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.

Corbyn. Neither Philby nor Fool

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The Sun. Really, what else can I say?

I am old enough, alas, to have been active and adult when the original Cold War was still on, and I have retained my childhood (but hopefully not – always – childish) interest in intelligence matters. As such, as few thoughts on the current hullabaloo about Jeremy Corbyn and the Czechoslovak StB spy who met him in 1986-87.

Is there any evidence Corbyn gave secrets, let alone sold them? No. Even the unfrocked StB case officer who met him, Jan Sarkocy (‘Jan Dymic’), who initially claimed so, has retracted that allegation, and the Czech Security Forces Archive, whose job is precisely to dig into the StB’s files to find the truth on such matters says there is nothing to suggest this. Its Slovak counterpart agrees.

Was Corbyn naïve to meet with ‘Dymic’? Probably. Or rather, I wouldn’t be surprised if he naively took at face value what ‘Dymic’ said he wanted to discuss; there was (and still is) a depressingly uncritical assumption on the part of many in the British left that the USSR embodied any of their values, rather than just being a slipshod authoritarianism wrapped in an increasingly tattered red flag. However, ‘Dymic’ was an accredited diplomat who had reached out to Corbyn, so why not meet with him? So long as there was a Czechoslovak embassy in the UK, so long as the Foreign Office held meetings, why shouldn’t an MP?

Was ‘Dymic’ naïve to meet with Corbyn. Probably. If his goal was to uncover British MI5 and MI6 secrets, as seems to have been the case, quite what did he think a relatively junior lefty Labour MP knew, let alone would say? Corbyn’s warm views on the IRA alone – itself enough to get MI5 watching him – precluded him from being brought into any confidential discussions. But that probably didn’t matter. Spies, especially Eastern bloc spies, had quotas to fill, needed to show they were active (while enjoying a relatively plum, comfortable posting – most spent as much time shopping for goodies to bring back home and sell as grooming sources). Corbyn (‘Cob’ – there’s an impenetrable codename for you, that tells you something about Sarkocy’s tradecraft) was likely written up in much more glowing and encouraging terms that reality would dictate (Sarkocy does seem to have form as a fabulist). This is spycraft to fulfil the Plan, and every bit as tokenistic, half-hearted and inefficient as the rest of the Soviet planned model.

We meet spies all the time. If you’re active in politics, in strategic sectors of business or the media, or study the ‘right’ things, then you become of interest, and people will want to meet you, to see if you’re a viable candidate for recruitment, to see if you know anything (or anyone) or interest. Sometimes they are in time-honoured guises, as solicitous second secretary politicals eager to buy you lunch and ask you about your views on the world, but they could as easily take the form of journalists, potential customers, or attractive young grad students flatteringly enthused by your research. Sometimes you know in advance what’s likely what. Sometimes it soon becomes clear. Sometimes you never know. But to suggest Corbyn was uniquely naïve or vulnerable is downright wrong.

Frankly, I am worried not about past clumsy attempts at contact in a world long since gone, but the new generation of recruitment, smartly-suited businesspeople making all the right connections in British political, business and social circles, some of whom may be Russians, others simply handling Russian money. A pillar of the community is much more likely, knowingly or not, to make a great human intelligence asset and agent of influence than an avowed Bolshie outsider.

 

 

 

A Few Quick and First Thoughts on the US Airstrike on Syria

missileThe use of chemical weapons against civilians cannot continue with impunity, but is a 50-missile strike the right response? My thought is that it is not a great response – but that in the circumstances nothing better was available. (Though at almost $15 million, an expensive one.)

First of all, such a one-off strike is unlikely to be militarily decisive, even if it has made a real dent in the Assad regime’s airpower advantage. It is essentially more symbolic than kinetic, an act of communication, drawing red lines and reiterating that the USA is a serious force (and putting paid to the silly claims that Russia has become the regional hegemon in the Middle East).

That’s not at all a bad thing, but the question is what the message was meant to be, and how it is received, and that depends heavily on Moscow.

Its initial response was to huff and puff and call it unprovoked aggression, of course; it could do nothing less. But it is noticeable that its much-vaunted air defence systems – which could have been deployed against the Tomahawk missiles although not take all 50 out – was not even activated. Moscow might not like Washington’s response, but nor was it willing to stand in the way of it. That is a heartening sign of realism.

And how does Damascus respond? The chemical attack was as politically stupid as it was morally bankrupt, suggesting either that Assad’s regime is tone deaf (not impossible) or that it had some more nefarious intent, precisely to try and force a response in the hope of solidifying Russian support (a little conspiratorial, but not impossible).

Much depends on the backchannel messages from Moscow to Damascus. Will they be “don’t worry, this was just a one-off, let business continue as usual, but lay off the chemicals” or “what the hell were you doing, stop making this worse for us all”? Obviously no one will tell us openly, but we should be able to divine from what happens next whether the Russians are in control or not (and usually, to be honest, imperial backers have at best imperfect control of their supposed clients and proxies) and whether tactical successes on the ground mean more to them than the wider geopolitical context.

With Tillerson due in Moscow next week, this is an opportunity for Moscow to show some kind of flexibility and willingness to come out of the trenches. Assad’s move allows them the cover to withdraw slightly from him. If they are willing to take it. A big if. My money, sadly, on their not being willing or able to make the move.

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