Quick Thoughts on Yakunin’s move from RZhD

“A hat goes with the job, incidentally”

So Vladimir Yakunin, the obscenely rich and, needless to say, deeply pious head of Russian Railways (RZhD), has stepped down and will now take the position of the Federal Council representative for Kaliningrad, an essentially honorific position. It will be interesting to see how this story plays out, but here are a few interpretations:

He fell from grace. Putin is good to his friends, and Yakunin has certainly been both personally close to the president and a great beneficiary of that closeness. However, despite signs in the past that there were those trying to claw him down (like the hoax dismissal in 2013), there have been no outward signs of his losing favour and frankly, Putin does tend to be very loyal to that tiny circle of people he genuinely sees as his friends and allies. I find this hard to believe. Yes, he’s built himself a ridiculously opulent mansion – who hasn’t? There’s a scandal brewing over the arrest on corruption charges of his friend, the former head of Latvian Railways – do we think Putin cares? You really need to do something quite extraordinary to lose Putin’s friendship once you’ve won it, and there hasn’t been any whisper of this.

Time for the Technocrats. Yakunin started well at RZhD, but not only did his modernising energies wane over time, they depended on spending money on track, rolling stock and fixed facility reconstruction that required substantial government subsidy. Maybe, as Leonid Bershidsky has suggested, this represents a grudging realisation on the part of the Kremlin that it cannot afford to featherbed all its friends and loss-making industries and needs to bring in people who will run the economy more efficiently? Maybe; his successor, former deputy transport minister Oleg Belozerov seems a pretty low-key figure and is presumably a relatively competent technocrat. He has a certain St Petersburg connection but no particular evidence of powerful patrons or Putin connections (RBK says he’s close to the mighty Rotenbergs, but that remains to be seen). No real scandals appear to dog him (although he was for a while in charge of road building, an industry with a distinct reputation for corruption and embezzlement), nor great triumphs. We’ll see if he is a place holder, or whether he brings an axe or a new broom to RZhD. More generally, though, if Yakunin has been dismissed as part of a general professionalisation and cleansing of the economic elite that will be a Very Very Big Deal Indeed and I have yet to see enough evidence of this to start getting excited. The day Sechin goes, now that will mean something…

He wants to spend more time with his money. Yakunin’s net worth is unclear, but his official salary was $15 million and it might be reasonable to assume he has as much money as he needs. we have tended to assume that he was pushed rather jumped, but it could be that he fancies an easier life and maybe also the possibility of power as a Kremlin insider without the responsibility of managing a huge national railway system. A senatorial seat is not trivial: it gives him a platform, honourifics and, by the by, immunity from prosecution…

Stepping stone. What if this is part of a wider political game plan? Might Yakunin – a conservative Orthodox ex-spook from St Petersburg – be a potential successor for another conservative Orthodox ex-spook from St Petersburg? I’d be surprised if VVP is yet thinking of a successor in any direct way, but even if just as an ally then it might be easier to make Yakunin, say, prime minister or some other senior political position after a stint in the legislature rather than directly from RZhD.

At present, it is too soon to say. I’d like to think this marked the long-long-overdue start of a cleansing of the elite, but I don’t have any reason to believe it. I suspect it was just time for a change, and that it is too soon to write Yakunin (who is a formidable figure, we most recognise) out of the picture.

“Hybrid War as a War on Governance” – interview in Small Wars Journal

Usually, an interview means fifteen minutes spent on the phone with a journalist, the first ten of which are telling him or her the basics they should already know, and the outcome typically being a single slightly mangled and out-of-context quite in paragraph six. In this context, it was especially refreshing to have a long conversation with Octavian Manea on “hybrid wars” (not that the current conflict in Ukraine ought really to be called that) and generally the “new way of war” (or is it an old way, fought in a new world?), answering interesting and well-informed questions and then seeing the whole transcript posted on Small Wars Journal. How far more words translated into any more insight is for each reader to decide, but there it is for those of you interested in my thoughts.

A summer round-up of publications

In response to popular demand (well, one person hassling me, but enthusiastically, and you know who you are, ES!), I’ll post regular round-ups of my articles, hopefully to strike the right balance without spamming people’s inboxes. Anyway, for July and the first half of August 2015:

Why Russia is not an existential threat to the West,’ Russia!, 18 August 2015 [seriously, alarmism just plays into Putin’s hands]

Russian bear should be more cuddly, less snarly,’ Moscow Times, 12 August 2015 [“Russians have the wit, intelligence and subtlety to make friends and make their points at once”]

Russia’s biggest security threat: its security forces,’ Business New Europe, 12 August 2015 [“Frankly, if ever there was a time for a statesmanlike willingness to step back from military postures and, by slashing defence expenditures address at once the country’s geopolitical and economic threats, it is now. No statesmen of that sort seem to be occupying the Kremlin, alas.”]

Podcast: Russia’s Fragile Federation,’ 7 August 2015, Power Vertical podcast with Brian Whitmore and Paul Goble [I confess I am much more optimistic about the RF than Paul Goble…though that is not hard to do]

Time for a new strategy in Russia,’ Foreign Affairs, 4 August 2015 [on the sanctions regime]

Leaks and sneaks in the Nemtsov enquiry‘, Russia!, 4 August 2015 [on the “covert politics” around the case] – an edited version then ran in Guardian New East.

‘War of Attrition: Flare-ups likely in Russia-Ukraine standoff,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, August 2015 [an overview, alas not freely available online]

Time to think about “hybrid defence’.’ War On The Rocks, 30 July 2015 [“If the new threat is so complex, political, and subtle, shouldn’t the response be the same?”]

Prioritizing Russia’s navy is pointless,’ Moscow Times, 28 July 2015 [just what is it really for, after all?]

Kiev needs self-criticism and tough love‘, Russia!, 21 July 2015 [“does a good friend overlook his mate’s failings, accepting that “he’s going through a rough patch” and hope he snaps out of it, or does he tell some tough truths?”]

Can Russia scrap the draft?‘, Moscow Times, 19 July 2015 [probably it won’t, but it should]

Russia is not the threat the West thinks it is,’ Moscow Times, 14 July 2015 [it’s not about to invade, but divide us]

Putin’s Big Fat Greek Chinese Wedding,’ 10 July 2015, Power Vertical podcast with Brian Whitmore and Daniel Drezner [Greece, China, BRICs, and Russia’s weak, weak hand]

Apocalypse Not,’ Business New Europe, 8 July 2015 [on why WW3 isn’t just around the corner]

The true story of the Soviet engineer who became a CIA spy and saved the US $1 billion,’ Quartz, 7 July 2015 [review of David Hoffmann’s The Billion Dollar Spy]


Russian Paratroopers’ Day, 2 August 2015

Gorky Park, all dressed up for the VDV (c) Mark Galeotti 2015

Gorky Park, all dressed up for the VDV
(c) Mark Galeotti 2015

So it’s the second of August, and that means Den’ VDV, or Russian Paratroopers’ Day, a chance to honor the brave, mourn the fallen… and for drunk ex-paras to fall into fountains, brawl with the cops and race around town in cars mounting blue and green flags and sometimes even more exotic apparatuses, even fake turrets. VDV Commander-in-Chief Col. Gen. Shamanov issued a pro forma appeal to the paras to behave (I now find myself wondering if he is channeling Austin Powers)

In Moscow, there’s a parade and formal ceremony in Red Square, with sharply-drilled ranks, top brass, and a cavalcade of Russian Orthodox dignitaries, and then rather more informal celebrations, not least in Gorky Park. This year was another Big Anniversary, the 85th of the Air Assault Forces (VDV: Vozdushno-desantnye voiska) as a distinct force, so Gorky Park’s entrance was even decked out in the blue-and-white striped tank top, the telnyashka, which has become as much their trademark as their sky blue berets and formidable tattoos.

Yes, family and dogs too (c) Mark Galeotti 2015

Yes, family and dogs too
(c) Mark Galeotti 2015

In the afternoon, it was a relatively civilized event, regardless of the raucous heavy-military-metal band music, especially as this has become a family event of sorts, with WAGs (wives-and-girlfriends), kids and even the odd family pet sporting a telnyashka, while veterans were each given a watermelon for reasons unfathomable but touching. Nothing helps make boisterously tipsy muscle-bound ex-paras look less intimidating that seeing them all cradle oversized fruit. Not that it necessarily reassured the police, who inside the park patrolled in fours, while outside OMON riot police in body armor watched and waited. It is in the evening, after all, that time, alcohol and the relative absence of kids and civilians tends to lead to more muscularly aggressive rituals.

But I could not help but wonder why Russia has such a day. Let’s be clear, Russia has days for all kinds of professions and arms of military service (this weekend also saw Railway Workers’ Day) and these are meaningful things, not just ersatz events dreamed up in some Hallmark Cards brainstorming awayday to sell “Thanks for Being a Great Secretary” cards, as if that makes up for 364 days of patronizing subjugation and under-paid exploitation. No, these are big deals, but even so one does not see train drivers besporting themselves in public fountains or social workers (8 June) picking fights with tax inspectors (21 November).

Even though there are days for the army and the navy, the border guards and the radio-electrical warfare operators, the submariners and the interior troops, Den’ VDV is distinctive.

Cheery sorts by day (c) Mark Galeotti 2015

Cheery sorts by day
(c) Mark Galeotti 2015

In part, this is down to the kind of people who become paratroopers, typically blessed with a lack of introspective self-doubt, an amiably physical response to challenges and a willingness to take on authority. Add to that, a clannish culture that sees themselves – with reason – as a distinct elite (their motto is Nikto krome nas!, “Nobody, but us!”) and perhaps it is inevitable that they are going to express this esprit de corps in their own way.

It is also, I feel, an expression of Russia’s cult of hypermasculinity, something that has only been deepened by Putin’s bare-chested politics of sovereignty and nationalism. But beyond that, it is also a sign of the way that Russian society contains a variety of means whereby individuals and groups have ways of blowing off steam. Anyone who thinks Russia is a drably controlled police state has never, for example, seen a long-suffering cop being berated by a granny, and the ways in which Russians collude to get round the system – not even necessarily for personal gain, simply to do a good deed – likewise demonstrate a certain triumph of humanity over bureaucratism. And just like the Soviet one before it, today’s Kremlin realizes this on some level and to some degree. Even undemocratic systems need pressure gauges and vents, implicit flexibilities that allow them to conform, however briefly and slightly, to the wishes and needs of their populations. Even if it means letting them splash in your fountains and stagger drunkenly through your streets. It’s only one day a year.

Princes Vladimirs: a very brief note

TsarPutinI’ve written elsewhere about the extent to which I feel Vladimir Putin is already dwelling, possibly dangerously, on his future place in history, if that doesn’t sound too much like an oxymoron. He has compared himself or allowed comparisons to be drawn with figures such as Pyotr Stolypin, the early 20thC tsarist reformer-with-an-iron-fist or Peter the Great, the early 18thC… tsar reformer-with-an-iron-fist. However, reading his eulogy to Prince (and Saint) Vladimir I (ironically, of Kiev), who forcibly baptised his population and thus brought Orthodox Christianity to the Rus’, delivered yesterday (28 July 2015) on the thousand-year anniversary of his death, I wondered if Putin had a new role model:

“By stopping fratricidal wars, crushing external enemies, Prince Vladimir laid down the foundation for creating a single Russian nation and paved the way for the construction of a strong, centralized Russian state.”

Stopping fratricidal wars? To Putin, his brutal but victorious (kind of) Second Chechen War and general reassertion of central authority represented that, so check.

Crushing external enemies? Georgian 2008, and maybe in his mind NATO-Ukraine 2014, so check.

Strong, centralised Russian state? Check.

Technically, Russian rulers named Vladimir have been either Grand Princes (in other words, before the institution of the title and position of tsar) or, well, Lenin. So the title of Tsar Vladimir I is, technically, open…

“A Very Dangerous Woman” — or, what makes a good spy?

budbergbook3dfront-2_med_hrA Very Dangerous Woman, by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield OneWorld Publications, 2015. $27.99 hardback, ISBN 978-178-0747-088. Also available on Kindle. Amidst all the hullaballoo about the Edward Snowden leaks and Chinese hackers’ regular breaches of supposedly-secure US government sites, it is worth reminding ourselves that the best information tend to come from human intelligence sources – good old spies. The best of them can juggle deception and commitment, securing access not only to files and figures but other people: to overhear conversations, act with initiative, ask questions, report on manner and nuance, and in general help us understand people, not just data points. They tend to give us the best stories, too, and the tale of Baroness Moura Budberg is a splendid one, not least as she herself was such an assiduous mythmaker. What emerges from this entertaining and well-researched book is a picture of a woman at once a big-game hunter of larger-than-life men (her bag included Robin Bruce Lockhart the spy, Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells the writers, and not one but two Baltic aristocrats) and also a devotee of a high life and a fast reputation. (more…)


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