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:

I’m not convinced contingency plans necessarily mean intent. Of course the Crimean operation had been carefully planned, and that takes time. The report implicitly places a desire to annex Crimea in the context of slipping political support for the regime, even hinting at summer 2013, let alone before Yanukovych’s fall. This is one area which failed to convince me. Military establishments have plans for all kinds of contingencies, ranging from the probable to the plausible; there is a Russian plan for war with China, for example, but not for a moment do I think anyone in the Kremlin is lunatic enough to want such a nightmare. I understand there was a long-standing plan in the vaults of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, and that as soon as the friendly regime in Kiev looked in trouble, it was taken out and updated. But I also understand that the final stage was something of a rush job. This was an opportunist move, not part of some long-term strategy.

Russian troops were involved from the get-go. Of course it has been clear that this has been a Russian-engineered operation from the first. Moscow says otherwise, but then again Moscow said the “polite people” weren’t Russian troops…until Putin chose to boast that they were. (All states lie; but today’s Kremlin seems to do so with particular poker-faced enthusiasm.) The report usefully explores the level of Russian forces in-country, with some good analysis of the “vacationer” mercenary/volunteer presence, as well, worth reading alongside other reports.

Russian casualties: tragic but supportable politically, yet potentially a burden militarily. The report suggests at least 220 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine (and implies rather more), with some impressive detective work to determine who, where, and from which units (essentially paratrooper divisions). Tragic, to be sure…but as many Russians die on the country’s roads every two and a half days (a horrifying stat in its own right). While of course political impact isn’t simply a matter of numbers (if it were, Moscow would be doing a lot more about those roads), combine relatively few casualties with media control, and I don’t think the sheer number of “load 200” deaths will in itself become too great a problem.

That said, most of the forces there are paratroopers or Spetsnaz, the cream of the Russian military. If the toll continues, never mind escalates, even if it is not a political issue, then it will begin to gnaw away at military effectiveness. Yes, real combat is an excellent way to identify and develop good leaders, battle harden your troops, test your weapons and tactics. But the negative effects of losing elite troops, added to exhaustion and possible demoralization (the Afghan War proved that no one likes fighting undeclared and unadmitted conflicts) can outweigh these.

The ruble costs: serious, escalating and having a real impact. For me, perhaps the most interesting section was the last one, on the economic costs of the “Donbass operation.” (Obviously Crimea is a whole other story.) Their estimates are obviously just that, and based on a fair amount of extrapolation and guesstimation, but this section was drafted by a serious economist, Sergei Aleksashenko, the former deputy chair of the Russian central bank, and deserves to be taken equally serious. The headline claim is that Moscow spent at least 53 billion rubles (say $1 billion) on the actual operation, with another Rs 80 billion ($1.5 billion) on support for refugees, etc.

Together, they represent only just under 1% of the total federal budget (Rs. 15 trillion), which might seem not so much. However, that’s roughly as much as the government will spend on its environmental protection and tourism programs for the whole year. Furthermore, the report explores the wider impact, not least how sanctions imposed because of the conflict have triggered inflation, and the cost of this to Russia and also to individual Russians. In many ways the economic implications of the war are having by far the most serious direct impact on Russia, and this report does valuable service in helping us understand and quantify it.

“Vladimir Putin is a TV star.” The section on propaganda and the war likewise may not say much that is new, but it says it very well, and rightly focuses on the crucial impact of TV in the modern propaganda campaign.

A Ukraine-Russia peace deal: Crimea must have a cost

March-06-14-Russia-Ukraine-and-Obama2Efforts to secure some kind of peace deal between Moscow and Kiev—and not just a temporary ceasefire that preserves a frozen conflict—continue. The latest suggestions are that Washington is coming up with proposals to this effect, as explored in this story from Bloomberg by Josh Rogin. While not officially confirmed, its details chime with what I have been hearing from people in and close to the policy circles. The essence is that in return “for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions” Russia would have to adhere to September’s Minsk agreement and cease direct military support for the rebels, while the “issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.”

In other words, Russia’s seizure of Crimea would be considered a done deal and taken out of the equation, in return for only minor and personal (ie, not systemic) sanctions, while Russia and Ukraine would in effect be considered to have positions of equal moral weight in the negotiations over eastern Ukraine. Although it is essential to end this war—and both Moscow and Kiev want and would gain from a resolution—this basis is, in my option, immoral, muddle-headed and downright dangerous.

1. Yes, alas for the moment it is not worth trying to get Moscow to surrender Crimea. It may not be right, but this is the only viable position. For Putin to abandon the peninsula would not be totally against his own instincts, it would also be politically lethal, critically undermining his credibility and legitimacy. He simply will not do this. (more…)

A Hurricane in the East: are rebels getting BM-27 ‘Uragan’ Rocket Systems?

UraganUS intelligence sources are claiming that Russia has actually stepped up its material support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, including heavier rocket systems. I suspect these may the BM-27 Uragan (‘Hurricane’) systems, the very kind that Moscow has been criticising Kyiv for using in recent days. This is a truck-mounted multiple-tube rocket launcher system akin to the previously-used BM-21 Grad on steroids, able to ripple-fire its 16 220mm rockets in 20 seconds. As such, it represents a substantial upgrade to rebel firepower.

A few quick observations.

1. OK, so maybe Putin won’t be backing away from the rebels…but it may be the storm before the calm. A willingness to supply heavy hardware, coupled with the uncompromising rhetoric from the Kremlin, does suggest that Putin has chosen not to back away from his adventure in eastern Ukraine. However, it’s not impossible that the hope is that allowing the rebels to give Kyiv’s forces a bloody nose will allow Moscow to negotiate some terms for a ‘peace with honour’ extrication from the mess on stronger terms, given that at present, between the seizure of Slovyansk and the moral charge provided by MH17, the Ukrainian government is in unyielding mood. This can be disastrous (witness Russia clinging on in WW1 in the hope that “next battle” would provide one such victory), but can work. (more…)

Blowback’s a bitch: MH17 and the east Ukraine campaign’s long-term costs for Russia

MH17Policy makers, especially policy makers who have never seen action, are often seduced by covert operations. They see them as the perfect policy instrument: cheap, deniable, effective. Yes, there can be tremendously effective covert or at least non-conventional operations and campaigns, but just as all intelligence operations must come to terms with the fundamental truth that nothing is guaranteed to stay secret for ever, so too these sneaky campaigns can very easily either fail or, even more likely, have unexpected consequences that may overshadow the intended outcome. After all, while Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden cannot entirely be charted back to the US campaign to support Islamist rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan–had the social, political and intellectual climate not been ready for the message of jihad then they would have remained on the fringes–nonetheless there is a strong connection.

(more…)

The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War

But what happens when the bear looks like a stray dog, or a cute little kitten?

But what happens when the bear looks like a stray dog, or a cute little kitten?

Call it non-linear war (which I prefer), or hybrid war, or special war, Russia’s operations first in Crimea and then eastern Ukraine have demonstrated that Moscow is increasingly focusing on new forms of politically-focused operations in the future. In many ways this is an extension of what elsewhere I’ve called Russia’s ‘guerrilla geopolitics,’ an appreciation of the fact that in a world shaped by an international order the Kremlin finds increasingly irksome and facing powers and alliances with greater raw military, political and economic power, new tactics are needed which focus on the enemy’s weaknesses and avoid direct and overt confrontations. To be blunt, these are tactics that NATO–still, in the final analysis, an alliance designed to deter and resist a mass, tank-led Soviet invasion–finds hard to know how to handle. (Indeed, a case could be made that it is not NATO’s job, but that’s something to consider elsewhere.)

Hindsight, as ever a sneakily snarky knowitall, eagerly points out that we could have expected this in light of an at-the-time unremarked article by Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. In fairness, it was in Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’er, the Military-Industrial Courier, which is few people’s fun read of choice. Nonetheless, it represents the best and most authoritative statement yet of what we could, at least as a placeholder, call the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ (not that it necessarily was his confection). I and everyone interested in these developments are indebted to Rob Coalson of RFE/RL, who noted and circulated this article, and the following translation is his (thanks to Rob for his permission to use it), with my various comments and interpolations. (more…)

Retirement of FSO’s Murov may exacerbate Russia’s underground silovik conflicts

General Evgeny Murov - the stabilising silovik

General Evgeny Murov – the stabilising silovik

It’s not been confirmed, but there are reports that Evgeny Murov, head of the FSO (Federal Guard Service) is stepping down from his position, probably this autumn. Not a great surprise–he’s turning 69 this year and there have been reports that he’s wanted to step down for a few years now. Nonetheless, I view this with some concern because this is a time in which there are considerable pressures bubbling beneath the surface of the Russian intelligence and security community and Murov–the longest-serving of all the security agency chiefs currently in place–performed a quietly useful role as a stabilising force. Yes, his men are the besuited bullet-catchers with earpieces of the Presidential Security Service, the black-clad marksmen up on the roofs around the Red Square on parade days, the goose-stepping Kremlin Guard at the eternal flame and the guys guarding the State Duma and the like. But the FSO also plays an unofficial role as the watchers’ watcher, the agency that keeps tabs on the other security services to keep them in line, and gets to call bullshit if one or the other is briefing too directly for their institutional advantage–I discuss the FSO’s role in more detail here.

Murov’s reported successor is Alexei Mironov, his deputy and the head of Spetssvyaz, the FSO’s Special Communications Service. Fair enough: this should ensure a smooth handover at a time of tension. But it remains to be seen if Mironov has the stature, thick skin and independence of mind both to stay largely out of the silovik-on-silovik turf wars and also to help the Kremlin keep the agencies in check. If not, and this is a theme I’ll be touching on in a talk at Chatham House on Friday, there may be troubling times ahead both for Russia (as the spooks may end up in another internal war) and the outside world (as they may seek to gain traction with the Kremlin by aggressive moves abroad). I’ll be developing these issues more later.

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