Russia and Europe: the problem with being family, not just neighbours

RussiaEuropeI’ve just transferred from Moscow to London on the next leg of my travels, and have been catching up on podcasts. In a recent one from the Sean’s Russia Blog SRB Podcasts series, Andrei Tsygankov from SFSU was discussing Russian foreign policy. I agreed with some of his views, disagreed with others, but what struck when he very vigorously made the case that Russia considers itself part of Europe, even if sometimes it finds itself strongly arguing with the ‘rest’ of the continent. I think this is absolutely right; regardless of talk of ‘Eurasianism’ and the like amongst the chattering and governing classes, in my experience Russians of every political complexion and socio-economic status look westwards and consider themselves part of a wider European civilisation. Of course, this leads to problems and miscommunications. I have lost count how many times in the past couple of years Russians have felt the need to tell me, almost invariably in sorrow rather than anger, that the West is treating Russia badly, almost invariably couched in terms of not just common interests but common identity. The very reason for the splenetic way that Moscow responds to what it sees as slights and insults from its neighbours is precisely because they are not neighbours but family. The most savage rows are always with family, after all.

But I’d add that this goes both ways, in a rather different fashion. I would suggest that the West does treat Russia differently from other inconvenient, authoritarian, even insurgent powers. It is not just that Putin is Putin, or that Russia a nuclear power, or even a legacy of the Cold War. The standards for democracy, transparency and rule of law that we expect from Russia — loudly complaining when they are not met, and funding NGOs and the like to uphold — are not the same as those we look for in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Azerbaijan, in Thailand, even in China.

I’m sure there are many reasons (beyond that Russia doesn’t buy our weapons, make our iPhones, or cozy up to us), but one is, I suspect, a kind of reverse Orientalism. In the main, Russian cities look like “our” cities; in the main, Russians look like “us”; in the main, Russian institutions at least appear to be based on the same premises as “ours.”

On some level, I imagine, we look at countries with clearly different ethnic, religious, cultural, historical, political foundations as the West’s and don’t really expect them to be wholly like us. In the modern Whig historical trajectory that places us as the pinnacle of human socio-political evolution, we give them a pass for being further down the road. But the Russians are enough like “us” that somehow we feel their — in our eyes — backwardness and even wilful wandering from the proper path as being all the more poignant and infuriating.

I am ultimately an optimist about Russia of a very European sort; I think they are genuinely embarked at last on a journey that, once the national traumas Putin represents have been worked through, will bring them squarely into a European democratic, liberal, rule of law cultural fold. But it won’t be immediate, it won’t be easy, and we need, without in any way condoning abuses, to accept that Russia cannot and will not be like “us” tomorrow. And if we do want to critique Moscow (as we ought), then we should apply the same standards across the board, and not single Russia out for specially critical scrutiny. That kind of familiar “tough love” does no one any favours.

Four Security-Related Take-Aways from Putin’s ‘Direct Line’ Show

IMG_7279Another marathon (3 hours 40 minutes) ‘Direct Line’ show is over as Putin fielded the usual array of carefully-selected questions from the nation. As ever, one has to give him credit for being willing to do this at all, however staged it is (I don’t see Western leaders lining up to emulate him), although in the main it is beginning to feel like the series of a long-running show just before it gets axed, the lines predictable, the leads tired, the magic gone…

As such, not a great deal worth flagging up from a security-related perspective, but Read the full post »

Putin’s new National Guard – what does it say when you need your own personal army?


Zolotov, Putin’s Praetorian

The idea of creating a National Guard (NG) for Russia bringing together public security forces under a single command has been raised periodically and always abandoned for very good reasons, not least the lack of any apparent need to have a Praetorian Guard on steroids. In 2012, for example, I didn’t think it likely: it would upend the balance of power within the security agencies, create a monster, and not really meet any true security need.

So what does it say that Putin today announced that such a natsgvardiya was going to be formed? After a meeting with security luminaries include MVD Interior Troops commander (and new NG head) Viktor Zolotov – a trusted ex-bodyguard – he announced [my translation]:

Decisions have been made: we are creating a new federal executive body on the basis of the Interior Troops – creating the National Guard, which will handle the fight against terrorism, the fight against organised crime, and in close cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, will continue to perform those functions which are [currently] performed by the OMON (riot police), SOBR (SWAT) and so on.

We will arrange, as we discussed with the Interior Minister [Vladimir Kolokoltsev], not only in the decree, but in a future federal law, so that there will be no discord in order to get everything working smoothly and clearly. I hope very much that the troops of the National Guard will effectively perform their tasks, as has been the case up now, and that they will strengthen the work on the areas that are considered priorities.

Read the full post »

‘Crime & Society: organisation, myths, control’ – my talk at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow

Sakharov2016-4A belated note that on 15 March I had the honour of giving a talk on Russian crime in the 1990s through to the present day at the Sakharov Centre, an institution worth noting and feting as one of the last truly independent and liberal public discussion spaces in Moscow. The full video of the event (in English), including the extremely interesting and stimulating questions (including the inevitable Nemtsov one), is now available:

March 2016 Publications Roundup


Another month, another round-up:

‘Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 27, 2 (2016) (see entry here)

Kadyrov and Some Clarity about the Russian System,’ Russia! magazine, 1 March 2016

Russia’s Communist Party is making a comeback — and it’s bad news for Putin,’ Vox, 8 March 2016

The Weaponization of Prejudice,’ Intellinews Business New Europe, 9 March 2016 (republished in slightly edited form in the Guardian‘s New East Network section, 14 March)

Russia drops the mic: Syria pullout comes at perfect moment‘, Reuters, 15 March 2016

Russia’s migrant militant challenge,’ openDemocracy: Russia, 17 March 2016

What Russia’s military proved in Syria,’ Vox, 21 March 2016

The Three Faces of Russian Spetsnaz in Syria,’ War On The Rocks, 21 March 2016

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Vladimir Putin,’ Russia! magazine, 22 March 2016

Russia Pairs Brussels Condolences With Politicking,’ Moscow Times, 23 March 2016



New article: ‘Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?’

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 09.23.14Just a quick note, that an article of mine has appeared in the latest issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 27, no. 2, a special issue on ‘Proxy Actors, Militias and Irregular Forces: The New Frontier of War?’ pulled together by Alex Marshall of Glasgow University. It emerged from an excellent workshop that Alex convened last year on this important and under-researched topic and the issue includes, along with all sorts of first-rate material, the always-great Vanda Felbab-Brown on Afghan militias and an interesting conceptual piece by Robert and Pamela Ligouri Bunker. My contribution, Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?, places recent Russian practice very firmly within an historical tradition going back to pre-Soviet adventures. Here’s the abstract:

Russia’s recent operations in Ukraine, especially the integrated use of militias,
gangsters, information operations, intelligence, and special forces, have created
a concern in the West about a ‘new way of war’, sometimes described as ‘hybrid’.
However, not only are many of the tactics used familiar from Western operations,
they also have their roots in Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian practice. They are
distinctive in terms of the degree to which they are willing to give primacy to
‘non-kinetic’ means, the scale of integration of non-state actors, and tight linkage
between political and military command structures. However, this is all largely a
question of degree rather than true qualitative novelty. Instead, what is new is
the contemporary political, military, technological, and social context in which
new wars are being fought.


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