‘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’…

Advertisements

VoA Ukraine service interview on Russian organised crime

Below are clips of an interview I recorded last week for Voice of America’s Ukraine service (in English, subtitled) on Russian organised crime’s international reach and activity, and its relationship with the state, as part of my launch tour for The Vory (of which more shortly)

Russia in 2018…

video

A quick note that my latest, end-of-year vlog video here, a mere eight-to-nine minutes long, is of my thoughts about what may face Russia in 2018, and what to look for. Putin and succession, active measures, Ukraine, why Russia is not Mordor, and, yes, even a mention of the World Cup…

Capsule Review: ‘Putin’s War against Ukraine,’ by Taras Kuzio

Capture-Book-2

‘Putin’s War against Ukraine,’ by Taras Kuzio. Published in Association with the Chair of Ukrainian Studies, University of Toronto, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-1543285864, 474 pp.

I will confess that I have not yet properly read this book cover to cover, but so far skimmed, dipped and sampled, but then again there is a great deal here to read. This is a seemingly self-published book, which I hope does not prevent it from getting a wider audience, as there is a massive amount of extremely useful analysis and information in this dense door-stopper of a work. Anyone who knows Kuzio’s indefatigable and passionate support of Ukraine and its independence, dating back to Soviet times, will be unsurprised by the core theme, that this is a book rooted in national identity, and Russia’s inability or refusal to accept that Ukraine is (or at least has become) a state and nation in its own right. It is hard to disagree.

However, even if the theme does not surprise, there is pretty much guaranteed to be something the reader didn’t know in the densely-argued chronicle Kuzio provides. He may be a Ukrainian partisan, but this certainly doesn’t mean that he closes his eyes to the failures and blunders on Kyiv’s part, and in many ways this is one of the particular strengths of the book. There seemed to be some glitches with the indexing, and I would have rather seen footnotes that reset for each chapter, so we avoid four-figure footnote numbers. And of course there are areas in which I would have painted the scene differently, drawn different conclusions, and so forth, but that is to be expected, not least in such a current and still-unfolding drama. None of this detracts from the epic amount of research and burning commitment in this book, that deserves to be a standard piece of both reference and analysis.

(By the way, Kuzio gave a video interview about the book, available here.)

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…)

Surviving the Trumpocalypse: first thoughts…

trumpocalypsenowPerhaps we should have been warned by the American predilection for zombie apocalypse dramas, that it was a precautionary signal from deep within the zeitgeist. I write this with not all the states declared, but the all-but-certainty that Donald Trump is going to be the next US president, swept into the White House on a tide of populism, nativism, spite, and downright anti-intellectualism, such as to make the whole Brexit affair look positively mannered and statesmanlike. A few quick thoughts:

  1. Let’s not exaggerate Trump’s actual impact on the world. Amidst the eschatological angst, it is important at least to start by noting that — as every president has had to discover — he (and someday she) is just one person. Even an aligned Congress can act as a brake on some of the more lunatic or destructive policies, as will the very machinery of government. Besides, Trump gives little evidence of being details-oriented or having any clear sense of a vision, which will mean that he may well prove more willing to let the machine grind along, so long as he gets enough photo ops and adulatory mentions. Yes, there is no question that a Trump presidency will have serious, dangerous implications, but here the very framing of the US political system — designed, after all, to make executive power hard to apply — and his own limitations may be useful.
  2. It’s winter in Central Europe. Whether or not Trump actually means anything he said, especially his backpedalling from US commitments to the defence of NATO allies, nonetheless this must be a real concern in the Baltics and Central Europe. Ultimately, there is no reason to believe Russia has any territorial designs on NATO states, but it will, if it feels it has the chance, bully and intervene. More to the point, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, even Belarus are going to have to come to terms with a future in which they are unlikely to be able to count on serious Western support and protection. Putin may have pushed for a Yalta 2.0 division of Europe, but this election essentially hands him the half of that deal he wanted, by default.
  3. The Kremlin’s glee must be tinged with a degree of nervousness. Nonetheless, the Russians never expected Trump to win, and their calculus was based on trying to ensure a Clinton presidency was weakened from the gate. Yes, Trump has been bizarrely positive about Putin and there is the possibility of a Putin-Berlusconi-type mutual man-crush as ageing, soi disant alpha males find fellow reinforcement in each other. But much of the Kremlin’s geopolitical playbook has been based on it being the unpredictable, risk-taking party, relying on the West to be the responsible adult, the force for stability and reason. Trump’s friendship is hardly an asset on which to rely, and his balance an even less stable foundation. The Kremlin might actually feel it has to be a little more cautious and predictable, precisely because it is dealing with someone who actually internalises the kind of devil-may-care belligerence Putin affects.
  4. Syria will burn. Between Trump’s open desire to get some more bombs dropped, and his expressed willingness to deal with the Assad regime as a lesser evil to Islamic States, we can expect no push for peace and regime change in Syria. Eastern Aleppo may itself prove a harbinger of this war.
  5. History restarts, and democracy loses some of its force of appeal. The notion that the end of the Soviet idea in 1991 meant that history had ended and liberal democracy had won has long been debunked, but this is pretty much the final spadeful of earth on its coffin. It is unlikely that, for the moment, American democracy will have anything like the same power of example, just at the time when Europe is in a populism and legitimacy crisis of its own.
  6. The security concerns are global. Trump appears to be unconcerned with climate change — the single greatest global security threat — and almost relishing a more confrontational approach to geopolitics. I can hardly see him interested in development aid, or disaster relief, or humanitarian foreign politics in general; his basic calculus appears to be a short-termist profit maximisation for USA Inc. This is bad for everyone, whether American or Zimbabwean, or from somewhere in between.
  7. Some hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. There always needs to be some hope, but I confess this morning I am scrabbling around in the corners of this particular Pandora’s box to find any. It may galvanise Europe to be more serious in defending itself from overt and covert threats, no longer being able to count on the big brother across the ocean. At the very least hitting the 2% of GDP NATO target expenditure more consistently would be a plus.
%d bloggers like this: