Boris Nemtsov’s Execution: Real Time Crisis*

Boris Nemtsov’s heart breaking execution provoked more than outrage. Much informed and emotive opinion quickly converged: Putin personally ordered the assassination. The murder’s audacity and brazen proximity to the Kremlin pointed to sanctioned activity. Speculation invoked dark Soviet precedents like Kirov’s 1934 death or (more improbably) 1937’s mass terror.

Boris Nemtsov, Putin, Assassination, Kremlin

Many in the Russian opposition close to Nemtsov (Nemtsov’s own attorney, among others) in grief noted Russian domestic realities frequently are more complex: potential suspects extended beyond one man or the Kremlin. Yet they rightly emphasized even if Putin personally did not order the crime, he is still guilty. He created the domestic propaganda climate targeting opposition leaders.

Here’s our reaction as events unfolded at the time. We called some things decently, could have been more specific on others. We noted Kadyrov’s earlier signs of factional manipulation. We should have underscored Kadyrov’s new national ambitions and tensions with Moscow power ministries. Twitter has limits; the omissions, however, are ours.





Reuters and general media arrive at similar takes now. Russian sites Slon and Novaya Gazeta offered more detailed reporting a little earlier. Pavlosvky offers a general agreement. As of this writing, we believe the above frame is essentially accurate. Much remains unclear.

Rumors Fly

Putin’s public absence since March 5th ignited mass speculation. Rumors range from ill health, arrival of a new child to forcible detention as a result of factional infighting. The Kremlin promises a public appearance within days.

Putin’s initial lying low made sense if voluntary – regardless of speculation. Nemtsov’s assassination exposed the regime’s structural fissures.

One level is bureaucratic. The FSB and its rival the Ministry of Interior (MVD) energetically pursued the murder investigation; the Investigation Committee (a quasi FBI-like entity) less so. The FSB Chairman announced the arrest of Chechens in previously out-of-bounds (for Russian federals) Chechnya under Kadryov, Putin’s regional protege. Moscow federal authorities long chafed at Putin’s protection over Chechnya. Kadyrov flaunted it by conducting criminal activity in Moscow immune from Russian authorities.

Nemtsov’s death and the Chechnyan angle stoked institutional rivalries. Putin since his 2013 return nurtured the MVD, placing loyalists in charge of its 170,000 troops. Some Putin appointees are considered ‘liberal’ in the Russian context. (Putin staunch supporter Yakunin, as head of the railways, also commands a significant armed force). Putin has criticized the FSB (and thus Chairman Bortnikov) in the past. For example, he blamed them the 2011 opposition demonstrations. He then granted MVD more authority. Bortnikov’s personal announcement that the FSB arrested Chechens for Nemtsov’s death is significant in that context. Are we seeing a new version of the ‘Siloviki War’ from the mid 2000s?

Ideological differences on overall direction are another level. We’ve written here before how Putin attempted in 2014 to triangulate among his hardline ideologues and the more pragmatic as he improvised in Ukraine. Each Putin swing ignited protests. Those closest to the Novorossiya ideological project (and regime proxies such as Malofeev, etc.) find Kadyrov and his Chechen troops useful in Ukraine; others in the Ministry of Defense less so. The Novorossiya advocates feel Putin betrayed Russia with moderation. In parallel, economist Guriev and others in the Kremlin have demanded Putin go further towards a command-type economy (so-called mobilization). They, too, signal Putin’s triangulation is too liberal.

Can Putin forge a new consensus if free to do so? Indications are Putin’s first effort to placate after Nemtsov’s murder failed – grant Kadyrov new, long planned (but not first tier) federal honors, allow FSB et al. a substantial roll-up even in Grozny, and assure Kremlin elites and opposition figures no new violence. Recall that after Putin’s 2012/2013 re-election, he required protracted negotiations to build a consensus and form a new government. He worked then during the good times with a stable elite when the pie was still growing. A similar task today is infinitely more difficult.

Factions continue to leak on each other in various media outlets. Rumors swirl over possible institutions and figures aligning against or for Putin. Sechin, for example, it’s leaked to the Russian press, will retire – prompting immediate denials. Kadyrov is said to be scrambling as well. Sechin and Kadryov traditionally are seen as actual and symbolic pillars of Putin’s authority yet Putin also has criticized Sechin for poor management lately.

It’s therefore no surprise that Putin skipped the annual FSB Board meeting (after also canceling a summit in Astana days earlier) if healthy. Regardless of rumors. To attend would require first resolving stakeholder questions. Similarly, if Putin could travel it’s unlikely he would leave Moscow for Kazakhstan while authority is perceived to be in flux.

Foreign policy is linked beyond ideological fervor. For example, Patrushev, Secretary to the Security Council and former FSB Chairman, highlights the regime’s worst fears about ‘privatizing’ its Ukraine war from February 2014 are coming true. Patrushev acknowledges fighters from Ukraine are now able to plan and conduct “sophisticated terrorism” inside Russia. Eminently predictable from the start; recall Russian border guards earlier reportedly shot at those seeking exfiltration back into Russia from Donbass.

Patrushev, of course, seeks to frame the official agitprop that Ukrainian terrorists in Moscow shot Nemtsov. He’s also underlined the main driver of Moscow’s war: most of the Donbass effective fighters are Russian mercenaries/”volunteers”. The Kremlin has few appealing options: 1) offer likely unworkable one-way permission; 2) increase formal Russian military ratios; or 3) re-calibrate/possibly scale back goals and methods. Each choice demands interrelated political costs at home linked to the regime’s stakeholder struggles. Boris Nemtsov’s murder is forcing the regime collectively to glance at (even if obliquely) some fundamental questions.

Russia’s deepening domestic crisis will tax our analytical community, too. Throughout history, Russian and Soviet domestic politics are usually the main engine for foreign policy. Some Western analysts/commentators may be experiencing their first real protracted crisis – along with many Russians. One hopes we remember to distinguish between advocacy’s emotional tribalism and analysis for informed policy-making.

Frankly, we’re a bit skeptical about that.


*UPDATED: Thanks to @Lena_Mukhina for noting questions surrounding a news report:

Sechin, Nemtsov, Kadyrov
Sechin calls Kadyrov an ‘ignorant animal’

The news item report apparently was poorly sourced and originates back to an unofficial Twitter account. For completeness, we double checked the Nezavissimaya Gazeta editor’s report on Sechin’s retirement (denied by his representatives) and other items cited above.

Winter Offensive In Ukraine

Russia launches another major offensive in Donbass. Its operational scale and intensity already approaches peak Russian tempo from August/September. We warned official and unofficial Washington variously in November and December 2014 this attack would come – despite the professed optimism of a ‘soft landing’ with Putin based on the so-called Minsk Accords.

A favorite response? “Russians don’t typically like winter operations” – or something like that. What can one say? Ray Garthoff’s generation of Soviet analysts is long gone. It’s a Buzzfeed world now, we just live in it.

Buildup And Prelude

Russia telegraphed her intent in several ways. Throughout the Fall Russia pushed Ukrainians back from agreed upon start lines incrementally. By January Russia captured over 200 square miles. Simultaneously, substantial Russian military and logistical support poured into Donbass. It’s important to note a key Russian military lesson from 2014 – the expenditure of ammunition and other support in Ukraine vastly exceeded their expectations.

Finally, Russian military and a significant number of special forces battered Ukrainian troops defending the Donetsk airport in late January. The so-called Ukrainian “cyborg” heroes repulsed Russians for over 200 days. Russia’s TV Channel One underscored the importance of the January airport assault showing Russian naval infantry fighting there on national TV (see update). The Ukrainians held out until overwhelmed by Russian troops who, according to OCSE reports, also may have used gas.

Ukraine Cyborgs Donetsk Airport Donbass Russia Putin DNR LNR

Germany once again tried to paper over Russian aggression with a new agreement. The next day Russia launched multi-pronged offensives across Donbass, far beyond boundaries of September’s Minsk agreement.

What to make of it all? Here are five key points with thoughts on arming Ukraine to follow.

5 Take Aways

One: Russia exposes again American illusions that a consensus reality ‘soft landing’ bargain is currently possible.

Two: Putin seeks more than just re-negotiating the Minsk Accords or chastising Merkel. Russia’s long term goal remains Ukraine’s subordination to Moscow in toto. Putin improvises within that framework. Russian security state thinking in Putin’s war cabinet rejects the idea of a neutral Ukraine because it has the *potential* to be pro-Western and lead regime change in Moscow. From 2004-2014 they consistently repeat this point. As long as they and Putin are in power, a ‘frozen conflict’ is acceptable as a strategic pause; the Minsk Accords are a practical nullity.

Three: Russian domestic politics drive most of Russian foreign policy, as with the Soviets, too. Putin’s power is based on personal popularity derived from plebiscitary radicalization. Putin has stated repeatedly his entire 2014-2015 acting out is about escaping from the perceived yoke of the international community and its alleged EU/American values. Those values of process and procedure are antithetical to his mobilization regime: the essence of Russian revanchism. This internal dynamic is separate from Ukraine itself and uses a Ukrainian crisis as a prop.

Four: Putin is indifferent how he accomplishes Ukraine’s subordination or manipulates Russian domestic emotionalism. He will mix and match military, paramilitary, terrorism, bribery and feigned cooperation; all are tactical, improvised guises to use or discard per the exigencies of a moment. His improvisation remains the constant. It is a profound mistake to confuse the guise for the purpose.

Five: There is no example in modern recorded history of a revanchist regime being successfully deterred into reform. (1947’s Soviet Union wasn’t revanchist). This is true from Italy, Germany, Japan if you count the militarists’ 1920s attack on democracy (which we do), various governments in Eastern Europe, and even France’s de Gaulle. History teaches that revanchist regimes stop when their options for improvisation are denied, almost always and unfortunately, kinetically.

Ukraine’s Military: State of Play

The military situation in Ukraine is grave. Evidence to date, however, does not indicate the Russians are conducting large scale operations in strategic depth to threaten Ukraine’s integrity. The main operational purpose so far is as much psychological as to achieve specific local political-military objectives – as with the Russians seizing the Donetsk airport.

The Russian offensive renews American calls to arm Ukraine. The main problem facing Ukraine is more difficult than mere arms – it’s people. First, while Ukraine uses the word “war” often, in truth they’ve wisely refused the bait to actually declare it. IMF assistance and other crucial Ukrainian international relationships can be affected technically by such declarations. Second, there’s more that Ukraine can do. Various mobilizations have come and gone with minimal effectiveness. Poroshenko’s promise to raise the defense budget to 3% GDP is feasible but remains just that.

Execution is the key. Ukrainians themselves acknowledge Kiev’s military culture, training and doctrine are inappropriate for a modern war, declared or not. Specific command level personalities may not be suited for responsibilities. Kiev tolerates too much rivalry and factionalism in military matters. Ukrainian command dysfunction deeply exacerbated the Ilovaisk tragedy. Similarly, Ukraine’s military failed to support the Donetsk ‘cyborgs’ due to poor planning and operations, not lack of weapons.

We support improving Ukraine’s defensive capabilities. After all, the best deterrent to Putin’s improvisation is to send back “Cargo 200” (Russian KIA). American training assistance and advice on military reform is key. In the past, simple items like body armor, fuel or night vision goggles were blocked because they were deemed “force multipliers”, i.e. too aggressive.

Identifying the best arms to fit Ukraine’s current state of doctrine, training, and C3I is not easy. Choices should be carefully considered.

For example, tactical kinetics are more problematic than some realize. The rate of ammunition expenditure in Donbass and engagement intensity with regular Russian forces (65% of Ukrainian armor was lost in August/Sept.) are extraordinary. Kinetics are useful only with substantial logistical flows not only *to* Ukraine but *within* Ukraine to the front. Ukraine already struggles to supply troops with arms made in Ukraine by Ukrainians. Adding new foreign systems (and spares) to that sagging logistical/depot system without crucial familiarity and training is a recipe for – at best – disappointment. Finding and supplying (improved) Russian-made weapons familiar to Ukrainian logistics and fighters is a more effective answer.

Helping Kiev with comms/C4ISR is more straightforward. Some is being done now. C4ISR cooperation must be careful; Russian penetration of Kiev’s military and security services remains a problem. COTS should not be dismissed, either.

An uparmed Ukraine without corresponding changes in doctrine, training and personnel still would be overmatched by Russian professionals. The resulting Russian propaganda victory would be immense. Changes require time. As the improved training, C3 and doctrinal reform take place, Ukraine’s military efficiency will increase, as well as her capacity to absorb different classes of weapons. Assisting Ukraine the smart way will help Kiev deter Russian proxies in the near term and ultimately make Russia pay a full price for further adventurism.


UPDATE: The Russian soldier shown on Russia Channel One television wearing naval marine insignia now claims he was a volunteer. Details of his story are here.

Year In Review 2014: And The Winner Is?

More than most years, 2014 will be retrospectively consequential. The US post-1945 order finally enters its transition era. Most obviously, Putin launched an ill-conceived war to challenge its foundations. Other developments promise significant portent. Modi’s rise in India is but one example. Domestically, Americans’ facade of a post-racial society collapsed. And Neocons re-emerged.

American Luck Holds

Americans remain lucky internationally for now. Russia’s war began with clumsy improvisation and lurched to a strategic dead end. Ukrainian grit surprised Moscow – just one of many Russian strategic intelligence failures. China, India and others support Moscow symbolically in part yet preserve their own options and interests in the present order. They follow their own timetable for systemic change, not Putin’s.

America avoided directly engaging Russia, denying Moscow the co-equal status it craves. That US stance encouraged Merkel and the EU to confront Russian aggression themselves. Russian hawks in power (and outside, like Sergei Markov) concede their hopes to split the alliance (to date) are unrealistic. One would like to think a coherent US strategy helped shape these events. Equally plausible is American tactical improvisation simply was more fortunate.

Putin? We’d rate him 2014’s net loser. Had he stopped at Crimea, he faced no sanctions and enjoyed stratospheric domestic approval. Russia is far weaker, more isolated, and domestically more fragile than during the Sochi boondoggle. From canceling Russia’s pet Southstream pipeline into Europe, ruble woes – Russian Central Bank Chief Elvira Nabuillina may have the toughest job in Russia today – to a bad gas deal with China and Putin’s isolation at the G20, Russian horizons shrunk a great deal.

Ukraine, conversely, is far more unified and committed to a European liberal path than ever. Two successful elections and a newly vibrant society show potential. Russia’s war in the Donbass forged a new nationalism and but sidelined a region (along with Crimea) that would’ve sent significant votes for Communists and pro-Moscow parties in Kiev.

[Read more…]

Putin’s Shambolic Improvisation In Ukraine

Preparing Is Hard Work

Great artists know a truth about the road. Doing a one-off show is often harder than preparing a lengthy tour. True whether musically, theatrically or politically.

One date demands as much rehearsal time and clarity as a tour. Far easier to wing things, hoping charisma’s momentum and spontaneity will carry the day. History’s landscape is littered with tattered reputations – from humbled musical legends to political candidates.

War isn’t much different. Consider Tommy Franks’ war plan (albeit with OSD and OVP intrusions) 2002-2003. He cast aside pre-existing plans and comparatively winged it. He also abruptly retired in 2003 before mistakes became obvious. Wolfowitz’s last minute failure with Turkey to create a northern front makes the point. Conversely, American Pacific success 1942-45 famously built on significant amphibious warfare planning from the 1920s.

Germany 1935-45 is the poster child. Germany lost the improvised war by starting it on September 1, 1939. Yet German conceptual and economic preparations for an eventual intercontinental war with the US were substantial. In the European context, Germany’s 1936-37 economic crisis spurred radicalization and thinking about a general war by 1943-45. Still, the Four Year Plan and industrial base began alignment in 1938 for the later ‘inevitable’ world war with the US. The Corporal’s improvisations within this vague overall strategic concept jump started events and doomed both.

Led Zeppelin notoriously devoted an entire month in 2007 to rehearse one 2 hour London show. Decades of calamitously unrehearsed ‘re-unions’ demanded it.

Putin’s war on Ukraine is an improvised gig. And Vladimir Putin is no Led Zeppelin.

Putin, Russia, Rock, Empty Cabs, Russian Rock

Putin launched his attack on or about the night of February 22nd relying only on his closest advisors, meaning almost no one. Assurances from MFA/MID and other senior government officials at the time otherwise meant nothing. He invaded Crimea based on a war plan dating back to the late 1990s to secure the Black Seas Fleet. We disagree with the suggestion that a 2013 speech on the characteristics of emerging war by the General Staff is a modern “Hossbach Memorandum”, proving Putin long planned a carefully considered war of aggression on Ukraine. Such observations ignore the culture, nature and purpose of General Staff discussions.

[Read more…]

Play Russian Apologist Bingo!

We present to you “Russian Apologist Bingo!” Do you feel that apologists for Russian aggression, falsehoods and even lunatic screeds seemingly are everywhere these days? They argue just about anything to defend the Kremlin line. Tactics range from the infamous “Whataboutism” to “change the subject” or purely speculative – such as claims Ukraine tried to shoot down Putin’s plane and hit MH 17 by mistake (never mind Putin was in South America).

All the greatest hits are here. Play, won’t you?

Russia, Bingo, Propaganda

Can you spot all the tricks?

Putin’s New Style Of War Careens Off Course In Ukraine

Ukraine is dealing a strong setback to Putin’s allegedly novel model and doctrine of 21st century irregular war. Ukrainian forces drive back Russians and their allies across 2/3 of the Donbass.

Putin, Ukraine, ATO, Donetsk, Luhansk, MH17, War

Russia’s ‘new’ model of war escaped Moscow’s control. Putin seemingly understands the forces he unleashed could evolve into a political threat inside Russia. Even now one can hear the faintest whispers of revolution.

We finally see the limits of Putin’s Ukraine escalation. He will not risk challenge to his authority at home. Of course, he still plays to win in Ukraine. Ukraine will bear his brunt for years. And his dream of a global revanche is unchanged.

Putin faces a dilemma. He refuses frantic demands in Moscow and from Russians fighting in Ukraine to commit formal Russian troops. Polling reveals no popular support for overt war. Lavrov calls for “a quick resolution” of the crisis. Russian state controlled media banishes Ukraine from the front pages of Komsomolskaya Pravda and elsewhere. The tone change is striking. Putin now seeks to be a face-saving “humanitarian” rather than war lord.

Yet Putin’s emotional foundation that launched this war remains. We agree he still yearns to up end the international order and gain psychological revenge on Americans for the Soviet Union’s demise.

Putin walks away from full war for several reasons. First, the Russian military is still in a re-armament cycle. A protracted campaign in Ukraine would require all available operational forces. Given current Russian tooth to tail ratios of 6-1, even all operational units committed would lack the force density required for a contested occupation. Second, as noted, formal war is unpopular with Russians who prefer TV war without cost. Finally, formal war necessarily would radicalize Russia further. Putin’s ability to control that environment would be in question.

[Read more…]

Russia Loses Again in Ukraine, Keeps Raising The Ante

Putin keeps gambling. His first, impulsive attack on Ukraine in February 2014 netted him Crimea and 80% approval ratings. He’s stumbled since.

Russia failed to replicate the unopposed Crimean takeover in Ukraine’s Southeast from March-April. Moscow then threatened formal army invasion. That only solidified an improbable Ukrainian nationalism, creating a prohibitive cost. Ukrainians’ vote for Europeanist President Poroshenko is another blow. Yet Putin keeps doubling down on escalation, even if formal invasion isn’t on the table for now.

Putin and Russia Go Backwards
Nihilist Nostalgia

Putin’s goals lie beyond Ukraine. He seeks to alter fundamentally the global balance of power and pull down the liberal democratic order. It’s ambitious for a $2 trillion economy confronting a combined West of $32 trillion. Russia’s 2020 defense re-armament program tops $90 billion a year, against $1 trillion combined in the West.

Invading Ukraine in 2014 revealed Putin’s plans and techniques 5-7 years early. That’s the good news. Putin so far keeps testing his improvisation against a disorganized Western alliance. Why not keep doubling down?

[Read more…]

Ukraine At War Spring 2014

Putin’s war of aggression in Eastern Ukraine failed its original purpose: to replicate Crimea’s easy capture and herald the so-called “Russian Spring.” Putun must now play for time and bank on his ability to improvise better than Western passivity and derail the May national elections.

Ukraine, Putin, Russia, Sloviansk

The initial operation featured 100 Spetsnaz GRU special forces officers leading pre-identified networks of pro-Moscow forces in Eastern Ukraine. Joined by Russian citizens (“tourists”) flooding into Ukraine, the FSB and GRU operatives used the social smart phone app Zello, Twitter and other means to direct and rally ‘spontaneous’ pro-Moscow support. GRU intercepted calls reveal they were taking direction from Moscow-based PR agencies.

Stage one was to seize key Eastern cities such as Kharkov, Donetsk and Luhansk like in Crimea. Once secured, the Russians planned to spread west and south, backed by the threat of Russian military forces across the border. The plan didn’t work.

Ukrainians surprised Moscow by their resistance or passivity. Despite Moscow offering up to $100 a day to join a pro-Russian protest, no crowd ever topped 4,000 anywhere – in cities with a million or more population. Most crowds were pitifully small. More disappointing to Russia, Yanukovich’s old Party of the Regions, the main political force in Eastern Ukraine, largely supported a unified Ukraine with conditions. Some oligarchs also played a double or triple game with their patronage networks and private militias. Local police frequently were bought off, but local populations still remained inert.

Moscow used the Geneva negotiations to buy time. The Crimea model failed. But Moscow lacked reliable local cadres to pretend to be the face of an ‘authentic’ Ukrainian protest against Kiev.

In the new strategy, the GRU no longer hid its hand. Russians operated openly after taking over government buildings in Sloviansk and Donetsk, etc. Moscow discarded its hoped for partner in the Party of Regions. Russia is recruiting and activating more radical elements in the East, Ukrainians (and transplanted Russians) who despise not only Kiev, but the entire kleptocracy of oligarchs, Party of Regions, local government, etc. Organized crime in the East is also a natural partner, preferring lawlessness and disorder to a successful Kiev stabilization.

This new approach is a revolutionary step. Moscow not only is rejecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but its existing institutional base – from political parties to local governance. Even pro-Moscow figures such as Kharkov’s mayor Kernes are abused as traitors and enemies. Eventually Kernes was shot and denounced in pro-Russia social media. Moscow is trying to build a new mass, radical political movement on the fly.

[Read more…]

Putin’s Revanchist Crimean Gamble After Sochi

Putin Attacks Ukraine

1. an advocate or supporter of a political policy of revanche, especially in order to seek vengeance for a previous military defeat.
2. of or pertaining to a political policy of revanche;
3. of or pertaining to revanchists or revanchism.

Sometime between February 21st and February 22nd, Vladimir Putin decided to violate the settled international order. By all evidence, like Andropov and Ustinov over Afghanistan in Dec. 1979, his rump war cabinet was insular: FSB Chairman Bortnikov, Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov and very few others.

He started a war of aggression on Ukraine and against the Western international system. He chose war for both internal and external reasons. He gambles that he can improvise more skillfully than Western coalitions. Any Western pressure he judges will not be much or last long. He can also use pressure for internal consolidation ala his speech denouncing internal opposition as a “5th column”. So far his assumptions aren’t markedly off.

[Read more…]

Europe, Russia & Ukraine: Stumbling Waltz

Ukraine, much in the news, is essentially a failed (failing?) state. Yet everyone wants to have a dance with her. Who will be on the card?

The EU still seeks an association agreement after Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s last minute rejection at the altar. He faced severe Russian coercion and is inherently pre-disposed to Moscow and Putin’s neo-Soviet “Customs Union”. After pro-EU riots broke out in Kiev, the Russians declared it all pre-planned foreign manipulation.

Ukraine’s economy is a wreck. Its contraction during the 2008-09 global economic crisis the highest percent in the world. Its leading export is commodity steel. Yanukovich’s government has no love for economic reforms as demanded by the IMF as a precondition to financial support. Ukraine’s government is almost as dysfunctional as Washington. Yanukovich’s political position in parliament hangs by a thread. Demographically, Ukraine is also a quasi-basket case.

[Read more…]