A Quick and Provisional GRU Update

Update: the afternoon I wrote this, it was announced that Lt Gen Igor Korobov has been appointed. Needless to say, I take full credit for forcing the Kremlin’s hand ;). Meanwhile Dyumin, perhaps as a consolation prize, perhaps because his position at the defence ministry had thus become untenable, moves across to become acting governor of Tula. So the military win this round – but apparently not easily.

 

GRU logoA month ago tomorrow, military intelligence chief Igor Sergun died of heart failure in the suburbs of Moscow (not in Lebanon, not anything exciting…). That the announcement of his successor would be delayed because of the long Christmas-to-Orthodox-New-Year holidays was expected. But despite a couple of times hearing suggestions that a name was about to be announced, no one yet.

It’s bad enough that we don’t even know what the agency should be called — it’s traditional form, the GRU, that even Putin uses, or the more anonymous GU (“the Main Directorate”) in official parlance? I talk a little about this in War On The Rocks here. But as the leadership vacuum continues to resist being filled, it is hard not to assume this is because the appointment is proving contentious. As near as I can tell–and all this needless ought to be taken with caution, as the people who really know aren’t going to tell–there is a three-cornered, asymmetric fight:

Steady As She Goes. The obvious stakeholders want the obvious choice: defence minister Shoigu, CoGS Gerasimov (probably) and the bulk of the GRU itself want one of Sergun’s deputies to succeed: Vyacheslav Kondrashev, Sergei Gizunov, Igor Lelin, or most likely, Igor Korobov. Obviously the new director’s interests and personality would have an impact, but essentially this is the continuity choice.

A Fork in the Road. Seemingly the least-likely option, being floated by a few senior figures within the regular Ground Forces, is one of their number. This is really to push forward their own agenda, which is to split the GRU, with one portion sticking to the “spy” stuff, and the other–taking with it the Spetsnaz commandoes–engaging in tactical reconnaissance, special ops and that kid of thing. I don’t at present see any wider constituency for this, although in such circumstances it is always possible the main candidates cancel each other out and open the way for the mutually-least-objectionable one.

Praetorians to the Fore. There has been something of a trend of late to see security apparatus insiders known to Putin, especially from the Presidential Security Service (SBP) and its parent, the Federal Guard Service (FSO) parachuted into key positions across the security sector. It could be that Putin will want to make sure a personal client is heading the GRU, in which case the obvious candidate would be Lt. Gen. Alexander Dyumin, whose strangely meteoric rise from presidential bullet-catcher to deputy defence minister in less than a year I have sketched here.

What I have to confess I don’t see any signs of, is a land-grab by any of the other intel agencies, notably SVR and FSB. The military is still not a bloc to mess with, and any such move would unite them more than anything else.

Will 2016 See The Three Russias Diverging?

This is a reprint, with permission, of my Stolypin column from Intellinews Business New Europe: the original was published on 16 November 2015. I have made one change as in hindsight I wished I had used ‘Normal Russia’ instead of ‘Real Russia’ for the essentially working substructure. On what I call ‘fantasy fatigue,’ Andrew Wilson has drawn an entertaining football analogy with his ‘Mourinho Effect.’

BogatyrsThere have been many attempts to understand Russia by subdividing it. Is it a feudal Russia of rulers and ruled, or the four Russias posited by scholar Natalya Zubarevich, divided geographically and socio-economically? My own sense is that alongside such formulations, we also need to see the country and society divided into three, and the competition between them – one as much philosophical as practical – is likely to become all the sharper in 2016, defining Russia’s future trajectory, and the eventual post-Putin order.

The Three Russias

However little attention it may get in foreign coverage, Russia has a working, rational state. This is not some neo-fascist imperialism, nor an out-of-control kleptocracy where everything is plundered and funnelled into foreign bank accounts. There are inefficiencies, there is petty corruption – apparently on the rise again, as a result of officials’ shrinking real incomes – but in the main, the country works. Roads are paved, refuse is collected, teachers teach and police officers police. Most people essentially want to do their jobs, live – that perennial Russian dream and mantra – a “normal” life.

However, above Normal Russia squats the smaller, but vastly richer Kleptocratic Russia. This ugly parasite is much of the time happy to let its host do its thing, but has ultimate authority over the structures of state, routines of life and workings of justice, when it chooses to exert it. This is the realm of the embezzling senior officials, the pampered sons and daughters of the mighty, the businesspeople who depend as much on sweetheart deals and covert cartels as any real acumen.

Yet this country cannot simply be dismissed as a kleptocracy, because at the very top of the stepped ziggurat of national power lies the smallest and, perhaps, most dangerous and pernicious incarnation: Ideological Russia. It is hard to doubt that, whatever his motivations during his earlier presidencies, Vladimir Putin is driven now not by personal economic interest but an ideological programme, a vision of a nation restored to its due place in history and the world (and, by extension, a vision of his appropriate legacy). He has surrounded himself with a small coterie of like-minded cohorts – or at least figures willing and able to play that role – and they are ultimately in charge.

The Kleptocrats get to reach in to Normal Russia when they choose, to divert a procurement contract here, dictate a court decision there, but the Ideologists in turn have the final say. Ever since Crimea, the primary thrust of national policy has been towards confrontational geopolitics which have hit at the heart of the kleptocrats’ interests, grinding an already-suffering economy downwards and limiting their scope to move themselves and their assets at will. Beyond that, whereas in the past these two blocs collaborated smoothly, there are now indications that the Ideologues see some of the Kleptocrats and their parasitic habits as a growing problem in an age when dwindling resources need to be focused more directly on the ideological project. Witness, presumably, Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin’s dismissal and the increasing evidence of a not-as-bogus-as-usual anti-corruption campaign on the way.

Of course, no such simple pattern can be exact and accurate. There are individuals high up in the system, from example, from cabinet ministers to Central Bank chair Elvira Nabiullina, whose technocratic instincts seem closest to those of Normal Russia. Likewise, even Ideologists still seem happy to help their children find comfortable and highly lucrative positions, from whence to steal with savage abandon. However, as a broad model for trying to understand the disparate and often contradictory forces working to shape Russia’s future, this seems to have some value.

Widening gaps in 2016

Although it is probably wishful thinking to expect dramatic and positive outcomes over the course of the coming year, for a variety of reasons 2016 is likely to see the relationships between the three Russias become increasingly tense, laying the groundwork for change to come.

On 18 September, elections will be held for the Duma, the lower house, which will in many ways also be a referendum on the regime. There is no question of United Russia (and its affiliated pseudo-parties) losing their control over the chamber, both because of the propaganda campaign likely to precede the vote and also, where necessary, judicial rigging of the process and the count. We can, for example, expect to see the more vocal and effective Kremlin critics systematically excluded, vilified and pressurised. How the vote will count, though, is that it forces the state to mobilise the masses – and the extent to which it has to struggle to produce the results decreed by the Kremlin will provide insiders with an index of true popular discontent.

After all, Putin’s sky-high personal ratings tell us little about the public mood. Arguably, the growing rash of local labour and social protests, from truckers blocking roads to demonstrations against rising utilities prices, are a better measure, as inflation, wage pressures and the effects of social spending cuts all come to bite.

The Ideologists may be tempted to crank up their propaganda about a Russia isolated and embattled, but there is a real risk of ‘fantasy fatigue’ if this is just a matter of intemperate words and invented threats. On the other hand, manufacturing or introducing Russia into crises abroad to give substance to the hype, from a renewed Ukraine campaign to picking fights over the Arctic sea lanes, would not only deplete dwindling resources but likely only deepen its economic and diplomatic isolation.

This is unlikely to please the Kleptocrats, squeezed between economic stagnation, popular dissatisfaction and Kremlin adventurism. However, at present political power trumps all in Russia: the rich are not so much wealthy in their own right so much as the temporary stewards of those assets until the day comes when the Kremlin seeks to reassign them. To this end, they have a perverse incentive to want to see genuine rule of law and secure property rights come to Russia, and an end to its geopolitical struggle with the West.

An archetypal bankrobber wants the police force to be inefficient and corrupt – until he is rich enough to own banks, at which point he wants the state to protect his ill-gotten gains. So too, a kleptocratic generation of Russian oligarchs, minigarchs and boyar-bureaucrats who have done well thanks to Putin may well come to feel that their interests have come to diverge from his.

And what about the poor Russian people, the perennially disenfranchised? There seems little prospect of their rising against the regime, literally or metaphorically (rising, after all, for what?). Instead, theirs are the weapons of the weak: refusing to conform, turning to the underground economy, passively resisting to behave as their masters would want. This does not go unnoticed, and will be visible – at least to those who see the real, uncooked books – in indices from labour unrest and productivity to suicide rates and support for local civic initiatives.

In itself, this will not force change on the elite. However, it may scare the Kleptocrats and technocrats. If the economy worsens, if the elections prove tougher to massage, and if the Kremlin looks increasingly willing to sacrifice their interests in the name of an ideological project, at some point they will begin to look for ways to protect them.

And here’s the inevitable prediction buried in all these “year ahead” articles. It may well not come in 2016, but whenever Putin is replaced or succeeded, it will not be with another Ideologist, but with a Kleptocrat. The interests of the elite will take precedence over the masses’ but also over Russian geopolitical grandeur, and this new regime will eagerly seek to mend bridges with the West.

As a generation of ruthless exploiters gives way to their more pampered and less sharp-toothed children, the pressure to create reliable protections for property rights (however that property may have been acquired in the first place) will only grow. Meanwhile, ordinary Russians and their technocrat fellow-travellers in the elite will be looking for change, and thus the possibility – no more – is that a Kleptocratic presidency may in turn give way, some day, sometime, to a generation finally eager to make real the promises of 1991, of building genuine, working political and economic democracy. Perhaps.

If US Intelligence on Russia is Broken (A Bit), What Can Be Done To Help Fix It?

How can we know what he's thinking?

How can we know what he’s thinking?

General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently gently but unmistakably reprimanded the US intelligence community for its “lack of ability to see into Russia, especially at the operational and tactical level.” While he acknowledged change was under way, even then he made it clear that this was very, very much a work in progress: “We’re gently turning the nose of this ship to get back to what we need to be looking at.” Is Russia befuddling US intelligence, and if so what should be done about it?

(more…)

First thoughts on Nemtsov’s posthumous “Putin. War.” report on Russian operations in Ukraine

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Putin. War., the report on the Ukrainian adventure that Boris Nemtsov was working on when he was murdered, has been released, completed by Ilya Yashin and other allies and cohorts. It’s an interesting document, even if it essentially fleshes out what we already knew rather than saying anything truly novel (the section on the MH17 shoot-down, adding to the chorus of voices blaming the rebels, largely draws on existing, available studies, for example). That’s not in any way to undermine the genuine bravery of those people involved in the project, including not just Yashin but a range of opposition-minded figures from Oleg Kashin to Ekaterina Vinokurova. But I think it does put paid to the suggestion that Nemtsov was assassinated to prevent the report from coming out, especially as now it will probably get more coverage than it would otherwise.

Anyway, here are a few first thoughts on the report: (more…)

No Coups Today…

"Nah, nah, he's only resting."

“Nah, nah, he’s only resting.”

Putin’s continued absence from the public scene and his unexpected calling off of a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart led to a tsunami of rumour, supposition, denial and outright fantasy. He was dead. He had had a stroke. He was in Switzerland on the birth of his latest love-child. He was hiding from having to make difficult decisions between Kadyrov and the FSB. There had been or was a coup… I’ve no idea where Putin is now, and what’s his health like. Unless the Armenian president is part of a conspiracy — not impossible, but unlikely — then we do know that he (or, if you really want to follow the paranoid route, and go for a really, really unlikely possibility, a gifted mimic) had a phone conversation with Putin on Thursday 12th. A phone conversation could have been patched through from wherever, and Putin could have spoken from a sick bed, so other options could still apply, but at least this suggests no need to start planning the state funeral.

What about a coup, especially a military one? Again, I’m unconvinced. Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup; that seems to me much more likely than a willing retirement (assuming his health lasts), let alone stepping aside after losing an election (hah!). However, this seems far too soon to me. It will have to be something like the move that ousted Khrushchev, a reflection of near-enough elite consensus, and we’re not anywhere near that now. Things will have to get worse, for longer, for that to become a possibility. And as regards a military coup, that is one thing Russia is actually quite inoculated against. The military does not have a tradition of political involvement (remember, most held back from active support of the 1991 August Coup and Yeltsin’s 1993 coup against the Supreme Soviet alike), Shoigu is hardly the kind of bloody-handed adventurer we’d see as a likely prospect, and there is a powerful control network. The FSB and FSO (Federal Guard Service) both monitor the loyalties of the military and the balance of forces in Moscow itself (two army divisions, the FSO’s Kremlin Guard, the Interior Troops’ ODON ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, plus the police and FSB) is to a large extent an exercise in ensuring no one agency could mount a swift seizure of power itself.

Besides, were this happening or even possible, we’d see troop movements, unexplained dismissals or ‘accidents,’ and public rhetoric to match. Russians would have been hearing that Putin was ill, as a prelude to the announcement of his ‘retirement,’ or else they’s be being warned of the prevalence of ‘traitors’ in the ranks, to rationalise the subsequent purge. Instead, there is nothing of the sort.

Whatever the reason for Putin’s current absence — and it could yet be something serious — this is being handled clumsily, yes, but the Kremlin spin is definitely that there is nothing to see here, move right along. It is instead I feel a mark of the heightened and even feverish mood amongst the Muscovite chattering classes and their Kremlin-watching interlocutors and counterparts outside the country that this is being made something more than it probably is.

And yet that mood in itself matters. The news of the phone call — and the rumours of another mini-Putin — have helped dampen the flames, but still the longer before we get a real, credible evidence of Putin’s health (so no still publicity shots, nor yet footage of insider meetings that could easily have been taken previously), then the more the speculation will rage, and the more likely it is that the tsar is, if not dead, somehow seriously impaired. And then all bets are off; so much of Putin’s self-image but also public persona are tied into his image as the bare-shirted Chuck Norris of leaders, that although there may be no practical reason why he could not still rule, he will probably get a first-hand lesson in how far politics is a subjective rather than objective art.

Known Knowns and the Nemtsov Murder

Nemtsov-deathI write this post in some trepidation. I have become increasingly concerned and even somewhat irked by a lot of the easy misstatement of basic facts around Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the way that those determined to see this as a “Kremlin hit” are interpreting every fact or inference as proof thereof. I’m on record as saying that I do not know, but think it unlikely it was a state-sanctioned assassination. (Though that does not wholly exculpate the Kremlin for stirring up the toxic passions which I think were more likely to have led to the killing.) Many of the aspects of the murder which “prove” to some Putin’s direct fingerprints as questionable and I think that it is important to understand what we do and do not know, what we can legitimately claim as fact and what is actually just opinion. This does not in any way “prove” that the Kremlin didn’t have Nemtsov killed, just that none of this necessarily proves anything either way. The very “death of neutrality” about which I wrote in my previous post on the murder ensures that there will be those who regard this as tantamount to running interference for the Kremlin, alas. If anyone is interested, my “agenda” is simply that I happen to believe that facts and the truth are important. “And the truth shall set your free” is, to me, a much more compelling slogan than “And a more effective use of lies will set you free”… (Oh, and also for the record: all those ludicrous claims that Nemtsov was killed by the CIA, or by the Ukrainian SBU, or by other oppositionists looking for a martyr. They are even more ridiculous and, unlike the “Putin dunnit” claims, usually offensively so.) (more…)

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