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.

The NYT story on “Trump associates” and Russian spooks: some questions

The latest story about Trump-Russia links comes from the New York Times and says that according to anonymous “current and former American officials”, “at least three” “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates” “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. Sounds very alarming, but the lack of any real information, the anonymous sourcing, and the minimal digging from the NYT means that it is all terribly insubstantial. It could be a massive story, it could be a trivial nothing (or a smear) – as is, we do not yet know enough to say. The result is that this is another one of those stories that really tell us more about ourselves than anything else, as we see in it what we expect or want to see.

To reach any serious conclusions, we need to know the answers to at least three basic questions:

Did the Trump associates know they were dealing with Russian spooks? They could have been Russian embassy officials, journalists, businesspeople, even non-Russians. It makes a huge difference. After all, one would expect spooks to be trying to gather information on the campaign, likely future policy trends, etc – it’s what spooks do.

Are these associates of any real substance? The only one cited is the usual Paul Manafort, who seems to have been of only brief and slight importance. Are these close aides or simply someone who raised funds in New Jersey for a few months?

Is there any suggestion they were told what to do or otherwise tasked or rewarded by the Russians? In other words, were they made active assets, or did they simply have a few conversations with someone who wanted to hear their views?

Based on the answers to these questions, we might begin to know whether there is evidence of a long-term conspiracy or simply the inevitable sniffing around of foreign intelligence officers, especially with an essentially unprofessional and inchoate campaign. Finding that out needs to be the focus of a serious and unbiased enquiry. But how possible is that in the current environment?

The NYT’s sources “spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.” In other words, they leaked a current intelligence investigation. One can hardly claim that this is whistleblowing in the public interest, because the enquiry is ongoing; it is not a matter of exposing a cover-up or the like. Instead – and I say this as someone with absolutely no liking for the Trump regime – this is essentially a political hit. As the US intelligence community, or at least parts of it, increasingly appears at war with the White House, this is inevitably going to have a corrosive effect for years to come.

Whether or not the Kremlin was trying to suborn the Trump campaign, this crisis within the US ‘silovik’ community, this opening rift in Washington, cannot help but be useful to them. All they need do is buy popcorn and watch the show.

Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia, and the difference a week makes

What a difference a week makes.

We’re used to seeing the forces of the state visiting petty hostility and obstruction on those from Moslem regions, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing official spokespeople lying openly and shamelessly, and shutting down critical voices that dare question them, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing personal favourites elevated into crucial national security and policy roles, instead of sober professionals, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing the personal financial interests of presidential favourites protected and furthered by state policy, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

I’m still not at all convinced by the whole ‘Siberian candidate’ line that presents Donald Trump as a puppet of Vladimir Putin’s. Instead, what we see, I fear, is a miserable and soul-rotting convergence of populist authoritarianisms, a backlash against a northern hemisphere trend towards pluralism, multi-culturalism and proceduralism. An atavistic desire for charismatic (in the technical sense: to me, The Donald has all the personal charisma of an Italian TV game show host), patriarchal, personalised leadership, for simple solutions to complex problems, for the easy substitution of confidence for competence.

The good news, though, is that just as a massive majority of Russians express their approval of Putin but are not eager for some civilisational clash with the West, are fully aware of and disgusted by the corruption and incompetence of the state, and just want to live a ‘normal’ life, so too the early signs are that Trump’s narrow and technical victory is not an expression of a true majority opinion of the American people. The bad news is that it is not so easy to mobilise silent majorities, and that in the meantime, the executive can do a lot of harm. It’s going to be a rough, dark few years.

November/December 2016 Publications Round-Up

I am remiss in getting to this (far too much that is more interesting has been going on), but all the same, here is a sampling of some of my publications from the end of 2016. As ever, to know what I’m writing, follow me on twitter (@MarkGaleotti) and/or the Mark Galeotti on Russia FaceBook page.

Watch Out Vladimir: There’s a New Putin in Town,’ Foreign Policy, 13 November

The ‘Ulyukaev Affair’ and Russia’s hybrid market‘, IntelliNews Business New Europe, 16 November

The World After Trump: Russia-Friendly, But for How Long?,’ Moscow Times, 17 November

“RepressIntern”: Russia’s security cooperation with fellow authoritarians‘, chapter for FPC book No shelter: the harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union, reprinted here by od:Russia, 22 November

RUSSIA’S HYBRID WAR AS A BYPRODUCT OF A HYBRID STATE,’ War on the Rocks, 6 December

Putin Is Waging Information Warfare. Here’s How to Fight Back,’ New York Times, 14 December

Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s Political Use of its Military in Europe since 2014‘ – report for the ECFR, 19 December

Hacking Western democracy,’ Raam op Rusland, 19 December

«Pour faire face à Moscou, l’unité européenne est maintenant un enjeu de sécurité», Le Monde, 23 December

I’s also mention that my book Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right, is not only available as hard copy or PDF from Lulu, but is also now as hard copy from Amazon.

Sanctioning the GRU, a decent step, but hamstrung by the need for symmetry

GRU logoThe “Lame Duck” president has proven to have a surprisingly sharp and accurate peck, and as the USA strikes back against the Russian hacking and its role in the US elections with a welcome series of sanctions. Two point are worth bringing up: the way the issue instantly and depressingly becomes a partisan one. It also suggests that the incoming administration is woefully ill-informed about the Russian intelligence community, or willing to leap through rhetorical hoops to protect it; and the needless and limiting philosophy behind the sanctions.

The Sanctions and the GRU (more…)

Evgeni Zinichev: Putin’s new man at the FSB

zinichev

Evgeni Zinichev, in that brief moment when he was a governor…

Remember Evgeni Nikolaevich Zinichev? He was the former Putin bodyguard made acting governor of Kaliningrad region, who, I’d expect, had a record-breaking brevity of tenure. Appointed in July, on October he left the position at his own request, citing family reasons (although even at the time, locals suspected it was more that he didn’t like the job). Well, it doesn’t seem to have done him any harm: at the end of October he was appointed to a new, specially-created sixth deputy director position at the Federal Security Service, although it only just seems to have been reported.

The 50-year-old Zinichev served in the Soviet KGB, then the forbears of the FSB, before moving to the Federal Guard Service (FSO) in 2006, working as a bodyguard in Putin’s Presidential Security Service (SBP), increasingly the wellspring of a new generation of the elite. In June 2015, he became head of the FSB’s regional directorate for Kaliningrad. (Where, incidentally, he received what for him may have been some rather uncomfortably press scrutiny, not least about his slightly suspect educational record).

Just over a year later, on 28 July 2016, he was appointed acting governor of Kalingrad region, as part of a general reshuffle I cover here. His first press conference notoriously lasted just 49 seconds, at which he called for inward investment and the ‘stabilisation of the socio-economic situation.’ Brevity was clearly to be his defining characteristic: on 6 October, less than two and a half months later, he stepped down even before his own inauguration.

At the end of October, though, he was appointed deputy director of the FSB, with the rank of lieutenant general. There were no spare slots, so a whole new position was created for him, seemingly without portfolio.

First of all, I wonder if this means Zinichev is being considered for higher office, cycling with frankly insulting speed through the gubernatorship just to tick that box on his CV before rushing him back to Moscow, where all real power lies. There certainly seems not only to have been no negative fallout from his lack of staying power in Kaliningrad, but also a particular eagerness to find him a comfortable and powerful berth at the FSB.

It also may be an uncomfortable situation for FSB director Alexander Bortnikov. Back at the start of 2015, the FSB backed its sometimes-rival GRU when it tried to fight off efforts by the Kremlin to parachute another ex-bodyguard, Alexei Dyumin, in to head it. That initiative was foiled, in part because Dyumin had no credible experience within military intelligence. Is Zinichev – who, after all, has real FSB experience – being installed either as Putin’s ‘political commissar’ within the FSB as a control agent, or else as a potential successor to Bortnikov.

Either way, the bodyguards continue to rise.

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