Category Archives: Russia

The Kremlin Playbook

I found The Kremlin Playbook on the CSIS web site. This is the Center for Strategic & International Studies, an entity that is highly regarded in all quarters. The paper is divided into six sections and then five case studies.

  • Introduction: A Model of Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe
  • Russian Political Influence: Eroding Democratic Institutions
  • Russian Economic Influence: Exploiting Capitalism’s Weaknesses
  • The Unvirtuous Cycle of Corruption
  •  Russian Influence: Intentional or Opportunistic
  • Resisting Russian Influence and Policy Recommendations
The Unvirtuous Cycle

The Unvirtuous Cycle

Case Studies:

  • Hungary: Early Illiberalism Adopter
  • Bulgaria: What State Capture Looks Like
  • Latvia: How to Break the Unvirtuous Cycle
  • Slovakia: Political Capture in Action
  • Serbia: Preview of Coming Attractions

And here’s the rub, as previously identified in @peterpomeranzev‘s The Menace of Unreality.

Slowly awakening to the impact of Russian influence is a far cry from understanding the depth of the policy challenge and implementing policy responses, however. Although Russia’s military activism has received significant policy attention by the United States and NATO, transatlantic understanding of Europe’s susceptibility to and complicity with Russian influence—which constitutes an equally serious threat to European security—is completely lacking. A disunited, politically paralyzed, and antidemocratic Europe would erode the ability of NATO to defend and uphold transatlantic norms, values, and institutions, seriously undermining and ultimately questioning the future of the alliance. The stakes are enormous.

Starting on page XV of the executive summary there are a page and a half of high level prescriptions for European governments and the United States. The Kremlin Playbook is useless without the ability to move illicit funds around. This is the first prescription they offered:

Elevate and design a special, high-level task force within the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) that focuses solely on tracing and prosecuting illicit Russian-linked  financial  flows if they interact with the U.S.  financial system.

There is much more but this is the crux – Russia arrives, starts purchasing influence until it’s in a position to change things, then it slowly takes control. The only positive thing I see in all this is that Citizens United Killed The GOP, and Russian money certainly played a role in that. The Putin/Trump connection has been good for the U.S. in this regard – the GOP may never recover from the blow, and perhaps D.C. will be a little less dysfunctional starting in early 2017.

This paper is a quality read, one that should join The Menace of Unreality and Winning the Information War on the must-read list for those interested in foreign policy issues involving Russia.

Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin At War In Syria

Putin Addressing The U.N.

Putin Addressing The U.N.

Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin At War In Syria is a 32 page publication I originally found on the Atlantic Council’s web site. This is the part that got me reading, the focus on employing OSINT methods, as well as it being about my new favorite topic, Russia.

We have used the power of digital forensics to expose the details of Russia’s aerial and ground attacks in Syria using information entirely from open sources, available to be viewed and verified by anyone. Such an approach empowers individuals not only to discover information about Putin’s war in Syria, but also to verify the information themselves. Such an approach is the polar opposite of Russia’s opaque disinformation campaign, which relies on ideological narratives over verifiable facts.

A bit later in the paper it introduces an acronym that is new to me:  open source and social media intelligence (OSSMINT). I’ve never NOT thought of social media as an open source suitable for inclusion under the older OSINT definition so I’m curious to see where this concept first arose and what (if any) differences there are in the definition.


The paper offered a couple of interesting observations on the diplomacy ahead of the Russian campaign in Syria.

Russian propaganda uses a 4D approach: Dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the key point, and dismay the audience.

Thus, the style and content of the Syrian campaign fit more closely with the Kremlin’s tactic of aggressive disinformation, rather than with an attempt at persuasive diplomacy.

It appears far more likely that Putin wanted to launch air strikes to back Assad, and to distract from this unpopular position, he claimed to be targeting ISIS instead.


And here the Russians are caught in lies thanks to OSSMINT srouces.

From the first day of Russian air strikes, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) began publishing video footage of the strikes on its official YouTube channel.23 The videos generally contained information describing the location and target of the attack, but right from the start, OSSMINT analysts, including Russian expert Ruslan Leviev and the Bellingcat group of investigative journalists demonstrated that the Ministry was providing false information about the targets and locations of the air strikes.

Between September 30 and October 12, the Russian Ministry of Defense published videos of forty- three air strikes. Using the crowdsourced analysis techniques described above, the Bellingcat group and its collaborators identified the exact location of thirty-six of these strikes, then overlaid the locations onto the MoD’s own map, identifying which armed groups controlled what parts of the country. The result revealed inaccuracy on a grand scale: Russian o cials described thirty of these videos as air strikes on ISIS positions, but in only one example was the area struck, in fact under the control of ISIS, even according to the Russian MoD’s own map.


The Kremlin’s policy in Syria appears to have served three purposes: Distract attention from its actions in Ukraine and its military buildup in Syria; deceive the international community about the nature of its targets; and destroy the forces that presented the greatest threat to the Kremlin’s client, Assad, especially those forces most closely linked to the United States.

The paper closes with a page and a half of realpolitik and this sentence jumped out at me.

There are no good options in Syria.

I’ve been saying things like that about Syria … Yemen … Gaza … and it’s unusual to see in a document from serious minded foundation fellows. The best thing the world could do in Syria is sealing up it crumbling Cold War era water handling systems, which are currently losing some 40% of the water they carry. That would have been a fine thing to do prior to things going off the rails in 2011. Now we have to wait for the shooting to die before this vital infrastructure fix.

NATO: Kremlin & Daesh Information Activities

Kremlin & Daesh Information Activities is a publication from NATO’s STRATCOMCOE, based on a meeting that happened in Riga, Latvia on May 24th of 2016.

Here are the four questions they addressed:


How are the communications and messages of DAESH and the Kremlin constructed and disseminated?

Are their methods changing?

Why do such messages appeal to youth, even if they are familiar with Western values and consumerism?

What are the weakest aspects of our information environment and what can we do to improve?

I wish I could put a big ol’ plug in for this document, but I just can’t. The ideas on the sources of violent extremism seem dated, simplistic, and outright incorrect in many places. This is meant to be a top level policy formation document so it’s full of broad strokes and short on the kind of details that usually draw my eye. It’s posted here as a milestone, a note that I’ve read the work, nothing more.

Ballistic Missile Submarines

Nuclear Missile Submarines

Nuclear Missile Submarines

I frequent places where there are left leaning foreign policy folk and they tend to be less informed on our various weapons systems. I came across this infographic on the nuclear missile boats of the world. Like the Global Aircraft Carrier Infographic this image shows how dramatic the difference is between U.S. capabilities and the rest of the world. We have fourteen nuclear missile equipped submarines, the rest of the world has fifteen total, and eight of those fifteen are in the hands of our allies.

Notice who’s in this club? The U.N. Security Council Permanent Members. There are rumors that Israel’s Dolphin class provides them second strike capabilities, but this is via cruise missiles rather than ballistic missiles. A trifling difference and one that Israel would never admit, even if true.

The boat types in the infographic are:

Ohio class (USA)

Jin class (China)

Triomphant class (France)

Vanguard class (United Kingdom)

Borei class (Russia)


Just having a submarine fleet is not enough, they have to be exercised regularly, or they become a hazard to their unpracticed crews. Quality counts, too. The U.S. lost Thresher in 1963 and Scorpion in 1968. The Soviet Union lost sixteen boats during the Cold War and Russia lost two after that.

Like most other systems, the U.S. could idle half or two thirds of our nuclear missile boats and still have a credible second strike. This will not happen until our economy faces some sort of wrenching adjustment similar to the one in 1929.

Unpacking Russia’s New National Security Plan

I just noticed Olga Oliker‘s Unpacking Russia’s New National Security Plan yesterday and I’m really wrestling with this document, which is commentary based on a translation of an official Russian government publication from December of 2015.

First, thanks to The Interpreter we know this: Russia: Media Talking War, Government Not Budgeting. This puts an upper bound on what they’re going to do – rhetoric, an information war we have to win, perhaps trouble for the small Baltic countries if NATO doesn’t stand firm.

Being used to parsing the U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review & Friends, the introspective nature of the Russian document Oliker describes sounds decidedly odd to my ears. Here are the top level items:

  • national defense
  • state and social security
  • quality of life of Russian citizens
  • economic growth
  • science, technology, and education
  • health
  • culture
  • ecology and environment

Looks more like a bullet list from Common Dreams than a strategic security document, doesn’t it? Another immediately eye catching component is this:

In this context, it’s notable that another consistent theme throughout is values. Specifically, there are fairly frequent references (ten by my count) to “traditional Russian spiritual-moral values.” This formulation is new—prior government strategic documents referenced values, but not in quite this way, and certainly not this often. Here, these values are described as having been reborn. They are now in need of development, reinforcement, and protection from foreign values, which might spread through information campaigns and “poor-quality” foreign popular culture. The threats to these values come from both from the West and from terrorists and extremists. Interestingly, a few times the discussion of values is paired with appeals to the unity of Russian culture and morals and the Russian tradition of ethnic, racial, and religious tolerance.

What does this say to you? I saw this and I thought “hate speech tropes”. I was so impressed with that one paragraph I reached out to an associate who knows a lot about such things, asking for confirmation on what it looks like is happening there.

If the Russian government is that blatantly pandering to its newfound nationalist fan clubs in Europe and here in the U.S., that’s kind of a big deal … but what’s stuff like that doing in a top level strategic document? How does this differ from prior documents of a similar nature, and how will this information flow outward to reach the intended audiences?

I feel like the find by The Interpreter and this document represent a sort of break point in my understanding – I have a worst case estimate that’s much less than what I thought we faced, and a gateway to some insight on what the Kremlin is doing next. The foreign (and domestic!) policy problem is starting to feel a little more tractable to me.


Russia: Media Talking War, Government Not Budgeting

This article originated with the Window on Eurasia Blogspot, but The Interpret saw fit to elevate it: Russia Preparing for War in the Media but Not in the Budget, Moscow Commentators Say

I wouldn’t normally copy something from somewhere else verbatim unless I felt it was really important. If the worst case estimate on Russian aggression is a lot of talk and some infowar subterfuge, that is a big deal in terms of the overall calculus. There are a lot of subtle points in here that tie into the CSIS Unpacking Russia New Nation Security Strategy document.



Staunton, VA, October 12, 2016 – The Moscow media are filled with stories suggesting that Russia is preparing for war, but a close examination of the Russian government budget calls that conclusion into question, leaving open an even larger one: will this media firestorm lead to a real one or will it burn out of its own accord?

Anyone who has carried followed the news from Moscow over the last several weeks, Meduza notes, has to conclude that “Russia is preparing for war. The newspapers and television channels are talking about sudden checks of the military and military exercises … the construction and location of bomb shelters … and rations … in the event of military action”.

But a close examination of the Russian state budget, Ekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service says, shows that “spending on defense is not growing but declining.” What is growing is spending for agencies that can suppress “domestic disorders”.

“If someone thinks that we are preparing for a world war,” Schulmann says, “this isn’t visible” from the budget. “If we are preparing for something, then it is for some kind of internal disorders. We intend to feed our defense ministry a little less and to feed out special services and internal force structures more,” at least judging from the budget.

But can what is going on in the media lead to something real, can the war on television become a war in reality?  That is a question Moscow commentator Oleg Kashin addresses because he says if the current situation were a movie, the news would be a leading indicator.

That may not be the case now, he suggests, because for the current Russian elite, “foreign policy always was only a continuation of domestic policy.”  All of Putin’s words and actions are addressed in the first instance to the people of the Russian Federation and are intended to ensure that he and his entourage will remain in power.

Talking about war is one thing – it may be very good politics – but going to war is something else because it would destroy almost everything that Putin has achieved up to this point and cast doubt on his ability to remain in power in any meaningful war, the commentator continues.

To be sure, Kashin says, “we really can’t imagine what is in the heads” of the people in the Kremlin, the former KGB officers. “The little pictures which they draw for internal use have begun suddenly to come alive,” and thinking about what that could mean has got to be horrible for them, as does backing down, given the domestic consequences of doing so.

“What is to be done? They do not know.” They know how to ramp up anger but they aren’t prepared to live with taking the obvious next step. Sergey Shoygu likes playing military commander but only as long as it is play and not the real thing, Kashin argues, given what he has to know a real war would amount to.

Everything Putin has done, the Moscow commentator says, has been “subordinate to a single goal, that his power will be beyond dispute and that no one else will have the opportunity to make political decisions … Long ago [he and his entourage] achieved this, and now, they don’t have anyone to share responsibility for what they have brought about.”

FAS B-61 Nuclear Bomb Report

Part of today’s reading was the Federation of American Scientists issue brief The B61 Life-Extension Program: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes. I caught this typo, which is pretty funny for such a polished document:

A Small Typo

A Small Typo

Nuclear weapons are not a normal area of interest for me, but these are not normal times. Specifically:

I’m paying close attention to Election 2016 Cybersecurity & “Operations Psychological”, and this will continue to be of interest after the 2016 election is complete. We really need to pass the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016.

A Russian sub was spotted in the English Channel, and in general there are a lot of reports like those I recall from the late seventies and early eighties, when tensions with the Soviet Union were high. There are a lot of reports like this, more often stuff involving aircraft over the North Sea and in the Baltic region.

Part of the information warfare problem is this: Bellingcat, MH17 & Kremlin Trolls, a cyberconflict which has its roots in Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine.

If we add a JDAM style tailkit to the B61 Nuclear Bomb they can be made much more accurate. These are Dial-A-Yield weapons, with capacity ranging from 400 kilotons down to 0.3 kilotons. A sub-kiloton weapon that can hit within five meters of an underground bunker’s entrance is a very tempting tool in the hand of a military commander when the facility is hardened against the GBU-28, our most capable conventional bunker buster.

But such a use would create fallout, both physical and political. Maybe it’s better than we amp up development of things like the GBU-28, and leave the nuclear genie in its bottle.