Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Possible signs of real changes in the Russian security and elite military forces

One of the more exotic technologies for tracking deeply submerged submarines consists of using a satellite based radar to measure the tiny elevation of the water surface of the ocean above an otherwise well hidden and silently moving submarine.  Some less exotic techniques including detecting wakes, tiny differences in water temperatures, magnetic fluctuations and many other "indirect" methods.  What I propose to do today is something similar: to try to look at some possible signals of what might be happening hidden deep inside the Russian security establishment.

Doku Umarov
As some of you might have recalled, I have regularly covered what I saw as a government campaign to defund, "reform" (read: shut down) and otherwise weaken the Russian elite military forces.  A Spetsnaz brigade was dismantled, the military intelligence service (GRU) was almost reduced to a Department of the General Staff, the 106th Airborne Division came close to being simply eliminated, and a number of top officers were either rather "mysteriously died" or resigned.  Things got totally out of control when the Airborne Forces almost officially demanded the sacking of Defense Minister Serdyukov.

Magomedali Vagabov
And then things suddenly seemed to cool down, and an eerie silence covered this entire "front".  There are now some signs that things have actually begun to change.
First, the Russian security services have embarked on a major campaign to capture or eliminate the leaders of the Wahabi underground in the Caucasus.

Even before the bombing of the Domodedovo airport in Moscow several top leaders of the Wahabi underground in the Caucasus (such as Magometali Vagabov) were killed in the course of several special operations.  Following the Domodedovo bombing (which was officially claimed by the self-styled "First Emir of the Emirate of the Caucasus" Doku Umarov) the campaign to track
Abdullah Kurd
down and kill the Wahabi leaders suddenly intensified and achieved major successes.  Many top officials of the Wahabi insurgency were killed including "Moganned" (a Saudi national), "Abdullah Kurd" (a Turkish national), Israpil Validjanov, Asker Djapuev and even Astemir Mimishev - the assassin of the Mufti of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic.  All of them were killed in the time period between April and May of this year.

The one still not caught, although his death has been announced many times only to be proven wrong is Doku Umarov himself.  Umarov, arguably the very last "historical" leader of the Chechen insurgency alive, has skillfully managed to escape many times from some very close calls, but there is no doubt in my mind that the noose around him is now extremely tight and that he will be killed very soon.
Asker Djapuev

As for the insurgency itself, it is reduced to two basic types of operations: high visibility "symbolic" terrorist attacks such as the one in Domodedovo or small, local level, assassinations of junior policemen and murders of "collaborators".  The single best indicator of the real capabilities of the insurgency is that it is handled only by Ministry of Internal Affairs forces and not by the military (the exception being, of course, the killing of top level commanders which is typically a join effort of the FSB and the GRU with logistical support from local police forces).

Astemir Mamishev
Bottom line: the insurgency has been defeated, most of its leaders are dead, and the scope and nature of Wahabi terrorism in the Caucasus and south Russia has been brought down to something similar to what the IRA was in the years preceding the Good Friday Agreement.

Of course, there is a Presidential election coming up in Russia and Medvedev has been challenged for many of his policies (betrayal of Iran, his "reforms" of the military, Russia's vote in the UN on Libya and many others) and, just like Obama, he needs to market himself as a "strong leader".  This is particularly true considering that Prime Minister Putin is far more popular than Medvedev.

There are also signs that Medvedev is openly courting elite Russian military forces.  First, there was the absolutely unprecedented move to award the Order of Kutuzov to the 45th Independent Special Operations Airbore Regiment as a whole (rather than to one individual).  Not only that, but this year the 45th Independent Special Operations Airborne Regiment was invited to the Victory Parade on Red Square.  

Something even more amazing happened on the same day: for the first time ever the traditionally super-secret GRU Spetsnaz forces were also represented during the Victory Day lead by a Spetsnaz Colonel who was identified by name (!).  Considering the fact that Spetsnaz GRU forces are still normally
Israpil Validzhanov
under order never to even show their faces, having them participate in a parade transmitted worldwide is an absolutely amazing, I would say earth-shattering, departure from the usual practice.

Medvedev also showed his support for the Special Forces of the Internal Ministry during a visit to the HQ of the "Rys'" Spetsnaz unit which included a lengthy conversation with the officers of this elite unit.

Clearly Medvedev is going out of his way to make all the political moves needed to show his support for the previously neglected security forces.  His efforts actually go beyond the symbolic.

Spetsnaz GRU sniper in Ossetia
The 106th Guard Airborne division has recently received a lot of high tech gear including UAVs, reconnaissance vehicles and ATV, top of the line night vision gear, encryption communications, advanced computerized command and control networks, etc.  A division which was almost disbanded is now receiving lavish care from the Kremlin.

Of course, this could all be a short lived, one-time, effort in order to achieve some political gains.  But this might also signal that Medvedev has finally accepted the fact that he cannot indefinitely oppose the security establishment and that a typically Russian backstage deal was made between the Kremlin and the security and key military forces.  I am inclined to believe that the latter is true.

45 Airborne Spetsnaz on Victory Day
Whatever may be the case, this is clearly good news for Russia in general and for the Caucasus in particular.  After two decades of absolute horror and chaos, there is a least a non-irrelevant possibility that some normalization and recovery might take place.  The combined action of the security forces and the Kremlin's campaign to support non-Wahabi Islam are slowly bringing about some results.  What is now needed is another double struggle: to bring in economic growth to the Caucasus and a merciless crackdown at the local corruption which is absolutely horrendous, even by Russian standards.

Spetsnaz "Rys'" officer
Medvedev has embarked on a massive campaign to fight corruption in Russia.  This campaign is centered on two mains tracks: a massive overhaul of the hideously corrupt and incompetent police force combined with an equally ferocious crackdown on corrupt government officials.  The faces of sacked police generals are now paraded on TV on an almost daily basis and the Kremlin is using the crafty pretext of a "re-attestation" of *all* the Internal Ministry official (from the rank and file to the very top commanders) to sack anybody who is perceived as corrupt or incompetent.  The Russian public in understandably viewing all this with a lot of skepticism, or even cynicism, and only time will show if all these efforts are for real or not.  The key test, in my opinion, will be if the Kremlin will be willing (and able) crackdown on the all-powerful Mafia and gangs of thugs which have prospered in the Caucasus for many decades.

Spetsnaz GRU Col. Tkachuk on Victory Day
The problem of the Wahabi insurgency cannot be separated from the problem of the south Russian mob - the two are twin brothers, closely linked at many levels.  For example, one of the reasons why only central "elite" Spetsnaz forces have been able to eliminate so many Wahabi leaders is not that such operations require an amazing amount of military skills, but simply because the central Spetsnaz forces have no connections to the local mob or the local police (which, for all practical purposes is one and the same).

This is an ambitious multi-tired program for sure, but one which is vital for the stability and security of all of Russia.  If it takes a looming Presidential election to finally make it happen, then this is a good thing.

The Saker