A first thought on “Vadim Sokolov”: FSB

tass35094529On 23 August, Chechen-born Georgian-citizen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a long-time enemy of the Kremlin and its Chechen satrap Kadyrov, was gunned down in Berlin. The assassin shot him in the shoulder, and then twice at close range in the head, using a silenced 9mm Glock 26 pistol.

The killer then ditched gun, wig and his very 21st century escape vehicle – an electric bike – in the river Spree. What could have been a clever move to change his look and profile and make sure he was not caught with the murder weapon on him proved his undoing. He was observed doing this suspicious thing, reported to the police, and soon arrested.

sokolov-photoIt turns out he is a Russian going by the name ‘Vadim Sokolov’, although with characteristic speed Bellingcat has burned through this legend. There seems to be no such person, the address he gave for his visa was spurious, and his passport seems to be a cover one issued for the purpose.

Inevitably, given their role in the Skripal case and certain similarities about the way the passport was issued, some have assumed this is another GRU*, military intelligence, operation. My own take, though, this that this looks more like an operation carried out by the FSB, the Federal Security Service. Why?

  • When it’s not actually Chechens tasked by Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s more often the FSB (whose anti-terrorism/political security remit gives them primacy on Chechnya-related cases, and which is increasingly interpreted to include foreign operations) that goes after Chechens
  • The tattoos on ‘Vadim Sokolov’ (crown, snake, panther) preclude him from being a regular intelligence officer, and also don’t sound like military ones of the sort some ex-para/ex-Spetsnaz GRU officers sport. Rather, they sound like criminal/prison tattoos.
  • The FSB has form hiring gangsters to kill Chechens, something I explore in my ECFR Crimintern report, such as the carjackers from Moscow who murdered Ruslan Israpilov in Turkey in 2016.
  • There has been the suggestion this may have actually been a settling of personal scores, but the capacity to have a fake passport** issued is not totally beyond criminal figures, but increasingly expensive and problematic. It would have been much easier to use a hitman already in Europe.

Of course, these are just first thoughts, and we’ll have to see how the case develops.

(*Yes, I know technically they are called just GU these days – but everyone still uses the older name, and it is likely to be restored.)

(**Yes, from a the FMS office that previous provided GRU fake passports, but I suspect this just means it’s the “spook’s office” rather than specifically servicing only one agency.)

Some thoughts on the security side of Saturday’s Moscow crackdown

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I enjoy going to Moscow for all kinds of reasons. One of, perhaps, the most recondite is the chance to take an up-close look at the security forces when there are some major public order deployments. I’m not in Moscow at the moment, so I’ve been mainlining photos and videos of Saturday’s heavy-handed operations (some especially evocative and useful ones here), and here are a few observations:

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1. There seems to have been something of a split between the police and the National Guard. Both were deployed in riot gear, but the regular police seemed less enthusiastic to get heavy with the crowd. When actually in close quarters, they didn’t seem to hold back (in fairness, equips someone with a stick and put them in a scary, high-adrenaline situation, and they generally won’t), but they were much less likely to launch actual sallies.

Now, in part that may well be because that wasn’t their role. Remember, all the dedicated stormtroopers such as the OMON are now blue-camouflage Rosgvardiya, so these would be regular cops given some riot training. I’m sure those organising the operation would be more likely to use OMON and other Rosgvardiya assets for the more aggressive missions, while the police handled processing arrests and the like. But it also speaks to a wider issue, in that for a while now there have been quiet indications that the police (and the MVD as a whole) is not comfortable with the stormtrooper role. Indeed, this was one of the reasons for the creation of the National Guard out of the MVD’s OMON, Interior Troops, etc. We’re nowhere near the point where the regime seriously needs to worry about defections and refusals to obey orders, but it’s an interesting straw in the wind.

 

2. Sticks and stones may break their bones, but gas and guns were absent. The authorities have no lack of other means to deploy, from tear gas and water cannon, to armed officers and more exotic means. This was an entirely old school shield-and-baton operation, suggesting that the authorities wanted to ensure a degree of control and didn’t want to let the city look under siege. Once you start wafting gas into the air and blasting the streets with water cannon, then you may look powerful, but you also look desperate. They were happy for Hong Kong to steal the international front pages (there’s one positive outcome of the Sino-Russian accord…). As near as I can tell – and again, I have to acknowledge the problems of working just from third-hand info – they didn’t even have armed snatch squads kept behind the lines as backup, suggesting they knew full well that they weren’t going to face serious trouble from the protesters.

 

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3. Who was in charge? Just as there are real questions as to how far Mayor Sobyanin actually made the decision about this protest, so too there seems a distinct lack of clarity about the chain of command amongst the security forces. The FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order along with the Investigative Committee is taking point on prosecutions, but while Lt. Gen. Oleg Baranov, Moscow’s police chief (and a career cop with no particular security/public order background), took “personal control” of the operation by some accounts, there have been other suggestions that this may not have been the case. It would be interesting to know, for example, what the command structure between police and National Guard was, and how far this was being driven by the MVD or the Kremlin. Time will tell.

 

4. Who was there? There were regular police, National Guard Interior Troops and National Guard OMON.* Without being able to peer at badges, look at truck registration plates, etc, it’s hard to be categorical, but the police all appear to have been from the Moscow City force – they don’t seem to have brought people in from the Moscow Region. Likewise, the OMON appear to have been Moscow City or Region. The other National Guard troops were largely from Moscow (1st ODON, the so-called ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, and other Moscow region units). So what? This was clearly not an operation anywhere near the kind of force drain that the 2011-12 Bolotnaya Protests were, which necessitated bringing in forces from other locations to secure the capital. In short, the security forces are nowhere near yet being at overstretch.

 

* Simplistic and unreliable way quickly to tell them apart: police are in dark blue uniforms, NG in blue stripy urban camouflage, but OMON generally wear black body armour, and other troops camouflage vests. This doesn’t always apply, though, so caveats aplenty!

New Book (1): We Need To Talk About Putin

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Is it money that drives him? Power? Ego? Spookness?

Thanks to the vagaries of different production schedules, I have three books coming out in February, so over the next week or so I’ll flag each one up. Given that yesterday I came home from a very picturesque and productive trip to Lithuania and Latvia (more on that later, too) to an advance copy of We Need To Talk About Putin, let me start with that. It is, I should stress, written for a lay audience (although I hope scholars and policy wonks will find it of use and interest, too), so don’t expect footnotes, and do expect anecdotes, some humour, and unapologetically opinionated takes on the key myths that too often seem to shape perceptions of Putin and thus modern Russia. Is it really all about the money? Can one understand him simply through the prism of his KGB experience? Is he really the devil-may-care risk-taker the bare-chested macho theatrics would suggest? How far is this really “Putin’s Russia”? All that, and more…

I had fun writing it, and I hope people have as much fun reading it, but also find it of value. It will be published in paperback and ebook formats by Ebury, an imprint of Penguin Random House:

Penguin site: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1117583/we-need-to-talk-about-putin/9781529103595.html

or:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/We-Need-Talk-About-Putin/dp/1529103592 (Amazon.co.uk)

https://www.amazon.com/We-Need-Talk-About-Putin/dp/1529103592 (Amazon.com)

https://www.amazon.de/We-Need-Talk-About-Putin/dp/1529103592/ (Amazon.de)

 

The Integrity Initiative and Me (and Jeremy Corbyn)

I understand that amongst the latest batch of hacked documents from the Institute of Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative is one that lists me as part of their team. Given how many queries from journalists I’ve been fielding, I thought it would be easier all round for me briefly and publicly to address this for once and, hopefully, for all.

Back in January 2018, IoS co-director Chris Donnelly reached out to see if I would be interested in perhaps being involved with a proposal they were making for funding to address Russian information operations. We had a chat, I made some comments, and I said that I’d be glad to be involved in some way if the project got off the ground, depending on quite how it evolved.

And that was it. I never heard any more, so I don’t know if the bid was successful or not. I have no other relationship with the II or the Institute of Statecraft.

In fairness, the II has whittled a number of rods for its own back. It is extremely untransparent: while its motto seems to be “Information is the basis of democracy. Without information, there can be no informed debate, and no informed decision-making,” at the same time the II website gives no names of anyone involved, who funds it, etc. (Were this the case of some anti-mainstream site, many would regard that as implicit proof of shadowy connections.)

They are also connected with a range of other initiatives, some of which are – in my opinion – deeply unprofessional or at the extreme end of the Cold War spectrum. And tweeting against Corbyn was just stupid in the circumstances, regardless of the rights and wrongs of that specific situation.

But.

A few ill-judged tweets do not an anti-Labour political black ops infowar make. Nor does FCO funding demonstrate any kind of nefarious intent. The FCO funds all kinds of projects, some smart and some stupid, some political and some purely cultural. Given that there can be no doubt that there is a Russian political-information campaign being waged, through open media and covert influence, it is right and proper that measures are taken to understand and respond.

I have no idea if the Integrity Initiative is a good choice for this. I have no idea if it is not. But just as I often find myself wishing those determined to find a nefarious Muscovite hand behind everything that goes wrong, from Brexit to football hooliganism, dialled down their reflexive Russophobia and thought a little more sharply about the purely domestic crisis these incidents reflect, in this case I can only hope that those determined to present the II as some anti-left smear factory, instead think that maybe there are genuine and understandable reasons why Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Russia could be alarming. As someone who regards himself as being on the left of the political spectrum, I certainly would be alarmed were his statements to be manifest as British foreign policy.

Putin the Recruiter and Trump the Potential Asset? Agent-handling and the Helsinki summit

putin-trumpAny political leader meeting another is seeking to get something out of the exchange, whether a specific deliverable or simply developing the relationship. In this respect, the Helsinki summit will be no different from any other. What makes it more noteworthy is the personalities of the two interlocutors and that one was trained to recruit and run assets – and the other seems almost custom-built to be managed and manipulated.

Of course one can push the fact that Putin was a KGB case officer too far. Not every KGB officer is the same, it was a long time ago, and by all accounts he was at best an adequate one. He was not a high-flier, and former foreign intelligence chief and then KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov once tellingly said that he had never heard of Putin when he was in service.

Nonetheless, when Putin said that his particular talent was “working with people,” there is more than a little truth in that. He has managed his own elites very effectively, and also has had considerable successes framing relations with other leaders, as well as leveraging his carefully-created ruthless, cool, macho image.

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New page for ‘The Vory: Russia’s super mafia’

VoryJust for convenience, I have a new page here on this blog for updates about my forthcoming book: launch events, some short promotional videos, reviews, excerpts, and more, updated as and when.

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