Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Putin tries a judo throw

Since Vladimir Putin "resurfaced" on Monday, the most feverish speculation has died down. He has not been actually overthrown. However there is little doubt that his regime is facing serious problems.

In a sense we can know this by the renewed blizzard of propaganda and misinformation being put out by the Kremlin lie machine: reporting and exaggerating splits between EU and NATO partners about the current Russian sanctions regime, for example. Then there is the report that Putin was prepared to use nuclear weapons over Crimea. Meanwhile the entire Russian northern fleet has gone on alert. The message is clear "I am dangerous, don't mess with me".

Yet as some sources report that the Russian death toll in Ukraine now significantly exceeds the initial estimates, the fact that it is the Northern fleet is significant- threatening to the NATO exercise in the Baltic, but not a further threat to Ukraine. More to the point it is a distraction for a force which is rumoured to be more disaffected with the current regime.

The split between the Chechens and the FSB is clearly real, and some forces that might be persuaded to take sides- including the armed forces- are being given jobs to do while the struggle continues.

Sooner or later Putin will have to take sides, and when he does, his regime will be in serious peril.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Putinism faces another crisis

The murder of Boris Nemtsov is beginning to look like a catalyst for some significant upheaval in Russia. 

The arrest of Chechen suspects initially looked like a lazy round up of the "usual suspects". 

However it quickly became clear that the individuals detained by the FSB were not just ordinary Chechens but significant figures, very close to the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has enjoyed special privileges both in his home patch, but also across Russia, including Moscow. Privileges which were, of course, granted by Putin.

The fact that the head of the FSB personally announced the arrests -a very unusual thing for him to do- suggests a major split between two of the critical pillars of Putinism: The FSB and Kadyrov's Chechens.

This is now a major headache for Putin.

At other crisis points -the Kursk disaster springs to mind- he has dropped out of sight and then returned, usually with increasing levels of ruthlessness, and, amid swirling rumours, that seems to be what he is doing now: he has not been seen in public for several days.

However, Andrei Ilarionov, who has a track record of being a very well informed Kremlinologist, suggests that Putin is facing a direct and personal challenge to his authority, and that even a Palace coup is now a real prospect, with the ouster of Dimitri Medvedev as Prime Minister and his replacement by a figure closer to the FSB. This would matter intensely, since the PM is the designated successor if the President steps down or is removed from office.   

Clearly the removal of Medvedev has been a possibility for some time now, but Putin knows he must tread exceptionally carefully in his choice of successor, and even more carefully if the FSB and the Chechens are now on a collision course.

So in addition to the international pressure on the Russian leader, it now seems that internal pressure from the regime itself is making itself felt.

Late stage Putinism is at a crossroads this weekend. It may be that Putin is indeed facing real pressure from the hardline Russian nationalist tinged FSB leadership. Yet to concede to their demands could destroy the delicate balance that has been struck, not only with the Chechens, but also the many other nationalities of Russia, such as the Tartars, which risks destroying Russia as we have known it. On the other hand, failing to deal with the murder of Nemtsov could lead to a St Valentine's Day Massacre of the leadership as the different oligarchs panic over their own position. Wild rumours of the arrest of Sechin seem wide of the mark, but there are any number of strange stories in Moscow these days- and not just the tosh put out by Dimitri- the "Mouth of Sauron"- Peshkov.

Clearly Putin is in a very real mess, it is no wonder he has gone to ground. He must resurface to meet the Krygyz President on Monday- and a failure to do so could create a rumour firestorm. By that time he must have worked out a new domestic balance, and a failure to do that could make his life very dangerous indeed. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Boris Nemtsov

When I first met Boris Nemtsov -he was then in his mid thirties- in addition to his obvious intelligence, he also possessed a glamour, which was not just a function of good looks, but also the determined way he had become anti-Soviet. He had begun by leading protests in his home town of Sochi and had steadily progressed so that by the last years of Boris Yeltsin, he had become mayor of Nizhni Novgorod and was in the process of being brought into the Kremlin. As such he might have become part of the corrupt cabal that ultimately- and disastrously- led to the emergence of the Putin regime. Instead, he chose a path that was both more principled and as his tragic assassination today has proven, more dangerous.

Nemtsov spoke for the Western Russia, as opposed to the Scythian one of Stalin and Putin. He believed in rule of law and rule of the people and he held in contempt those who have subverted and stolen Russia for their own personal greed. Nemtsov was not merely a political critic of Vladmir Putin's regime, he was a moral rebuke to it.

His murder today is a tragedy for Russia. 

As always, the "mouth of Sauron", Vladimir Putin's dishonest and highly unsavory press spokesman, Dimitri Peshkov was quick to try to find some angle that might mitigate the damage to his boss, declaring that the murder was a "provocation" and that Putin himself would take charge of the investigation. I suppose that it is a bit like having a fox investigate a murder in the hen house, because the ease with which the assassins were able to escape in a place swarming with police is already pretty suggestive. Even if Putin himself is not individually involved, someone with significant pull in the security services of Russia very likely is.

Tomorrow, March 1st, Boris Nemtsov was scheduled to address a demonstration against the Russian war in Ukraine. he had been blistering in his condemnation of "Putin's war" in the Donbas. His assassination on the eve of the demonstration is significant timing.

Shooting the only major Russian opposition leader still at liberty in the back is clearly intended to underline the danger that liberal, western minded people now face in the dark and paranoid political ghost train of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Yet in a sense Peshkov is right- the murder of Nemtsov is a political message: that the regime is fearful and increasingly divided.

I fear that this cowardly, barbaric act is just another note in the symphonie fantastique of the economic, social and political crack-up of Russia. The damage of Putin's rule is now eroding every part of the state and the nation. The nihilism of the Mafia state may not stop with the opposition, but eventually, and sometime soon, the regime will start to feast on its own children.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The UK stirs...

After the Hollande-Merkel "peace" mission and Michael Fallon's "infelicitous" choice of words about the Russian threat to the Baltic, it seemed that British detachment from both its allies, including the US, and the burgeoning Putin crisis was growing. In fact, the lack of involvement by the UK in the Minsk-2 debacle now looks prescient. Meanwhile the British decision to provide direct military assistance to the Ukrainian government is controversial, but the in face of the dumb insolence of the Putin government it is a pretty small step, albeit one with potentially momentous consequences for the endgame of the crisis.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the pressure of the Putinist lie machine and the further persecution of Navalny, it is becoming clear that the situation in Russia is deteriorating fast. Russia has chosen a direct challenge to the West, nuclear threats and all. However, the reaction from Washington and it now seems in London, is increasingly to call Putin's bluff. 

There has been cold fury in London to the overflight by Russian bear nuclear bombers, but in a way what is interesting is how understated the reaction has been, Cameron's comment, That the Russians were trying to "make some sort of point" was withering and came with the further comment that more sanctions were likely. Now of course the UK is set to provide the first  military assistance to Ukraine. The British have moved beyond sanctions and are now accepting that the breech with Putin's mafia state is probably irrecoverable for as long as the tyrant stays in the Kremlin.

Some will react with great concern at the potential for an acceleration in the conflict, yet the failure of the Russians to take any of the off ramps of the crisis, indeed to exacerbate the crisis at every turn with propaganda as well as with all out military aggression has ended global patience with Putin. It is the direct aggression of the Kremlin that is solely responsible for this war, and the laughable denials of Russian involvement have not altered the truth: this is a Russian war against Ukraine launched at the express order of Putin himself as an act of revenge against the Ukrainians who dared throw out a thieving and criminal tyrant.

The intervention of the United Kingdom is a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly 9000 Russian troops and all the equipment that Putin has sent into Eastern Ukraine, plus the troops he has used in Crimea. However it signals quite clearly that this is not now about sanctions. It seems likely that sanctions against Putin will indeed be tightened- and that prospective Putin allies, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary will also not be treated gently, witness the American comments about the current government in Budapest

Putin has acted in bad faith throughout this entire crisis, and the repeated lies now longer make him look like a strategic master, but a bare faced liar and untrustworthy negotiator. The UK is recognising that Russia will not abide by any agreement unless it is made to do so. Putin's honour is gone, and his campaign in Ukraine- including the bomb attacks in Kharkiv, that his agents orchestrated- now make him look despicable. 

The deployment of British military advisers is the beginning of a ramp up in pressure against Putin. In my view his regime is fragile and his position increasingly unstable. Time will tell, but by taking Putin's threats seriously for the first time, there is now the potential for them to be countered and ultimately ended.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Are we in the prelude to a global war?

In his recently published book, Bill Browder gives estimates of how much Vladimir Putin has stolen from his Russian fellow countrymen. The number he gives is a truly staggering $200 billion. If this is even remotely true, it makes Putin one of the greatest thieves in human history. 

We already know that Putin is presiding over a propaganda machine that rivals and even exceeds the worst that Josef Goebbels presided over. The use of propaganda is sophisticated and relativistic- Peter Pomerantsev in his book "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible" outlines just how pervasive and evil the Putinist lie machine has become.

In the UK, the inquiry into the circumstances of the poisoning of Aleksander Litvinenko has revealed that the British government has clear and direct evidence that Russian government agents acting under the orders of "the highest authority" carried out the murder of Litvinenko, even though he was a British citizen, and the murder was carried out in the heart of the British capital. An act of murder that was intended to be an act of intimidation and revenge.

That Vladimir Putin is a warmonger is pretty much self evident. At his order, Russia has conducted open military operations against Moldova, Chechnya, Georgia and now, of course, Ukraine. Russian forces have been implicated in other conflicts- including in Armenia, Tajikistan, Kygyzstan Iraq and elsewhere.

A thief, a liar, a murderer, a warmonger. It is already an infamous record.

Yet worse seems certain to come.

Famously Vladimir Putin was assessed by his KGB handlers as having a reduced sense of danger. This sense of recklessness is allied to a ruthless perception of his own interests. He has not hesitated to use murder to achieve his goals. 

The agreement that Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel thought they had negotiated in Minsk has clearly failed. Far from halting the fighting, the Russian army has expanded its rearmament in Ukraine and forced the Ukrainian army to withdraw further, not just from Debaltseve, but now from Mariupol. Putin has continued to act in bad faith, even to the leaders of the peacemaking process.


There is now a consistent pattern of aggression and hostility from the Putinist regime. A pattern of bad faith and dishonour. There can be no doubt about what we are facing, and also little doubt that Russia, hostile and heavily rearmed, with troops practicing conventional and nuclear attacks against NATO is now a threat to democracy and freedom around the world. 

I believe the evidence is now quite clear that Putin intends to expand his war against the West and its values. He will not back down, and he will not stop, unless he is stopped. 

The failure, indeed the humiliation, of President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel in the face of the hostile intent of the Russian tyrant indicates that Russia no longer cares about what Europe thinks. The implication is that Putin is now prepared to launch open attacks directly against the West and particularly NATO.

The crisis is about to head into a far more dangerous direction. In fact, unless we arm Ukraine sufficiently to tie down Russian forces we could be facing a direct attack within weeks which will lead to a European or even a global conflict.

Vladimir Putin is already one of the greatest mafia dons- a proven liar, a proven thief on an historic scale, the author of state-sponsored murder. Some might say that his crimes- even his wars- are still on a small scale, yet in an afternoon a Putin ordered nuclear attack would make him the greatest murderer in human history too.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Fighting the last war

In the 1930s there were many heated debates about issues which in retrospect seem rather beside the point. The role of the League of Nations was hotly debated, but in the face of the unrelenting aggression of the dictators, the whole idea of peace-based policies fell apart in the face of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. There were many rational arguments as to why a second Great War was unthinkable: war itself had become the ultimate evil. Surely, no matter what the grievance, a rational and peaceful solution could be found? In the end such enlightened humanity lead to the disaster of Munich and the general slide to a second global conflict. Many reasons might be found after the event- the policy mistakes after 1918, reparations and so on, but actually the malign and festering sense of grievance that Hitler fostered in the German people was not a rational policy and led directly to the war. In the end, the tyrant launched a second two front war which led not merely to a second defeat for Germany but a total and unconditional defeat. The costs however were almost unbearable: the death of millions, the total destruction of cities across Europe and the end of a way of life that had survived in Europe for centuries.

And in the end all that had happened was that in Eastern Europe one tyranny supplanted the other, and for millions caught between Russia and Germany the tyranny of Stalin was as bad as that of Hitler. So the myth that the victors of the Second World War leave themselves is that it was all worth it because good triumphed over evil. Except in Central and Eastern Europe that was not true: evil triumphed over evil, and it was barely possible to tell who was worse. We are still paying the price for that self delusion today. We do not say that Soviet and Nazi are moral equivalents even though they clearly are, and this blindness allowed us to ignore the fact that Putin became an apologist for Stalin.

Now 70 years after the end of the Hitler war, another war is raging in Europe. It is not, as were the wars in the Western Balkans a matter of civil conflict, but an outright invasion. The Russian attack on Ukraine is illegal under all the rules that the world created after the fall of the Nazis. The United Nations was specifically created to prevent such aggression, but it cannot act, because at the very heart of the UN, Russia plots to resist condemnation or even discussion of its crimes within the Security Council. Russia seeks to subvert or browbeat any opposition to its power, and in its unrelenting violence it now quite closely resembles the Hitler tyranny. Laws are to be ignored, justice is a mere relative point of view, truth merely the words of the Tyrant.

It is sometimes said that when you compare someone to Hitler you yourself have already lost the argument. However for me, the problem is that the war that Vladimir Putin is planning for and practicing will make the crimes of Hitler look as paltry as the crimes of the Kaiser seemed compared to monstrosity of Nazism.

The nuclear armed bombers cruising off the English Channel last week are just the latest in a set of provocations that have become as routine as they have become outrageous. The Russian army exercises with battlefield nuclear weapons, The Russian air force breaks the INF treaty by dispersing their strike force and then practicing attacks against Sweden, Poland, Finland, the Baltic and the United Kingdom. The Russian navy practices the launch of strategic nuclear weapons. Diplomatically Russia has made it clear that it will not necessarily be bound by the nuclear arms treaties that the USSR entered into- and in any event is now in clear breach of the INF treaty, the Cafe treaty and quite probably the START treaty too.

The fact is that Vladimir Putin has the capacity to be a monster that would put Hitler or Stalin to shame- his reckless intent seems set to launch not merely a series of conventional conflicts, but potentially a nuclear conflict too. In a single afternoon Putin could kill more people than Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined killed in their whole careers of infamy.

Some would argue that in the face of this nuclear blackmail, we should retreat. However the fact is that even the most craven appeasement may not satisfy Putin. The most dangerous places these days are those that historically have been closest and most friendly to Russia. If the choice is slavery or enmity, it is pretty clear where free men and women should stand. The threats that Putin is making are not materially different from the threats of the Soviet Union, and our response should be precisely the same: stop Russian subversion and seal-off the territory they have seized in Ukraine and then turn the rest of Ukraine into the new front line: the West Germany of the Second Cold War. Offer assistance to all those who are ready to resist Russian aggression or subversion- perhaps even including Belarus, which is clearly seeking greater distance from the moral implosion of Russia.

Putin may be actively seeking conflict, but our response of fighting the second cold war should be determined. As the Russian aggression is being fought all out, so our response should be fought at all levels: propaganda should be answered with truth- including investment in Russian language media. Subversion should be answered with the expulsion of spies and economic sanctions; and aggression should be met with containment- including military containment.

If we want to avoid a replay of the 1930s we need to replay the 1950s.

The crisis is upon us, do we have the moral strength and the will to answer the barbarians at the gate?  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

After Mariupol

Russia is refusing to back down in Ukraine.

All out military force is being used in order to support the declared Russian military objective that Ukraine be defeated and divided. Civilians are being deliberately targeted and the attacks on a major power station and other industrial operations is a clear attempt to destroy the Ukrainian economy.

Put simply, the Russian Federation is engaged in a huge act of aggression against a peaceful neighbour. Despite sanctions, and despite increasing economic weakness Vladimir Putin stands defiant.

In Britain, the evidence of state sponsored murder of a British citizen is now revealed and is both clear and overwhelming. 

Russia is seeking by overt aggression and covert subversion to attack the West. The astonishing lies put out by the Russian propaganda machine are feeding a frenzy of anti-Western hatred. Some countries- including Greece- have been severely compromised by a large scale and long term Russian espionage penetration. Russian espionage activity is higher than it has been at any time in history.

All of this is in support of a regime that is criminal to its very heart. Theft, murder, corruption on the widest scale in human history, backed by an unlimited greed and with no moral brake whatsoever. There are no rules that Russia will observe, there is no taboo- including the use of nuclear weapons- that they will not break.

In short Russia is a declared hostile power that intends to weaken or destroy both the EU and NATO. 

Once this critical fact is understood, it becomes very clear that the West must answer the threat from this barbarian state or risk following Rome into a dark ages of similar criminality and violence.

Firstly, after the escalation of the war by the Russian armed forces, all pretense that Russia intends to abide by any agreement not backed by force must now cease. In short, the time has come to give full military assistance to Ukraine. The equipment and training requested by the Ukrainian government should now be provided to enable Kiev to defend itself. Meanwhile warrants should be put out for the arrest of weapons buyers acting on behalf of the so-called rebels. Supply of such weapons comes largely from Russia, of course, but it will limit the deniability still available to the Russian army. 

Secondly, despite the fears of the impact on the EU of Russian economic collapse, the fears of the impact of war now loom far larger. Russia has launched a war of aggression that must be stopped and therefore this aggression must be met by sanctions that actually limit the freedom of action of the Putin regime. All out economic sanctions must be a part of this. The UK did not continue to trade with Nazi Germany after the outbreak of the Second World War, and neither should the West continue to provide any assistance to a government that is using all its energies against us. 

Putin is seeking through his spy networks, propaganda allies and all the unconventional forces at his disposal to blunt the response of the West. Some Quislings may yet appear, even amongst NATO allies, and we need to be prepared to deal with this possibility in the most ruthless terms. Nevertheless, Putinism must not prevail. The idea of the criminal state must not succeed and the democratic will of Europeans- including Ukrainians- can not be undermined by the thuggish criminality of the despicable bunch of murders in the Kremlin. 

Finally the time has come to publicly expel Russian citizens, including diplomats, that are working to support the espionage activity of the Putinist regime. Russia is already fighting a war against us, the least we can do is make that war more difficult to prosecute in Western capitals.