SYRIA ET AL. Whenever something horrible happens in the world that Western governments and media outlets actually notice, we find two different reactions from Moscow and Washington. Moscow confines itself to anodyne statements about constitutional agreement, peace and so forth – admirable sentiments which do nothing. Washington, on the other hand, feels it has to pick a side and blame those that don’t. US media outlets either create this judgement or follow along (which comes first?). Washington then accuses Moscow (and others) of preventing it “doing something”; the media picks up this line and fills up with stories (many of which don’t prove to be true: this one again, for example). When the crisis ends, interest and coverage do too. The collective memory is wiped clean and attention moves to the next CNN crisis. Since the end of the Cold War I recall four of these “humanitarian interventions” that exemplify this pattern. No one today ever mentions Somalia (1992) or Haiti (1994); the first being an utter disaster and the second ineffective. As to Kosovo (1999) we never heard about the KLA and organ harvesting at the time or much else about the people NATO put into power today; as to Libya (2011) mention of gunmen fighting it out or knock-on effects in Chad or Mali stays far in the back pages. The reality is that these “humanitarian interventions” aren’t such big successes that anyone should lightly proceed to the next one. So, if Putin “lectured” Obama, whose knowledge of the world is a bit shaky, I have some sympathy with him. Their bland joint statement here.

PROTESTS. New fines for unauthorised protests have been passed. Putin’s press secretary said he would not sign until he had looked at European norms and carefully considered. Didn’t take him long – he signed 2 days later. Much flapdoodle – this ever-reliable hater of all things Putin manages, in the same piece, both to suggest Putin is weakened by continual large-scale protests and that he is cracking down on them. Alas for his thesis, there was another large anti-Putin protest on Tuesday that passed off without incident. (And a very mixed bag turn out these days). Russia has rules, the same as everyone else: ask for a permit, where, when and how many, negotiate with the city, get agreement and go ahead. Stick to the permit and nothing happens. Break the rules, and the cops move in. And, even in such exemplars of democracy as Canada, the rules can be changed. I am amused to see that VTsIOM finds that Putin’s and Medvedev’s ratings have improved since the protests began, Levada agrees. I leave it to you, Dear Readers, to speculate on how this could be. Given all the hoohah in Western news outlets.

CORRUPTION. A former senior policemen was sentenced to 9 years for a swindle; several senior officials in Kabardin-Balkaria were arrested for involvement in a property swindle; a former village council head got 9 years for taking a bribe. A very senior military medical officer arrested for bribe-taking. 4 policemen in Ufa were fired for negligence that led to murder. And, probably related to corruption, a newly-built road in Vladivostok collapsed.

MODERNISATION. This is going to be the big push I think. Both Putin and Medvedev have often spoken of the dangers of Russia’s economy being so dependent on oil prices, presently declining. Putin has created a council and has called for big investments.

MAGNITSKIY. After investigation, a case for negligence against the former head of the prison in which he died has been sent to the prosecutors. Not the least of the idiocies of the Magnitskiy Bill is that, logically, it must rely on Russian descriptions of the crime and the Russian investigation to determine the guilty.

UNEMPLOYMENT. Dropped, we are told to a 4-year low of 5.4%. No one in 2000 would have expected this; few in 2008 come to think of it either.

POZNER. Medvedev took the dare and appeared but Pozner’s questions were pretty bland. Opportunity missed.

CHINA. Lots of deals signed when the two presidents met. Well, given the Magnitskiy Bill and Jackson-Vanik, when one door closes, another opens.

KARABAKH. Karabakh sources say an Azerbaijani probe was repulsed with casualties. Azerbaijan’s Deputy PM says Baku is ready to clear Karabakh of its “Armenian occupiers”. Russia, USA and France make a joint statement. A long-held concern is that, when Azerbaijan feels it has bought enough military power with its oil money, it will attack. If so, I confidently predict another defeat for Azerbaijanian forces.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Was Shamil Basayev a GRU Recruit?

Some claim that Shamil Basaev was recruited by the GRU (Soviet then Russian military intelligence) in order to make trouble for independent Georgia. (See the Wikipedia entry for the story). This charge, of course, supports the meme that Georgia would have been sufficiently peaceful had Moscow not stirred up trouble. Several things need to be considered before this may be believed. First the Russian media in the 1990s was little more than the house organs of the oligarchs in their wars with each other: much content was subordinated to this purpose. Second, the period after the breakup of the USSR was one of extreme confusion: in particular the former “organs of state security” and the Armed Forces had little notion of their future. Intermittently paid in depreciating money, unsure of their “ownership” (especially true of former Soviet garrisons in the newly independent countries) and with little control from anywhere, sometimes attacked by forces in the wars of the time, they survived as best they could. It is indeed fortunate, that rogue units did not become the “White Companies” of the twentieth century. As to Basaev the story is that he was noticed by the GRU at the White House siege in August 1991, trained and inserted into Abkhazia. (See Col. Stanislav Lunev: “Chechen Terrorists in Dagestan – Made in Russia”;; 26 August 1999 ( The author claims to be a former GRU officer and was a source for, among other things, the “suitcase nuke” excitements of the 1990s. He defected to the USA in 1992: in short about the time of the events he describes). However, it appears that Basaev would have been rather too busy for GRU training courses at the time. The months after the White House events, troubles begin in Chechnya ending in Jokhar Dudayev’s presidency and successful defiance of Moscow. Chechnya declared independence in March 1992 and resistance to Dudayev began to gather that summer. Surely Basaev was there: he is said to have been one of the hijackers of an Aeroflot aircraft in November 1991. Some say that he fought in Karabakh in 1992. He seems to have appeared in Abkhazia around August 1992 and remained there until the end of the fighting. When the First Chechen War began in December 1994, he became one of the leading rebel commanders. Khattab, the Arab jihadist with a carefully chosen team of specialists, arrived in Chechnya about summer 1995 and some time thereafter Basaev joined forces with him. It is said that he received training in Afghanistan at one of Bin Laden’s structures as he completed his transformation from fighter for an independent Chechnya to warrior in the international jihad. This schedule would not appear to leave much time for training from the GRU. I personally have never seen any real evidence to support the assertion that Basaev was trained by or was any sort of asset of the GRU and I do not take the assertion seriously: assertions are plentiful but evidence is not.

Post-USSR Military Dangers

Note February 2016. I wrote this to someone in explanation of that dangerous period after the end of the USSR when there were a lot of soldiers around uncertain of their pay and position.

The confusion and uncertainty of the period should be remembered. At the beginning of December 1991, soldiers in Georgia were USSR troops legally stationed in a part of the USSR. After the breakup of the USSR, they became CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) troops legally stationed in the CIS. This somewhat fictional arrangement dissipated over the next year. Some of the former Soviet republics “nationalized” them and so, for example, former USSR/CIS troops in Ukraine became the Ukrainian Armed Forces legally stationed in Ukraine. But, several of the new states, like the Baltics and Georgia did not want to do this, regarding them as occupiers. Likewise there were the former USSR forces based in Eastern Europe. Moscow took responsibility for them. (The reader is invited to imagine what would have happened had Moscow said it would only take responsibility for Russian nationals and leave Lithuania and the others to look after their nationals in the multi-ethnic Soviet Armed Forces). Understandably the pressure from the West was to move the former USSR garrisons out of Eastern Europe and that is what was done. And, as the Soviet economy collapsed, conditions became harsher especially for the now-Russian Armed Forces garrisons in places that did not want them. It would not be surprising if these forces, mostly unpaid, did what they had to do to survive by selling off what they had to the warring sides. But also, given that the officers had their families with them, they could be blackmailed and threatened. It took years to sort all this out and, in the meantime, the dwindling garrisons remained there. And, when they were attacked by someone, they fired back. There is no reason to assume that official Moscow – which had innumerable problems of its own – had anything to do with this. On a personal note, I at the time was afraid that some armed and disciplined force in one of these places would go rogue and demand food and pay from the locals along the lines of the marauding “White Companies” of the Hundred Years’ War. It could have been much worse than it was.

Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.

As that great Russianologist, Sherlock Holmes, observed: “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.”

I’ve never had much use for Kremlinology, either in The Day or now. It is founded on two fatally weak conjectures. The first is the reductionist notion that Russia (or, in The Day, the USSR) can be explained by the relationship between a small group of individuals. Where is the evidence for that? But most absurdly, it imagines that we outsiders can understand what those relationships are. Do we, after all this time, understand the relationship between Lenin and Stalin? Or Stalin and Voroshilov? Or Stalin and Beria? Why should anyone think we understand the relationship between Putin and Medvedev and how they make decisions? We don’t even know what goes on inside our own governments’ offices. Kremlinology’s predictive record is negligible.

A decade or so ago, Neo-Kremlinologists spent their time categorising people into groups: the Family, the Siloviki and I can’t now remember the third; but, for some reason, these airy constructions always had three groups. Then I recall a period of speculation that Putin had created a “politburo” in the Security Council to sideline the government. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many other weighty thinkpieces that came and went scrying the future through imagined personal relationships. None of these efforts ever produced much that was either predictive or explanatory.

Furthermore, it ought to be pretty clear, after more than a decade’s observation, that Russia has a remarkably collegial, discreet and effective management team. While a few former insiders have gone over the opposition (Kasyanov, Illarionov and presumably Kudrin) it is striking how well the Team has held together. The second thing a decade’s worth of observation tells us is that Putin is loathe to kick someone into the darkness and so we see today that old ministers have been “kicked upstairs” to advisory positions in order to preserve their dignity and make way for new people in the government. (Perhaps Putin has learned from Lyndon Johnson: “It’s better to have some one inside the tent…”).

Thus, there is no second or parallel government: there is a Team. The same team that has been running the place for 12 years. Any disagreements are kept inside the box.

It is much better to regard Russia’s governing structure as a “black box”: observe what is said and what happens rather than speculate about the unseen gears inside the box.