Dolphin hunting in Lugansk

The ‘investigative journalism’ website Bellingcat has caused another stir this week by claiming to have identified a Russian general who operated in the rebel Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) in Ukraine in summer 2014. Several radio intercepts from the period involve a Russian operating under the codename ‘Dolphin’ (‘Delfin’ in Russian). By comparing the intercepts with a recorded telephone conversation, Bellingcat has come to the conclusion that Dolphin is a Russian general, Nikolai Tkachev, who officially retired from the Russian Army in 2010 but who has since held a number of military-related positions, including being an advisor to the Syrian army and for the past few years heading a military school in Yekaterinburg.

Because the Dutch commission investigating the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 has expressed interest in Dolphin’s identity, the Bellingcat report is being widely touted as further evidence of direct Russian involvement in the MH-17 affair. Indeed, Bellingcat titles its report “Russian Colonel General Identified as Key MH-17 Figure.”

I’m not qualified to comment on Bellingcat’s methodology, and so won’t express an opinion on whether Tkachev really is Dolphin, but I have a few things to say about other aspects of the affair:

1) The fact that there was a retired Russian general codenamed Dolphin helping rebels in Lugansk in 2014 is hardly news. It has been known for some time.

2) More broadly, the fact that there were individual Russian servicemen, and ex-servicemen, helping out the rebellion as so-called ‘vacationers’ is also hardly news. It’s necessary here to draw a distinction between individual vacationers and entire Russian military units. While we don’t have evidence for the latter in Donbass until August 2014, the presence of the former is not seriously disputed. Whether Dolphin was Tkachev or somebody else isn’t a matter of great importance in terms of our general understanding of what happened in Ukraine in summer 2014.

3) There is nothing in the radio intercepts linking Dolphin to MH-17. The MH-17 headlines are a red-herring. Bellingcat’s revelations, even if true, don’t add anything to our knowledge of Russian involvement, or non-involvement, in the MH-17 affair.

That leaves the question of what Dolphin was doing in Lugansk, and this is what I think is truly revealing. To answer this question, Bellingcat relies heavily on the reporting of Russian blogger Colonel Cassad. I don’t have a problem with that – in summer 2014, I found Cassad extremely well informed about events in the rebel republics, and he had a knack of getting things right when others were well off the mark. Despite his open pro-rebel sympathies, he developed a well-earned reputation for reliability. The fact that even Bellingcat trusts him is telling.

Via Colonel Cassad, Bellingcat quotes one-time rebel leader Igor Strelkov as saying: ‘Delfin’ and ‘Elbrus’ [another ‘vacationer] were involved in the coordination of separatist units in the LNR and partly in the DNR.’ Bellingcat then says,

In a 3 January 2015 blog post, Colonel Cassad described the chaotic situation in the LNR during summer 2014, describing Delfin as a figure sent by Moscow to bring order to the situation in Luhansk: ‘The shooting and murders in the LNR are an entirely logical reflection of the more anarchic nature of the local republic (in comparison with the DNR), where in the summer there were more than twenty different military formation in Luhansk that were not subordinate to anyone. Neither Bolotov [note: now-deceased leader of the LNR from May to August 2014] nor those who were sent from Moscow (this was in fact the reason why ‘Elbrus’ and ‘Delfin’ failed) were able to handle this.’

Let’s break this down. The situation in the LNR in summer 2014 was ‘anarchic’. There were a large number of rebel militias which ‘were not subordinate to anyone’. A Russian general arrived to try to bring some order to the chaos and ‘failed’. Moreover, he failed precisely because he was sent from Moscow (and so, one must assume, was seen as an outsider and lacked authority).

In other words – and this is the crucial point – what all this proves is that Moscow was quite definitely not in control of the rebellion in Lugansk in summer 2014. In fact, it’s obvious that nobody was. Instead, there were a plethora of locally-raised militia who did their own thing regardless of what Moscow wanted.

As I’ve said before, this matters, because if you can’t understand the origins of the conflict correctly, then you have no chance of finding a solution. The narrative which clearly emerges from the Bellingcat report (rather against Bellingcat’s desire, I suspect) fatally undermines the concept that the war in Donbass is entirely the product of ‘Russian aggression’.

Unfortunately, some in Ukraine are now doing their best to suppress this truth. A bill is now being considered by the Ukrainian parliament which would make it a criminal offence to deny ‘Russian aggression’. Rada Deputy Anton Gerashchenko, who is pushing the bill, has made it clear that he sees it as a way of silencing those who would call the war in Donbass ‘a civil war’.  We must hope that the bill never becomes law. If it does, it will become impossible for Ukrainians to address the truth of what has happened to their country.

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Colluding with Hitler

Russians sure do like to ‘collude’. According to the Washington Post, it’s in the blood. The following appeared in the Post a few days ago in an article by Thomas Weber of Aberdeen University entitled ‘What Russian collusion with Hitler reveals about interference in the 2016 election’:

After Adolf Hitler’s warriors had laid waste to the Soviet Union during World War II, the secret collusion of Russian nationalists with the German leader in the 1920s became an embarrassment. In the 70 years since Hitler’s defeat, Russian nationalists have done everything possible to conceal their onetime belief that he could aid them in undoing the October Revolution of 1917 and making Russia great again.

There are enough parallels here — collusion with Russia, an obsession with national greatness — to tempt people to entertain yet another ill-judged Hitler-Trump comparison.

Yet the real significance of Hitler’s secret Russian collusion does not lie in shedding light on the challenges President Trump poses to American democracy, but on the strategic challenge that Russia poses to the world. For there has been a line of continuity from the collusion of Russian nationalists with Hitler in the early 1920s, to Joseph Stalin’s secret pact with the Nazi leader in 1939, to President Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine and his interference in the elections in the United States.

In all cases, Russia has ruthlessly pursued its self-interests with few concerns about the costs to human life and geopolitical repercussions. If it’s ostensibly good for Russia, it’s full steam ahead, regardless of the consequences for everyone else.

… Russia’s many apologists in Europe and the U.S. should wake up to the common denominator visible here in Russian conduct past and present: a geopolitical pursuit of Russia’s national interests, marked by a disregard for human life and dignity.

Weber appears to be shocked that Russians would put the Russian national interest first. But that isn’t what’s most wrong about his article. As evidence of Russian ‘collusion’ with Adolf Hitler, Professor Weber produces just two facts – first, in 1923 Hitler met the wife of the exiled Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, Grand Duchess Viktoria Feodorovna, as well as one of Kirill’s aides, Nikolai Snessarev; and second, Kirill provided money to Hitler. Quite what the connection is between the exiled Grand Duke and Joseph Stalin and the Molotov-Ribbentrop plan isn’t explained. Nor is the link between Kirill and ‘Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine and his interference in the elections in the United States.’ The link seems to consist of no more than: one time, a century ago, some obscure Russian most people have never heard of met a German who at the time wasn’t even very important; ergo Russians as a whole have a habit of ‘colluding’ with foreigners and we ought to be very afraid of them.

It’s shockingly bad logic. It’s also rather ahistorical. For sure, Grand Duke Kirill was quite pro-German. But a lot of inter-war Russian émigrés weren’t. The former White Army leader, General Pyotr Wrangel, for instance, stated that the Germans regarded Russians as fit only for dung for fertilizing the soil. He absolutely ruled out any form of co-ooperation with Germany. It is true that in the 1930s many White Russians hoped to be able to collaborate with Germany in the event that the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. But others also opposed the idea of such collaboration. There was a bitter polemic in the émigré press between ‘defeatists’, who took the first line, and ‘defencists’, who took the second line. Most prominent among the defencists was another White general, Anton Denikin, who wrote that, ‘In the event that a foreign power invades Russia, with the aim of seizing Russian territory, our participation on its side is impermissible.’ Inter-war Russians weren’t all interested in working with Hitler.

In any event, Kirill was an isolated and unpopular figure among Russian émigrés. He in no way represented émigré opinion, and so shouldn’t be used as an example of what Russians of the time thought. Far more popular among émigrés in the 1920s was the former Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich. Unlike Kirill, Nikolai Nikolaevich was very anti-German. British military attaché Alfred Knox recounted how in 1914, the Grand Duke ‘told me how he hated the Germans because one could never trust them. … we must crush Germany once and for all … the German empire must cease to exist and be divided up into a group of states.’

Grand Duke and flags
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich (seated centre): Note the French flag at the back, centre right.

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich provides an example which utterly contradicts Weber’s statement that Russians only ever put their own interests first without regard for those of others. The Grand Duke was a fervent Francophile, who as Supreme Commander didn’t fly a Russian flag at his headquarters but did fly a French one (see picture above). In August 1914, the German Army sent most of its forces against France, leaving only a few to defend East Prussia against Russia. Despite the fact that the Russian Army had not fully mobilized, Nikolai Nikolaevich ordered his troops to invade East Prussia in order to try to persuade the Germans to divert forces away from France. The French military attaché, General Laguiche, telegraphed his Minister of War that, ‘The Supreme Commander of the Russian Army wanted to respond to France’s desires and remain faithful to the undertakings he made to our ambassador.’ The Russian Chief of Staff, General Ianushkevich, issued an order to the commander of the Russian North West Front, General Zhilinskii, to invade East Prussia, telling him: ‘Paying attention to the fact that Germany first declared war against us, and that France, as our ally, considered its duty to immediately support, we must, because of the same allied obligations, support the French.’

The Russian invasion of East Prussia ended in disaster, with the destruction of the Russian Second Army at Tannenburg and the defeat of the Russian First Army in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. But Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich was unrepentant, telling Laguiche: ‘We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies.’

Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich did one thing. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich did another. It makes no sense to draw some broad-sweeping conclusions about the Russian character from either one or the other. It’s true that some Russians collaborated with Hitler and said some nice things about him. But others didn’t, while you can find plenty of people from other countries who spoke positively of Hitler at one time or another (David Lloyd George, for instance, to use an example close to Professor Weber’s home). Russians pursue their national interests. But so do other countries, and Russians can also be willing to sacrifice themselves for their friends.

Here’s the thing. You can create just about any sort of thesis if all you do is take one example and imagine that it personifies some general truth. But it’s not good history.

 

Collusion

The investigation into suspected collusion between US President Donald Trump and the Russian government has claimed its first three victims: one (Paul Manafort) for completely unconnected money laundering charges, and two (George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn) for lying to investigators about things which were not themselves criminal, and which are therefore crimes which would never have happened had there never been an investigation. To date, the evidence of direct collusion between Trump and the Russians is looking a little thin, to say the least. Now, into this maelstrom steps Guardian reporter Luke Harding with his book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russian Helped Donald Trump Win.

Collusion spends over 300 pages insinuating that Trump is a long-standing agent of the Russian secret services, and hinting, without ever providing any firm evidence, that Trump and his team acted on orders from the Kremlin to subvert American democracy. I’ll be honest, and admit that I picked this book up expecting it to be a series of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and to be utterly unbalanced in its analysis, and in that sense I’m not an unbiased reader. At the same time, I was interested to see if Harding had come up with anything that everybody else had not, and was willing to give him a chance. I needn’t have bothered. For alas, my worst suspicions proved to be true, and then some.

collusion

Continue reading Collusion

The hunters become the hunted

There are times when you think that the media in the English-speaking world can’t possible get any worse; that’s it’s finally plumbed the depths; that the ignorance and hysteria have become so great that it’s got to turn around soon. And then you read something which just makes you shake your head in despair, and ask. ‘Don’t these guys check anything? Don’t they know anything? Or do they just not care?’ We’re told to be endlessly on our guard about ‘fake news’ and disinformation flooding the internet from troll factories in St Petersburg and the editorial offices of RT, but are they really worse than the Daily Mail? Here’s today’s Mail on Sunday front page:

The_Mail_on_Sunday_26_11_2017_400

Continue reading The hunters become the hunted

Update on Lugansk

So, the leader of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), Igor Plotnitsky, has resigned and the LPR has a new president – the former minister of state security Leonid Pasechnik. Plotnitsky, meanwhile, has been appointed the LPR’s representative in negotiations over implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which he signed, and which are meant to provide a blueprint for an eventual peace settlement in Ukraine. What does this all mean?

The Russian online newspaper Vzgliad has a few ideas. According to an article by Pyotr Akopov, stories of treason in high places are false, and the LPR is secure. Akopov adds that, ‘merger with the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] is currently impossible’ and could happen only in the event of a renewal of large-scale military operations. Plotnitsky’s involvement with the Minsk negotiations doesn’t mean very much, as the negotiations are not going anywhere. And finally, recent events won’t change the relationship between the Russian Federation and the LPR. In short, after a brief flurry of excitement, everything will return to the way it was a week ago. It was all much ado about nothing.

Akopov comments also that the events in the LPR show that ‘Russia supports and helps the republics [LPR and DPR] in all sorts of ways, but in no way leads them.’ To make his point, Akopov quotes a response Vladimir Putin gave to a questioner who suggested that Moscow is in total charge of the rebel Ukrainian republics: ‘You’ve got it wrong … these guys are really stubborn … they’re difficult.’ The Vzgliad article concludes that ‘If Moscow was in charge of Lugansk, it wouldn’t have let the conflict among the republic’s leaders develop into open confrontation.’ Having said as much myself in a recent post, I concur.

Shenanigans in Lugansk

The political shenanigans in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) in Eastern Ukraine took a new turn today when LPR President Igor Plotnitsky fled the republic and turned up in Moscow. Power in Lugansk now rests firmly in the hands of LPR Interior Minister Igor Kornet, who continues to insist that he doesn’t intend to overthrow Plotnitsky, merely rid the republic of traitors in the President’s entourage. Kornet’s forces have arrested a number of senior LPR officials, accusing them of working secretly for the Ukrainian government in Kiev and of preparing to betray the LPR to the Ukrainian Army. I don’t believe it. My impression is that in the LPR treason is what you accuse your opponents of when you want an excuse to get rid of them. Be that as it may, the events in the LPR put the Russian government in something of a pickle.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Moscow isn’t in full control of events in Donbass. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any say in what goes on, nor does it mean that it can just ignore what happens there. It seems to me that it has the following options:

  • Recognize that Plotnitsky is a busted flush, discard him, and back Kornet. So far, the Russian government is insisting that what happens in Lugansk is an internal matter for the LPR. Maintaining this line would in effect amount to endorsing Kornet’s coup. The question would then arise of how to find a new President and who it should be.
  • Try and work out some solution which returns Plotnitsky to Lugansk as President, but which in effect makes him little more than a figurehead while real power remains with Kornet.
  • Find some way of restoring Plotnitsky to his previous position of authority.
  • Get around the whole problem by abolishing the LPR and merging it with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and forming a joint ‘Novorossiia’.

The third option – restoring Plotnitsky – seems rather impractical. The Russians aren’t going to want to start a civil war within a civil war, so military action against Kornet is probably out of the question. Perhaps some diplomatic way could be found to pressure him to give up, by for instance making it very clear to him that if he continues on his current path, Moscow will cut all support to the LPR. But such a threat isn’t very credible. This is one of those situations where the patron pretty much has to cave into the client. Reversing the coup would probably be a bad option for Moscow even if it were what it actually wanted.

In some respects, the fourth option – merger of the LPR and DPR – appears optimal. The DPR has always given me the impression of being much better governed than the LPR, and its leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, has a charisma which Plotnitsky lacks. The DPR no doubt looks pretty attractive from a LPR point of view. A merger would in practice probably be a DPR takeover, and might well strengthen both republics. It is, after all, somewhat ridiculous that such a small geographic area as rebel-controlled Donbass should have two separate governments and two separate armies.

dprlnr
The LPR admires the DPR. A meme doing the rounds on Twitter.

But while this option makes some sense, there are some problems with it. The only two ‘democratic’ votes which have taken place in the history of the LPR and DPR are the referenda of May 2014 which established the republics and the presidential elections of November 2014. Of course, one can argue about the quality of these elections and how truly democratic they really were, but the referenda and the elections allow the republics’ leaders to make a claim of legitimacy. Were Plotnitsky to be replaced, it’s hard to see what claim to legitimacy his successor could make. And since the LPR was established by referendum, it can be argued that it can only be dismantled by referendum. In a sense this is just a matter of formalities, but formalities matter, which is why even the Soviet Union went through the motions of elections.

Another problem with getting rid of Plotnitsky is that he signed the Minsk agreements, which provide the supposed road map to a peace settlement in Ukraine. If he goes, then his successor could claim to not be bound by the agreement. Moreover, if the DPR and LPR merge, then Kiev might have grounds to claim that since the quasi-states whose leaders signed the Minsk agreements no longer exist, it also is no longer bound by the agreements. That’s not something which Moscow would want.

So, it might be better to keep Plotnitsky. But it’s obvious that even if he were to return to Lugansk, he wouldn’t have any meaningful authority. One would imagine that Moscow wants to have its own man in the top spot in Lugansk, somebody it can count on to do what Moscow tells it when push comes to shove. But a Plotnitsky who’s more a puppet of Kornet than a puppet of Moscow wouldn’t be able to fulfil that role.

Overall, then, there aren’t any good options for Moscow. At this point, Kiev is probably enjoying the spectacle and thinking that things are going its way. But that might not be true either. A few weeks ago, LPR Foreign Minister Vladislav Deinovo remarked that Lugansk’s future lay back in Ukraine. Given that Kornet is justifying his insurrection on the grounds that LPR officials were conspiring to betray the republic to Kiev, one suspects that nobody in the LPR is going to be publicly repeating what Deinovo said for some time to come. An uncompromising line towards Ukraine is more likely.

In short, it’s a mess. I make no predictions as to what will happen next.

Russia, the West, and the world

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