Things are moving quickly in Ukraine, and it seems that everyone has an opinion. Many of the long-time Russia watchers have been saying “I told you so”, but as usual, that is annoying and unhelpful.
At this point, the question must be asked, “What if Putin is not a rational actor?” And if he is not a rational actor, what happens then? Does Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, follow through anyway? My gut says yes. And after the heights of pandering that were reached at the Federation Council on Saturday night [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlc4-VMDlOM&feature=youtu.be], it is safe to say that there are no checks on Putin’s power. And who can or will challenge Putin at this point? It is becoming clear that the West will not or cannot act in a meaningful way. There were rumours floating around last night about Germany dragging their feet on revoking Russia’s membership in the G8. And NATO’s statement last night echoed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty [http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_107681.htm], but gave no consequences for what would happen if Russia did not honor it.
Lithuania and Poland reportedly called for consultations according to NATO’s Article 4 [http://www.lithuaniatribune.com/64476/lithuanian-polish-presidents-call-for-nato-treaty-article-4-consultations-201464476/], but the Rasmussen denied this at a press conference last night.
Even the option where Tymoshenko goes to Moscow and hands over Crimea to Putin, but heroically averts World War 3, is off the table. But I would not exactly discount that at this point. Maybe it would not be Tymoshenko, but another Ukrainian politician.
So the answer lies with Dmitry Medvedev’s government. But it has been declawed and defanged. The final humiliation in September 2011 was… well, it was final. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin threatened dire economic costs for taking Russia to the brink of war [https://twitter.com/Aleksei_Kudrin/status/439774457453092864], but he is not even in the Government anymore. The current Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov, is probably also unhappy, but he doesn’t have much clout either.
The Ministry of Defence is probably eating this up. I imagine that they have dreamed of this for years.
And who else is there? There isn’t anybody. There is no respected voice of reason in the Russian establishment who is willing to speak up and call this a massive miscalculation.
Even if there were a group large enough or powerful enough to oust Putin, who would or could they replace him with? How do you reconstitute Putinism without Putin [https://twitter.com/MarkGaleotti/status/440015534533660672]? You cannot. It is impossible. The whole system (and all that lovely money) would collapse. But it may do so anyway.
In the end, Putin has fractured his own elites to such an extent that a coup is nearly impossible. They could not coordinate an overthrow because they’d be too busy bickering over who got what and how much. And forget an agreement on a replacement. They had a compromise figure in Medvedev, and that completely failed.
So where does this leave us?
Putin sits down for talks, pushes the Western powers as far as he can (everything east of the Dnipro?), and declares himself “satisfied”. Then whatever is left of Ukraine becomes a kind of buffer state with Polish and Lithuanian troops protecting it. And this becomes the status quo until something else goes wrong.
Screenshot of my computer last night. I was trying to date each video.
Umarov has done what he set out to do. He has proven that he is capable of carrying out some kind of attack. And he has already done that. Or rather, he has proven that Riyad-us-Saliheen is still operational, and capable of infiltrating Russia proper.
Now all Umarov has to do is sit back and wait. Because anything that happens in the next month or so will be blamed on the North Caucasian insurgency (aka: Caucasus Emirate).
The murder spree in Stavropol this week is a prime example. The authorities now allege the crime was committed by men from the Zolksy Jamaat (a militant group) from Kabardino-Balkaria in revenge for the fact that they were nearly wiped out back in October. This sounds a little too cut-and-dried to me. There are too many unknowns about the Jamaat system for the cops to make that claim with any authority. Therefore, I am not ready to dismiss the organised crime theory.
Meanwhile, it took the authorities 2 weeks to round up six suspects in the car bombing in Pyatigorsk. And they are still looking for the organisers of the twin bombings in Volgograd.
So Umarov wins (again).
Journalist hops commuter train in Krasnodar bypassing security on January 5th. Ends up in Sochi (250km away) where he passes several different sets of cops and soldiers, who don’t even notice him. Conclusion: it would not be that hard for a terrorist to avoid security measures set up for Sochi.
Note: this experiment took place after the double bombings in Volgograd, but before the Olympic security regime in Sochi went into effect.
h/t Paul Goble
With just 40 days until the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, a suicide bombing took place this afternoon in Volgograd, Russia. Media reports 18 dead and 60 injured so far, but that number is expected to rise. It appears that the perpetrator of the attack was a female, keeping in line with previous attacks of a similar nature. The suicide attack on a Volgograd bus in October was also committed by a woman.
On Friday evening, a car bombing took place in Pyatigorsk, Stavropol. I expect we will know more about how the bomb used in the Pyatigorsk attack was constructed and what it was made with in the next few days. While they did manage to blow out quite a few windows and killed 3 men, the act itself appeared to be amateur. Caucasian Knot reported [ru] that the location chosen did not experience high traffic, with a local saying that she thought the attack was against the police and not civilians. However, if the goal of Pyatigorsk was psychological (and it appears that it was), the amount of physical damage inflicted was immaterial.
These people are not strategists, neither are they experienced. Even so, the likelihood of similar acts in the next 6 weeks is very high. The goal is psychological – striking fear into the hearts of the authorities, and making them panic. Unfortunately, what that means is that there is no way to predict the next target. The selection of Volgograd and Pyatigorsk seems to indicate that the terrorists cannot manage to travel much farther than that. Either due to problems with papers, or not enough money to bribe their way through checkpoints. Or maybe they’re just not trying. Maybe being closer to Sochi is the goal rather than a strike in Moscow.
I am on the road for the rest of the day. Here are some links to follow for updates on Volgograd:
RT’s liveblog (in English): http://rt.com/news/volgograd-suicide-bombing-updates-940/
A Twitter list: https://twitter.com/rm867/lists/sochi-2014
You know, I always imagined the day of Khodorkovsky’s release would be a sort of — to use the common cliché — “Mandela Moment”. And the fact that it did not happen that way feels very upsetting. Some of my disappointment stems from my own too high expectations, of course. But I have to wonder if that wasn’t the goal from Putin’s point of view. By staging Khodorkovsky’s release the way he did, Putin managed to portray the former Yukos chief as a sellout. And at his press conference in Berlin today, Khodorkovsky did little to dispel that impression.
For example when asked about his future plans:
I am not going into politics, which I mentioned in my letter to President Putin and have stated many times in the past. I am going to get involved in social activities. In other words, struggling for power is not my cup of tea.
When asked about his personal feelings toward Vladimir Putin, Khodorkovsky responded:
I didn’t have to be out-of-proportion emotional about this because I realised that my family wasn’t suffering. That they were humane vis–à–vis my family. And because of that, I thought I should also be pragmatic. And when you are pragmatic, you don’t need to do things which are as dramatic as hatred would be, or revenge.
But I think Vicki Boykis summed it up best when she tweeted:
The big news from Russia is that nothing has changed there since the 15th century, only now we have confirmation via Twitter.
I have been promising to write this for quite some time, but have never managed to get around to it. The Winter Olympic & Paralympic Games in Sochi are set to begin in about 6 weeks, and the security threat needs to be addressed.
The Canadians wrote a report in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and their media got hold of a copy and released it this week [http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/12/15/notorious-russian-terrorist-could-target-westerners-at-satanic-olympic-games-canadian-intelligence-document/]. However, the report is heavily redacted and offers nothing new in the way of information.
Meanwhile, Stratfor has mapped out the security measures in place for the Olympic Games in Sochi. Which is helpful for those of us who are visual, but I still think that the great threat is to the so-called ‘soft targets’ outside the zone the FSB has set up. But what are those targets?
Security is being tightened around public transportation, especially trains. In April of this year, the Moscow Times reported that “Russian Railways… introduced additional security checks at entrances to 32 major train stations across Russia.” They also implemented other security checks, and gave railway workers more authority to conduct searches of passengers if they feel the need to.
This is a necessity because of past terror acts on trains, including the Sapsan and the Nevsky Express.
The Sapsan is high-speed train that began operating in 2009 between Moscow and St Petersburg. The security services allege that it was the target of a terror act in August 2011 that they managed to foil. This past Tuesday, a Russian newspaper reported that 2 young men rode on the roof of the Sapsan wearing ski-suits and helmets. They were caught, and fined 100 rubles (approximately $3). An amusing story, but it does open up some questions about their methods, and how they were able to do so in the first place.
The Nevsky Express is another high-speed train that also operates between Moscow and St Petersburg. Twice terrorists have hit the Nevsky Express: first in August 2007, and again in November 2009. The second attack resulted in the deaths of 27 persons. The railway promised to put up cameras to monitor the train route, but it is still unclear if they followed through (I’d appreciate any updates).
A new high-speed train has been added to connect Moscow to Adler, where many sporting events will take place during the Olympics. While this has not been hit, an attempt on it cannot be ruled out.
Trains would be relatively easy and inexpensive to hit. A few kilos of TNT on a track would be enough to derail a train, if done right. A train derailment in July on the way to Adler shed light on this. The authorities denied the derailment was the result of an act of terror, though they never offered proof. And the security services cannot monitor every kilometre of track at every moment, even if security cameras have been installed.
Another threat to public transport is that of a suicide bomber on a bus. The terror attack on a Volgograd bus this past October showed that suicide bombing is still a popular method. The infusion of ethnic Russians in the Daghestani branch of the IK, in particular, makes it easier for them to get past checkpoints. Attacks on similar targets, normally outside the scope of the federal authorities purview cannot be discounted.
A plane hijacking or bombing would be more difficult to accomplish, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility. In October of this year, I wrote about a story about a man who attempted to bribe his way onto a plane for under $50. He ultimately failed, but the security risk from the systemic corruption that Russia faces cannot be over emphasized.
I would not discount the possibility of Umarov’s death next month. However, while this would be a victory in the short-term, it would be nothing more than a publicity stunt, as Umarov’s control over the IK is negligible. And in making the threat to Sochi only about Umarov, the Russian security services would be downplaying the true threat and risk to the Olympic games.
The IK is too atomised to effectively carry out a series of coordinated attacks at this time. This is partially due to the Russians’ counter-terrorism efforts, and partially due to poor leadership. Umarov is not a strategist, and it does not appear that anyone else in the IK is either. Nevertheless, a series of lone wolf terror acts cannot be discounted. The infrastructure is still in place in many cells of the IK, particularly in Daghestan, which is where the suicide bomber in Volgograd came from.
As with any public sporting event on the scale of the Winter Olympic Games, it is impossible to fully guarantee security of the fans or the athletes. The risk is even greater for Sochi since it is located near a region that has been experiencing a low-grade civil war for over a decade. The British and American Governments have both issued travel warnings to those attending the Olympic Games. The British even provided a map [h/t Rod McLeod] telling people to stay away from areas bordering Sochi. While the Russian security services are doing their best to protect Sochi, but it may not be enough.
EDIT: It appears that the authorities are preparing the public for Umarov’s sudden death. Kadyrov said today that he hopes (prays?) that Umarov is already dead, and they are just looking for his body. This could be Kadyrov just posturing, but it will be interesting to see where it leads.