Saturday, September 1, 2012

Why the Russians are not coming, not even covertly

In a recent comments thread Carlo has pointed out that there is a campaign to murder non-Wahabi Muslims in Russia to which Lysander added that "perhaps it should be Russian policy to seek the overthrow of the Saudi royal family. Perhaps not openly stated, but maybe the should start a covert program of destabilization against KSA. Surely there are some former KGB officers who remember how to do these things? At the very least in retaliation for each incident that occurs in Russia."

That is an interesting idea.  Needless to say, I have no access to any decision-making on such topics which are of the prerogative of some key elements the Presidential Administration, probably a restricted sub-group of key individuals of the Security Council of the Russian Federation and which could task either the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) or the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), or both, to engage in a destabilization campaign in the KSA.  That is in theory.  In practice, things are far more complicated than that.

First, it is crucial to understand that between 1988 and 1991 (Gorbachev years) and, even more so, between 1991 and 1991 (Eltsin years) the Russian security services were comprehensively smashed to smithereens.  The politically correct expressions for this process of quasi-annihilation are "reformed" or "democratized".  One could write an entire PhD thesis on the magnitude of this cataclysm, I will just offer an order-of-magnitude figure which is nothing more than my guesstimate of how much was destroyed.  I would estimate that roughly 90% of the global capabilities of the ex-Soviet (and then Russian) security services were destroyed under the rule of these "democratic leaders".

Since Putin's election in 2000 this process has been reversed, there is no doubt about that, but the current Russian security services are still far from having recovered from the "democratic apocalypse" of the 1980s and 1990s.

Furthermore, I would personally argue that the security services of the former USSR were largely bloated and ineffective.  I personally was involved in many types of "anti-Soviet" activities for many years and I can attest that the KGB was no nearly as formidable as some imagined it to be.  Let's just say that Brezhnev's KGB was nothing like Stalin's NKVD/MGB.  Sure within the KGB itself the branch tasked with Foreign Intelligence (the PGU KGB SSSR or First Main Directorate of the KGB) was an elite of a much higher level than the rest of the KGB, but nonetheless, even the PGU was not the all-knowing, all-understanding and almighty Ueber-spy-service some imagined it to be.  Bottom line: when Putin came to power his task was not to simply resurrect the former KGB, but to design a new security establishment suitable for post-Communist Russia, an immensely complicated task which he had to tackle in extremely difficult, if not critical,  circumstances.

Nowadays the major Russian intelligence and security services include the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).  There are a few more services such as several departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Federal Border Service (FTS), the small and shadowy Security Service of the President of the Russian Federation (SPB),  or the Anti-Terrorism Center of the CIS (ATTsSNG) which all have some intelligence and security functions, but the big players are obviously the SVR-FSB-GRU trio.  While their areas of responsibility are roughly similar to the one of their Soviet era counterparts (the SVR's inherited the functions of the 1st Main Directorate of the KGB, the FSB inherited the functions of the 2nd Main Directorate of the KGB (and a few other Directorates), while the current GRU inherited the functions of the old GRU GSh SSSR) this is a misleading comparison because the fundamental missions of the modern SVR-FSB-GRU trio have changed dramatically.

This is hardly surprising.  The USSR fancied itself as a global empire, a superpower which would challenge the capitalist world in every corner of the planet in a global zero-sum game.  As for the Soviet security services, not only were they tasked with protecting the state, there were also tasked with protecting the Soviet regime and even the Communist ideology.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent democratic apocalypse, the Russian internal security services were given a dramatically different set of tasks including such things as the protecting the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation from foreign infiltration and home gown separatist movements, the struggle against Western-backed financial interests or the protection of non-Wahabi Islamic clergy from terror attacks.  The good bad old KGB never had to deal with such tasks.  As for the SVR and the GRU, they put the early detection of World War III on the back-burner and they turned to such matters as economic intelligence and lucrative weapons export contacts.

As for the "conceptual map" of the planet as seen by the Russian security and intelligence establishment it looks like this: the territory of the Russian Federation itself which needs to be protected from economic, social and political crises, the "Near Abroad" (countries of the former USSR) and the "Far Abroad" (the rest of the planet).  The absolutely vital territory to defend was, of course, the Russian Federation itself.  From this realization came the need to also get directly, if covertly, involved in the "Near Abroad" because developments in this "Near Abroad" directly and immediately affected the national security of the Russian Federation.  The Georgian war of 08.08.08 clearly proved beyond any doubt that the entire realm of the "Near Abroad" had to be considered as a real of vital Russian interest.  But what about the "Far Abroad", the rest of the planet?

I would argue that Russia made the correct call in deciding that it simply did not have the resources to once again become a global player.  In other words, the Russian regime took a monumental, truly historical decision: it decided that Russia would never be an Empire again, that it would take the very deliberate decision to "restrict" itself to being a large but "normal" country whose security would be best promoted by an insistence on the respect for international law and a well-developed system of alliances in a (hopefully) multi-polar world in which other such "non-global" or "non-imperial" countries could join efforts and mutually assist each other.

It is quite true that most of us when we hear the words "respect for international law" or "alliances of equals in a multi-polar world" almost instinctively dismiss them as crude propaganda simply because we have heard them used over and over again the disguise or justify US imperial or Western neo-colonial policies and it is now very hard to believe ex-Communists like Putin when they use them.  And yet it is absolutely essential to understand that these expressions are not a means to "sell" Russian policies but the instruments chosen by Russia to promote its national security interests.  In other words, its not that Putin "believes" in international law, its that Putin believes that a policy of systematic insistence that international law be respected is greatly advantageous for Russia.

In this context, the option to embark on a campaign to destabilize Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, any other country, does not seem compatible with the overall national security strategy of Russia.  That does not mean that the Russian regime would not like to pay back the KSA for its multi-billion dollar campaign in support of Wahabi terrorism in Russia - I am sure it would - rather it simply means that Russia does not believe that the appropriate response to the Saudi terror campaign would be to try to retaliate in kind.

The Russian anti-Wahabi-terror campaign is, I believe, organized around the following global national security policies:

Policies inside the Russian Federation:

a) Strengthening as much as possible the Russian internal security services on all levels, from the Federal FSB to the local rookie police officer on the beat in the streets of Makhachkala.

b) Seeking to identify and promote local leaders - such as Ramzan Kadyrov -  capable of dealing with terrorism while developing the local economies.

c) Embark on a systematic campaign of support for non-Wahabi (traditional) forms of Islam in all of Russia, including the capital and all the major Russian cities

d) Developing and maintaining a very powerful military "fist" capable of immediate response (2 hours or less) to any major armed attack.

e) Adopting of a body of laws which strictly punish any forms of national, ethnic or religious discrimination, hatred or hooliganism and the systematic use of such law to punish groups or individuals (Russian and non-Russian) violating these laws.

f) Adopting a system of laws which will gradually "choke" and eventually bring down to a minimum the activities of covert US/EU/NATO assets in Russia, from the likes of Khodorkovsky to the Pussy Riots crazies, and including a whole galaxy of individuals, movements, organizations and parties, all of which, if taken together, would account to something like 1% to 2% (max) of the Russian population.

g) Covert internal efforts to prevent the appearance of a real, non Kremlin-controlled, opposition movement or party; the potential interest for such a real opposition to the current regime in power is probably rather strong as the real power-base of dedicated Putin supporters is probably only somewhere in the 40%-50% of the population (Putin got so brilliantly re-elected not so much because all of those who voted for him loved him as because of the fact that there simply is currently no credible opposition or alternative to Putin).

Policies in the Near Abroad

a) Economic support in terms of grants, credits or preferential pricing policies for those regimes in the Near Abroad who either are supportive of Russia or, at least, not directly hostile.

b) Security assistance in all forms for those regimes in the Near Abroad who either are supportive of Russia or, at least, not directly hostile.

c) Economic and political isolation of anti-Russian regimes in the near abroad

d) Development and maintenance of  armed forces structured into four autonomous and self-sufficient  "strategic directions" each controlling a sufficient number ground, naval and air forces to immediately respond to any local conflict or external aggression.

e) Overt political support for political parties or movement in opposition to the anti-Russian regime in power.

Policies in the Far Abroad

a) Using the Russian power at the UN Security Council to block any unilateral use of force or any unilateral intervention by the US Empire and its subsets (NATO, EU, Anglosphere, Israel, Colombia, etc.)

b) Insistence that any international crisis be handled by a representative segment of the international community (and not just US puppet regimes) and by all the parties to the conflict (and not just those supported by the USA).

c) Development of new international institutions such as BRICS, CSTO, SCO and others which can strengthen a multi-polar world and thereby oppose a worldwide US hegemony

d) Keeping the Russian armed forces in general and the Strategic Rocket Forces powerful enough to make a direct military aggression against Russia by anybody, including first and foremost the USA, absolutely unthinkable.

Policies common to all levels

a) Prepare for the inevitable global financial collapse by such means as reducing the amount of US Treasury holdings, dollars, Western stocks, etc, owned by Russia or Russian interests (many, if not most, Russian experts predict this collapse for 2013 already).

b) Re-orienting the Russian economy towards Asia while keeping Europe dependent on Russian energy exports.

c) Reducing as much as can be the current dependence of the Russian economy and state budget on energy and raw-material exports aboard by the revitalization of high-technology, aerospace, medical, industrial, information technology and other sectors of the Russian economy.

It is the fundamental mission of the Russian security and intelligence forces to support the implementation of all these policies on their respective levels, a far more complex and diverse task than that which was given by the Soviet leadership to the KGB.

Does that mean that Russia will never use KGB-style techniques to destabilize a regime or use covert operations against an enemy?  No, not at all.

For example, it is likely that the SVR is keeping a very close eye on the political struggle between Saakashvili and Nino Burdzhanadze and it would be reasonable to expect the SVR to do whatever it can to assist her, but only covertly, of course.  Similarly, I am sure that the contact between the Russian and Iranian security services are very close and that the Russian GRU has a very good idea of what Iran might, or might not, be doing in Syria or Bahrain.  Finally, I would not be surprised at all if we learned one day that GRU agent had succeeded in infiltrating the CENTCOM's Joint Intelligence Center in Tampa Bay.  But neither would I be surprised if I learned that the GRU has succeeded in infiltrating somebody in the J.P. Morgan Chase Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT) or in the staff of the China Policy Department of the US Chamber of Commerce.  These new targets reflect new realities and new missions.

What I do not see at all is the SVR or the GRU putting the time, effort and money to build up a covert network of agents inside such a tough target country like the KSA not because it fundamentally could not do so, it probably could, but because that would entail fantastic opportunity costs and a redirection of urgently needed resources from far more important priories.  And even if there are still "former KGB officers around who remember how to do these things" I suspect that they would nowadays be used either as teachers in the various specialized academies or as advisers to the new leaders.

Ever since the crisis in Syria began I have been clamoring Urbi et Orbi that the Russians are not, repeat, not coming!! (see here, here and here).  In these articles I was referring to a possible military intervention, but today I hope that I have explained why the Russian security and intelligence organizations are not coming either, at least not with any type of covert operation to support Assad or overthrow the House of Saud.

I will conclude here by saying that I am personally very happy that the Russians are not "coming".  First, Russia does not have any more justifiable reasons than the USA to be policing the planet, regardless of whether it has the means to do so or not.  I oppose all "global cops" - regardless of who they are.  Second, nobody in the Middle-East has asked for the Russians to "come" and, frankly, even if they did, I don't believe that Russia has any obligation or even any logical reason to agree to such demands.  Why?  Simple: if Russia was in a deep crisis, do you seriously believe the Syrians, Saudis or Iranians would "come" to "help" Russia?  Of course not!  Third, the best Russia can do for the people of the Middle-East is take upon itself to shoulder responsibilities commensurate with the real, actual, Russian capabilities.  What point is there to "come" only to be defeated?  Why make empty promises of support which one cannot deliver upon?  Russia did take a very clear and firm stance on Syria and it did that where it mattered the most, at the UN Security Council, where Russia could actually deliver on its promises.  

Lastly, and unlike the ruling "1%" Western plutocracies who wage constant wars of choice against the clear will of their own public opinions, the Kremlin cannot ignore the fact that a vast majority of the Russian public would be categorically opposed to a Russian military or covert operation into a conflict so far from Russia or the Russian Near Abroad, and in defense of a very dubious ally like Assad.  The fact is that the Kremlin is far more democratic than all the western "democracies", at least if by "democratic" we understand "ruling in accordance to the will of a majority of people".

Makes you wonder where the real "Free World" really is, does it not?

The Saker

PS: come to think about it, there is one realm in which the Russians will use the good old "cloak and dagger" type of operations: the elimination of terrorist leaders in the Caucasus.  In fact, the Russians openly admit, with some pride, that they killed many Chechen insurgency leaders including Dudaev, Basaev, Khattab, Maskhadov and many, many others.  Dokku Umarov has, so far, succeeded in avoiding the Russian killer teams and I wonder if that is not because the Kremlin is more than happy to have him in the role of a "Russian Bin-Laden".  Whatever may be the case, there is no doubt in my mind that the Russian security services will hunt down and execute any Wahabi terrorist leader reckless enough to enter the territory of the Russian Federation.  I do not, however, believe that the Russians will attempt to kill them abroad even though western sources have claimed that the Russian security services were involved in the murders of Yandarbiev, which I do not believe to be true (nor do I believe that they were involved in the murders of Yamadaev for that matter).  The worst instances of terrorism in Russia are currently taking place in Dagestan, which is were I expect the Russian killer teams to be the most active.