A Purely Personal ‘Best of 2017’ on Russia

new-year-400-e1419387976106Monstrously egotistical, I know, (though this is my blog, after all!), but here are the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 about which I am happiest, for various reasons:

 

 

Russia has no grand plans, but lots of ‘adhocrats’, in Intellinews Business New Europe, 18 January. I enjoy writing my ‘Stolypin’ column for BNE for all sorts of reasons, not least the chance it gives me sometimes to play around with my emerging ideas about how Russia works. In this one, I explored how it could be considered “a pluralistic authoritarianism, in which a variety of ‘adhocrats’ seek fame and fortune by finding their own ways of playing to Putin’s broad vision for the future. Sometimes that can lead to disaster, sometimes unexpected success.”

Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe, a Policy Brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations, 18 April. Beyond being happy with the title, as a paper bringing together Russia, gangsters, and spooks, how could this not have been a fun one to write?

Russia’s Nationalists: Putin’s Critical Children, co-written with Anna Arutunyan, published in English by the Henry Jackson Society, June. This is cheating, in a way, as this was originally published by RFE/RL in Russian in 2016, but since it only came out in English in 2017, I’m allowing it. Especially now that Igor Girkin, the infamous ‘Strelkov’ is increasingly open about his disenchantment with Putin, it is worth revisiting the nationalist critique of the Kremlin, the extent to which embezzlement, corruption, and inefficiency can all be attacked from a right-patriotic perspective, too.

The ‘Trump Dossier,’ or How Russia Helped America Break Itself in The Tablet, 13 June. There are many, many things to lament about the Trump presidency, in my opinion, and one is the way the debate about his legitimacy, supposed collusion with Russia and the like, is creating a toxic political environment that will outlast his time in power. For me, the issue is not about some supposed Kremlin masterplan to put a puppet in the White House (if it was, it has backfired badly) so much as the combination of a Moscow eager to undermine the USA and a candidate whose circle and business ethics leave them not so much wide open to connections with crooks and kleptocrats so much as eager for them. This is about moral and business corruption, not a ‘Siberian Candidate.’ (I explored this point earlier from a different angle in this CNN piece.)

Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe, a Policy Brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations, 1 September. The capstone of the four reports I wrote for the ECFR, and I was very pleased to be able to try and cut through much of the supposition and exaggeration and try and dig into the crucial questions of how far Russia’s ‘active measures’ campaign is coordinated (on the whole, it’s not) and insofar as it is, where the hub for managing the process really is.

What exactly are ‘Kremlin ties’? in The Atlantic, 12 July. Terms such as ‘Kremlin ties’ and ‘connected to Putin’ are used so widely and loosely these days, especially in terms of anyone even faintly connected to someone who knows Trump, such that I was delighted to have a chance to explore what this really means in such a diffuse, de-institutionalised system as Russia’s, full of political entrepreneurs hoping to find some angle.

Iron Fist in Jane’s Intelligence Review, August. Behind the IHS paywall, I’m afraid, but this was a pretty in-depth study of the Russian National Guard, the Rosgvardiya, and I was especially gratified to be able to pull a pretty comprehensive order of battle together – a testament to the fact that, whatever propaganda may slosh around the TV stations and government newspapers, there is a still a wonderful wealth of great open source reporting in Russia.

Kremlin’s puzzle: how to frame Putin’s re-election? in Raam op Rusland, 2 October. If you don’t know Raam op Rusland, it is well worth following, a Dutch collective seeking to raise the level of discussion about Russia, not least by translating some of the best writings to and from Russian. In my first column for them I presented the forthcoming presidential poll as “Schrödinger’s Election. The Kremlin is already engaged in the campaign, but is trying to keep its existence unclear and undefined until it knows what election it will be fighting. Who is the bigger threat, apathy or Navalny? Can it afford to give the appearance of a real election – or can it afford not to? For what will it stand, other than “business as usual”? While it tries to answer these questions, March gets closer and closer, and someday the box will be opened and we’ll see if the cat is alive.”

How Putin could yet save Britain from Brexit in The Guardian, 2 November. Arguably a piece of magical thinking, but it was fun to put together the likelihood that more evidence will emerge about Russian backing for Brexit and the possibility that some of the UK’s leaders will actually be willing to show leadership for a change and use that as the basis to slow or halt the lemming rush for the cliff edge. I don’t think that Russian interference was critical — but reality and appearance are two different things in politics…

The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016, book in the Elite series from Osprey Publishing. It tickles me immensely to write for Osprey, given how I devoured their beautifully-illustrated books as a child, especially when I have an excellent artist like Johnny Shumate doing the colour plates!

Advertisements

Ambassador Karlov’s security and the Zaslon red herring

Moscow is currently grumbling that their ambassador was put at risk because for ten years the Turks have not allowed them to send members of the Zaslon special operations group to Ankara to provide security. This is such a red herring.

Zaslon is part of the SVR – the Foreign Intelligence Service – and while it sometimes provides some diplomatic security in very extreme cases (as in Damascus, for example), it is essentially an intelligence/sabotage/assassination force. No wonder Ankara didn’t want them there, and in any case it would have been a colossal waste, akin to using the SAS or CIA Special Ops Group as permanent bodyguards. Most security for diplomats in anything short of a war zone (and an art gallery in Ankara is hardly that) is provided by locally-engaged private security guards.

If the Russians really want to ask what went wrong, they should start with explaining why, if for a decade they have thought Turkey such a dangerous posting it needed Spetsnaz protection, they did not hire any security themselves, like their US and indeed UK counterparts? Or maybe they should be chatting with their good friend Erdogan why on-duty Turkish police were not on hand to deal with their wayward off-duty comrade-turned-killer?

New Book: ‘Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right’

19823811_cover-frontminiI’m today releasing Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right. As the title suggests, this study explores the whole issue of Russia’s non-linear challenge to the West and make recommendations about possible responses. It is not the last word, of course, and is as much as anything else written to try and further the debate. A key point I do make is that I feel what we tend to call Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ (it’s not the best term, but we seem to be stuck with it at the moment) is not only that not special in Russian eyes, but in many ways ought perhaps to be considered as two similar but distinct ways of wielding similar instruments: as a preparatory stage before proper kinetic warfare operations (‘hybrid war’) and as a purely non-kinetic variety of aggravated and confrontational diplomacy (‘political war’). Ukraine faced the former, the West the latter. Either way, these are wars…

I reproduce the Executive Summary below, but the book is available in both PDF and hardcopy here or from Amazon.


Executive Summary

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies. (more…)

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. (more…)

“Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces”

Johnny Shumate's preliminary sketch for colour plate of a Spetsnaz sniper

Johnny Shumate’s preliminary sketch for colour plate of a Spetsnaz sniper

I’m very happy to be able to note that my latest compact book from Osprey is out this week. Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces is, in my admittedly hardly humble opinion the most comprehensive work on Russia’s special forces yet out in English, taking to task many of the myths both old and new about these guys (not least, the idea that they are all some kind of Slavic ninjas), exploring their role in operations ranging through Civil War pacifications, through Afghanistan and to the seizure of Crimea, and considering what they can and, just as importantly, cannot do. Orders of battle, anecdotes about some of their members and operations, and Johnny Shumate‘s amazing colour plates, what more could you want? Available in both paperback and ebook formats.

Here’s the official blurb:

When the shadowy, notorious Spetsnaz were first formed, they drew on a long Soviet tradition of elite, behind-the-lines commando forces from World War II and even earlier. Throughout the 1960s-70s they were instrumental both in projecting Soviet power in the Third World and in suppressing resistance within the Warsaw pact. As a powerful, but mysterious tool of a world superpower, the Spetsnaz have inevitably become the focus of many ‘tall tales’ in the West. In this book, a peerless authority on Russia’s military Special Forces debunks several of these myths, uncovering truths that are often even more remarkable. Now, since the chaotic dissolution of the USSR and the two Chechen Wars, Russian forces have seen increasing modernization, involving them ever more in power-projection, counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism and the Spetsnaz have been deployed as a spearhead in virtually all of these operations. This book offers a unique, absorbing guide to the secrets of the Spetsnaz, their most noteworthy missions and personalities, but is also packed with details such as orders-of-battle, equipment and operational doctrine.
  • Introduction: overview; background in Russian history and culture
  • The Spetsnaz Tradition: special units of the Bolshevik Red Guard, and behind-the-lines NKVD operations in World War II
  • Cold Warriors: foundation by GRU, 1950. Operations 1960s-70s: Angola, Czechoslovakia, etc, and order-of-battle 1980
  • Operations in Afghanistan, and order-of-battle
  • Spetsnaz after the USSR: the turmoil of the 1990s. Tajikistan and Moldova, imitation units in post-Soviet states
  • Operations in Chechnya, the Chechen Spetsnaz
  • Modern Spetsnaz: increasing strength and importance
  • Naval Spetsnaz, and order-of-battle 2013
  • Special Weapons
  • Index
%d bloggers like this: