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.

Masha and the Bear are not coming to invade your homeland

On Guard For The Defence Of The Motherland!

Time for a Saturday spleen-venting. It’s always dangerous to predict that we’ve reached “peak” anything, because life will no doubt find a way to prove you wrong. But I truly with that a story in today’s Times could turn out to be peak…I don’t even know quite what to call it…cliché Russophobia.

The target of my ire is a short article, ‘Children’s show is propaganda for Putin, say critics,’ which uncritically relays allegations that the Russian animated cartoon Masha and the Bear is “a ‘soft propaganda’ tool for the Kremlin” because “the Bear symbolised Russia and was designed to replace a negative image of the country with a positive one in children’s minds.” Worse yet, “in one episode, Masha, wearing a Soviet border guard’s cap, patrols the Bear’s garden and chases out a hare that tries to steal carrots. Critics have seen this as a statement about Russia’s defence of its borders.” One Prof. Glees, of the University of Buckingham, is trotted out to deliver the punchline that “Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her slight weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.”

Well, actually it is pretty damn far fetched to see Putin in a little girl who cries when she doesn’t get what she wants and gets her pig to dress up like a baby. Even more so that the Kremlin would want that to be how people think of Putin. Needless to say, the only contrary view in the article is a note in the last paragraph that “Russia’s state media has ridiculed the concerns.”

For a start, such a take omits to consider that the cartoon series, which admittedly began in 2009, under Putin, is based on a long cycle of oral folk stories predating the 1990s. It would be a little like accusing Fawlty Towers as being pro-Brexit, because the representation of the incompetent Spanish waiter Manuel was a call for Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’…forty years later. Or perhaps that Bob the Builder, with its distinct absence of Polish plumbers and Romanian roofers, is likewise Brexit-Isolationist brain washing…

This is just one of a steady trickle of bizarre stories relating to Russia’s Machiavellian genius in weaponising everything. Remember those football hooligans who were somehow part of Putin’s ‘hybrid war’? Of course Russia is launching a active measures campaign against the West, but shoddy pieces like this that suggest that anything demonstrating that the Russians themselves are human beings like us, that their kids watch TV cartoons like us, that their hot-headed young men can get violent in support of their teams and in mutual displays of machismo like ours, that they live and love, dream and die like us, is somehow ‘soft propaganda,’ is depressing to the nth degree.

It’s also a problem. Why?

  1. It’s stupid. Just that; this is a desperate and silly idea that shouldn’t be reported except as such. And if it is going to be written about, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to find some kind of alternative take – that’s just proper journalism, no? (By contrast, The Herald had earlier ran a much funnier but also more balanced take.)
  2. It devalues the real propaganda. Of course Russia is maintaining a soft power campaign to try and influence foreign perceptions, ranging from presenting Putin as some kind of bare-chested champion of traditional values, to suggesting that the Europeans are being coerced into sanctions and other anti-Kremlin moves by an overweening America. Just as to defend all is to defend nothing, so too to see everything coming from Russia as propaganda is to make it impossible to make a serious case when it really is.
  3. It devalues us. When did it become necessary to dehumanise the Russians, to have to pretend that everything in and from Russia is evil, in order to critique and resist Putin’s regime? First of all, this – I would say – flies in the face of our own liberal world view.
  4. It helps Putin. Secondly, it is bad politics, it plays to Putin’s own legitimating narrative, that the West hates Russia and Russians, and that is why they need a strong state and a strong leader.

 

GRU seems still in Putin’s favour

GRUlogo2I’ve written elsewhere both that we should be wary of making easy assumptions about the GRU‘s supposed “incompetence” and also that I didn’t expect to see any purge or other visitation of Putin’s wrath. Apart from the fact that we don’t know how many missions are succeeding, the GRU’s high tempo of operations and – seemingly – the mandate it has been given to operate without much regard for the political fallout are most important in explaining the recent spate of cases brought to life.

That the GRU has not, as some claim, angered Putin , and that GRU chief Korobov is not out of favour and out of time, seems confirmed. Yesterday, 2 November, Putin attended a gala to mark the hundredth anniversary of what he called “this legendary service,” and he delivered an enthusiastic eulogy: ”

As supreme commander, I of course know with no exaggeration about your unique abilities including in conducting special operations. I am confident of your professionalism, of your personal daring and decisiveness and that each of you will do all that is required by Russia and our people.

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He was especially enthusiastic about the GRU’s role in Syria, something that stretches from its intelligence elements through to its Spetsnaz special forces:

Our intelligence officers, as is mandated by the Russian military tradition, never fled and always carried out their orders. The credit for the return of peace to many parts of Syria, the end of bloodshed and an open path to finding reconciliation should definitely go to a large degree to the military intelligence. No less important is the fact that we have dealt a blow to the terrorists and are preventing their return to our territory.

Indeed, he also suggested it was time the GRU regain its old name,  given that since 2010 has technically been known as the GU, the ‘Main Directorate’, even though in practice everyone still calls it the GRU. (Will it also regain its cool bat logo?) Of course, there is the chance that this is part of maskirovka, deception, keeping any recriminations behind closed doors, but there comes a point when Occam’s Razor ought to cut away some of the most implausible product of the rumour mills. Sure, Putin may feel an obligation to demonstrate his loyalty to his spooks – but that is primarily because they are doing what he wants them to do.

 

GRU (GU) facing a little purge? If so, it’s not to spy less, but spy better

GRUlogo2As is inevitable, in the wake of the Dutch hacking bust, the US DOJ indictment, and Bellingcat’s claim that the second member of the Skripal hit team was a naval doctor turned spook, Alexander Mishkin, that there is talk of Putin’s displeasure, of GRU* director Gen. Korobov being on medical leave after being hauled over the coals, of heads about to roll. That may be, although so far we really only have one source, and that being one bankrolled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has his own axes to grind. But it’s not at all implausible given not just that several mission have failed of late, but that there has also been evidence of sloppy tradecraft. However, two points need to be made:

  1. Let’s not overplay the sloppiness. Sure, in hindsight it is always easy to see what was done wrong, just like every inquest after every tragedy, disaster or intelligence failure concludes that they were avoidable. That’s like saying every student could have passed an exam, if they had given the right answers: true but meaningless. Every service makes mistakes, and the GRU has, and if – as the Russians are – you’re operating at flat-out tempo, you’re going to make even more mistakes. Yes, there was some clearly sloppy tradecraft (though still the revelation of 305 GRU officers’ details in Moscow because they registered their cars at their unit’s address was arguably the biggest such breach), but keep it in perspective.
  2. And let’s not overplay any ‘purge.’ There is no evidence the GRU has been operating beyond Kremlin orders, none of the kind of paralysis that, for example, followed the Nemtsov murder. If Putin is showing his anger, it is not because they are spying and hacking and killing, but because they are not doing it well enough. Any purge would be for political purposes (to help distance the Kremlin from these operations) and also to encourage greater professionalism.

*Yes, I know that since 2010 it’s technically the GU, but everyone, even in the Russian military, still calls it GRU. It’s one of those MI6/SIS things.

The Russian Mafia: unmasking a global menace [video]

MobMuseum-Sept2018On 27 September, I was delighted to give a talk at the splendid Mob Museum (formally the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement) in Las Vegas, in their Wiseguy series. My talk was based, inevitably, on my book The Vory. The video of the presentation is available here.

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