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!

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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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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…)

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-frontminiUPDATE, 11 APRIL 2018: My book Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right has been withdrawn from publication. Instead, an expanded, updated and substantially new version will appear in early 2019, published by Routledge.

I will keep the original Executive Summary below.

 

 

 


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…)

First Thoughts on Arrest of Russian Spy in New York

SVRSo today the FBI charged three Russians with being spies, agents of the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). Two are already out of the country and were in diplomatic cover anyway, so the worse the US government could have done would have been to “PNG” them (persona non grata — in other words, kick them out). The third, though, Evgeni Buryakov, was in “non-official cover”, apparently* working undercover at Vneshekonombank, the Russian Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs. More will emerge about the case and I’ll have more time later to ponder it, not least thanks to tomorrow’s snow day, but here are some first thoughts:

This underscores my view that Russian espionage in the West is not only intensive and extensive, it is geared for the long haul. Many of the recruitment targets the SVR were after were not especially valuable now, they were being cultivated for years in the future or for potential future tasking.

This is proper espionage, by which I don’t necessarily mean especially skilled (it’s hard to tell so far whether it was or was not), but the methodical collection of information, leads and assets that truly establishes intel resources rather than the showy and expensive nonsense of the deep undercover illegals of the “Anna Chapman Ring” (not that she was their leading light).

Russia is still heavily using every state-affiliated agency available for its illegals. Vnesheconombank is a state agency rather than a real bank, by the way, and if you’re wondering why I assume this is where he worked, well, it’s because someone of the same name is listed on their webpage as a deputy rep:

Unless there are two Russians of the same name working in NYC in a Russian bank, I can assume this is a "gotcha"

Unless there are two Russians of the same name working in NYC in a Russian bank, I can assume this is a “gotcha”

Russians are very heavily invested in gathering economic and econ-political intelligence, as well as the usual political/military stuff. In part this is part of general assessment of Western capacities, but also to support Russian economic interests and, these days, to identify not only potential scope for sanctions but also ways of undermining the Western economy. One danger, after all, of the sanctions regime over Ukraine is that it has further strengthened Moscow’s awareness of the potential in the weaponization of finance…

More anon.

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