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.

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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.

Is the Russian National Guard suddenly acquiring sweeping new powers? No, not so much

Rosgvardiya1A new Presidential Decree with the snappy title ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of forces of the National Guard of the Russian Federation‘ has suddenly caused something of a fuss because of a clause which allows the president to subordinate military units to the Rosgvardiya. From Versiya, for example, there came the outraged cry that “Nothing like this has happened in the country’s history” and that it was “impossible to imagine” the “Russian imperial army commanding the gendarmes, and NKVD the Red Army.” In Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, the warning was that “it has become clear that sooner or later war plans require the use of troops against the population. Russian officers do not want to shoot at their fellow. And the officers of the General Staff, it seems, did their best to slow down the adoption of the policy documents. But the Kremlin was anxious. And the National Guard conquered the army.”

Of course the creation of the National Guard from the basis of the MVD’s Interior Troops and public order forces was a worrying sign of the paranoias of the Kremlin. It is a force of some 180,000-190,000 security troops and special police, by the way, not 400,000 – there are perhaps as many private security officers, but they are not all armed, are scattered around the country, and in some cases are other Rosgvardiya officers moonlighting in a second job. It was clearly established both in case the Kremlin wants to break heads on the streets, and also to represent an additional obstacle to any elite political coup.

But let’s not get caught up in the hyperbole. The present presidential decree does indeed say that the president has the right to transfer army units to Rosgvardiya command for specific operations at home. However, the decree starts by enumerating the existing decrees relating to the MVD Interior Troops that it supersedes. One is the 2005 decree ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of the Interior Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russian Federation,’ as amended. And guess what: that decree allowed the president to subordinate military units to the Interior Troops…

In other words, this was just a piece of legislative tidying-up, find+replacing National Guard for Interior Troops. Not so unprecedented, not so impossible to imagine, not demonstrating any sudden new bloodlust. And I very much doubt the General Staff were trying to fight it off.

Sure, there are always grounds for concern, especially when figures such as blowhard ex-general and Rosgvardiya hanger-on Yuri Baluevskii trumpet how Russia is beleaguered by Western attempts at regime change through coloured revolutions. But sadly this is nothing new and even reflected in Russia’s national security doctrine. This is a regime which fears and mistrusts its people, and which is at least willing to contemplate the use of violence to maintain power. But at the same time, let’s not fall prey to the temptation to think the sky is breaking every time the thunder peals.

Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe

C9s92ljW0AAhnPtMy latest report for the ECFR is out. While I am waiting for the bidding war for the film rights, I’ll settle for pointing people in its direction – you can download it free here – and offer up the summary:

  • Over the past 20 years, the role of Russian organised crime in Europe has shifted considerably. Today, Russian criminals operate less on the street and more in the shadows: as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
  • The Russian state is highly criminalised, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
  • Russian-based organised crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of ‘black cash’, to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.
  • European states and institutions need to consider RBOC a security as much as a criminal problem, and adopt measures to combat it, including concentrating on targeting their assets, sharing information between security and law-enforcement agencies, and accepting the need to devote political and economic capital to the challenge.

I confess I am pleased with the ‘Russian-based organised crime‘ notion, that I think fills an ontological niche, in that it is clear that there is a difference between those gangs which still have strong connections to Russia — who could as easily be Georgians, or Dagestanis, or whoever — and those who have essentially moved out of the country. It is the former who are especially susceptible to use by the Russian security apparatus, and who genuinely worry me. (And yes, I’m also pleased with the title…)

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