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Thanks, you’ve been great: Putin has now “left” the (Syrian, war-torn, unresolved) building

March 22, 2016

Summary: Vladimir Putin declares “victory” and withdraws from Syria after a brief and bombing-intensive military mission intended primarily to make Russia look like a plausible international power.  By any serious set of benchmarks, Syria is not yet resolved.  Neither has Russia actually left.  Russia continues to try to make itself look tough and effective to distract its domestic audience from economic woes (caused in part by earlier Russian military ventures).  It is making shrewd use of modern media towards this goal.  Russia will further undermine its credibility on the international stage.  How does this end?

(Probably) Leaving Hmeymin airbase, outside Latakia

When you are talking about Russia on the global stage, it seems just as easy to say “Putin”.  The Russian president has a very direct hands-on approach and appears unencumbered by the requirement to argue his case to an unconvinced parliament, delegate key decisions or sway a complaining and critical population.  The latter seem largely incurious, preferring to keep their heads down.  A thriving, active and vocal political opposition never quite seems to get off the ground in Russia, whatever the era, be it Czarist, Soviet, post-Soviet or Putinist.  An effectively-run state-controlled media is contributing here, probably aided by the occasional unexpected and unexplained death of an opposition leader or journalist.  But others seem genuinely happy to bask in the warmth embers of some long-lost national pride.  Just so long as there are no significant Russian casualties.  Or at least, that they do not know that there are significant Russian casualties.

But Putin’s global quest for pseudo parity with the US counts for nothing if it is not strongly splashed over international and (more importantly) domestic media.

The latest Russia venture into Syria has achieved this.  Both the coming and the going of the Russian political and military intervention wrong-footed the international community.  If this alone was the benchmark for Russian “victory”, then certainly Mr Putin would be entitled to declare “mission accomplished”.

Oscar Wilde once declared: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about”.  An impressive media profile is key to Mr Putin’s game plan to re-establish Russia as a global actor.  A plan which also seeks the tacit agreement from Europe and the US that Russia has a backyard called the former Soviet Union into which no one can bring messy concepts like democracy.

But Russia also leaves Assad in a stronger position for the moment.  The withdrawal from Syria last week has generated much opinion and debate.  A skim through the analysis shows:

  • Much praise for the clever manoeuvring of Putin
  • A strong sense that, yet again, the international community has been tricked by a faster-moving Russian strategy
  • That this is what happens when the US leaves the international stage – the gap is filled – but not in a good way
  • Russia’s underlying goals have been achieved – prop up Assad, impose itself into the strategic calculations, demonstrate military successes and activity.  Original stated goals have not been achieved (defeat of Islamic State?)
  • Has Russia actually withdrawn? Answer: well, not really.  Troops, aircraft and equipment are still there.  Military operations can be re-activated in hours.
  • Good use of media and propaganda by Russia
  • Some now debating the question – where next for Russia?

And if we look wider, including Crimea and eastern Ukraine, there are several characteristics surrounding modern Russia interventions (apologies, some of this will be a bit obvious):

  1. Seizing the initiative and maximising the element of surprise – even at the expense of actually having a policy or a plan. Surprise – keeping everyone guessing, edgy and reacting to the Russian tempo – sometimes seems more valuable than almost anything else, excepting bodybags
  2. The need for a high and favourable media profile
  3. Actual goals will be radically different from stated goals
  4. Russia’s media profile will have separate and distinct international and domestic narratives
  5. The “mission” above all is Putin himself. Local and international power projections are in support of Putin and his own hand-crafted regime.  Is Putting increasingly seeing and presenting himself as the embodiment of Russia’s “re-awakening”.  Solving a war, defeating Islamic State, even propping up an “ally” like Assad are secondary.  These targets can be shifted and flexed to suit.
  6. “Me, me, me”: Dashing in, thrashing around dropping bombs and dashing out again is a highly irresponsible, self-serving and immature stance. No coordination, no handover, no continuous engagement.  This is rubbish.  How reliable and trust-worthy does this make Russia?
  7. Usual rules of international conduct seem not to apply in Russia’s case. Use of dumb bombs, cluster bombs, Russia never really held to account over bombing of hospitals and schools, crude Russian denials or lies suffice and the game moves on.  This even given that US military commanders and politicians have accused Russia of deliberately “weaponising” Syrian refugees. The key lesson Russia is learning is how effective a blunt denial or a simple lie can be.

Where next indeed? (Afghanistan, the Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine, any one of the Central Asian states, Iraq, the Baltic states…???) If the Russian population are still suffering economically without the likelihood of an early improvement, it may be that a new initiative will be necessary.  Ought this to be done before Barrack Obama leaves?  The Baltic states have been worried ever since the Crimea was annexed.  But an attack on a NATO country seems too obvious – and also too risky – for Mr Putin.

The Putin performance does show an impressive use of the resources he has and perhaps an ability to learn lessons.  He got bogged down in Eastern Ukraine – perhaps after a post-Crimea spate of over-confidence.  Now he has gone the other way, quickly getting off the stage while the applause is still sounding and the reviews are still favourable.  For the moment also, the darker art of “hybrid war” has been put on the back-burner in exchange for exciting images of fast jets bombing desert.  Ambiguous operations with proxy and harder to control militias are more fraught with risk.

But how big a global power projection has the Russian adventure in Syria really been?  It still does not offer the notion that Russia can even approach the scale of America’s military and diplomatic might.  And a lot of fast, self-serving and unpredictable Russian initiatives is going to start irritating international actors who may have to pick up the pieces of a Russian “in and out” operation. The macho use of hard power is a little bit “last century” and holds out the ever present risk of public casualties – either Russian troops on the ground or new terrorist attacks coming back to Mother Russia.  The longer Mr Putin juggles shiny military balls in the air to keep his people distracted from economic woes, the greater the risk one will drop.

What is “Hybrid warfare”?, Pt I

March 21, 2016

Summary:  If, indeed, it is anything at all.   Much has been made of Russian’s swift annexation of the Crimea in 2014, which employed anonymous elite troops, local militias, intelligence and propaganda operations.  Other tools for political and military gain are also emerging – cyber warfare, lawfare, social media.  Some herald these “hybrid” combinations as a new era of warfare pioneered by Russia that will rarely actually resemble warfare and one that stands to leave western countries floundering.  Others are deeply sceptical of the notion that this is anything other than old (even ancient) tactics of deception reinvented for a new century.


Very possibly not a representative example of “hybrid” war…

Complex place.  The World…

The world order is becoming increasingly multi-polar, with more diverse, faster-moving, adaptable and vociferous actors.  Militaries are being asked to undertake a wider range of tasks than ever before but “conventional” forms of military intervention are having increasingly diminishing returns.  The sheer firepower of industrial nations has pushed asymmetric tactics to the fore, from Vietnam through Northern Ireland and the Balkans to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State in Syria.

Beyond this, many actors seek deliberately to blur the distinction between war and peace.  In Crimea, Russia used social media, special forces and proxy militias in a largely bloodless land grabChina is building artificial islands in the South China Sea.  The Islamic State occupies yet another pole, fusing global terrorism with pretensions to statehood.  US military and political figures have recently been accusing Russia of bombing civilians in Syria deliberately to create a flood of refugees to cause fragmentation in Western European unity.

 “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War


“The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy.”

— Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege

Hostile operations are, with increasing imagination and creativity, being pitched intentionally just below the level of conventional conflict, with intensive use of information.  Kelly Greenhill recently considered the way disinformation can be exploited in stressful and uncertain situations.  Russian state-controlled media created multiple explanations for the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in an attempt to thwart investigation into the cause.  Modern information and media technologies seem to lend themselves well to confusing and complicating: deepening and spreading roots of conflict, undermining conflict resolution.

Hybrid or ambiguous?

In late February of 2014, well-equipped, highly disciplined and extremely polite soldiers of no easily identifiable origin (but wearing or carrying the most modern of Russian military uniforms, weapons and equipment) quickly and calmly took over key buildings in the capital of Crimea, Simferopol, including government facilities and the airport. This was the beginning of an almost entirely bloodless seizure of the Crimea and its de facto return to Russian control.

From a myriad of terms, and amidst much intense and ongoing debate, the expression “hybrid warfare” seems to have gained a certain amount of traction for describing the orchestrated fall of Crimea, the implosion of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and new Russian military practice in the 21st century. A multi-dimensional range of political, military, economic, social, informational and technological activities are employed to political and military goals.  Much of the activity was covert and designed to be deniable or to deliberately subvert and confuse. The conventional military component became, in effect, the “tip of the iceberg” and was designed, where possible, to avoid overt combat.

In many low intensity conflicts, the causes, combatants and objectives involved are difficult to define.  Some modern techniques of political and military activity deliberately set out to make the situation more confusing. Accurate information can be hard to come by and can be distorted to serve particular agendas. In the particular case of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, fascist taunts and nationalist flag-waving are routine, if highly inflammatory, tactics. The aggressive use of social and mainstream media in all its forms by local, national and international actors and protagonists has been striking and has served—generally by intent—to confuse the situation further.

False flags, new flags or even no flags have concealed some protagonists, masked the true identities of others and introduced new ones. Interpretations of historical issues—from medieval to World War Two—have been twisted to suit 21st century political ambitions, fanning dormant but dangerous forms of intense nationalism in the process. The concealment and manipulation of facts and the distortion and discrediting of information have been one of the significant features of the circumstances surrounding the conflict that has arisen in Ukraine, where the battlefields are as much on the internet as they are in the physical domain.

Terms such as “hybrid”, “indirect”, “new generation” and “ambiguous” are being employed to describe the concepts behind the varieties of political and military tactics being employed. Article V of the NATO North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus far, the 21st century does not seem inclined to allow NATO the luxury of such simple and precise divisions. Defining an attack and the source of the attack is becoming harder as potential adversaries adopt increasingly creative approaches to achieving political and military objectives. But the wide spectrum of phraseology on offer at present is perhaps more indicative of the problems being encountered in analysing and understanding what is going on than they are a helpful categorisation of strategy and tactics. Are we seeing a further blurring and stretching of formal conflict definitions, the emergence of an entirely new form of warfare or simply a repackaging of old techniques of deception realpolitik for the 21st century?

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, there was a surge of interest hailing this new form of “hybrid” warfare.   After a few months, some of the more critical observers started to reflect that there perhaps was nothing really new here – deception and speed are lauded by pretty much any military commander.  The Russia term “Maskirovka” covers much of this.  The definitional debate s still raging.  But something is going on – new techniques, aided by technology – are going to complicate the battle: wherever the battle may or may not be.

I shall return to this theme in due course.

Taliban reject talks. Again.

March 7, 2016

Summary: The Taliban decide not to take part in peace talks.

Afghan map outline

Back to square one.  Reuters, amongst others, are reporting this news:

Reuters, 5 March 2016: The Taliban said on Saturday it would not take part in peace talks brokered by representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, casting doubt on efforts to revive negotiations.

The Taliban, ousted from power in a U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, has been waging a violent insurgency to try to topple Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and re-establish a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

Following a meeting of the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group made up of representatives of the four countries in Kabul in February, officials said they expected direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin in early March.

But the Taliban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, denied it would be participating in any upcoming talks in Islamabad.

“We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting,” the group said in a statement.

“(Islamic Emirate) once again reiterates that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, black lists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results,” it added.

This is in the Taliban’s own, official wording:

Statement of Islamic Emirate concerning non-participation by delegates of Islamic Emirate in upcoming QCG meetings

On the one hand America is deploying fresh troops to Afghanistan, is carrying out airstrikes in various areas and partaking in night raids and on the other the Kabul administration has expanded operations in multiple provinces, displaced thousands of families from their homes in this cold winter and at the same time intensified propaganda about negotiations and Quadrilateral Coordination Group meetings. These two contradictory activities have begun as the Political Office of Islamic Emirate has not been kept informed about negotiations from the onset and neither have the requests of known Afghan personalities been paid any heed.

At the same time rumors are being circulated that delegates of Islamic Emirate will be participating in the upcoming meetings with the permission of the esteemed Amir ul Mumineen, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor (may Allah safeguard him).

We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the esteemed leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting and neither has the Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate decided to partake in it. Just as the Islamic Emirate made clear during the Pugwash conference, it once again reiterates its policy that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, black lists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results. We also call on the media to avoid publishing baseless hollow reports and stop attributing news to the Islamic Emirate which has not been confirmed by the official spokespersons and Political Office of the Islamic Emirate.

Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

25/05/1437 Hijri Lunar

15/12/1394Hijri Solar                     05/03/2016 Gregorian

We have been in this situation for years.  It is difficult to be surprised, as nothing new seemed to be in the offing from either side, other than a nice new name for the peace process (Quadrilateral Coordination Group) and the addition of the Chinese.  The Afghan government and internationals require that the Taliban renounce terrorism, accept the Afghan constitution and hand in their weapons.  The Taliban require that all international military personnel leave and that they are taken off any terrorism or financial blacklists.  In effect, both sides require that the other side gives in.  The Taliban are seemingly bouncing back from the news of Mullah Omar’s death and continue to put the Afghan National Security Forces and police under serious pressure in north and south.  They will likely  want to see how far they can push this military progress in the coming year.  After all, the fighting season is due to be announced at the end of May.

Messy stalemate.




Russia/Syria: new Russian air defence system…

February 10, 2016

Summary: Russia deploys highly advanced air defence system to Syria – does ISIS have an air force?

Janes report – from Russia Today sources – that a new version of the Pantsyr air defence system has been spotted defending the Russian military airbase at Humaymim in Syria:

Janes, 8 Feb 2016: Russia has deployed the new version of the Pantsyr air defence system to its Humaymim airbase in Syria, footage broadcast by the RT news channel on 3 February has confirmed.

Russia has had at least one Pantsyr-S1 at Humaymim since 3 October 2015, when its Ministry of Defence released a photograph showing one in the background.

The RT footage showed a second system with the new bidirectional radar now deployed at the base. This also appears to be the first time the new Pantsyr version has been seen in Russian service.

RT identified the system as a Pantsyr-S2: a new version the Russian military said it would take into service in 2015.

The Pantsyr S1 version has been in Syria for a few months.  This version seems to be the newer S2 and it seems this may have been in the offing since the end of last year.  Last time I checked, the Islamic State did not have any form of military combat system that might require such a sophisticated anti-air counter measures system.  The fact that it has been presented on Russia Today suggests a “flag-waving” statement for the benefit of US (and Turkish) air forces and the radar systems deployed as part of the Pantsyr package might permit a more enhanced picture of all air activity in the region.

To be fair to Russian military aviation, you might want to have your airbase defended with all means possible on the basis of “you never know”.  Perhaps ISIS has, or may develop a drone reconnaissance/strike capability…

Back to the Future or Forward to the Past? US troops back to Helmand in force

February 9, 2016

Summary:  US combat troops are sent back into Helmand to support the Afghan army. 

The Guardian is reporting a significant group of US troops going back into Helmand province to support the seemingly faltering performance of the Afghan National Army:

The Guardian, 8 February, 2016: Hundreds of additional US troops are slated to deploy to a volatile province in Afghanistan to bolster the local military against a resurgent Taliban, the Guardian has learned.

By month’s end, a force described as battalion-strength, consisting of mostly army soldiers, will arrive in Helmand province where US and UK forces have struggled in battles for over a decade to drive out the Taliban….defense officials said the additional troops would not take part in combat. But they will help the existing Helmand force defend itself against Taliban attacks, officials said [and]…declined to offer many specifics about an upcoming reinforcement, but they described the mission as primarily aimed at bolstering the performance of the embattled 215th Corps of the Afghan military, through training.

The 215th Corps has recently had its commander replaced amid performance and corruption concerns, and has endured “unusually high operating tempo for long periods of time”, outgoing US commander General John Campbell testified to Congress last week. It is among four Afghan corps that still have US military advisers embedded within it, despite a recent pullback to advise at higher levels…

The US military has sounded warnings of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, in Helmand and beyond, that have prompted significant revisions in Obama’s war plans…

While the Pentagon initially resisted categorizing the battle as “combat”, press secretary Peter Cook called it a “combat situation, but [US troops] are not in the lead intentionally”, illustrating how the difference between combat and advisory missions can blur in practice.

Opium-rich Helmand has emerged as a Taliban priority, as most of its 2015 attacks focused on the province. Unlike earlier eras of the war, the Taliban have declined to take a winter break and have fought in the province all year.

The Taliban have come close to overrunning a district center in Helmand, Sangin, where more than 100 UK troops died during a war that has entered its 15th year, despite US airstrikes in late December. Kabul is said to control only three of Helmand’s 14 districts, including the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

This has a worrying feel of a drip, drip return to major international operations.  I tried previously, as the ISAF mission closed down, to hazard a few thoughts about the circumstances under which NATO might ever return to Afghanistan.  Although I said “if they ever leave”, I could/should have been a little more careful to point out the risk of mission creep for those remaining residual forces.

How badly does Mr Obama want to declare “mission accomplished” in the last year of his presidency?

An anniversary assessment of the armed forces of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

January 29, 2016

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon, edited by Tim Foxley

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog ( on topics related to ongoing conflicts.  Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: Military reform is underway in the quasi state of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). All armed military units appear to be consolidating under a single command structure of the 1st Army Corps of the Ministry of Defence of the DPR. But it is likely there is a gap between the theory and the practice.

The armed forces of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) have changed significantly from where they were a year ago. Stemming out of disorganised militia forces local to the three main cities of Slovyansk, Donetsk and Lugansk, the current iteration now, on paper at least, is starting to resemble a modern military.

The armed forces of the DPR have been centralised under the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and are commanded by Major-General Vladimir Kononov. The MOD is centred around a single 1st Army Corps which celebrated its first anniversary last November with a parade which showcased a professional and streamlined looking military.

The MOD holds two main combat elements under the 1st Army Corps: the Republican Guard (RG) and more independent, “separate”, units. In its current state, the separate units of the 1st Army Corps hold the task of offensive action whereas the Republican Guard is tasked with defence of its assigned territories including a rapid reaction component, some reconnaissance units and special forces.

DPR MOD, new versh

There is quite a bit of uncertainty around the specifics of this structure. Notable is the specific situation regarding the Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU is a more commonly known abbreviation). Pre-reform GRU was under the Republican Guards command structure, however the current situation of the GRU is largely up for speculation. One possibility is that the GRU exists as is pictured in the diagram above, another is that it has been dissolved and integrated with the current “Republican Guard” as reconnaissance battalions, as some evidence would support. A third possibility is that there is no real GRU and that the units which had comprised it float around in the Army Corps under no consolidated directorate.

There may be a certain amount of exaggeration and “inflation” regarding the DPR’s structure. Within the Republican Guard, only the 3rd, 5th and 6th Battalions are regularly spotted in social and televised media. Sightings of other battalions are uncommon and troops are often few in numbers. However, there are no official figures to go by, and, with a very out of date official website, it is impossible to get a real sense of size, number and structure.

With these caveats in mind, the “average” mechanised brigade of the DPR’s forces appears to be structured in a fairly conventional format:

DPR bde structure

Often militants and their vehicles in the “DPR” have insignia denoting which unit they belong to, which can be found via pro-Russian open and media sources. Compiling this data gives a greater perspective of the overall structure of the “DPR” MoD, but gives little insight into its actual size. The main factor which helps to assess the actual size of individual units is vehicle numbers. For example, tank battalion “Diesel” is known to be approximately of the size of a regular Russian tank battalion, having around 40 tanks in its inventory .

Reconnaissance companies within battalions and brigades seem to be most active at present, probably because significant combat operations have largely ceased and the main concern is monitoring the ceasefire. Terminology (“special forces”, “reconnaissance”, “rapid reaction”) looks a little bit disingenuous. It is likely that many of these titles are self-adopted for prestige and resource allocation rather than accurate formal statements of capability and training. The so-called Special Forces unit “Somali” appears to be operating more as a rapid reaction force that can quickly go where needed on the front lines.

There is still uncertainty over the current and intended end state for the DPR armed forces – this is still early days, with reliable information limited and fluid. Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, the Ukrainian government have presented the structure of the DPR armed forces as part of a wider and Russia-controlled military force. From the Ukrainian perspective, therefore, the DPR’s forces are 1st Army Corps and the “Luhansk Peoples Republic” (LPR) armed forces are grouped as 2nd Army Corps.

This suggests a form of unified command between two “occupant armies”. It is an interesting notion which might have some truth to it, at least in some capacity. One DPR source previously listed the LPR National Militia as the 2nd Army Corps. There is evidence that the DPR and LPR armed forces have been doing a lot of resource sharing as if they were under unified (i.e. Russia-directed) command. It seems that after DPR received a shipment of T-72s, it no longer had use for its Ukrainian captured T-64s and transferred them to the LPR National Militia. DPR armour holdings consists of around 75% T-72s, whereas in the LPR the vast majority of LPR tanks are T-64BVs.

The Ukrainian assessment suggests that the entire 7th Mechanised Brigade has been transferred to LPR command. During the recent pullbacks of heavy armour, the 7th Brigade pulled back and stored its tanks in an LPR base along with other LPR tanks. During this move, DPR’s 1st Army Corps social media cited it as still belonging to the DPR, but was in the zone of control of the LPR’s 2nd Army Corps. We should be cautious, however. These social media accounts are often operated by private volunteers, so there is a possibility that this post is simply a reflection of personal opinion or flawed information rather than fact. It is equally plausible that the DPR & LPR act as a loose coalition with individual areas of responsibility. This is not to say that the survival of the DPR and LPR do not depend on Russian support, but that I believe that their command structures are probably not formally connected to those of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

DPR armed forces have undergone significant restructuring to reach their current structure, which is not yet in its planned final state. Some artifacts of the old system still remains, most notable are the “Somali” and “Sparta” battalions, best known for their roles at Donetsk airport, which still function as separate units reporting directly to MOD. Other less notable units still remain as separate units both throughout the Army Corps and the Republican Guard (RG). This phenomenon is far more prevalent in the Army Corps as all units were made to submit to its control upon its creation. The RG was only created later and units were taken from the Army Corps and re-organized under RG command.

The RG began as a separate entity under the authority of the head of the republic, Alexander Zakharchenko. It’s likely longevity is unclear: it may be intended for absorption into 1st Army Corps because of poor military performance at Shyrokino. Some reports suggest this may have already partly happened. The flag ceremony of the RG’s “100th Brigade” revealed it to be the same type and format as units in 1st Army Corps. The flag does however still have “Republican Guard” written on it, even in a post-reform environment.
Ukraine, DPR, 100 bde flag ceremony.png

100th brigade flag ceremony September 2015

Conclusions: It is evident that the DPR leadership is attempting to boost their military capabilities and to give the appearance of a formal military structure as befitting a “state”. But assessment is difficult:

  • it is hard to glean reliable information
  • it is likely that the effort of the DPR is a fluid “work in progress”
  • access to funding and resources is probably creating a gap between capability on the ground and the theory on paper
  • the impact of Russia (its assistance, or lack of, and wider Russian strategic plans and actions) may yet distort or thwart the evolution of the military capabilities of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

Volatile Caucasus

January 20, 2016

Summary: A worrying piece from Thomas de Waal, suggesting that Azerbaijan may have a difficult time in 2016 – with political, military and economic consequences for the Caucasus as a whole.

Well established Caucasus expert, Thomas de Waal, has written an interesting piece about the poor prospects for Azerbaijan’s stability and economy this year. He suggests that a few factors threaten to come together to produce a turbulent and toxic environment, based around a possible economic crisis, due in part to developments in Iran.

Rising prices, a collapsing currency, international turbulence, and a nervous elite. Azerbaijan is starting 2016 in the middle of what looks like a perfect storm…To make matters worse for the government, this began a week ago, even before sanctions on Iran were lifted and the oil price fell below $30 a barrel. (Around three quarters of Azerbaijan’s budget revenues come from oil sales.)… The currency collapse has hurt Azerbaijan’s middle class, who have taken out dollar-denominated loans and come to rely on imported goods.

It has also hit the population at large outside the capital Baku, who saw prices on staples, such as flour, shoot up. One Azerbaijani economist warns of the risk of the massive inflation experienced recently by Ukraine, the only post-Soviet country which has experienced a comparable currency crash.

At what point do economic protests become political? It is a blurry line.

Basically he suggests long-term over-reliance on oil for income and lack of diversification can lead to discontent from a growing economic crisis when oil prices plummet, leading to political unrest, leading to clumsy government reaction unused to dealing with political dissent, leading to bloody crackdown. All the factors are threatening to come together this year – disgruntled ex-KGB chief sacked as security minister, human rights violations, a dispute with the US, its all there.

Q: What do authoritarian regimes tend to do when they have domestic unrest?
A: They create an external threat.

De Waal is particularly and rightly concerned that the protracted and unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh might flare up again.
In the longer (and broader) perspective he suggests

It is a foretaste of the trouble that Russia may soon face for very similar reasons.

Definitely one to watch.

Worth reading this brief article in full.

Afghanistan’s prospects in 2016 – frustration and stalemate

December 26, 2015

Summary: Afghanistan will struggle through another year of political, military and economic turbulence. 

cropped-19thc-afghan-map-8.jpgIn 2016, Afghanistan will struggle through another year of political, military and economic turbulence. This will resemble frustrating stalemate, although President Ghani’s proactive approach to reform will generate piecemeal progressions in governance, society and the economy. Traditional and enduring problems – the insurgency, warlords, unhelpful neighbouring countries and corruption – will present significant obstacles. The government will remain dependent on international military and economic engagement, with Afghan refugees providing a stark judgement on the country’s progress.

The insurgency will continue to take on new but equally violent dimensions, ensuring civilian casualties will remain high. But the coming year will be a significant test for the Taliban. Perhaps for the first time since 2002, their position as the major insurgency force in Afghanistan will be under threat. The Taliban will be under pressure from three directions: from internationally-supported Afghan security forces; from internal power struggles and from a new rival, in the form of Islamic State (IS).

The Afghan army will suffer many casualties and is going to struggle with morale and capability. But it will remain in the field and in control of key cities and communication routes. Internally, the Taliban will continue to experience leadership credibility issues: it is debatable whether Mullah Mansour will still be leader at the end of 2016 or even if the Taliban will be recognisable as a single entity. The emergence of IS will continue to complicate matters, as disgruntled local Taliban fighters weigh old loyalties against a new and better resourced form of jihad. If the Taliban continue a process of fragmentation it could produce a more complex and unpleasant series of localised insurgencies that IS might look to capitalise on. Even by the low benchmarks of Afghanistan, genuine progress on any form of peace dialogue looks unlikely in 2016.

In terms of wildcards, the violent death of President Ghani or another prominent ethnic or government leader could cause government fragmentation and herald a return to some form of civil war. A rapid implosion of the Taliban might create a power vacuum for IS and local militias to fill. There are few positive wildcards. If the Taliban struggle to regain their former unity and find themselves squeezed by IS, it might better assist them to find common ground and foster a hastening of peace talks with the government and both sides in an uneasy alignment against IS.

RUSI conference: Military Influence

December 10, 2015

Notes from RUSI Conference: Military Influence

RUSI logoThe Royal United Services Institute hosted a one day conference on the subject of “Military Influence” in London on 29 October 2015 with a selection of speakers addressing different aspects of influence, propaganda, information operations and the media. This is a summary from the on the record part of the day’s presentations.

Opening address – Lord Howell “Power and Persuasion – The New Military Role”

At the heart of Lord Powell’s opening comments, he stressed the interwoven nature of elements commonly seen as independent disciplines. Military capability, diplomacy, capacity building and intelligence gathering are now very “blurred at the edges”. The UK government has not fully recognised this yet and has no strategy for it. But none of this is new – for over three decades it has been clear that power has been shifting and that there is a need to reconfigure defence and diplomacy. Lord Powell highlighted a House of Lords “Soft Power” Report.

Small organisations – thinking of terrorist cells – can cause destruction, including through the use of drones and technology. Look at the sheer lack of success of US foreign policy despite US military might. The battle is no longer on the battlefield – trust becomes a winning weapon.

Christopher Paul – RAND “Assessing and Evaluating Influence Activities”

Assessing IIP (Inform, Influence and Persuade) activities is a significant challenge – much ambiguity over causation, multiple stakeholders, long timeframes. Social marketing gives good insight and benchmarks – and not just on profit as the measure of success. Assessment starts in the planning – needs to be Smart (Specific, Measurable, Achievable…). Behavioural objectives are preferable to attitudinal objectives. Need a sense of what success and failure looks like. A pilot effort first is good.

Neville Bolt – “Propaganda of the Deed”

Propaganda of the Deed is an aesthetic/symbolic form of violence with a political marketing message: “violence blends kinetic action with communicative intent”. The violent act is the main tool of the terrorist groups now – pictures can be captured, copied and repeated millions of times. The intention is to energise and mobilise – the more it can be reduced to a single icon, the more flexible it becomes.

In the 19th century it was about using the weight of the state against itself, in the 21st century it is about using the weight of the media against the state. Rupert Smith (British former general, author of The Utility of Force) said that media is an inevitable feature in the battlespace. There are significant advantages to the modern image – it is unmediated, instantaneous, is faster than the response, it can seize the initiative and can multiply exponentially. The image does not exist in a vacuum – the viewer brings constructed meaning to it – a discourse environment is necessary to set the context.

Milton Friedman observed that:

“only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

Revolutionaries legitimise the past to justify what they are doing in the present. Landmarks in the historical narrative are used – eg rise of ISIS and its “Caliphate” or Russia’s historic relationship with the Crimea to justify its annexation.

The Russian General Gerasimov addressed “hybrid“or “non-linear” warfare. He saw strategic communication as a prime tool of war – it offers non-military means to achieve military objectives. In example of Russian media – for example Russia Today – there is no objectivity, only approximations of the truth with many voices – the media is flooded with thousands of conflicting ideas

Thomas Nissen – “The Weaponisation of Social Media”

The strategic context of the 21st century is of a global operations environment – an “overflow” of social media use. Citizen journalists “netizens” and 24/7 news. This presents a challenge for all actors. Remote warfare and social media warfare are causing multiple state and non-state actors are being empowered in a redistribution of power in the international system, challenging traditional notions of “battlespace”. This will increase in future conflicts. The three “Rs” of terrorism – revenge, renown and reaction – shock appeal (“Shockvertising”)

Stefan Halper – “Chinese Information Warfare”

The Chinese government still very much adhere to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”…

“to subdue the enemy without fighting is the very acme of skill”

From a Chinese perspective, kinetic weapons “are proving essentially unusable”, leaving three preferred types of warfare:

o Intimidation/psychological
o Media
o “Lawfare”

Warfare in the 21st century is shaped by the idea that whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins. This may involve longer timeframes and different criteria.

• Psychological warfare – to influence and disrupt the enemy’s decision-making process. This makes extensive use of diplomacy, the press, false narratives, economic pressure, use of the markets and business companies
• Media (public opinion) – Use of films, TV, books, internet, etc. The Chinese media is used by the PLA against home opinion and targeted nations
• Legal/lawfare – A prominent role – conjuring up false laws to bolster claims to territory – bogus maps, distortion of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, domestic legislation, legal pronouncements that are made ad hoc without real validity

The South China Sea dispute is an example – manipulation of UNCLOS, freedom of navigation is being challenged

Dina Matar – “ISIS”

Islamic State and Hezbollah are using communications to reach out and it is important to pay careful attention to what is being said – not just when and how, but also the historical, social and political context. IS have a political communications strategy. ISIS and Hezbollah both represent themselves as an oppressed group, but Hezbollah is using traditional media and IS is using social media. IS actively use women for propaganda as they know it attracts the attention of the West. The same principle applies with on-line executions.

IS is very specific about what it promotes and how – each district under its control has its own twitter account and is used to promote the stories regarding the number of schools it is completing, advertising the services it is providing for Muslims, etc. The language IS uses contains elements of truth. It declares journalists as the enemy and controls the flow of information, including through its own professional propaganda techniques. It has a media centre “Life”, with a similar logo to Al Jazeera. IS desires to control the narrative, through information centres and its magazine which produces a romanticised image of IS life.

Igor Sutyagin – “Russian Information Warfare”

Russian information operations (IO) are “not ambiguous and not that new…”. There are three core principles:

o Voice one opinion – ignore or minimise alternative opinions
o Do not be afraid of losing connection with reality
o Subject the audience to a massive volume of information

The Russian approach is close to George Orwell’s “1984”- the meanings of words are changed – in the Ukraine, “fascists” are those who fight against a kleptocratic government. The population loses the ability to critically confront information. MH-17 disinformation created a “complete mess in the brains”
In Russia, pension funds are being confiscated by the government: the Russian propaganda system responds by equipping protest rallies with banners that declare “Obama, hands off our pensions”as a means of subverting and distorting. Key tactics are to ridicule the opponent (eg the Syrian opposition).

A propaganda attempt in eastern Ukraine was to plant a Polish rocket launcher in the battle area as “proof” of Western involvement. The West needs to take this Russian approach seriously – if it is a war, take it seriously – and regain its knowledge of Russia.

How do you confront Russia IO? The West should not reply in kind, this is dangerous, as Russia hopes to pull the West down to their level. Although Russia learns from its mistakes and adapts it is still making errors – over MH-17, Russia still insists a Ukrainian aircraft shot down MH-17 and presents faked satellite images. In some areas this does not matter for Russia – the “uncontested area” is the home media environment, where the Russian population do not challenge information

Richard Dobbs – “Future Opportunities”

There is a problem relying on intuition when assessing the world’s future – it can often be wrong. There are four major disruptive forces at work globally requiring us to reset our intuition and reconsider:

o Technology: speed and scale is accelerating
o Emerging markets/urbanisation: the UK double its GDP in the 150 years following the industrial revolution. China doubled its GDP in 10 years
o Aging population: China will have 150m fewer workers, Russia will have 38m fewer. This will lead to much lower growth rates
o The connectivity of things: trade, money, urbanisation, migration. The recent shocks in the Middle East have a much greater impact – 1m migrants into Europe, Greek debt defaults…

Inequality has so far been not too much of a problem – 95% of the world’s population are growing up richer than their parents. But soon we will see a group of people who are not advancing. The comfort of the old systems will disappear – there will be a rise of new political parties – they will be non-traditional, not necessarily of the left or right but “different”. Can they appeal to the “non-advancers”? This applies, eg, to ISIS – they are offering a new system.

The role of the company/corporation is also changing – more from emerging markets and small to medium organisations becoming more competitive.
There are implications for leadership: the change is coming, need to spend more time looking beyond your own national issues and be more externally focused, learning new ways of responding and how to view the world. The change cannot be stopped or denied…

Vaughan Smith (journalist) – “Future Opportunities”

West also does “smear campaigns” – it is not just the Russians. As a journalist it is also distressing to hear about the vulnerabilities of the press and how it can be subverted. Not much money is spent on critical journalism. VS has created a Frontline Freelance Register for freelance journalists who “fill the gap”. The quality of freelancers is very variable. It is dangerous to lie: “the truth builds trust, little else does”. There is a dilemma in fooling the public
Journalism is changing – it is becoming more diverse, harder to control. Many new journalists are not very good. There is an inevitability that truth has to suffer – but if you get it wrong it will catch up on you and erode trust. It is hard to deal with a “firehose” of information – the West should not use the same tactics as Russia – Russia Today is good at explaining Western flaws – need more journalism based on truth and trust

Taliban leader Mansour reported dead in intra-Taliban shootout

December 4, 2015

Summary: Taliban leader Mullah Mansour is reportedly killed or wounded in a shootout during a Taliban leadership meeting in Pakistan.  Never mind the media, the Taliban themselves are a confused mix of confirmations and denials of the report.  If true, this points to a likely fragmentation of the Taliban.  Islamic State in Afghanistan may benefit as Taliban fighters choose a new and hgher profile jihadist brand

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Taliban militants' new leader, is seen in this undated handout photograph

Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, reported killed in a shootout at a Taliban leadership meeting in Quetta

A lot of confused media and social media reporting to sort through, with the main thrust being that the current leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, has been killed in a shootout during a meeting of Taliban leaders in Quetta, Pakistan on Tuesday. The New York Times carries some useful detail on the story. Some Taliban members have claimed Mansour has been killed, others that he has been wounded and yet others that he is alive and was nowhere near the area of the alleged incident.

This is major news, probably overshadowed by bombing campaigns against Islamic State in Syria.  Mullah Mansour was the previous Taliban chief, Mullah Omar’s right-hand man. Earlier this year, the Taliban leadership revealed that Omar had died of poor health in 2013. Mansour is believed to have masterminded the concealment of Omar’s demise and manipulated his closeness to Omar in order to ensure he replaced him. Mansour’s appointment as Amir ul Momineem (“Leader of the Faithful”) was highly controversial within the Taliban. Many refused to recognise him and there have been reported armed stand-offs between rival groups of supporters. A breakaway group loyal to Mullah Dadullah (himself reportedly killed by another Taliban group that were possibly loyal to Mullah Mansour) have announced that Mansour had died of wounds during the Quetta shootout.

It is a complex set of reports and counter-reports and we should not rule out a garbled report, or even a malicious attempt to destabilise the Taliban by some form of intelligence agency. But from the spread of information sources, to me it still looks very plausible that Mansour is now out of the game. To have to announce the death of one leader is bad luck for an insurgency, but to have to announce two in the same year is starting to look likely carelessness. The Taliban website is in a state of unsophisticated denial, denouncement and deflection:

Taliban website, 3 December 2015: “Today once again Pajhwok and other media outlets fraudulently misused the name of the former Minister of Information and Culture of the Islamic Emirate, the respected Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqqi, to falsely claim that Mr. Mansur Sahib has been injured and even killed.

We consider this the failed attempts of intelligence agencies who want to confuse the ordinary people with such fabricated reports despite repeated denials by us.

We encourage media outlets to consider their reputations and be very careful when releasing reports about such sensitive matters. Do not become part of the wider malicious intelligence plans with the publication of such reports.

Amir Khan Muttaqqi has not been in contact with any media outlet over the course of the past 14 years and neither are rumors about injury of Mr. Mansur Sahib true.”

The Taliban used to impress many in the international community for the capability of their media machine. This was mainly because the Taliban used the internet and Twitter and could therefore say lots of things very quickly. This was particularly handy if they wanted, for example, to claim a bomb attack or assassination. But the content is routinely quite weak. Their credibility will not look good if, fresh from two years of publishing Mullah Omar’s statements after he has died, they categorically deny Mansour is dead but fail to produce him in any convincing way.

If Mansour is dead or incapacitated this will pose major problems of capability, credibility and future direction for the Taliban. They will struggle to find a figurehead to replace Mullah Omar. Efforts to re-engage in peace dialogue between the Afghan government and the insurgents will, once again, go on the back burner. We may see a fragmentation of the Taliban, with rival groups operating in their own local areas and vying for support and resources. Internal fighting is likely to intensify. This might provide a boost in recruitment for Islamic State, who have been slowly increasing their presence and reach inside Afghanistan, offering funds, resources and a more energised jihadi brand to disgruntled Taliban. The security situation in Afghanistan just became more messy and complex.

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