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Russian Politics, & Personalities

Sochi 2014 Threat Assessment

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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.

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Written by Nina Jobe

December 18, 2013 at 8:04 AM

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Arsen Kanokov

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The Kremlin accepted the resignation of Kabardino-Balkaria’s chief, Arsen Kanokov, on Friday.  A short announcement posted on the President’s website simply stated that Arsen Kanokov had resigned and was being replaced by Yuri Kokov, the former chief of the Interior Ministry’s anti-extremism branch, Department E. 

There had been rumours for at least the last 18 months that Kokov wanted Kanokov’s job.  A series of arrests in June 2012 of local officials seemed aimed at Kanokov’s relatives and allies.  Kokov’s name popped up then as a possible rival to Kanokov, though nothing seemed to come of it.  Then six months ago, an ally of Kanokov’s was gunned down in Moscow.  His murder was never solved.

A later announcement on the Kremlin’s website showed a photo of Putin meeting with Kokov to discuss the acting chief’s new job.  At one point, Putin noted that Kanokov had done a lot for the republic, saying:

Many problems still remain, but on the whole, the dynamic is positive.  This applies to the budgetary provision and concerns the development of infrastructure.  But, I repeat, the unresolved problems are, of course, much more.

Given Putin’s words and phrasing, it seems likely that Kanokov was relieved of his duties because of the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi.  Tensions remain high in the region of the North Caucasus and fears of a terror attack during the Olympics are very real.  Yuri Kokov’s appointment speaks to the fears associated with the upcoming event.  As former chief of Department E, his experience in fighting extremism likely provides a feeling of security for the federal authorities.  Russia has spent close to $51 billion (if not more) in the Olympic games, and Putin has a lot riding on its successful outcome.

Kanokov fought the terrorist threat in his republic as best he could, but his efforts were not acceptable by the Kremlin’s standards.  In replacing Kanokov with a security expert, the Kremlin is again attempting to replicate the model of Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya.  However, that model is not effective.  Putin has already tried this in Daghestan this year with disastrous results.  The strong leader role that the Kremlin has assigned to Abdulitipov has only turned Daghestan into a war zone, with daily shootouts and bombings.  Even the Kremlin’s gold standard — Ramzan Kadyrov — does not fully control Chechnya, though most of the information about acts of terrorism in that republic are hushed. 

The terrorist threat to the Sochi Olympic games remains very real, but with less than 100 days remaining to the event, it seems unlikely that replacing Kanovkov will have any real impact.

Written by Nina Jobe

December 9, 2013 at 1:22 AM

Ministry of Construction and Housing and Utilities

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Dmitry Medvedev’s Government got a new ministry last week.  The former Federal Agency for Construction and Housing and Utilities was elevated to the Ministry of Construction and Housing and Utilities by President Vladimir Putin.

Utilities and housing have been a problem in Russia throughout Putin’s rule, and something that people feel strongly about since it effects their daily lives and routines.  A rate freeze on domestic utilities has been proposed for next year due to concerns about inflation [http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/sechin-backs-tariff-freeze-and-boasts-40-increase-in-capitalization/486573.html].  By elevating construction, housing and utilities to a ministerial position, Putin seems to be indicating that he understands that this subject is important.  This was emphasized during his first meeting with the new Minister, Mikhail Men [http://www.kremlin.ru/news/19529].

So Putin has just placed the problem of construction, housing, utilities directly in Prime Minister Medvedev’s lap.  So when the newly formed ministry fails to enact real reform (and it will fail), the blame will fall on Medvedev and his government.

Newly appointed Minister Mikhail Men’s career is filled with holes, but his main claim to fame seems to be his father, the famous Soviet priest Alexander Men, who was assassinated in 1990 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Men].  Mikhail Men was a deputy mayor in Moscow, and then Governor of the Ivanovno region (I am still trying to track down dates on those).  In addition to his political activity, Men [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Men_Project] is also a professional musician who released a hard-rock album in 2004.  Like Dmitry Medvedev, he is also a fan of Deep Purple.  So the Putin team’s bench is a little longer than we thought, but if all they’re looking for is someone to play seat warmer, they could pick any fan of Deep Purple on the streets of Moscow or any city in Russia.

Written by Nina Jobe

November 4, 2013 at 5:19 AM

Security vs Corruption at Sochi

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With a little more than 100 days to go until the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Sochi, security has become a central focus.  Any security system has its weak spots, but as two incidents this week have shown, there are too many holes in Russia’s system. 

The first incident was a bus bombing in Volgograd on Monday afternoon [http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/10/a_suspected_black_wi.php].  A female suicide bomber boarded a bus and blew it up.  As I wrote over in my Global Voices column [http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/10/23/in-wake-of-suicide-bombing-russians-question-their-security/], some in the Russian blogosphere were quick to point out that after 14 years of Putin, Russia’s security apparatus still cannot protect its citizens. 

The second incident actually took place last month, but came to light only yesterday.  RIA Novosti [http://en.ria.ru/crime/20131023/184311460/Passenger-Skips-Russian-Airport-Checks-for-Bribe-Worth-47.html] reported that a man in Yakutsk bought a domestic plane ticket on a discount, using a false passport.  When he arrived at the airport, he bribed a security officer to let him through “pre-flight inspection” with a bottle of cognac and a box of chocolates worth approximately $47.  The police arrested the culprit before boarding the plane, but the fact that he got as far as the departure lounge is worrying.

Two stories, two different outcomes, but both reveal the single greatest threat to security surrounding the Winter Olympics in Sochi.  There has been a lot of outrage about the security system put in place by the Russian security services for Sochi 2014.   A report [http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/06/sochi-olympic-venues-kremlin-surveillance] by security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan “found that phone and Internet networks in Sochi have been retrofitted with a surveillance system, known by its Russian acronym Sorm, which allows the FSB to eavesdrop on phone and data communications in the city [Sochi]” [http://www.themoscowtimes.com/olympic_coverage/article/all-communications-traffic-to-be-monitored-at-sochi-olympics-report-says/487352.html]. 

But what good is a state of the art security system if a man can bribe his way onto a plane for under $50? 

Written by Nina Jobe

October 24, 2013 at 2:57 AM

Peskov Prevaricates

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Izvestia released an interview [http://izvestia.ru/news/557580] with Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Wednesday.  It is unclear exactly when the interview itself took place, though it was clearly given in the aftermath of this past weekend’s Putin marriage rumors because Peskov does address that issue.  As a follow-up to my article in Global Voices [http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/09/25/rumors-fly-that-putin-has-remarried/], I thought I would parse portions of Peskov’s interview.

Peskov, of course, brings up the marriage rumors again, and denies them, saying Putin does not have time for a personal life.

“I do not know where this information came from. I really received a lot of phone calls on Sunday. I was sincerely glad to get those calls, and I replied: ‘The only problem is that Putin is in Sochi. I cannot tell you what is cordoned off at the Iversky Monastery.’”

Peskov’s complaint about the phone calls was amusing since it was Peskov himself who had stirred up the media frenzy even more by going on television on Saturday evening to deny the initial rumors that had appeared on Twitter.

Peskov perhaps revealed more than he intended to when he addressed media speculation that Putin is fed false stories in order to make him look bad in public.

“Putin receives information from a variety of sources: from the ministries and agencies, the media, sociological services, information services and so on. In addition, he receives information from friends, acquaintances and colleagues. This is the widest range of sources.”

 

I got involved in a discussion on Twitter about this last week:

The fact that Peskov felt the need to stick up for whomever is dispensing the poor PR advice seemed odd to say the least.  Why mention it at all unless you were worried about the public’s perception of Putin?  Also, is Putin really taking advice from acquaintances?  And if he has no time for friends, how are they dispensing advice?

Anyone in a leadership position is isolated.  It is just a scale of how much.  Putin has always been isolated but it has been assumed that he was isolated by choice.  In 2005 a story surfaced that Putin had a close circle of advisors that met 2 times a week, and only numbered nine in total.  None of those nine people were named.  One of them was thought to be Sergei Prikhodko, who was the President’s point man on foreign policy.  Prikhodko has since moved on to take a place in Dmitry Medvedev’s Government, and it is unclear if he is still running the show in the area of foreign policy.

And Putin himself has stated that he doesn’t utilize the internet.  So any information he is getting is fed to him by his advisors.  But who exactly are those advisors?

Peskov claimed more than once in the Izvestia interview that everything Putin says in public is fact-checked.  On more than one occasion recently, Putin has claimed that a “party of pedophiles” operates in Europe.  At Valdai last week, Putin was quoted as saying:

“Excesses of political correctness have reached the point that serious consideration is being given to the registration of parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia.”

The Wall Street Journal suggested that [http://blogs.wsj.com/emergingeurope/2013/09/19/berlusconi-features-in-putins-defense-of-antigay-policy/]:

“Mr. Putin was referring to a court in the Netherlands that earlier this year overturned a ban on a pro-pedophilia association there.”

Nevertheless, Izvestia said that there was no evidence of any such party in Europe, and when they asked Peskov about it, he defended Putin’s assertion, saying:

“As for the party of pedophiles – this information has been checked very carefully, including by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and believe me, this is not unsubstantiated information.”

The mark of a good spokesman is plausible deniability, something that Peskov has never managed to achieve.  Or in simpler terms, Peskov is a bad liar.  And every time Peskov gives an interview, rather than setting the record straight, the stories he seeks to clarify only gain more traction.

Written by Nina Jobe

September 26, 2013 at 8:27 AM

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Surkov & Chechnya

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“I have an acquaintance who has a firm reputation as a playboy. And even if he were now living in a monastery, people would still say: He’s the playboy who… and would recall legends and fables from his turbulent life as a playboy. Basically, legends outlive people, as is well known.

–Nataliya Gevorkyan discussing Surkov in Kommersant July 2005

Over the years many legends have been given to us about Vladislav Surkov.  We were told he was “publicity shy”.  This was proven to be untrue when Surkov went on a media blitz in both the domestic and foreign markets in the middle of 2005.  At the time his actions sparked speculation that Surkov was putting himself forward as a contender in the race for “Operation Successor” to replace Vladimir Putin as President of Russia in 2008.  If Surkov did put his name in the ring, he did it with such skill that it appears he was never considered a serious threat.  At least he never appeared to fall victim to the schemes and intrigues that befell so many others in the pre-2008 in-fighting.

Then Surkov revealed that he was half-Chechen, and that myth was born.  That of the man who could solve Chechnya’s problems.

Other narratives have emerged over time:  Surkov the liberal.  Surkov the novelist.  Surkov the lyricist (it is rumored he writes lyrics for the Russian band, Agata Kristi).  Surkov the hipster.

Slava Surkov’s persona of 1980s hipster has inspired a portfolio of memes on the internet.  He has achieved a cult status on Tumblr where a cursory search of the Surkov tag has the potential to end hours later, bleary-eyed and wondering where the time went.

When he left the Government this past May, you could almost hear the collective groans of disappointment across the Internet.  But enthusiasts need not have worried.  Slava was still posting photos on Instagram, still making trips down to Chechnya to go fishing with Kadyrov, and making sure we did not forget him.

He even managed to introduce us to his father in Ufa.  An interview in Russkiy Pioneer (a youth magazine) less than a month later revealed few new facts, but served to heighten the aura of mysteriousness that Surkov cultivates.

Meanwhile, it appeared that Surkov was in talks with the Kremlin about his future place in the ranks.  Rumors would surface periodically over the summer about his imminent return.  But these were all quickly quashed.  When the most recent gossip surfaced, it was treated with some skepticism, but they turned out to be true, and Surkov is once again safely ensconsed in the Kremlin.  He has replaced Tatiana Golikova as Presidential Envoy to Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2 breakaway regions in Georgia).  However, the speculation has already started up again about Surkov’s future.  Because surely Surkov’s ambitions must be greater than mere Presidential Aide and Envoy.

The latest gossip, by the way, is that Surkov will replace Kadyrov as chief of Chechnya.  However, this rumor seems unlikely due to a number of factors.

First, Surkov is only half Chechen.  This makes him something of an outsider in Chechen society.  Added to this is the fact that he is not a practicing Muslim, and is, allegedly, a baptized Orthodox.  And he was not raised in Chechnya or even in a Chechen community.  In fact, Surkov is so much the outsider that I would argue that it would be impossible for him to maintain a firm grasp on power for very long.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is that Surkov probably would not want the job if it were offered to him.  Not that he would not welcome the challenge if it were offered him, but that he is already running Chechnya by virtue of the fact that he has Kadyrov’s ear.

Further, Surkov was the alleged author of Chechenization (or Kadyrovization, as I have taken to calling it) where power in the ethnic republics is concentrated on one person who rules with an iron fist.

Given all of that, why would Surkov want to take on a more public role when he cearly does not need one?  No, for better or for worse, Kadyrov will remain chief of Chechnya.  And Surkov will keep stringing us along, which is his real hobby.

Written by Nina Jobe

September 25, 2013 at 1:12 AM

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Batumi Shootout and Sochi 2014

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We now have less than 150 days until the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.  As the event gets closer, security fears are rising not just in Russia, but in neighboring countries as well.  This past April, Georgia’s defense minister Irakli Alasania stated that the Georgian government was concerned that the Russian Government could accuse Georgia of being complicit should a terrorist attack take place.  As a result, the Georgians said that they were doing everything possible to enhance security in their country [apsny.ge/2013/mil/1364934484.php].

In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he “was prepared to give Georgia a role in security at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, which borders the Caucasus country’s breakaway region of Abkhazia” [en.rian.ru/sports/20130611/181618922/Putin-Ready-to-Give-Georgians-Olympic-Security-Role.html].

The following day, Georgia’s Foreign Minister said that Georgia was prepared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to take a role in security at the Winter Olympics [http://en.ria.ru/world/20130612/181633162/Georgia-Accepts-Putins-Offer-for-Olympic-Security-Role.html].

However, I have neither seen nor read that this gesture of cooperation has gone beyond the statements made over the summer.  In a short brief written in July, Tom De Waal wrote [http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=52424&lang=en] that he believed the two countries were both concerned about the security situation, and but were working separately.

The Russians are alleged to have posted a list of names of people who they believed to be security threats to the Sochi Games.  I have seen no evidence of this list, though I would appreciate any help if any of you know where I can get a copy.

At the same time, the Georgian authorities seem to have a list of their own. Two men are part of Georgia’s Greco-Roman wrestling junior team say they are on a list of alleged “Wahhabi extremists” kept by the Georgian security services. In August, wrestler Piruz Tsulukidze claimed that he was prevented from leaving Georgia to participate an event in Bulgaria due to his association with “Wahhabists”.  In an interview given last week, Tsulukidze’s coach, Temur Bakhuntaradze, says he was detained twice by police in Batumi for proselytizing [http://www.ick.ge/articles/15781-i.html].

On Friday evening, the two men were detained along with a young man with a Russian passport [http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26455]. The 3rd detainee, Yusuf Lakaev, is alleged to have entered Georgia illegally.  The authorities claim they were informed of his presence in Batumi on Friday, September 13.  During a routine document check, Mr Lakaev began shooting wildly.  Before the police shot him, Lakaev managed to injure one policeman, and a bystander.  None of the three people were seriously injured, but were taken to the hospital for observation.

Image

Arms cache the Georgian police found (screenshot from YouTube)

When they raided the Georgians’ homes, police found one grenade, a home-made gun with a wooden grip, six different knives and two backpacks in military print colors [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0B2OZPR2zA].  This would seem to verify the police allegation that the two Georgian men were helping Mr Lakaev to cross into Turkey, where presumably he would have joined a group heading to Syria.

Fortunately, Friday’s shootout ended with only minor injuries.  But without real cross-border cooperation, we may see more incidents like it in both Georgia and Russia.

Written by Nina Jobe

September 16, 2013 at 4:23 AM