A Few Thoughts on the ‘Troll Farm’ Indictment

The first takes on the Mueller-team indictment of the Internet Research Agency ‘troll farm’ have, perhaps predictably, reflected as much about the interests, goals and predilections of the authors as anything else. To Trump and his cohorts, it “proves” no collusion, because the text describes Russians pretending to be Americans in their contacts. To those still hoping for impeachment, it is “proof” that Putin stole the presidential elections for Trump. Of course, the truth is at neither end of the spectrum.

This is just one indictment. It is the start of the process, not likely the end. There is no point saying “is that all they have?” when it is patently clear that it is not.

None of this should come as a surprise. We’ve known about the Internet Research Agency since it was reported in Novaya gazeta in 2013. We’ve known about the twitter and other social media hacking. We’ve know… You get the message. This is not about “putting Russia on notice” nor about some revelation about which we should pretend to be shocked. This is the tradecraft of modern information war, and a certain amount of modern advertising too, for that matter. It is rather, I would presume, about demonstrating that the Mueller investigation is ongoing and, above all, that…

This is a political – with a small p – statement. None of these Russians are likely ever to see the inside of a US courtroom, and the apparent bankroller, Evgeni Prigozhin, is already on the US sanctions list. This is not about a trial, it is about laying down a marker to the effect that the Mueller team believes there is evidence of a Russian attempt to influence the elections.

This is about crime rather than politics. Of course it is deeply political, but the remit of the Mueller investigation is not about whether the Russians were naughty, immoral, or whatever (for a start, please don’t try and tell me that none of these techniques are also known to and used by Western intelligence services in some of their missions), but whether crimes were committed under US law. The effort to prove that they were is perhaps the single most important element of this indictment.

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. There seems a widespread willingness to accept the indictment as somehow proof (and we have also seen that about statements from typically anonymous intelligence sources). It is not. Now, I am perfectly willing to believe the broad thrust, that Russia did try to influence the elections, but unless and until there is proof, we ought to be cautious, especially in accepting the detailed elements of the indictment. (I write this knowing that now elements such as “$1.25 million per month were spent on hacking the US elections” will be reported ad nauseam as demonstrated fact. Such is the modern media environment.*)

*And by the way, even the indictment says that money was spent on a project with “multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.” So from this, we don’t know if a million dollars or a hundred were being spent on messing with America.

Mueller is working with covert and/or inside sources. This ought to have been pretty obvious, but the indictment makes this much clearer. A great deal of the detail within it can be gathered through normal means, given that so much of the activities cited left fingerprints within US jurisdiction, from visa applications to setting up fake accounts. However, there are elements, especially when asserting what the IRA and its people themselves described as their roles, which I cannot see how they would be able to state in an indictment without such non-regular sources.

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Vlog: Navalny and Strelkov, the disappointing debate that was what politics is all about

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Just a quick note that another in my sporadic series of vlogs is up on my YouTuble channel – you can find this one here. It’s a little longer than most, in part because I’m trying to tease out why Alexei Navalny chose to debate with nationalist militant and likely war criminal Igor Girkin (‘Strelkov’) and why what was a pretty dull debate stuck with me. Spoiler alert: the answer? Because in a way this is precisely what real politics are about, and that’s faintly encouraging.

Is the Russian National Guard suddenly acquiring sweeping new powers? No, not so much

Rosgvardiya1A new Presidential Decree with the snappy title ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of forces of the National Guard of the Russian Federation‘ has suddenly caused something of a fuss because of a clause which allows the president to subordinate military units to the Rosgvardiya. From Versiya, for example, there came the outraged cry that “Nothing like this has happened in the country’s history” and that it was “impossible to imagine” the “Russian imperial army commanding the gendarmes, and NKVD the Red Army.” In Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, the warning was that “it has become clear that sooner or later war plans require the use of troops against the population. Russian officers do not want to shoot at their fellow. And the officers of the General Staff, it seems, did their best to slow down the adoption of the policy documents. But the Kremlin was anxious. And the National Guard conquered the army.”

Of course the creation of the National Guard from the basis of the MVD’s Interior Troops and public order forces was a worrying sign of the paranoias of the Kremlin. It is a force of some 180,000-190,000 security troops and special police, by the way, not 400,000 – there are perhaps as many private security officers, but they are not all armed, are scattered around the country, and in some cases are other Rosgvardiya officers moonlighting in a second job. It was clearly established both in case the Kremlin wants to break heads on the streets, and also to represent an additional obstacle to any elite political coup.

But let’s not get caught up in the hyperbole. The present presidential decree does indeed say that the president has the right to transfer army units to Rosgvardiya command for specific operations at home. However, the decree starts by enumerating the existing decrees relating to the MVD Interior Troops that it supersedes. One is the 2005 decree ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of the Interior Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russian Federation,’ as amended. And guess what: that decree allowed the president to subordinate military units to the Interior Troops…

In other words, this was just a piece of legislative tidying-up, find+replacing National Guard for Interior Troops. Not so unprecedented, not so impossible to imagine, not demonstrating any sudden new bloodlust. And I very much doubt the General Staff were trying to fight it off.

Sure, there are always grounds for concern, especially when figures such as blowhard ex-general and Rosgvardiya hanger-on Yuri Baluevskii trumpet how Russia is beleaguered by Western attempts at regime change through coloured revolutions. But sadly this is nothing new and even reflected in Russia’s national security doctrine. This is a regime which fears and mistrusts its people, and which is at least willing to contemplate the use of violence to maintain power. But at the same time, let’s not fall prey to the temptation to think the sky is breaking every time the thunder peals.

The Unexpected Death of Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) chief, Igor Sergun

SergunToday, news broke about the death yesterday (3 January) of 58-year-old Colonel General Igor Sergun, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, better known as the GRU.

No cause of death has yet been announced, but there has been no suggestion of anything shady or strange about his demise, even at this relatively young age (especially by the standards of Russian military gerontocracy!). No doubt more details will follow tomorrow; today it’s just the hurried eulogies. Putin issued a statement that said “Colleagues and subordinates knew him as a real military officer, an experienced and competent commander, a man of great courage, a true patriot. He was respected for his professionalism, strength of character, honesty and integrity.” Defence Minister Shoigu and the Collegium of the ministry extolled “the bright memory of a wonderful man, a true son of Russian patriots of the Motherland […who…] forever remain in our hearts.”

Sergun was an extremely important figure in the revival of the fortunes of the GRU, an agency that was pretty much at rock bottom when he took it over at the end of 2011. Since then, it has regained control over the Spetsnaz special forces, been crucial in the seizure of Crimea and operations in the Donbas, emerged as the lead agency for dealing with violent non-state actors and generally consolidated its position as a crucial instrument of today’s “non-linear war.” Indeed, it was a perverse accolade to this effect that he was included in the EU’s post-Crimea Western sanctions list.

It will be interesting to see who replaces Sergun and whether they are able to consolidate and maintain this turnaround. Reportedly — and thanks for Michael Kofman for bringing this to my attention — one of Sergun’s deputies is recently-promoted Lt. Gen. Alexei Dyumin, formerly of the Presidential Security Service (SBP) and close to Putin not just from that role but also as a dacha neighbour and ice hockey team player. If Dyumin gets the job, he’ll have a solid krysha, political cover, and it will also represent one more example of the colonisation of the security structures by veterans of the SBP and its parent organisation, the FSO. But on the other hand, Dyumin — unlike Sergun — is not a career military intelligence officer but essentially a security guard. Whether or not he will be anywhere near as successful operationally, and whether he is willing to bring unwelcome news to the president may well be another matter.

In any case, we await details. I’ll follow up as they emerge.

If US Intelligence on Russia is Broken (A Bit), What Can Be Done To Help Fix It?

How can we know what he's thinking?

How can we know what he’s thinking?

General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently gently but unmistakably reprimanded the US intelligence community for its “lack of ability to see into Russia, especially at the operational and tactical level.” While he acknowledged change was under way, even then he made it clear that this was very, very much a work in progress: “We’re gently turning the nose of this ship to get back to what we need to be looking at.” Is Russia befuddling US intelligence, and if so what should be done about it?

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US prepositioning in the Baltics: heavy metal politics and hostages to fortune

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

There is much about the present Russo-Western confrontation that is symbolic, even when it comes to the tanks rumbling around the Baltic plans or the Russian aircraft screaming past and sometimes into NATO airspace. Essentially, it is a combination of the macho posture of alpha male animals, trying to overawe their rival by any means short of the murderous, and the stately diplomatic dance of hint, demarche and denunciation, in heavy metal form.

Consider, for example, the likely deployment of heavy equipment in the Baltic states, a pre-deployment of enough kit for a full brigade. More than anything else, this is a piece of theatre intended to reassure the Balts that they would not be left high and dry if the big, bad Russians ever invaded, and warn Moscow that Washington is indeed serious about its obligations to its NATO allies.

In military terms, after all, it is harder to see this as serious. Why? All this hardware is pretty pointless without (a) the 5,000 or soldiers to go with it and (b) without the time to take the tanks and other pieces of kit out of storage and get them ready for action — even at the most basic level, they need fuel, ammunition and other consumables. Presumably if — and I don’t believe this would ever happen — the Russians ever were to invade the Baltic states, they would do so through a surprise blitzkrieg, as one of their massive military “exercises” on the borders suddenly reveals itself to be an intervention force. I can’t see Moscow feeling the need to give NATO fair warning and notice!

The sad truth is that the Baltic states are pretty much impossible to defend in purely military terms. The borders are open, the terrain is pretty flat, the settlements small. That in no way minimizes the determination of the Balts, and the Russians would have to expect subsequent bitter guerrilla warfare as patriots fight back from the woods or in the cities, but Moscow’s ability to take the region in the first instant is hard to question.

The corollary? It is that, in purely military terms, Washington is prepositioning a cache of modern weapons for the Russians to capture.

Of course, the point is that this is not what anyone expects to happen: if — again, let’s stress that if — Russia chose to step up its aggression against the Baltic states, it is almost certain to be through indirect, covert or deniable means, not a storm of armour and airpower. The calculation in Washington is that at least by pretending to make a serious military commitment to the Baltic states (and one which makes it certain and obvious that any Russian offensive will bring it into face-to-face contact with US soldiers), it deters Moscow from any such moves. And so we have another demonstration of the many ways in which if not war but military force can be the instrument for politics by other means.

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