September Publications Round-Up

Here’s September’s articles and miscellaneous acts of punditry:

An expert’s guide to Putin’s propaganda playbook’, CNN Opinion, 29 September

Putin Is Playing by Grozny Rules in Aleppo,’ Foreign Policy, 29 September

Expert: Putin’s Reported Plan to Restore KGB May Reflect Fear of Overthrow’Voice of America 26 September [interview]

Mark Galeotti on the Russian elections,’ IIR video briefing, 23 September

Why Putin might be trying to recreate the Soviet-era KGB — and why he might regret it,’ Vox, 20 September

‘”New KGB” plans betray Putin’s anxiety,’ ECFR Commentary, 19 September

RFE/RL Facebook Live video broadcast on the Russian elections, 18 September

Kremlin Kabuki,’ RFE/RL Power Vertical podcast, 16 September

Goodbye, Bastrykin?,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 15 September

Window on the East: Russia votes for a new Duma. Will it result in protests or status quo?’, Business New Europe podcast, 15 September [podcast]

Russians can make a difference in Sunday’s elections: by staying at home,’ Business New Europe, 14 September

As the Russian military faces cuts, Putin will lose muscle,’ Business New Europe, 12 September

Putin’s Original Sin,’ RFE/RL Power Vertical podcast, 9 September

Incidentally, just a reminder to people that from 1 September I have been a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague — I am no longer at NYU. Do follow the IIR’ twitter feed (@IIR_PRG) for a Central European take on international affairs.

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.

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