. Tatarstan and the like may want to renegotiate their deal with Moscow, but they’re not looking for secession. And the armed forces are more disciplined and possessed of a greater esprit de corps than in the 1980s, never mind the 1990s.

Look, it’s a very poor article, and on one level it is unfair to give it such a kicking, and a waste of my time to write and yours to read. Except. Except that, however much this is an extreme example, I have begun to see a new thread of such excited eschatology creeping into the fringes of the debate, and what bothers me is that precisely within other bubbles of consensus, that may begin to become canon. Russia is not teetering on the edge of collapse; it is not some vicious threat to the global order; it is not a dictatorship desperately holding back a tide of anarchy and atomisation. It’s an authoritarianism but not the worst of them, in which a kleptocratic elite preside over a country slowly returning to Europe.

If we start to treat it as some monstrous aberration, one that cannot be dealt with and can only be feared, mastered, or contained, then that does none of us any favours.

 

 

 

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.

(more…)

‘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)

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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