The reports of the death of the Russian defence budget have been greatly exaggerated

IMG_2221

No more new toys? (c) Mark Galeotti 2014

Yesterday HIS Jane’s (disclosure: I have written them for decades, and respect their work) came out with the eye-catching assertion that “Russia announces deepest defence budget cuts since 1990s.” It continues that the “Federal Treasury have [sic] confirmed that Russia’s defence budget has been cut by 25.5% for 2017, falling from RUB3.8 trillion (USD65.4 billion) to RUB2.8 trillion.”

A 25.5% cut? Even if “Despite the cut, the 2017 budget will remain about 14.4% higher than the level of defence spending seen in 2014 in nominal terms” that is still a massive story, and spells the end to planned modernisations, especially given the inelasticities in the budget (upkeep and maintenance, salaries, etc). And in December, it had been agreed to but the budget not by the 10% MinFin wanted but a moderate 6%.

So what happened? Needless to say, all is not quite what it seems. After all, it is important to note that the Federal Treasury (Federal’noe kaznacheistvo) is not so much a budget-setting as accounting office, essentially a comptroller, and operates under some quite strict parameters. It accounts funds allocated and spent along specific budget line items, and in the process its apparent defence spend tallies do not, it seems to me, reflect the impact of debt repayment. It is also worth noting that the Treasury tracks money spent, and if one looks at 2016, according to the Ministry of Economy, the State Defence Order was only 88% executed. That alone may look like a 12% procurement cut through the Treasury prism. So, the data may well not truly show planned so much as predicted spending.

Let’s note that even more so in the West, Russian defence and security expenditures often appear under different budget lines and obscure headings. Pre-conscription physical and skills training outsourced to schools through the revived GTO (Ready for Labour and Defence) programme comes out of the education budget, much support for military science is under education, science and research, and part of the aid and development budget is likely paying for mercenaries in Syria.

Finally, it is crucial to appreciate that much of the defence spend, especially on procurement, is not just about military power but economic and political necessity. Key industries, on whose health cities and regions depend, are kept afloat through military procurement. Any major cuts, which would inevitably have to be focused on buying new toys, would have a disastrous impact…and do so in the year-long run-up to the next presidential election, intended as something of a triumphant coronation and celebration of Putin.

So the upshot is, yes, under budgetary pressure (and the probable need to have money to spend on buying votes in 2018), the defence budget is being pruned. But not by a quarter.

From Trump’s Washington to the Capitals of Europe, Corruption is Russia’s Greatest Ally

The steady drumbeat of Russian contacts with Trump’s team on one level should not surprise. The Russians – like most real and wannabe global powers – assiduously network, hoping to gather insights and make connections that can later be parlayed into access and impact. This is, however, a case study of the way that the dirty little vices of modern democracy, from the inter-connectivity of transnational and untransparent business interests to the use of money and flattery to buy a voice, all the ways in which democracy becomes distorted by money, serve as a force multiplier for predatory authoritarian kleptocracies.

In fact, my view is that for the West today, the greatest security threat is not Russian tanks or Russian disinformation, it is our own corruption – and the ways Russia seeks to use it.

Let’s look at the Trump White House. I still have serious doubts about some of the headline allegations kicked off by Steele’s ‘Trump dossier,’ from the ‘salacious’ stuff (that has become the code word of choice, after all…), to the suggestion that Trump has been given 19% of oil giant Rosneft as the bribe of the millennium in return for lifting sanctions. (Though that would mean we know the market value of the White House: about $11 billion.) Much more plausible is the general picture of regular, lower-level contacts between Russian officials and American movers and shakers, regardless of the serious tensions between their countries.

There are all kinds of contacts which are appropriate, unavoidable, and wholly acceptable. Some of the administration’s more strident critics need to be reminded that not every Russian is a spy or a gangster. However, all the mysterious bouts of amnesia or dependence on covert meetings suggests that even the participants realise they are transgressing the acceptable, and that they are probably not meeting simply to further international cooperation or exchange banalities about the weather.

In a dark past, America was ripped apart by the search for reds under the beds. Much of this was paranoid witch-hunting, but there were indeed those motivated by ideology, a sense that the Soviet Union represented something greater for humanity. Today? Sure, some imbecilic racists and blinkered social conservatives may believe that Putin’s Russia stands for their values, but the people we are talking about, the people who matter, are in the main neither simpletons nor idealists, but pragmatically self-interested.

Those in Trump’s campaign and his administration who retain links with Russians do so not because they are dazzled by Putin, less yet by Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. They do so because it suits and pleases them, because the Russians offer something: flattery, information, personal gain.

This is not necessarily the crude corruption of a suitcase of cash in return for documents or a favourable vote. It is rather the more insidious corruption of hooking people on the notion that the Russians can help you get closer to your financial and personal goals. After all, the biggest differences between this new Cold War and the old one is that there is little real ideological dimension, and our societies and economies are now incestuously connected. Russians buy penthouses in London and New York, Americans buy Russian stocks, Russian-funded media buy insert spreads in Western newspapers, and so forth. Much of this is essentially innocent, or at least as innocent as modern capitalism can be, but these are the wellsprings of the global rivers in which Moscow’s spies and agents of influence can freely swim.

In other words, the real story is about the way that the rich and the powerful may regard Russia as a geopolitical antagonist, and yet be happy to cut deals with Russians if it helps them become richer and more powerful.

But this is not just an American story. In Europe, too, corruption is Moscow’s friend. From the lobby groups which agitate against the Ukraine sanctions because they are suffering as a result, to the politicians happy to mobilise anti-US and anti-EU sentiment with the aid of Russian money and airtime to their own ends, this is a widespread issue.

The greatest danger, I would suggest, is not so much the overt ‘Putin-understanders’ such as the Czech Republic’s President Miloš Zeman or Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Of course, they are convenient for Moscow, not least because their words can be retransmitted for propaganda purposes, and their sentiments erode the European consensus on punishing Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. But at the same time, these are not fifth columnists looking to hand over their country to Putin.

The real threats are those motivated not by naïve or contrarian but probably genuine and consistent beliefs, but by corruption. These are the cynics and opportunists, and they are dangerous for several reasons. First of all, unlike the Zemans and Orbans of this world, they may be subtle and covert, couching their lobbying and sabotage in the language of good business sense, or European resistance to American ‘bullying,’ or whatever other rationalisation seems more appropriate. They can also be used as deniable fronts for Russian operations; the continuing (if unproven) belief that then-head of Lukoil in the Czech Republic Martin Nejedly funded Zeman’s campaign on Moscow’s behest (for which he was later recompensed) is a perfect example. Was this just a case of a Czech funding a Czech campaign, openly and entirely within the law, or foreign interference? And how do you prove the latter?

Secondly, they are self-propelled. They do not look to the Kremlin for instructions, although inevitably sometimes Moscow will seek to direct them. They will look for ways to advance their own causes, sometimes actually by seeking new ways to make themselves useful, because usefulness is rewarded. If it is true that members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to get him elected, did the Russians drive the whole process, or at what point did their American interlocutors begin to make suggestions and requests? You do not need to corrupt those who are already corrupt, and who will instead approach you and see what you are willing to offer.

Thirdly, they not only take advantage of the fluidity of modern capital and ideas, the difficulty modern states have in proving where money came from, where ultimately ownership of an asset lies. They actively seek to protect and extend this system. The drug lord, the spy, the terrorist, and the ruthless financial-political player all have a shared interest in foiling efforts to reverse this process. From the struggle to extend anti-kleptocracy laws in London, to the death-of-a-thousand-amendments facing new transparency laws in Prague, this is a battle being fought across the West, and yet one we have yet properly to appreciate is about security as much as fighting crime or controlling corporate malpractice.

The difficulty in regulating finances, the challenges addressing disinformation, and the failure often to monitor and limit campaign contributions, are all aspects of a common and systemic problem of corruption. The Russians – and not only the Russians – are taking fullest advantage of this, and this makes it one of the most important battlefields of a conflict which is as much as anything else about values, laws and ideas. What is being played out in Washington is as much as anything else a case study in how pernicious and wide-spread the challenge has become.

New book: The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016

mra-cover-smallToday is Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Russia and, as if cunningly planned (but in fact a completely fortuitous coincidence) my latest book, The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016 (Osprey) was released. Available as a paperback or ebook, it includes once again colour plates by the excellent Johnny Shumate, an order of battle, and my general take on the evolution and prospects for Putin’s army. It was able to include early developments from Syria and the Donbas. The table of contents is:

Introduction.
Born in Crisis – the 1990s: creating a new army in the wreckage of the USSR – First Chechen War – peacekeeping missions – the damaging ‘grandfather’ culture in the ranks.
‘Reform Tomorrow’ – the 2000s: slow beginnings of reform under Putin – Second Chechen War – uncertainty and inertia at the top – the Cossack revival. The Georgian Turning Point – 2008: profiting from errors and lessons – Defense Minister Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff Makarov force through reforms.
The Russian Army Today: structures, organization, chain of command – major annual exercise cycles, and what they teach us.
Two Armies: the reformed one-third, and the unreformed two-thirds. The human dimension: volunteer soldiers and conscripts – Ukraine – continuing problem of crime in the military.
Intervention Forces: Air Assault and Naval troops – Spetsnaz – anti-piracy operations – Crimea – ‘non-linear war’ doctrine.
Tools of the Trade: weapons, vehicles, specialist AFVs – latest ‘Ratnik’ uniforms and equipment – drones.
Select Bibliography

Video: Russia’s Hybrid War: What Does it Really Mean, And How Should the West Respond?

hybridwarjan2017On 10 January 2017, I spoke at an event organised by the Institute of International Relations Prague (UMV) at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (to whom I must express my thanks for the use of the splendid Mirror Hall).

The video is now available at the IIR’s YouTube page, here. The blurb is below, and you can find the report around which I was speaking here.

The challenge of Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ remains one of the main concerns of Western policy-makers, yet quite what does this mean, and how can it best be resisted? Dr Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and one of the world’s leading experts on Russian security has recently completed two major analyses of the issue, his comprehensive report Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right (Mayak) and Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s political use of its military in Europe since 2014 (European Council on Foreign Relations).

hybridwarjan2017b

“Propaganda needs to be clever, smart and efficient” But Russian army’s ‘information troops’ are not just propagandists…

commandcentre

Ready to go full Strangelove?

News that (surprise, surprise) the Russian military has a dedicated information warfare force (VOI: Войска информационных операций, Voiska informatsionnykh operatsii) and, indeed, that it has been operating for four years has been heralded as evidence of a ‘propaganda command.’ While the whole issue of disinformation (aka “fake news”) is obviously the bugbear of the moment in the West, and Defence Minister Shoigu chose to talk about the propaganda side of things (“propaganda needs to be clever, smart and efficient”), it is worth briefly noting that when the Russians talk about information operations, they mean something different from us.

To the Russians, information operations (IO) means everything involving information, so not just propaganda and counter-propaganda, but also disinformation, psychological operations, and even cyberwarfare. Things we tend to silo (and also label with weasel expressions such as “strategic communications,” which could perhaps be glibly described as “propaganda we like”), to the Russians are all part of one seamless domain relating to the human, morale-and-will side of warfare.

The Russians first really came to realise this was needed after the 2008 Georgian War, but in light of the current ‘hybrid’ “political war” being waged against the West, their role within Moscow’s strategy is only increasing. Though at the same time, the Russians continue to deny that they have any offensive cyberwarfare capability. As, for that matter, does pretty much everyone else, just as implausibly…

 

Trump may not be the ‘Siberian Candidate’ but his White House is coming to resemble Putin’s Kremlin

As I’ve noted, I’m a sceptic about the suggestions somehow Moscow is bribing or blackmailing Trump to be their stooge. Rather, though, the otherwise-inexplicable fondness The Donald appears to have for The Vladimir (so far, at least) seems more a matter of triangulation, perversity, and the common sodality of the worst kind of authoritarian alpha male. This last, alarmingly, also seems increasingly to be leading Trump’s style of government to begin to resemble Putin’s. The particular characteristics I have in mind are:

1. Power is based on proximity to the boss, and his favour. In the Russian system, the formal hierarchy, from president to prime minister, to ministers, is bypassed by an informal one, whereby Putin exerts power through his Presidential Administration and on the basis of decisions made after consulting with his cronies. Likewise, it is clear that Trump has a similarly personalised and informal approach, best illustrated by the decision last week to take the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs off the permanent membership of the National Security Council and instal his ideologist-in-chief Stephen Bannon in their stead, with his own little inner-circle ‘Strategic Initiatives Group’. 

2. Ministers are flunkies, not policy-makers. The corollary of the above is that, as in Russia, a cabinet position alone is no guarantee of influence. Some do have weight, but this is generally because they have a personal relationship with Putin, such as defence minister Shoigu or deputy PM Kozak. Otherwise, they – and cabinet as a body – are simply there to execute their master’s bidding. Likewise, there seems little evidence at this stage that Trump regards his ministers as peers and colleagues. The odds are unlikely that even those with serious heft of experience and respect, such as defence secretary James Mattis – who has already been used as the legitimating backdrop for one of Trump’s egregious executive orders, on migrants – will be able to hold their own against the likes of Bannon or national security advisor Flynn.

3. Real decisions are made out of sight and off the books. As a result, we don’t get to see or hear the discussions about policy, or even to know for sure who was involved. Everything of real import is assessed and adjudicated behind the scenes, any – just like Trump’s conversation with Putin – not even recorded. Indeed, Bannon is already trying to ensure a lack of paper trail, something which will allow the White House to shape the narrative, and if need to evade responsibility.

4. Truth is by decree, and dissent is disloyalty. All administrations spin, but for outright lies to be coming so regularly and brazenly from the White House press podium, or even the presidential twitter account, is something new, and much more reminiscent of the Kremlin’s cavalier and creative attitude to the truth, secure in the absence of a critical media, on TV at least. Trump may not have that last yet, but the enthusiastic zeal with which his people exclude and excoriate those who don’t accept the new rules of the game suggests that’s the aim, at least. Dissent, after all, is not just a matter of alternative perspectives, it is an attack, it is disloyalty. The spectacle of acting Attorney General Sally Yates  being not just dismissed for having the temerity to do her job and uphold the law, but the language used – “betrayal” – is proof that this does not only apply to the Fourth Estate.

5. The economic interests of the boss and his cronies become state priorities. Whatever the scale of Putin’s personal fortune (my own view is that this should not be over-stated: a man who can use the whole Russian state as his piggy bank need not concentrate on stuffing his mattress with valuta), it is clear that his closest and oldest do very, very well out of his rule. Whether old judo buddies like the Rotenbergs, or musician-billionaire (and likely front man) Sergei Roldugin, Putin’s trust and friendship is eminently monetisable. These people can expect the state to be bent to their needs, awarding them contracts, bailing out their failures, and even compensating them for sanctions losses. As Trump packs his entourage with oil executives and acolytes of the vampire-squid Goldman Sachs, as well as sidestepping demands he divest himself of his own portfolio, Trump is already making it clear that he will not stint his friends. The structures there to control Wall Street – already flimsy – face the wrecking ball, as there are “friends of mine, who have nice businesses who can’t borrow money“…

6. The boss sits outside the formal party structure. Is Trump a Republican? Not really, even if there is clearly a vastly closer overlap between his nativist, kleptocratic instincts and theirs. Rather, America now has a three party system – Democrats, Republics, and Trump – and a coalition government between he last two. Like all coalitions, it is potentially fragile – it will be a depressingly compelling sport trying to guess just how much the Republicans are willing to swallow, in the name of notionally controlling the White House – but it remains to be seen who will lose out when the inevitable split occurs. After all, Trump – like Putin – has positioned himself outside the formal party system and political elites. Even his much-derided tweeting is a way of trying to forge a direct connection with his electorate. This does not mean that (unlike Putin) Trump is wholly immune to Congressional action, but it does mean that he is unlikely even to pretend about the party he notionally represents.

Of course, none of this suggests any direct collusion. Those trying desperately to find some connection between Bannon and Putin (no, Dugin is not influential in the Kremlin), or Flynn and RT’s Simonyan, are probably missing the point. This is not happening because Moscow says so. This, alas, is all on Trump.

%d bloggers like this: