August publications round-up

August is traditionally the slow season (although rarely so when it comes to Russia), but also is the month in which I was moving to Prague to take up my new position as a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. Nonetheless, here are my various publications:

Putin’s perverse win-win in the Olympic doping scandal‘, Vox, 23 August

“This Is a Strategy of Tension” – Galeotti on FSB Statement,’ interview on Hromadske TV, 20 August

Can government reshuffles bring any hope for Russia?,’ IntelliNews Business New Europe, 19 August

Putin’s incredible shrinking circle,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 16 August

Ossified Putinism,’ interview for Sean’s Russia Blog (SRB) podcast, 13 August

Vladimir and Nicholas: Putinism enters a new historic phase,’ ECFR Commentary, 9 August

What Turkey can learn from Russia about coup-proofing the military,’ War On The Rocks, 2 August

Confessions of a Kremlin conspiracy theorist,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 1 August

Also, the RFE/RL Power Vertical podcasts of 5 August, 19 August and 26 August.

Ivanov: rustication with respect, from a good friend but a poor patron


Talking to the other retirees…

OpenDemocracy have just run ‘Putin’s incredible shrinking circle,’ a short commentary of mine on the meaning and context of Sergei Ivanov’s departure as head of the powerful Presidential Administration. Ivanov was one of the few people to which Putin still seemed to listen and who was willing and able to push his own ideas. Often, sadly, they were hawkish and conspiratorial ones, to be true. It will be interesting to see if his successor, Anton Vaino, is willing or able to stop so much nonsense reaching Putin’s desk, something that inevitably coloured policy and exacerbated his already-inflated belief in a hostile world trying to do Russia and him personally down. The trouble is that the machine is now used to operating that way: will Vaino find it easier to go with the flow, or indeed not have the muscle to do anything about it? We’ll see.

One specific point I would make is about the manner of Ivanov’s going. I see it as rustication with respect. Yes, he is being taken conclusively out of the running as a potential successor, but with honour. It would be hard to see the 63-year-old Ivanov being able to use his position as presidential plenipotentiary for transport and the environment as the basis for any intrigue against Putin, even if minded to do so. For all that, though, this is not disgrace. His new position is something of a sinecure, but both important (transport is a crucial portfolio in Russia) and suited to his interests (Ivanov’s commitment to the environment is genuine). It is a position that lends itself to agreeable jaunts around the country and, if he is minded, opportunities to pocket some handsome bribes to make retirement more comfortable. Meanwhile, he is kept on the Security Council, a special dispensation that is not only keeping him at the heart of the state (the council is not really a decision-making body but it gives him access to key discussions and papers), but also a sign of respect.

So what? If one looks at four sometimes-former Putin cronies who have left the scene, we see a variety of trajectories. Vladimir Yakunin of Russian Railways, offered a not-very-important legislator’s position, and when he declined allowed to spend more time with his money. Viktor Ivanov of the FSKN drug service, ignominiously left high and dry when his service was rolled into the MVD. Customs chief Andrei Belyaninov, sacked and under investigation. Sergei Ivanov, given a handsome sendoff and a reasonably significant role. Can one draw any conclusions?

Viktor Ivanov and Andrei Belyaninov had a professional connection with Putin but were not really close. He turned to them because he knew them, but essentially they were servants, not allies. They were thus wholly dispensable when no longer useful.

Yakunin and Sergei Ivanov, on the other hand, had a real personal relationship with Putin. Yakunin may have flounced a little when he turned down a position on the Federation Council, but he and Ivanov nonetheless realised that when it was time to go, you accept it and demonstrate continued loyalty to the boss.

The moral of the story is that Putin is actually a pretty poor patron, or at least a wholly pragmatic one. So long as you are loyal and useful, you can get away with (sometimes literally) murder. However — unless you have that personal bond — as soon as that changes, you’re out and quite possibly under investigation or in disgrace.

At the moment, Putin appears to be carrying out a general rotation and renewal of the senior cadres of the Russian state, in some cases presumably as auditions for even more important positions in his next presidential term. He may know them, as bodyguards and bagmen, bringers of papers and bearers of umbrellas, but they are servants and not confidantes. It can hardly have escaped their notice just how ruthless the boss can be with their below-stairs sort. And ultimately, if Putin is not will to show loyalty to them, can he really count on loyalty from them?

July 2016 Publications Round-Up

I think I can get away with doing this a couple of days before the end of the month…

How to Start a Russian Purge,’ Foreign Policy, 29 July 2016 (with Anna Arutunyan)

What the Olympic doping scandal says about the decline of Putin’s Russia,’ Guardian (New East Network), 27 July 2016 (originally written for the ECFR)

Why Putin’s DNC Hack Will Backfire,’ Foreign Policy, 26 July 2016

Russia’s new rules dictate “steal a bit less, do your job a bit better”‘, IntelliNews Business New Europe, 25 July 2016

European security concerns bring Russian mafia back onto agenda,’ ECFR Commentary, 25 July 2016

Trump wants America to stop being the world’s policeman — and start being its rent-a-cop,‘ Vox, 25 July 2016

‚Nechápu, proč Česko nezakročí proti ruským špionům‘‘, interview in Echo24 with Martin Weiss, 22 July [in Czech]

Russia Is Only A Threat If We Let It Be One,’ The National Interest, 21 July 2016, also run in War Is Boring

Hybrid Business — The Risks In The Kremlin’s Weaponization Of The Economy,’ RFE/RL Commentary, 20 July 2016 (with Anna Arutunyan, previously published in Russian)

Turkey’s military hand Erdogan ultimate power,’ IntelliNews Business New Europe, 16 July 2016

How Vladimir Putin is being outfoxed by a Chechen warlord,’ Vox, 11 July 2016

Nato is a symbol that Russia is always an outsider,’ IntelliNews Business New Europe, 11 July 2016

Russia’s Slow Indecisive Purges Mask a Policy Void,’ Moscow News, 5 July 2016


‘The Great Fear’ redux

stalin-reborn-as-putinThere is a great deal of nonsense about “a new 1937” brewing in Russia (frankly, paralleling Putin with Stalin is both foolish and also profoundly demeaning to the memory of the millions of victims of the latter’s murder-machine). Nonetheless, bureaucratic engines of repression in authoritarian regimes do have some structural and cultural similarities, and thanks to a recent one of the excellent SRB podcast series I came across James Harris’s equally-excellent The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (OUP, 2016).

A few aspects of Harris’s explanation for the bloodbath are depressingly relevant today:

The Fear. Stalin and his cohorts genuinely felt at risk and assailed, knowing that the Japanese and the Germans wanted to take their land and resources, believing the British, French and the Americans wanted to see them at war, assuming the fifth columnists at home were powerful, networked and bloodthirsty. This was not just a mobilizing propaganda theme, though it was that as well, it was a strongly held belief that inclined the regime towards more murderous and maximalist policies than otherwise might have been.

The Threat Lobby. Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet political police, and his successors not only tended to assume the intertwined domestic and external threats to be more serious than they were, they also had a clear bureaucratic-factional interest in talking them up. At a time when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was up in arms about the impact of the Chekists’ activities, and there was talk of tighter subordination to the organs of justice, what better time to stoke the fear, to present it as a choice between security or legal and political niceties?

The Kremlin Echo Chamber. Harris treads a fine line between the top-down and bottom-up (or strong state/weak state) explanations for the Great Purges. I’m not entirely convinced that squaring the circle by saying it was a strong state that thought itself weak quite works, although there is an undoubted elegance to the suggestion, but it is clear that most of the repression was not directed specifically from the top. Stalin was the impresario, but the performers were largely ad libbing. In this context, local agencies were often driven by the hope of correcting interpreting and predicting the Kremlin’s wishes and also the imperative to tell Moscow what it wanted to hear. Increasingly, the scope for loyal dissent shrank and shrank.

There are clear parallels today. Putin is not about to start a campaign of mass murder or try to modernise his economy on the back of slave labour, of course. But we need to recognise, even if just to help us understand and predict this regime better, the extent to which it genuinely believes itself actively threatened, not just by the impersonal forces of economics and demographics, but by Western machination. It is encouraged to do this by a security apparatus that has learned to play to the more paranoid and defensive instincts of the regime and a bureaucratic culture that seeks to identify what an often gnomic Kremlin truly wants. These were dangerous political pathologies in 1937, and they are again so today.

June 2016 Publications Round-Up

Here we go again.

Why Vladimir Putin is cheering Brexit — and why he might soon regret it‘, Vox, 28 June 2016

Better repressive laws in Russia than repression?‘, Business New Europe, 28 June 2016

Гибридный бизнес Кремля‘ [‘The Kremlin’s Hybrid Business’], with Anna Arutunyan, Radio Svoboda, 24 July 2016 [English version to appear soon]

No, Russia is not preparing for all-out war,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 21 June 2016

Ryssland vill bli erkänt som en global stormakt‘, interview with Utrikesmagasinets , 13 June 2016

Nationalists versus Putin,’ Business New Europe, 10 June 2016

‘Red Alert: Russian military underpins foreign policy,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, June 2016

Also, a couple of notes about video presentations available online. ‘Russia’s “New Way of War”: Not so new, and not just war‘ was a joint session with Alexander Golts, at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, and ‘Russia’s Wars,’ while only made available in June, was a panel of which I was a part at this year’s Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn in May.

Russia’s “Little Green Fan” Problem: football hooligans, the new nationalism, and the Western narrative

The open enthusiasm of some Russian politicians about the thuggish behaviour of their football fans in France speaks volumes about the boorish nationalism and crude us-versus-the-world mentality that has been liberated by Putin in recent years. Compared with the ongoing war in the Donbas or the crackdown on independent media and NGOs, it may seem trivial to focus on Liberal Democrat parliamentarian Igor Lebedev’s tweeted comment that he didn’t “see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!” or indeed Putin’s disingenuous question as to “how 200 Russian fans could beat several thousand of the British.”

But of course this is all part of a common pattern of mulish and wilful refusal to accept any fault or responsibility, a determination instead to blame everything on everyone else. And the result is a vicious circle that sees the rest of the world, although especially the West, all the less tolerant of Russia (witness the doping-related sanctions on its athletes). This, in turn, fuels Russia’s querulous persecution complex and the adolescent tantrums through which it is manifest.

And yet for all that, there is also a dangerous Western narrative that the Kremlin is the malign grandmaster behind everything that goes wrong, from Brexit to migration. The hooligan crisis has likewise been inserted into this unfolding narrative, notably in an article based wholly on anonymous and unsupported “Whitehall experts”, that “It looks like a continuation of the hybrid warfare deployed by Putin.”

Let’s put aside the fact that calling Russia’s approach hybrid warfare is unhelpful and inaccurate. The tissue-thin evidence on which this is based is that “a number of [the fans] are in the uniformed services” and that “UK police spotters saw some 150 Russia fans ‘tooling up’ with gum shields, fingerless martial arts gloves and bandanas.”

Russia has an inglorious and brutal history of very violent fan-hooligan activity. Any football match where stakes are high and rivalries long-standing tends to be the focus of a massive and heavy-handed police operation that involved truckloads of Interior Troops, hundreds of “cosmonauts” – riot police in full armour – and water cannon at the ready. These fanaty, alas, are more interested in the fight than the game, and train, prepare and kit themselves out accordingly. You don’t have to have been issued a Kremlin playbook to ‘tool up’ – and frankly if the Russians were training them as “hybrid warriors” I’d imagine they could come up with better advice than wearing bandanas.

It also ignores the point that for all the crass public statements from Russian politicians, the government apparatus was actually involved in sharing information with their French counterparts and back in May had already published a bill – since passed in the State Duma – on publicising blacklists of known hooligans. It is also worth mentioning that after first trying to make light of the problem, the embattled Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, then admitted that those involved in the violence “brought shame on their country.”

After all, what benefit would Moscow gain from such “hybrid warfare”? It hardly endears Europe to the Russians, and is not the scale of an issue that meaningfully distracts it from any other activities. It exploits and opens no internal fault lines. All it does is contribute to a sense that Russians are inherently unpleasant, uncivilised, untrustworthy. Indeed, it raises once again the question as to whether Russia is a safe and justified venue for the 2018 World Cup, the last thing the Kremlin wants. (Both for reasons of national pride and also because it is another vehicle for controlled embezzlement by favoured members of the elite.)

So the truth of the matter is complex. The current nationalist line obviously encourages those who choose to see it as granting them license to take their prejudices to the streets. Sometimes, the government actively seeks to use them, especially to intimidate the opposition. Yet the Kremlin is also keenly aware of the risks in uncontrolled violence and its populism has distinct limits. Furthermore, there are many within the government who are simply doing their jobs and embarrassed by and opposed to these law-breakers.

Let us in the West by all means decry the cheap and nasty rhetoric of the Lebedevs of this world, and acknowledge the deep social malaise which engenders this subculture of violent, right-wing, racist and homophobic tribalism. But let’s not try to twist and distort it into a narrative of weaponised everything, not only because it is wrong – though it is – but also because the more we lie to ourselves, the less able we are to deal with the real challenges before us. Every time someone decides to see a shadowy Kremlin hand in something over which it has no real authority, we empower Putin. Whether in over-stating his military might or, as here, seeing every tattooed hooligan as a “little green fan,” we build him up far more than he deserves.

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