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.

A Ukraine-Russia peace deal: Crimea must have a cost

March-06-14-Russia-Ukraine-and-Obama2Efforts to secure some kind of peace deal between Moscow and Kiev—and not just a temporary ceasefire that preserves a frozen conflict—continue. The latest suggestions are that Washington is coming up with proposals to this effect, as explored in this story from Bloomberg by Josh Rogin. While not officially confirmed, its details chime with what I have been hearing from people in and close to the policy circles. The essence is that in return “for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions” Russia would have to adhere to September’s Minsk agreement and cease direct military support for the rebels, while the “issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.”

In other words, Russia’s seizure of Crimea would be considered a done deal and taken out of the equation, in return for only minor and personal (ie, not systemic) sanctions, while Russia and Ukraine would in effect be considered to have positions of equal moral weight in the negotiations over eastern Ukraine. Although it is essential to end this war—and both Moscow and Kiev want and would gain from a resolution—this basis is, in my option, immoral, muddle-headed and downright dangerous.

1. Yes, alas for the moment it is not worth trying to get Moscow to surrender Crimea. It may not be right, but this is the only viable position. For Putin to abandon the peninsula would not be totally against his own instincts, it would also be politically lethal, critically undermining his credibility and legitimacy. He simply will not do this. (more…)

Is Kolokoltsev in or out? Either way, the rumours surrounding the Russian interior minister’s fate signify something

Is there a Sword of Damocles hanging over Kolokoltsev?

Is there a Sword of Damocles hanging over Kolokoltsev?

As I write this, rumours abound that Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev has resigned, is going to resign or is going to “be resigned.” I have no idea which, if any, are true, although it is striking that not only did the rumours, first aired on Dozhd (the last independent TV station, clinging on by its fingertips) get their real boost when Presidential press-spokesman and all-round Mouth of Sauron Dmitry Peskov publicly acknowledged them when he said that he did not know about them. Besides which, Peskov failed to follow up with any tribute to Kolokoltsev, any statement that of course he had the president’s unstinting support. When added to the possibly-but-hardly-probably coincidental claim that Kolokoltsev plagiarised his graduate thesis (hardly unusual in Russia–much the same has been said about Putin–but still another wound), the implication is that either the Kremlin is preparing the ground for his removal or else that he has powerful enemies trying to claw him down. It is also striking that his rumoured replacement is a close Putin client and a man associated with security rather than law enforcement.

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On Russia, Ukraine, sanctions and war

Just a quick heads-up. There is now a report on my talk in parliament in London on ‘The Military Dimension of Russia’s Policy toward Ukraine: Should the West Be Worried?‘ under the auspices of the Henry Jackson Society here and also a full transcript of my opening remarks. Although the US government and NATO commander seems still to be suggesting Russian military action is imminent, my view is that the danger of that is receding; I hope I will be proved right. The next day, I spoke at the European Council on Foreign Relations about the political impact on Russia of sanctions, and you can hear a podcast of my comments here. I still suspect that future historians may conclude that when Putin took Crimea he lost not only Ukraine but, ultimately, the Kremlin.

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