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‘The West and Russia are already at war’ An interview with NYU’s Mark Galeotti

Source: Meduza
Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas / Corbis / Vida Press

Mark Galeotti is one of the most prominent experts on modern Russia alive today. A contributor to numerous leading research centers and a professor at NYU, Galeotti is also an active blogger. In Moscow’s Shadows, his blog, has for years been a valuable source of information about Russia’s law enforcement structure, its military, and its politics. Meduza’s Konstantin Benyumov asked Galeotti what makes the Russian security apparatus unique, and discussed the revitalization of Russia’s intelligence capabilities, the likelihood of the European conflict spreading, and the willingness of different nations to join such a conflict. According to Galeotti, the war between Russia and the West has already begun, though it’s being fought so far with sanctions, instead of tanks. In the near future, he says, mutual antagonism will become the basis of the relationship between Russia and the West (a “Hot Peace” he refuses to call a “new Cold War”). The West has far more resources to wage this conflict, Galeotti explains, except for one important area, where Russia currently enjoys an advantage: willpower.

You just had a book come out about the history of the Chechen wars, so let’s start with a question about Chechnya. In December 2014, Grozny witnessed its latest terrorist attack. Do you think the policing apparatus in Chechnya (and throughout the rest of Russia) is capable of dealing with threats like this?

Let’s be blunt. Even the best security systems cannot be perfect. Terrorists would always get through, especially terrorists who are willing to die in the name of their cause. The ultimate security system is frankly a government and a political system that is willing to just accept that there will be attacks, and not overreact. The problem is that the North Caucasus is such a mess.

The reason why there’s been a rise of terrorism and insurgency in the North Caucasus is much less about Islam itself and much more about failures of government: massive levels of corruption, and ludicrously high levels of unemployment, especially amongst young men in some regions. Now, you can’t deal with the constant fermentation, the constant bubbling up of angry young men—some of whom are willing to fight, some of whom are willing to die—just simply with security means.

And this has been Russia’s mistake. It actually has relatively efficient and certainly relatively extensive security structures. What it doesn’t have is the complementary approach, the hearts and minds approach. To actually make people less willing to join terrorist groups or less willing to turn a blind eye when they see their neighbors or whatever doing things that they shouldn’t. That’s the key problem. Security structures are fairly good but nothing has been done to address the root causes of the insurgency.

Mark Galeotti
Photo: Jan Rambousek / Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

You’ve said Russia's security structures are fairly efficient. Do you believe this is the case with intelligence, as well? We’ve just recently had three Russian nationals accused of spying in the US, and judging by their supposed conversations, they didn’t sound like pros.

I think two things. One is that, if you eavesdropped on any of our conversations with our colleagues over coffee or around the water cooler, we probably wouldn’t sound like the most professional or smart individuals. The second thing is what we have seen are massive escalations of Russian intelligence activity. They are at least at the same level now in terms of scope and aggressiveness of operations as they were at the height of the Cold War. When you’re launching that kind of a scale of operation, frankly you’re going to have in effect casualties of the secret war. You’re going to have people unmasked; you’re going to have people sent home. Simply because of the scale of resources, the number of spies that are operating. And some of them are going to be brilliant, and some of them are going to be mediocre and that is just the nature of this kind of operation.

In some ways, the fact that there have been cases unmasked does not tell us anything in the grand sense of whether Russian spies are good or bad. By definition the ones that get unmasked tend to be the bad ones. It tells us more about the scale of operations the Russians are carrying out. So much that sometimes they factor in that they will have people arrested and sent home, but they’ll still have enough other people operating to do what they want them to do.

Would you say the efficiency of these operations is returning to Cold-War levels, or is it just the operations' scope that's growing?

It has recovered to an extent. It doesn’t necessarily have quite the same ideological sharpness and so forth of the Cold War era but certainly compared to 1990s, which were the time when for reasons of both funding and morale intelligence basically fell apart. It certainly has recovered since then. There are good spies and there are bad spies. That’s inevitable. But what you have to look around for is the aggregate collecting capacity. And it is clear that Russians are collecting a lot of intelligence.

There is one key issue here. On the one hand the Russian intelligence agencies seem to be quite good at collecting information. On the other hand, it’s much, much harder to see that is actually leading to smarter, better policies. Intelligence isn’t just about collecting information. It’s about the whole process. You’ve got to collect information, analyze it so you really understand what it is you’ve collected, and then you have to actually feed that into policy in a way that it actually helps national policy. I think that at the moment the intelligence agencies are just telling Putin what he wants to hear rather than really feeding on the information they’re actually gathering.

But isn’t this also true for all the other agencies responsible for reporting the facts to Putin, who only end up telling him what he wants to hear?

Very much so, that does seem to be the case. We know for a fact that Putin’s inner circle has shrunk and shrunk. Fewer and fewer people actually play any role in the discussion of politics. We’re not exactly sure who is in and who is out all the time, or quite what they’re saying. We do know he doesn’t listen to economists any more. So he has a handful of people, most of whom come from the intelligence community. We also have indications that basically he is not especially interested in hearing bad news or alternative and challenging perspectives.

It’s absolutely crucial for bureaucratic politics that you have the ear in favor of the President. My suspicion is that the Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, and all those other agencies are basically telling Putin what he wants to hear. In many systems there are checks and balances. In the American system there’s the National Security Adviser who is appointed by the President to be the President’s, essentially, fact-checker. To be the person that whispers in the President’s ear: look, they’re telling you this, but actually the information this is based on is very questionable. Putin doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have anyone who is in part outside the system. He listens to what the spy agencies tell him but they’re telling him what he wants to hear. You’ve really got an echo chamber. In some ways I’d say the Russians are gathering good intelligence but completely fail in making that data lead to good policy-making.

To what extent do you believe Putin single-handedly controls Russia, and how do various groups who have his ear ultimately influence policies?

Ultimately, Putin is always the final decider for decisions that are brought to him. But there’s no point in pretending that he is some kind of a workaholic who oversees every single decision that is being made. A lot of it is simply Putin agreeing on some broad level of policy and then the actual Presidential Administration, the government apparatus and so forth actually operationalizing it. There’s a lot of scope within the machine to actually fine-tune the details.

This is a court in many ways, like many others, and therefore one of the crucial techniques is to know how to win the favor of the President. You get to manipulate policy because you make deals with other groups or people in the elite; you try to pitch your particular initiative to the best level and then you try to massage the process once the decision is being made. It’s not simply about the agencies willing to affect the national policies. It’s also about the agencies making sure that they get their share of national revenues which becomes even more important when the economy is in trouble.

Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov (3rd left), Russian president Vladimir Putin and Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) head Alexander Bortnikov attend a gala evening marking the Security Agency Worker's Day at the State Kremlin Palace. December 20, 2014
Photo: Alexei Druzhinin / TASS / Vida Press

While we’re still on the subject, have you noticed an increase in counter-intelligence operations, as well? Russia has recently witnessed several cases of people being accused of treason, for example.

We definitely have seen an increase. There have been some surreal cases. The classic one will be Evgeny Petrin who was a former FSB officer at the Moscow patriarchate and who was arrested for treason because he passed important information, I quote, “on the Orthodox church” to the United States. It does begin to look a little bit surreal when information about the Orthodox Church becomes regarded as some kind of a security issue. Part of this reflects the 2012 changes, when they expanded the definition of what constitutes treason, following the rising protests.

Again, I think there are two processes. One is the state wanting to put out a message: look, watch yourself. This is a time when you talking to foreigners, and certainly passing on any information, is a dangerous thing. It's about wanting people, in effect, to become self-censors. The second thing is, inevitably, we have this process where as soon as the security apparatus and the intelligence agencies believe that the general line is “get out there and find traitors”, that’s precisely what they will do, because this is how you think you are going to make your career.

Is there anything about Russia’s security and intelligence structures that, in your view, is different from other countries’? Their sheer size, perhaps?

Absolutely. It’s not just about having many intelligence agencies. I mean, the United States has 17 different intelligence agencies, so it’s not just about numbers. What makes Russia distinctive is, first of all, the extensive deliberate overlap. There is almost a desire to make sure that different agencies overlap and they compete and watch each other. This tactic dates back to Soviet and even pre-Soviet times. It actually forces agencies into constant bureaucratic competition.

The second crucial element is the lack of checks and balances. There is no real parliamentary scrutiny of their operations, let alone their budgets. They all are very, very clearly at the disposal of the President. Third distinctive element is the extent to which they have come to colonize the President’s inner circle. Putin himself is an ex-FSB and KGB officer but also most of the people around him either have backgrounds in these agencies or are closely connected with them. So it’s simply the culture of the people who run the Kremlin.

And the final point I’d say is the culture of these agencies. I’m very struck by how much even before the recent worsening of relations between Russia and the West the agencies were full of people who basically did almost regard themselves as being on a war footing, and who did consider, even before Crimea and so forth that they were in a struggle with the West. That is a particularly strong attitude that does help to make sure that this is an intelligence community with a very distinctive perspective.

So you’re saying that this struggle with the West has existed in a lot of people’s minds for many years?

Absolutely. In a sense they are the frontline of the struggle for not just Russia’s place in the world but Russia’s distinctive culture and identity. The irony is at the same time many of them are deeply corrupt and embezzling and profiting from their own positions. They don’t necessarily see the contradiction there, but they’re definitely in a position where in a sense they were waiting for the Kremlin to swing back, as they would think of it, their way. And now that the Kremlin is much more hostile towards the West, they have embraced this opportunity.

The so-called enemies of the state are often labeled as corrupt embezzlers rather than traitors or dissidents—take Navalny’s case for example. Do you think this indicates that the security apparatus in its current form is unprepared to engage in massive repressions?

When we talk about massive repression, it’s certainly not in the position to, nor would it want to replicate Stalin’s brutal murder machine or similar. On the other hand, could they scale things up without too many problems. Could they arrest more people or could they rather be more heavy-handed when dealing with the protesters and so forth? Absolutely. There is certainly scope for escalation. What we have to realize is that although most police, indeed, most security agents don’t really want to be the brutal repressors of the masses, firstly, they could be those, and if push came to shove, if their careers and the futures depended on it. Quite how massive is a massive repression is essentially a semantic issue. Certainly there is a lot of scope for increased repression and brutality if the orders come down from up high.

So if such an order were to come down, they would be able to execute it?

Yes.

Do you believe there’s a good chance of this happening?

The honest answer is that it will be the last resort. The very fact of these recent treason cases is precisely to try and deter the idealists with a relative handful of these high-profile and in fact very ridiculous cases that would intimidate people as a whole. There is still an attempt to actually go back to former KGB Chief Andropov’s dictum that “what you want is maximum impact with minimum effort.” They will try and not use massive attempts if they can get away with it. But when it comes down to it… I think at the moment things can change. If the Kremlin decided that it did want to be substantially more repressive, yes, they could certainly do that.

Svetlana Davydova leaves a prison after being released from under arrest. February 3, 2015
Photo: Gennady Gulyaev / Kommersant

So you think for now a repressive, totalitarian state is not what’s in store for Russia?

I don’t think for a minute there’s an aim to create totalitarianism in Russia. It’s a very specific term. It means that you want to control not just what people do but what they think, every aspect of society. I don’t think Putin cares about that. I think the essential element to Putinism has been essentially to provide a system in which people are either comfortable or apathetic enough that they would just let the government do the governing. The purpose of the security apparatus is not to somehow impose the neo-Stalinist reign of terror on Russia. It is precisely just to further that end. It really means identifying particular people or problems or movements that the Kremlin thinks might begin to challenge its reign in the future. It’s about specific control rather that wider social control.

And the Kremlin is in no way paranoid when it comes to identifying these threats?

Of course, there is a degree of paranoia. The trouble is, now even the people who do not necessarily believe it feel it politically important to go along with it. The more the Kremlin feels embattled, the more it feels that it’s not because it’s made mistakes but because outside forces or domestic political insurgents are causing trouble. And this is why we see this spate of treason trials and the whole push towards identifying any sort of NGOs that take foreign money as foreign agents. There is a paranoid nationalist mood that is now broad in Russia and the security agents will piggyback on that, but that’s different from actually suggesting that it is part of some grand plan to create totalitarianism.

So these people either believe their own lies, or are at least willing to use these lies to achieve their own ends?

Yes, absolutely. To be honest, the two often blur into one another. Often individuals within the security apparatus will believe that Russia is generally assailed. They may know full well that a particular individual they’re about to lean on or arrest or whatever isn’t part of some international conspiracy. But the point is, it’s their job to make arrests and it’s their job to lean on people and therefore they’ll do that. People within the security apparatus are both cynics and believers at the same time.

Do you believe this is equally true when it comes to the military? Do the people there genuinely believe they're on the frontlines of a confrontation with the West?

When we say “the military,” we’re talking essentially about the professional soldiers and especially the officer corps within them. It does seem to be clear that there is that sense that their own inevitable patriotism does spill over into a more aggressive, sort of nationalist perspective, not else because that’s what they’re being told 24/7. But at the same time, I think we have to realize that actually professional soldiers tend to have a rather different perspective on conflict. When you have to see people come back home in body bags or in boxes, when you perhaps have had to confront the families of people who have died in battle, you have a slightly different perspective. So, on the one hand the soldiers do regard themselves, because this is what they’ve been told, as being the defenders of Russia against a rather hostile world, particularly the West. On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily translate into them wanting to see the war start tomorrow.

Is such a war even possible? Hasn’t the West responded to this increase in Russian military activities with exactly the same rhetoric and actions?

This might be a slightly polemical or disputed opinion but I think that the West and Russia are already at war. Economic sanctions are really just warfare by other means. I’d much rather see it by economic sanctions than by missiles or tanks but nonetheless we need to realize that we are in a conflict. As a part of that just as we’ve seen a very definite stiffening of the line in Moscow, in Russia as whole, so the same is happening, too, in many parts of the West. Of course, the West is much less united, there are some countries that are really quite alarmed and dismayed by the prospect of a drawn out conflict with Moscow. And there are others who aren’t. But essentially yes, we are now heading towards…I don’t want to really think of it as the new Cold War, it’s not a useful image. I’d rather think of it as the new Hot Peace. I think that both sides would want to keep it away from being an overshooting war, a direct shooting war. But instead I think we are due for some time to come to an essentially an antagonistic relationship between Russia and the West.

And do you think both sides are prepared for such a conflict?

Clearly, the West, on the one hand, has the vastly greater resources, but, on the other hand, has much more trouble deploying them because obviously the West is an alliance of many different countries with very different perspectives and also democracies, in which national leaders are much more constrained by what their publics think. There are people in the West who are absolutely committed and determined that there should be a struggle to try to change the way Russia relates to other countries but there are others who definitely are not. As it were, the West has more resources but at the moment Russia has more will.

The operation in Crimea is seen by many as proof that the Russian military is actually very efficient, that Russia is capable of deploying a substantial number of troops within days, if not hours, and essentially that Russia is indeed prepared to engage in hybrid warfare. Would you agree with these statements?

Yes, with one caveat: we have to accept that the Crimean operation was probably in the most perfect conditions for this kind of hybrid operations. You had a peninsula, which was largely undefended; you had a local population, who, because of twenty years of, frankly, mismanagement by Kiev, were actually willing to be incorporated within Russia. What was demonstrated was not, as it were, that the Russian military as a whole is now reformed but much more that actually military reform that has been taking place since the Georgian war, has created, in effect, two armies for Russia.

The Russians have been trying to create forces that can do these kinds of intervention missions, which blend intelligence, politics, and straight-forward military actions that we call hybrid warfare. They’re able to do that, but on the other hand they do not have unlimited resources. They probably have only about a hundred thousand troops. That’s still quite a few. But of a total military of something like 750,000 who really are at sort of top-level standards…

A BTR-MD Rakushka airborne armoured vehicle undergoes testing at Slobodka firing range near Tula, Russia. December 12, 2014
Photo: Alexander Ryumin / TASS / Vida Press

But mass armies aren’t really the thing anymore.

Probably not, and in this respect the Russians are ahead of the curve. I think the Russians have appreciated that the future belongs to the small war. If we take a look at the operations in the eastern Crimea, where Russian troops are being deployed, there are not that many. According to the high-end estimates, it’s about 9,000—the biggest amount that was deployed at one time. 9,000—that’s not even a division. And yet they had a disproportionate effect on the battlefield. So what Russians have realized is that we are in an age of complex small wars and are trying to build the forces for that. They have a bit of a head start. But then again, the question is, those kinds of forces only operate really in ideal circumstances. They’re fine for intervening in essentially already destabilized neighboring countries. They certainly would not be in any kind of position to take on NATO. This is one of the reasons I don’t think there’s going to be a wider military conflict with the West.

Do you think Putin still might attempt similar things elsewhere? The Baltic states for instance.

I think it’s unlikely, unless we see convenient or propitious circumstances evolve. The Crimea case was opportunistic. The circumstances arose, and they had just the ideal forces ready to seize that opportunity. Likewise they felt, even though they overreached, that the opportunity has arisen in southeastern Ukraine, and they seized it. Just as they are now trying to stir up some trouble in the Baltic states and elsewhere, and if the ideal opportunity arose… but I think we have to realize the extent to which the Baltic states are, more than any other countries, very aware of what’s happening. They’ve been monitoring their own ethnic Russian population, and they've look into strengthening not only the military means of securing themselves but also political ones ensuring that there aren’t going to be some kind of dissident movements that could be used as a spear tip of any kind of Russian pressure in the future. Unless things change dramatically it is unlikely that Russia will have an opportunity to cause anything more than general mischief in the Baltics.

Russia recently updated its military doctrine, and there’s a lot more emphasis on countering foreign threats, such as NATO expansion and color revolutions. Are these changes purely ideological or do they reflect how Russia perceives its military role?

It reflects the way Russia perceives its military role. For the Russians the doctrine is an all-powerful document. Everything military flows from the doctrine. The kind of weapons that you buy, the kind you weapons you give your troops and so forth—everything has to come from the doctrine. It is something they’re very serious about. At the same time, this was the document that was rushed through under political pressure. In essence, it’s the same as the previous military doctrine. What’s different is, first of all, the tone. Even the old one identified the NATO expansion as being the key risk, but at the new one the language is so much more alarmist. It’s just about the optics; how things are presented and how they look.

But there are three areas with real change. The first one is the extra emphasis precisely on the idea that any attempt to destabilize the Russian government, the so-called color revolution or whatever, is a military threat, which also means that actually, theoretically speaking, the military could be deployed. Again, I don’t think we’re anywhere near the situation where soldiers will be deployed to deal with riots but nonetheless, that is now increasingly part of the military’s mission.

Second key change has been much more the role of hybrid warfare that we’ve discussed, both Russia’s preparedness to fight it if people try to use it against Russia but also Russia’s capacity. We are going to see, therefore, in the future, more resources being given to the Spetsnaz, and more connections between the military and the intelligence agencies, precisely so that Russian forces can be used to destabilize neighboring regimes. That is going to be a real concern for the other post-Soviet countries neighboring Russia.

And the third element is cyber warfare, which, again, everyone is aware of, and the Russians are trying to push as far as possible. Their view is, I believe, if they did end up in a conflict with the West or, indeed, China, this would be one way of causing massive disruption to their enemy. Knowing they can’t fight either the West of China in purely military conventional terms, they’re looking for ways in which they can kind of even the battlefield odds.

Is the possibility of a conflict with China actually on their minds?

It’s definitely in their minds. The battle plan for how they would actually fight the Chinese invasion is updated every year. In reality, I think this is something very, very unlikely to happen. Soldiers have to plan for the worst case, and this would very much be the worst case for Russia. The odds for this are—again, if nothing dramatic happens in the geopolitical situation—vanishingly small, thank God. 

Konstantin Benyumov

Riga