Masha and the Bear are not coming to invade your homeland

On Guard For The Defence Of The Motherland!

Time for a Saturday spleen-venting. It’s always dangerous to predict that we’ve reached “peak” anything, because life will no doubt find a way to prove you wrong. But I truly with that a story in today’s Times could turn out to be peak…I don’t even know quite what to call it…cliché Russophobia.

The target of my ire is a short article, ‘Children’s show is propaganda for Putin, say critics,’ which uncritically relays allegations that the Russian animated cartoon Masha and the Bear is “a ‘soft propaganda’ tool for the Kremlin” because “the Bear symbolised Russia and was designed to replace a negative image of the country with a positive one in children’s minds.” Worse yet, “in one episode, Masha, wearing a Soviet border guard’s cap, patrols the Bear’s garden and chases out a hare that tries to steal carrots. Critics have seen this as a statement about Russia’s defence of its borders.” One Prof. Glees, of the University of Buckingham, is trotted out to deliver the punchline that “Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her slight weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.”

Well, actually it is pretty damn far fetched to see Putin in a little girl who cries when she doesn’t get what she wants and gets her pig to dress up like a baby. Even more so that the Kremlin would want that to be how people think of Putin. Needless to say, the only contrary view in the article is a note in the last paragraph that “Russia’s state media has ridiculed the concerns.”

For a start, such a take omits to consider that the cartoon series, which admittedly began in 2009, under Putin, is based on a long cycle of oral folk stories predating the 1990s. It would be a little like accusing Fawlty Towers as being pro-Brexit, because the representation of the incompetent Spanish waiter Manuel was a call for Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’…forty years later. Or perhaps that Bob the Builder, with its distinct absence of Polish plumbers and Romanian roofers, is likewise Brexit-Isolationist brain washing…

This is just one of a steady trickle of bizarre stories relating to Russia’s Machiavellian genius in weaponising everything. Remember those football hooligans who were somehow part of Putin’s ‘hybrid war’? Of course Russia is launching a active measures campaign against the West, but shoddy pieces like this that suggest that anything demonstrating that the Russians themselves are human beings like us, that their kids watch TV cartoons like us, that their hot-headed young men can get violent in support of their teams and in mutual displays of machismo like ours, that they live and love, dream and die like us, is somehow ‘soft propaganda,’ is depressing to the nth degree.

It’s also a problem. Why?

  1. It’s stupid. Just that; this is a desperate and silly idea that shouldn’t be reported except as such. And if it is going to be written about, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to find some kind of alternative take – that’s just proper journalism, no? (By contrast, The Herald had earlier ran a much funnier but also more balanced take.)
  2. It devalues the real propaganda. Of course Russia is maintaining a soft power campaign to try and influence foreign perceptions, ranging from presenting Putin as some kind of bare-chested champion of traditional values, to suggesting that the Europeans are being coerced into sanctions and other anti-Kremlin moves by an overweening America. Just as to defend all is to defend nothing, so too to see everything coming from Russia as propaganda is to make it impossible to make a serious case when it really is.
  3. It devalues us. When did it become necessary to dehumanise the Russians, to have to pretend that everything in and from Russia is evil, in order to critique and resist Putin’s regime? First of all, this – I would say – flies in the face of our own liberal world view.
  4. It helps Putin. Secondly, it is bad politics, it plays to Putin’s own legitimating narrative, that the West hates Russia and Russians, and that is why they need a strong state and a strong leader.

 

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GRU seems still in Putin’s favour

GRUlogo2I’ve written elsewhere both that we should be wary of making easy assumptions about the GRU‘s supposed “incompetence” and also that I didn’t expect to see any purge or other visitation of Putin’s wrath. Apart from the fact that we don’t know how many missions are succeeding, the GRU’s high tempo of operations and – seemingly – the mandate it has been given to operate without much regard for the political fallout are most important in explaining the recent spate of cases brought to life.

That the GRU has not, as some claim, angered Putin , and that GRU chief Korobov is not out of favour and out of time, seems confirmed. Yesterday, 2 November, Putin attended a gala to mark the hundredth anniversary of what he called “this legendary service,” and he delivered an enthusiastic eulogy: ”

As supreme commander, I of course know with no exaggeration about your unique abilities including in conducting special operations. I am confident of your professionalism, of your personal daring and decisiveness and that each of you will do all that is required by Russia and our people.

Screenshot 2018-11-03 at 09.43.03

He was especially enthusiastic about the GRU’s role in Syria, something that stretches from its intelligence elements through to its Spetsnaz special forces:

Our intelligence officers, as is mandated by the Russian military tradition, never fled and always carried out their orders. The credit for the return of peace to many parts of Syria, the end of bloodshed and an open path to finding reconciliation should definitely go to a large degree to the military intelligence. No less important is the fact that we have dealt a blow to the terrorists and are preventing their return to our territory.

Indeed, he also suggested it was time the GRU regain its old name,  given that since 2010 has technically been known as the GU, the ‘Main Directorate’, even though in practice everyone still calls it the GRU. (Will it also regain its cool bat logo?) Of course, there is the chance that this is part of maskirovka, deception, keeping any recriminations behind closed doors, but there comes a point when Occam’s Razor ought to cut away some of the most implausible product of the rumour mills. Sure, Putin may feel an obligation to demonstrate his loyalty to his spooks – but that is primarily because they are doing what he wants them to do.

 

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.

‘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’…

Launch events in London for ‘The Vory’

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 14.09So, although alas it will be be weeks before I get to see the final version myself, the advance copies of my new book, The Vory: Russia’s super mafia (Yale University Press) are here, and the count-down to its release begins. It will be published on 10 April in the UK, and 22 May in the US. Meanwhile, I just wanted to flag up some launch events in London next month.

The actual launch will be at Pushkin House at 7pm on Monday 16 April, at which I’ll be talking about the writing of the book and, especially, the historical and cultural evolution of this organised crime subculture, and how far it has come to permeate Russia today.

Then, at Waterstones Gower Street on 6:30pm on Tuesday 17 April I’ll be in conversation with Matt Potter, author of the excellent Outlaws, Inc. (on Russian arms-and-everything-else air smugglers) on gangsters, Russia, and writing about these shadowy topics. Note that the price of a ticket includes a copy of The Vory and a drink – a bargain!

There will then be a closed session at Chatham House on Wednesday 18 April, which will soon be up on their events schedule, discussing the current Russian organised crime situation. I’ll update with a link when it is available.

***PLEASE NOTE – MY US TRIP HAS ALAS HAD TO BE CANCELLED, AND THESE EVENTS WITH THEM. For those of you in the States, I would also parenthetically mention that I’ll be giving a book talk at the NYU Jordan Centre on the Advanced Study of Russia at 12:30 on 4 April, and another talk on Russian organised crime at Colgate University on 2 April at 4:30pm.***

Beyond that, there are one or two other possibilities still under discussion, and again I will update this post if, as, and when they firm up. You can also keep up to date by following me on twitter (@MarkGaleotti) or on my Facebook page Mark Galeotti on Russia.

Corbyn. Neither Philby nor Fool

Corbyn-Commie-Spy-Live-Aid

The Sun. Really, what else can I say?

I am old enough, alas, to have been active and adult when the original Cold War was still on, and I have retained my childhood (but hopefully not – always – childish) interest in intelligence matters. As such, as few thoughts on the current hullabaloo about Jeremy Corbyn and the Czechoslovak StB spy who met him in 1986-87.

Is there any evidence Corbyn gave secrets, let alone sold them? No. Even the unfrocked StB case officer who met him, Jan Sarkocy (‘Jan Dymic’), who initially claimed so, has retracted that allegation, and the Czech Security Forces Archive, whose job is precisely to dig into the StB’s files to find the truth on such matters says there is nothing to suggest this. Its Slovak counterpart agrees.

Was Corbyn naïve to meet with ‘Dymic’? Probably. Or rather, I wouldn’t be surprised if he naively took at face value what ‘Dymic’ said he wanted to discuss; there was (and still is) a depressingly uncritical assumption on the part of many in the British left that the USSR embodied any of their values, rather than just being a slipshod authoritarianism wrapped in an increasingly tattered red flag. However, ‘Dymic’ was an accredited diplomat who had reached out to Corbyn, so why not meet with him? So long as there was a Czechoslovak embassy in the UK, so long as the Foreign Office held meetings, why shouldn’t an MP?

Was ‘Dymic’ naïve to meet with Corbyn. Probably. If his goal was to uncover British MI5 and MI6 secrets, as seems to have been the case, quite what did he think a relatively junior lefty Labour MP knew, let alone would say? Corbyn’s warm views on the IRA alone – itself enough to get MI5 watching him – precluded him from being brought into any confidential discussions. But that probably didn’t matter. Spies, especially Eastern bloc spies, had quotas to fill, needed to show they were active (while enjoying a relatively plum, comfortable posting – most spent as much time shopping for goodies to bring back home and sell as grooming sources). Corbyn (‘Cob’ – there’s an impenetrable codename for you, that tells you something about Sarkocy’s tradecraft) was likely written up in much more glowing and encouraging terms that reality would dictate (Sarkocy does seem to have form as a fabulist). This is spycraft to fulfil the Plan, and every bit as tokenistic, half-hearted and inefficient as the rest of the Soviet planned model.

We meet spies all the time. If you’re active in politics, in strategic sectors of business or the media, or study the ‘right’ things, then you become of interest, and people will want to meet you, to see if you’re a viable candidate for recruitment, to see if you know anything (or anyone) or interest. Sometimes they are in time-honoured guises, as solicitous second secretary politicals eager to buy you lunch and ask you about your views on the world, but they could as easily take the form of journalists, potential customers, or attractive young grad students flatteringly enthused by your research. Sometimes you know in advance what’s likely what. Sometimes it soon becomes clear. Sometimes you never know. But to suggest Corbyn was uniquely naïve or vulnerable is downright wrong.

Frankly, I am worried not about past clumsy attempts at contact in a world long since gone, but the new generation of recruitment, smartly-suited businesspeople making all the right connections in British political, business and social circles, some of whom may be Russians, others simply handling Russian money. A pillar of the community is much more likely, knowingly or not, to make a great human intelligence asset and agent of influence than an avowed Bolshie outsider.

 

 

 

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