New Book (4): Armies of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Armies of Russia's War in UkraineIt’s actually been out a couple of weeks now, but a quick note that my latest Osprey book, on this dismal, running conflict, is now out. The usual Osprey approach: some history, some analysis, orders of battle (I was quite pleased with the listings of forces on both sides that I compiled, although given how fluid things were, this is always a work-in-progress), photos and pretty artwork plates, in this case by Adam Hook.

Of course, as ever with this conflict, terminology had its own challenges. Is this a Russian-Ukrainian war? (It’s not that simple: yes, Russia agitated, facilitated, arms and pays, but it is also a civil war.) Should one use fighters or militants, militias or terrorists? (I regularly get hassled for now using the last term for the L/DNR fighters, but it really isn’t appropriate, this would be a political epithet, not a correct term of art). Alexander or Olexander? (I let myself be guided by what the individuals themselves use.) Anyway, it was an interesting project and a challenge to try and fit this complex, sprawling, multi-dimensional conflict into 64 pages, but I hope it’s of use.

‘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’…

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

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‘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…)

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