Does a suicide in the Kremlin Guard reflect wider woes?

The news that an officer of the Federal Guard Service (FSO: Federal’naya sluzhba okhrany) committed suicide in the Kremlin has triggered a few press enquiries, so let me just put a little background out. (I’d add that I’m planning on a proper profile of the FSO in a future episode of my In Moscow’s Shadows podcast).

Although the Baza Telegram channel, which named the individual as one Mikhail Zakharov, claimed he was actually one of Putin’s bodyguards – which would make him part of the Presidential Security Service (SBP: Sluzhba bezopasnosti prezidenta), a sub-division of the FSO, most other Russian news sources are contradicting this last point. It thus seems more likely that he is part of the Presidential Regiment, formally the Independent Red Banner Order of the October Revolution Regiment of the Commandant’s Office of the Moscow Kremlin, or in other words the Kremlin Guard.

This 5,500-man force, subordinated to the Kremlin Commandant, Lt. Gen. Sergei Khlebnikov, is an elite protection force. Its barracks are inside the Kremlin, in ‘Block 14’ – the Arsenal building – on the other side of the complex from Cathedral Square, where the incident reportedly took place. Its officers all have to meet demanding physical fitness requirements, be at least 190 cm tall and never have been registered at a psychiatric facility, as well as pass an intensive background check (simply having a close relative living abroad is enough for disqualification). They are the men in wear blue uniforms around the Kremlin – and the men in dark blue-green parade uniform standing on guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexandrovsky Gardens.

The FSO has a range of other elements and roles, from the drivers of the Special Garage to the analysts poring over opinion poll data or hints of a serious threat in the president’s correspondence. Arguably, though, their political muscle has diminished since the retirement of former director Evgeny Murov in 2016; a veteran with considerable behind the scenes clout, Murov was replaced by Dmitri Kochnev, a serious and professional figure, but not someone with the same authority.

Since then, there have been subdued grumbles even from this elite force. It used to be that as well as relatively high salaries (and elevated ranks), they could convert the inevitable overtime they accrued into early retirement. That last perk was summarily removed, and at present they do not even get overtime pay. They are often expected to defer or reschedule vacations, and while they get good medical care in Moscow, the culture is still one which frowns on taking recovery time. Besides which, there is also a keen awareness that their cousins in the FSB and MVD get extracurricular opportunities from bribe-taking to moonlighting in private security. The former is not really an option for regular FSO officers and the latter strictly banned. This, plus the tough entry requirements, may help explain with the Presidential Regiment is currently under-strength, exacerbating the other problems.

Zakharov was also apparently going through a divorce – it could well be that this was nothing more than a personal tragedy, with no professional implications. However, there is a bit of a pattern. In March, one of the snipers from FSO Military Unit 11488 appears to have shot himself at home. Last year, an officer from one of the regional FSO departments – the Volga Federal District unit of the Special Communications and Information Directorate – threatened his superior officer with his service sidearm over a dispute over changed holiday schedules.

Tough conditions, arbitrary management and poor relations between officers and men are long-running problems in the Russian security sector. However, it is striking that a time when the police and the armed forces have certainly put efforts into addressing them, that the FSO seems to be lagging behind. I can’t help feel that if I were the president, I’d want my Praetorians to be a little happier and more relaxed.

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.

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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