Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Muse: Putin's Cold War is Getting Warmer by the Day

The Buffalo:

What a shame that it has come to this! It wasn’t enough for the barbarians in the Kremlin to simply challenge the sovereignty of the peaceful state of Ukraine but now they have to contest the fundamental freedoms of every peace-loving nation on the planet. Yesterday it was Malaysian Airlines Flight 17; mercilessly shot out of the sky by Russian SAM missiles, yet who is to say tomorrow it won’t be another Asian or European airliner or perhaps a foreign sea vessel plying the waters of the Black Sea, suddenly doomed to destruction because of Kremlin paranoia or Red Army impulsiveness. With this one savage act of international defiance might we all assume that Russia, which occupies one-sixth of the world’s surface area, is once again closed to all public air travel as it was for more than fifty years in the heyday of Soviet communism? 

Regardless of Vladimir Putin’s arrogant attempt to blame the Ukrainians for shooting down the Malaysian airliner, the preliminary evidence collected in just the first 24 hours since the incident occurred leaves absolutely no doubt that the Russian Armed Forces were the main perpetrators behind Flight 17’s untimely end. And if the Kremlin was really interested in uncovering all the evidence which could determine indisputable guilt for the callous violation of international law than why would they order their client, insurgent army to seal off the crime scene from all international air inspectors and investigators?
Russian-made Buk SA-11 anti-aircraft missile system
What we know today is that one and possibly two, Soviet-built SA-11 surface-to-air missiles hit the airliner over Eastern Ukrainian airspace at 33,000 ft. cruising altitude and that those missiles originated from Ukrainian territory controlled by the Russian-backed, anti-Ukrainian insurgent armies. The trajectory of the missile was ultimately confirmed by NATO spy satellites and an American AWACs surveillance aircraft flying over Poland’s border region with the Western Ukraine. Russian complicity in the incident was further corroborated by intercepted signals intelligence by Ukraine’s SBU security agency which divulged a communiqué between the separatist, ground commanders and high-level Russian military intelligence officials in Moscow. These Russian officials have been positively identified by the Ukrainians as agents of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence bureau. 

For most of us somewhat attuned to the military situation in the Ukraine, the events over the last few days come as no surprise; shocking perhaps for its callousness and impudence but in no way surprising by deliberation. More to the point, this type of barbaric behavior is what the civilized world can routinely expect from a Putin-controlled Kremlin determined to resurrect its Soviet past. And for those of you out there not quite sure of the insurgency’s legitimacy or the insurgent’s resolve to conduct operations within the parameters of internationally accepted military conduct, one only has to look at the abominable behavior of Russia’s client armies as they resort to rob, ransack and desecrate the corpses of the unfortunate passengers now strewn across the Ukrainian steppe. Simply put, these Moscow-backed militias are a disgrace.

Of course, the Kremlin is perfectly fine backing combatants with the demeanor of Medieval Mongol hordes. Like their predecessors from over five hundred years of autocratic rule in Russia, the Kremlin has never been sensitive to the sufferings of their own people, let alone the people who would defy their imperial quests for conquest. Russia’s institutionalized deference to hardship, pain and suffering among the masses has always subjected its civilized progress to the perception of backwardness among the Western World. Sadly, hundreds of years later that perception is widely accepted by the Russian leadership themselves, who often use it to whip up the furor of their largely oblivious masses when the Kremlin embarks on another foreign policy fiasco. Inevitably this allows the Kremlin to foment an “us versus them” mentality to promulgate popular appeal and conformity to their wayward pursuits. 

The modern world witnessed this firsthand after the Soviet Union’s glorious defeat of Nazi Germany occasioned the Kremlin to embark on a decades-long military buildup at the expense of its largely destitute population. So while the Soviet Armed Forces monopolized state expenditures to develop a global, high-tech, military fighting force of unparalleled quantity and quality, Russia’s long-tormented, working class was left devoid of many of the most fundamental consumer goods routinely available in the west. Soviet citizens were not accustomed to having radios or telephones in their homes until early in the 1970’s and most workers had to endure a six and seven year wait just to be placed on another waiting-list for the simple possession of a common automobile. Obviously when most motor vehicle production was concentrated strictly for military purposes, consumer manufacturing was left at the bottom of the totem pole in the Soviet system.

The Russian people can thank Boris Yeltsin for initiating the state’s first attempt to liberate its masses from the debilitating constraints of backwardness. Vladimir Putin continued that pursuit just long enough to secure his own reign among Russia’s dwindling political power brokers. But in the information age things are much different. Putin has to control the message much more carefully, thus it wasn’t a surprise to hear that the first words out of his mouth after the Flight17 disaster was a carefully worded accusation blaming the Ukrainian armed forces for the shoot-down. Only, this was said not to alleviate the concerns of the international community rather it was mentioned solely for domestic consumption; to ramp up the furor of those millions of Russian civilians who have already locked onto Kiev as the main culprit in the months-long fight in the Eastern Ukraine. 

It’s sort of a game that these autocratic states need to play from time to time in order to keep their domestic populations firmly behind them when they seek to undermine their neighbors or to engage in imperial pursuits. An autocratic regime will always go to extreme lengths to vilify their foes and to accelerate the reassurance of their domestic masses to the inviolability of the supreme leader’s cause. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were all eager purveyors of this kind of propaganda. It served them immense dividends by fueling their popularity on the home front during times when their international reputation was at its lowest. It’s an integral part of the ‘leader worship’ complex that the Putin regime has been trying to uphold and facilitate. And so far it is working, at least in Russia. 

Yet Putin’s little game could have been far more persuasive in swaying the standpoint of the international community if only his anti-Ukrainian insurgents were genuine, patriotic minorities rebelling against persecution and tyrannical repression. But this is clearly not the case. Not when the whole rebel leadership consists of carefully transplanted Russian intelligence officers from the GRU with little to no allegiance to the Ukrainian community or its political institutions. And the Ukrainian regime in Kiev can hardly be construed as being repressive or unfailingly dishonest toward their Russian minorities. The Russian minorities in Eastern Ukraine only rose up against the leadership in Kiev when its former Russian puppet leader was overthrown by Ukrainian patriots after years of corruption and political indiscretions toward the Ukrainian majority. Thus the Russian minority only resorted to an insurgency because the Kremlin saw its political hold over their former Soviet partners slipping away and not because of newly incited fears that they were in imminent danger of being persecuted or suppressed.
The Russian-made SA-6 (GAINFUL) SAM missile battery

The insurgency in Eastern Ukraine was immediately marked by the anti-Ukrainian rebel’s sudden possession of some of the most lethal, high-tech weaponry in modern warfare. These weren’t ordinary, patriotic freedom-fighters resigned to a long drawn-out guerrilla war with crude assault rifles, grenades and an occasional heavy machine-gun. On the contrary, these rebels came heavily armed with almost all the requisite resources to engage in an all-out, conventional war against an equally equipped, modern army. The only thing missing for the insurgents is the presence of a modern air force to contest the skies against the small but potent Ukrainian Air Force yet they are sufficiently equipped to confront all enemy aircraft from the ground with their possession of the SA-11 and SA-17, Soviet-made, Buk anti-aircraft missile system; one of the most lethal SAM missile batteries in the world. I’d say that’s quite an impressive weapons inventory for a rebel force that didn’t even exist more than a year ago.

The only question that needs to be asked now is whether the rebel firing of the missile that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight-17 was a simple mistake by an inadequately trained or trigger-happy SAM technician or was it a deliberate case of covert political posturing by a higher military elite or rogue regime determined to send a message to all would-be interlopers that the fight in the Eastern Ukraine is decidedly off-limits to the rest of the world. Unfortunately we will never get a definitive answer from the Kremlin, even though all collected evidence decisively points to its participation in the heinous, international war crime. Moscow has been in an advanced state of damage control to cover-up the political damage since the incident occurred and all attempts by the international community to investigate the crime scene will continuously be stalled, impeded and obstructed by a Russian military establishment stained with duplicity in some of the most reviled acts of international war crimes in history. The Soviet cover-up of the Katyn Massacre of Polish military officers immediately comes to mind when alluding to the lengths the Kremlin will go to in proclaiming their innocence in some of history’s greatest transgressions. 

The only sure thing we can deduce from this latest episode of Kremlin criminality is that Vladimir Putin is now utterly transfixed on channeling his nation’s revitalized military establishment onto a dangerous course of international aggression and confrontation. He, like many of his bellicose Kremlin forebears is determined to underscore the Russian state’s centuries-long quest for international prominence and prestige by projecting military might on a dangerously alarming scale through military aggression, political hostility and cultural antipathy to the welfare of the indigenous people on the Russian periphery. He has now taken absolute hold over an uncompromisingly rogue regime which threatens the nearly seventy years of peace and prosperity that the end of WWII had brought to Europe. And the calculating former Soviet spy-master is quite aware of the extent that the Western World will go to in sustaining that peace against all overt acts of aggression that threaten the serene balance of power. Thus he is quite intent on ‘pushing the envelope’ both politically and militarily to confer his national prerogatives. And so far the west has accommodated his overt aggression with pusillanimous ignorance.

Plainly the Western World must know by now that economic sanctions will have little effect in curtailing the belligerent course that the Kremlin has embarked upon. It must also be well aware that Moscow’s client armies in Eastern Ukraine have no intention of seeking a political settlement to the current crisis. Therefore it is time that the west dismounts its high horses and starts walking the walk of military mobilization. This is the only surefire way which might divert the Kremlin from its current, aggressive course. Moscow has historically been averse to benign diplomacy to solve its most pressing territorial issues and there is little doubt now that the Kremlin has strayed far from that stance. The Kremlin only understands military might as the acute panacea for all its national ills. It only respects an opponent’s will to resort to military might as the prime arbitrator which might inhibit the Kremlin’s thirst for national aggrandizement through military force. But it will first attempt to enrich itself simply by the threat of military confrontation; a posture it surely is utilizing now in its quest to annex the Eastern Ukraine. 

Make no bones about it; the Kremlin’s sole interest is to annex the Eastern Ukraine but more precisely, the Donets Basin, which provides much of the raw resources such as coal, iron and other precious metals that maintain Russia’s military might. The Donets Basin was always a predominantly Ukrainian territory until the Soviet military-industrial complex started inundating the area with more reliable Russian communist technocrats, after Germany’s retreat from the area in 1943. The Soviet system encouraged Russian migration into the area throughout the postwar years to counterbalance the prevalence of Ukrainian workers in the strategically important iron ore and coal fields. Following the initial Russian migrations came generations of stalwart, communist technocrats to oversee the industrial buildup of the basin, which ensured a politically reliable core infrastructure to maintain the Soviet military’s interests in the area. Even after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990 the Kremlin has maintained an active and not always overt interest in the area to ensure the continued flow of raw resources to Russian industry. Many of these Russian civilians are the ones taking up arms against the Ukrainian government today by their illegal declaration of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic.  

Naturally the stakes are high in any potential military crisis with Russia because of its possession of the largest nuclear weapons arsenal on the planet but this is exactly what Putin is depending on to curtail the West’s possible drift toward military confrontation. It is exactly this threat which engendered the Cold War policy of nuclear deterrence to thwart either side from gaining an edge through the aggressive use of their conventional forces. But Moscow is hedging that those somewhat obsolete and provocative policies are no longer relevant in today’s world. So it’s probably a good time the West and especially the USA, make a firm pledge to invoke those same peacekeeping policies of the Cold War era since Moscow has decidedly detoured away from its post-Soviet path of cooperation with the Western World. Simply put, Europe cannot afford to have another inherently aggressive, rogue regime dictating political policy to its less prosperous neighboring states.   

If Moscow’s intention is to provide the Ukrainian rebels with all the implements of war it needs to attain a military solution to the current crisis then the West must resolve to undertake a comprehensive arms trade package with Kiev to ensure that Ukraine has the means to defend its sovereignty against its domestic enemies. Conversely, the NATO alliance should immediately resolve to strengthen its military defenses in those countries situated on the borderlands of Russia. Intelligence and reconnaissance assets in those countries should be enhanced to prewar deterrence and early-warning levels. But most importantly, the rest of Europe should begin implementing trade policies that divests their fragile economies from their dependence on Russian oil and natural gas, in order to mitigate the inevitable effects of Russian economic blackmail. You can count on that last scenario being the next weapon the Kremlin will hurl against Europe to counter the effects of the newest round of economic sanctions the West will employ to punish the Kremlin for murdering the 295 passengers aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.    

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Guest Editorial: From our Friends at


Putin's Secret Weapon

Russia's swashbuckling military intelligence unit is full of assassins, arms dealers, and bandits. And what they pulled off in Ukraine was just the beginning.

There are two ways an espionage agency can prove its worth to the government it serves. Either it can be truly useful (think: locating a most-wanted terrorist), or it can engender fear, dislike, and vilification from its rivals (think: being named a major threat in congressional testimony). But when a spy agency does both, its worth is beyond question. 

Since the Ukraine crisis began, the Kremlin has few doubts about the importance of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence apparatus. The agency has not only demonstrated how the Kremlin can employ it as an important foreign-policy tool, by ripping a country apart with just a handful of agents and a lot of guns. The GRU has also shown the rest of the world how Russia expects to fight its future wars: with a mix of stealth, deniability, subversion, and surgical violence. Even as GRU-backed rebel groups in eastern Ukraine lose ground in the face of Kiev's advancing forces, the geopolitical landscape has changed. The GRU is back in the global spook game and with a new playbook that will be a challenge for the West for years to come. 

Recent years had not been kind to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, the Glavnoe razvedyvatelnoe upravlenie (GRU). Once, it had been arguably Russia's largest intelligence agency, with self-contained stations -- known as "residencies" -- in embassies around the world, extensive networks of undercover agents, and nine brigades of special forces known as Spetsnaz. 

By the start of 2013, the GRU was on the ropes. Since 1992, the agency had been in charge of operations in the post-Soviet countries, Russia's "near abroad." But Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have seen it as increasingly unfit for that purpose. When the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's domestic security agency, was allowed to run operations abroad openly in 2003, one insider told me that this was because "the GRU doesn't seem to know how to do anything in our neighborhood except count tanks." (It may not even have done that very well. Putin regarded the GRU as partly responsible for Russia's lackluster performance in the 2008 invasion of Georgia.) There was a prevailing view in Moscow that the GRU's focus on gung-ho "kinetic operations" like paramilitary hit squads seemed less relevant in an age of cyberwar and oil politics.

Political missteps also contributed to the GRU's diminished role. Valentin Korabelnikov, the agency's chief from 1997 to 2009, seemed more comfortable accompanying Spetsnaz assassination teams in Chechnya than playing palace politics in Moscow. His criticisms of Putin's military reforms put him on the Kremlin's bad side too. Korabelnikov was sacked in 2009 and replaced with soon-to-be-retired Col. Gen. Alexander Shlyakhturov, who, within two years, was rarely seen in the GRU's headquarters due to his bad health. In December 2011 the GRU welcomed its third head in nearly three years, Maj. Gen. Igor Sergun, a former attaché and intelligence officer with no combat experience and the lowest-ranking head of the service in decades. By the end of 2013, the Kremlin seemed to be entertaining the suggestion that the agency be demoted from a "main directorate" to a mere directorate, which would have been a massive blow to the service's prestige and political access. 

In many ways, a demotion for the GRU seemed inevitable. Since 2008, the GRU had suffered a savage round of cuts during a period when most of Russia's security and intelligence agencies' budgets enjoyed steady increases. Eighty of its hundred general-rank officers had been sacked, retired, or transferred. Most of the Spetsnaz were reassigned to the regular army. Residencies were downsized, sometimes even to a single officer working undercover as a military attaché. 

What a difference a few months can make. What the Kremlin had once seen as the GRU's limitations -- a focus on the "near abroad," a concentration on violence over subtlety, a more swashbuckling style (including a willingness to conduct assassinations abroad) -- have become assets. 

The near-bloodless seizure of Crimea in March was based on plans drawn up by the General Staff's Main Operations Directorate that relied heavily on GRU intelligence. The GRU had comprehensively surveyed the region, was watching Ukrainian forces based there, and was listening to their communications. The GRU didn't only provide cover for the "little green men" who moved so quickly to seize strategic points on the peninsula before revealing themselves to be Russian troops. Many of those operatives were current or former GRU Spetsnaz

There is an increasing body of evidence that the so-called defense minister of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, Igor Strelkov, whose real name is Igor Girkin, is a serving or reserve GRU officer, who likely takes at the very least guidance, if not orders, from the agency's headquarters. As a result, the European Union has identified him as GRU "staff" and has placed him on its sanctions list. Although the bulk of the insurgents in eastern Ukraine appear to be Ukrainians or Russian "war tourists" -- encouraged, armed, and facilitated by Moscow -- there also appear to be GRU operators on the ground helping to bring guns and people across the border.
It was only when the Vostok Battalion appeared in eastern Ukraine at the end of May that the GRU's full re-emergence became clear.
It was only when the Vostok Battalion appeared in eastern Ukraine at the end of May that the GRU's full re-emergence became clear. This separatist group bears the same name as a GRU-sponsored Chechen unit that was disbanded in 2008. This new brigade -- composed largely of the same fighters from Chechnya -- seemed to spring from nowhere, uniformly armed and mounted in armored personnel carriers. Its first act was to seize the administration building in Donetsk, turfing out the motley insurgents who had made it their headquarters. Having established its credentials as the biggest dog in the pack, Vostok began recruiting Ukrainian volunteers to make up for Chechens who quietly drifted home. 

Alexander Khodakovsky, a defector from the Security Service of Ukraine, subsequently announced that he was the battalion's commander. But this only happened a few days after the seizure of the Donetsk headquarters. The implication is that the battalion was originally commanded by GRU representatives. Vostok appears intended not so much to fight the regular Ukrainian forces -- though it has -- but rather to serve as a skilled and disciplined enforcer of Moscow's authority over the militias if need be. 

The Vostok Battalion makes Moscow's strategy clear: The Kremlin has no desire for outright military conflict in its neighbors. Instead, the kind of "non-linear war" being waged in Ukraine, which blends outright force, misinformation, political and economic pressure, and covert operations, will likely be its means of choice in the future. These are the kinds of operations in which the GRU excels. 

After all, while Moscow is not going to abandon its claims to being a global power, in the immediate future Russia's foreign-policy focus will clearly be building and maintaining its hegemony in Eurasia. These are also the areas where the GRU is strongest. For example, in Kazakhstan, whose Russian-heavy northern regions are a potential future target for similar political pressure through local minorities, the GRU is the lead intelligence provider, as its civilian counterpart, the SVR, is technically barred from operating in Kazakhstan or any of the countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States by the 1992 Alma-Ata Declaration.

The combination of these factors means that the GRU now looks far more comfortable and confident than it did a year ago. Kiev outed and expelled a naval attaché from the Russian Embassy as a GRU officer, and Sergun, the GRU's head, made it onto the list of officials under Western sanctions. But neither of these actions has done the agency any harm. If anything, they have increased the GRU's prestige. 

Talk of downgrading the GRU's status is conspicuously absent in Moscow circles. The agency's restored status means it is again a player in the perennial turf wars within the Russian intelligence community. More importantly, it means that GRU operations elsewhere in the world are likely to be expanded again and to regain some of their old aggression.

The GRU's revival also demonstrates that the doctrine of "non-linear war" is not just an ad hoc response to the particularities of Ukraine. This is how Moscow plans to drive forward its interests in today's world. The rest of the world has not realized this now, even though Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov spelled it out in an obscure Russian military journal last year. He wrote that the new way of war involves "the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures … supplemented by military means of a covert nature character," not least with the use of special forces. 

This kind of conflict will be fought by spies, commandos, hackers, dupes, and mercenaries -- exactly the kind of operatives at the GRU's disposal. Even after the transfer of most Spetsnaz out of the GRU's direct chain of command, the agency still commands elite special forces trained for assassination, sabotage, and misdirection, as Ukraine shows. The GRU has also demonstrated a willingness to work with a wide range of mavericks. In Chechnya, it raised not just the Vostok Battalion but other units of defectors from guerrillas and bandits. The convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout is generally accepted to have been a part-time GRU asset too. The GRU is less picky than most intelligence agencies about who is cooperates with, which also means that it is harder to be sure who is working for them.

NATO and the West still have no effective response to this development. NATO, a military alliance built to respond to direct and overt aggression, has already found itself at a loss on how to deal with virtual attacks, such as the 2007 cyberattack on Estonia. The revival of the GRU's fortunes promises a future in which the Cold War threat of tanks spilling across the border is replaced by a new kind of war, combining subterfuge, careful cultivation of local allies, and covert Spetsnaz strikes to achieve the Kremlin's political aims. NATO may be stronger in strictly military terms, but if Russia can open political divisions in the West, carry out deniable operations using third-party combatants, and target strategic individuals and facilities, it doesn't really matter who has more tanks and better fighter jets. This is exactly what the GRU is tooling up to do. 

Photo by VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images