Surprise, It’s President Putin All Over Again!

Mark Galeotti joins us for War College’s Russian election special. The winner, Vladimir Putin, was never in doubt, but what’s the sham election all about? And what comes next for Russia and its relations with the world.

And by the way, is there a Gerasimov Doctrine? No, no there isn’t.



[00:18] You are listening to War College a weekly podcast that brings you the stories from behind the frontlines. Here are your hosts Matthew Gault and Jason Fields.


[00:00:40] Hello and welcome to work college. I’m Jason Fields and I’m Matthew Galt. You’ll never guess who’s going to be elected president of Russia this month. Actually I’ll bet you’ve guessed already.


[00:00:52] The only way Vladimir Putin doesn’t get reelected is if a foreign country interferes with the election. Way too soon anyway. So favorite and Russia expert Mark Galeotti is here to talk to us about the Russian election and more important what comes next. So welcome back Mark.


[00:01:11] Hi it’s good to be back on line.


[00:01:13] So other than Vladimir Putin who’s officially in the race.


[00:01:18] Well I mean this is a cast of several as they try to give this the appearance of a real election a grown up election really that is only I would say to people we need to talk about. And then one person who we talk about who isn’t standing the two people who we’re talking about briefly is guardian who is the Communist Party candidate. Except that he’s not actually a communist party member. And the other one is senior Sobchak her former socialite. She hates that expression. Who is standing as a sort of general vote for me if you don’t like the way things are going. Kind of candidate but in some ways the real opposition figure is Alexei Navalny the anti-corruption campaigner who precisely for that reason has not been allowed to run and are Russians seeing anything at all about these candidates including Navalny well Navone is essentially squeezed off all the official media. He’s fighting a pretty effective guerrilla campaign through YouTube and so forth with very enthusiastic supporters and some exceedingly slick videos basically highlighting the self-indulgent corruption of the Russian elite. But still it’s hard for him to make headway. So what he’s really campaigning for is a boycott. He’s saying just don’t vote. These are not real elections. We’ll wait and see what kind of traction that actually has. I mean there’s a massive attempt to actually get people to vote.


[00:02:48] I mean I’m here in Moscow at the moment and it feels like pretty much every other bus stop every other billboard is a general poster just basically saying go and vote our country our president our choice because let’s be honest the subtext is go vote for Putin. You see a few posters for the Communist Party. You see some posters for Vladimir Zhirinovsky who is this maverick ultra extreme nationalist and his Liberal Democrat party that is of course neither liberal Democratic is away. Also there was a spoiler but basically the big effort is just trying to get people out to vote.


[00:03:28] I can’t believe Zhirinovsky is still around. He’s been there since Yeltsin. If not before.


[00:03:37] Yeah absolutely. Let’s be honest this is also the country that worked out how to pickle Lenin. The thing is I mean again it’s interesting that the actual look or the calm originally the communists were likely to also feel their own ancient and essentially desiccated candidate Zyuganov. And it’s really only pressure from below that that forced them to choose another candidate. The interesting thing is that this guy Gruder Union he’s actually now getting quite a bit of flak from the official media claiming that he has foreign bank accounts and whatever which implies that suddenly thinking dear he might be a bit of a problem not a problem in the sense of he’s going to push this to a second round or anything like that. Not at all but just simply that in some ways he doesn’t seem to realize that his job is to be a pretend candidate not a real one.


[00:04:32] I’m wondering what Putin’s sell is here. Or does he even need one at this point.


[00:04:38] Well I mean in many ways this is the interesting thing. This is the presidential election that isn’t Putin himself hasn’t campaigned. There’s been a sort of a couple of set piece speeches but he’s not really been doing much of the going and meeting the people. Let’s be honest. I mean he gives every impression of being rather bored. It’s a little bit like the sense that they created the electoral process and electoral system to give it the illusion of democracy. And they’re now thinking why don’t we do that again. So there’s not really much of a soul except to a general time. Well this is a dangerous time and the interesting thing is that his recent speech to the state of the Union address spent two thirds of the time trotting out the usual promises that Russians have heard all the time. GDP is going to go up by 50 percent. There’s going to be more money for schools and roads and Wi-Fi and for the countryside and all these other things. And then the last third that we all talked about in the West was all salivating over the new generation of nuclear missile systems. And in part that was a thumb in the eye of the West. So it was part of the general narrative that he’s been building which is basically this We Russians are a threat. The West is trying to isolate us surround us change our system change our values.


[00:06:04] We are essentially at war even if it’s not a war fought with tanks and always this is the flip side of exactly what we’re saying in the West about the Russians that are political campaigns. But that sort of links to a sense that in circumstances like this it’s too dangerous to not have a strong powerful experienced leader who can defend the motherland.


[00:06:27] And Putin is the only one. So I think that is his main political campaign is just basically it’s too scary out there. It’s too dangerous to have anyone out.


[00:06:36] Right. I think some of the other things that you’re seeing that he’s been talking about play into that because even though he’s not mounting a traditional campaign like you said I still feel like every other week the past month or so I’ve been hearing crazy stories coming out of Russian Putin specifically. Right. He he criticized the Jews for election meddling he said. He claimed that he ordered the Turkish Pegasus Airline downed the nerve gas attacks that are allegedly tied to them that are happening in the U.K.. Do you. Do you see that is all part of that.


[00:07:09] Yes not necessarily initiated for that reason but that they are a firm believers of the great sort of saying never waste a crisis. So if one takes example this nerve agent attempted assassination in the UK and it’s very very hard not to see that as a Russian state level here. When I turn on a fan incautious enough to do so my TV set here in Moscow and what appear to be now the main government TV channel it’s full of this extraordinarily sort of rabid suggestions that basically this is all a false flag operation because the British are in what was the most delightfully extreme claim annoying because they lost the World Cup the rights to host it to Russia and therefore London is trying desperately to find excuses for all kinds of horrible Russophobia acts. So everything that happens it all plays to this narrative. Basically it’s not our fault it’s all a Western plot. And that’s why we’re under arrest.


[00:08:13] Did the World Cup idea actually make it onto Main Russian TV.


[00:08:20] I’m afraid so that it has to be said very little insanity that is too insane for Russian state TV.


[00:08:28] Everything about this makes me wonder about how Russians view U.S. Russian relations. You know we’re so used to the Western view which is the West is being undermined and there are Russians thinking about the U.S. in particular. And how do they view our favorite scandal over here interfering with our elections.


[00:08:52] I suppose it depends when we say Russians are we talking about you know a bus driver in Omsk or are we talking about the political class if you’re an ordinary Russian you probably internalize that U.S. Russian relations are in a fairly bad state.


[00:09:09] You might find this quite perplexing because you’re also told that Donald Trump thinks that Putin is the greatest guy since since Kim Jong un it seems.


[00:09:19] And you know it contributes to the sense that the world is a confusing and dangerous place but it’s hardly the main thing on your intellectual agenda any more than if it was a bus driver in Ohio. If you’re talking about the political class. Well here is much more complex.


[00:09:38] And again it goes back to my long held view that the Russians weren’t trying to elect Trump they were trying to undermine Clinton whom they thought was an absolute shoo in. And certainly from the very beginning the Russian specialists in foreign affairs and national security were concerned about what Trump might mean. And above all had no idea what to make of him and quite frankly that still obtains today. There is there is no official line of course that Russia did not in the slightest bit trying to interfere in their in the American elections. There he is I’m encountering a fairly general sense that well there was a certain amount of trolling and such like as is always the way. But that it wasn’t crucial Joulani extent Russians don’t believe that they tip the balance in terms of the American election. And in that case I think that they have this question that they’re not quite sure how to consider America but what we do understand is that America is rather more powerful now. Their views always being of the West as a whole is the West has no capacity. But Russia has more will in other words Russia can do more with less and we’re still seeing that with its relations with Europe that’s changing with America. And I mean particularly if one thinks back to February when there was this attack in Syria on the oil fields that also included that the way in which there were American personnel and then the American forces as per procedure responded with a devastating air and artillery attack that decimated the pseudo mercenary force school Varno those Russian mercenary force.


[00:11:26] And it’s interesting because Moscow has been incredibly meek about that if anything actually aggravating local nationalists who are horrified thinking well these rallies around you know these were good Russian soldiers even if they weren’t working for the defense ministry they were Russians. And you’re just standing back and letting the Americans kill them. But Moscow’s very clearly not wanting to get involved and basically said to with us these are mercenaries they’re working for the Syrians are a private company. So when when push comes to shove I think the Russians are not looking to directly challenge the United States. But I think that’s to a large extent precisely because of the sense of unpredictability.


[00:12:07] They have not worked out how they can gain Trumps America these days are the other candidates did they take any sort of different position towards the United States. Novotny in particular since he’s not a stooge.


[00:12:21] Well not really. It’s interesting because you know he’s he’s essentially politically he’s liberal he’s a very very fierce critic of the corruption and they are the true nature of the government.


[00:12:32] But on the other hand I mean he is he is a Russian nationalist. He doesn’t seem to have a problem ultimately with the Russian annexation of Crimea. He certainly doesn’t want to see some any kind of geopolitical competition with America but we shouldn’t assume that he’s somehow some you know America sympathizer. SR So Chuck who interestingly enough seems to have spent half of her campaign actually in the United States rather than in Russia who has been adopting a much more overtly liberal role. But pinions very very subject. I personally am pretty skeptical. I mean this this is the daughter of Putin’s original patron in back in St. Petersburg. This is someone who clearly has been operating under a degree of protection. She’s an opposition candidate who says some really quite striking things against the regime.


[00:13:30] And yet unlike other real opposition candidates who have a tendency to have their homes broken into and ransacked and then false charges leveled at them and then sent to prison for days weeks or months she seems to be living something of a charmed life. I think her role is ultimately to be the fake Liberal candidate in the elections to kind of create a sense of excitement create a sense of real competition.


[00:13:54] So she says the right things but firstly she’s not got any kind of political weight whatsoever. And secondly it is possible to be sceptical about whether she’s just simply reading her lines.


[00:14:09] Do you think they’ll ever do away with all of this. Or is the political theater too good for them.


[00:14:15] Look I’m unfashionably optimistic about Russia. I don’t think there is anything in the Russian DNA that means they’re sort of forced into tiny shackles and they’re forever going to be doomed to authoritarianism and so forth. The interesting thing is one can look at debates about Germany before World War Two. And there were people who say well look militarism and authoritarianism are so deeply baked into the German psyche that really they know little else. And yet if one looks at the Germans doing just now. But the West Germans 20 30 years ago you know extremely liberal extremely democratic. Now I don’t think that the Russians are going to be Germans any day soon. But on the other hand I think that we are going to see a slow progression. Putin is in some ways the last gasp of a politically toxic mix of Soviet man with all the instincts that that means and also the kind of Russian who has seen the great empire for and doesn’t quite understand it and wants to know who to blame. And it’s something that pretty much every imperial country has to go through. One could say that Britain actually hasn’t quite got over it yet. Witness the Brexit vote. You know this takes time. Putin is this awful combination of the two Soviet man and Putin period and then the next political generation are going to be different. Now I think they’re instantly going to become Democrats.


[00:15:45] They’re probably essentially just going to be pragmatic kleptocrats happy just to steal from the country and put their money in the West but to do that they need to have good relations with the West. Maybe that generates the political generational that is going to be stepping towards being a liberal democratic country because the fascinating thing is you talk to Russians Russians of every kind and they will tell you that we are Europeans. That’s where they see themselves.


[00:16:14] And if you ask Russians you know do you want to become part of the European Union or whatever they say. No no. Whereas our own nation. But if you asked them to describe the kind of future they want for themselves or more importantly for their kids they talk about precisely a lack of corruption a meaningful capacity to actually feel you have a voice in the future of the country to be free of arbitrary rule by local officials and so forth which tends to be generally the rule of law that basically describing Western systems. So I think bit by bit the Russians will get them the same way as one can look at the countries of Central Europe that used to be under Soviet control and see a huge spectrum you know some countries are doing very well in terms of their shift towards democracy. Other countries are actually having a lot more trouble. But the general dynamic even if it is two steps forward one step back is in that direction. That process will also come to Russia just not while Putin is in the Kremlin that actually brings out a different question for me. You’re


[00:17:16] talking about the possibility of improving relations. One of the sticking points still is Ukraine and I guess I’m wondering is Russia still actively fighting there. It’s just been so quiet. And do you think anyone other than the Ukrainians care or is this one of the obstacles towards any sort of thaw.


[00:17:43] Well first of all when you talk about it being quiet it’s quiet on the other side of the Atlantic. But actually if you’re in Ukraine basically there are skirmishes there are shootings there are deaths pretty much every day. So this is. A mistake to use the term frozen conflict because that implies everything is quiet. It is not that as some have said it’s called The Baked Alaska conflict in that it’s sort of essentially frozen with the whole crust because along the line of contact there is there are still skirmishes going on. And Russia is absolutely there. The majority of the fighting is being done by a motley array of local militias volunteers exhibitors and mercenaries. But Russia stands behind them Russia pays them Russia arms them at any time it looks as if the Ukrainian army may be able to make some kind of headway. That’s when the Russians surge in their regular forces to restore the status quo.


[00:18:40] Look this has become something of the for the moment unresolvable problem Crimea Crimea is different in the sense of there’s no way the Russians are going to withdraw from Crimea. Both for strategic reasons but also political reasons. Pretty much every Russian thinks that Crimea is rightfully theirs. The Donbass is a different matter. Nobody really cares about the Donbass. This is the tragedy of that region of south eastern Ukraine Kiev in many ways is kind of committed to getting it back doesn’t really want it. And meanwhile the Russians are committed to defending their you know the quote unquote you know little sort of secessionist states which just Russian puppets. Even though these days and they don’t really want it. This was never about the Donbass. This is always about Russia trying to force Kiev dependency and except that it was part of Russia’s sphere of influence. And when they went in I mean I remember I was in Moscow at the time and everyone I talked to was absolutely certain that this would be a six month wonder that within six months capital capitulated Russia would abort its boys home in the West are forgotten about it. Well Kiev didn’t capitulate. And so the boys haven’t been brought home and actually in fairness to us the West hasn’t forgotten about it. We’ve shown that we can actually stick to our guns at least so far. This is not what Russia wants but it’s stuck in a situation where it cannot afford to just pull back. Putin cannot afford to just pull back.


[00:20:13] One of interesting things is if you look at his legitimating narrative he is the man who never makes a mistake you will try in vain to find a genuine apology a genuine admission that he did something wrong. And there’s no way that Kiev is going to give him the Mission Accomplished moment but he needs to be able to pull his troops back. So for the moment basically everyone is stuck there. And this kind of miserable gritty low level conflict will continue.


[00:20:41] And again I think that will continue so long as Putin is in the Kremlin to so when you put this together with Syria I’m wondering if all of these foreign adventures. Or should I just say these foreign adventures are costing Russia money that it needs. Especially in light of the sanctions that are on the country and the fact that oil is still not back to the 100 dollar barrel rate.


[00:21:09] Yes let’s be honest. Russia can for the moment afford to sustain what he’s doing. I’m going to realize there’s a big difference between Ukraine and Syria. Ukraine is a failure. The Russians are having to manage and it also means basically controlling a significant chunk of Ukraine. They also are having to bankroll basically any sort of public services or whatever within the area of the Donbass is ultimately coming covertly out of Moscow’s treasury. Syria is very different. I think they would generally regard what’s going on in Syria as a victory. They managed to stabilize the situation. They managed to keep their own guy Assad in power. More to the point they forced America to start talking to Russia again because remember they went in at a time when America was trying to isolate Moscow and in some ways this was precisely I know you don’t get to do that we can force you to come talk to us and it led to that distinctly uncomfortable encounter between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin that the U.N. General Assembly in New York and also you know Syria is a war they’re basically fighting on the cheap with their power. They’re using it as a splendid opportunity to blood a whole new generation of officers test out a whole new generation of equipment and as well use it as a shop window. Roll Up. Roll up. Come and see what Russian military technology can offer you. So I think for all those reasons Syria it costs money obviously but probably they’re thinking that’s money well spent in a way they’re certainly not thinking about that in Ukraine.


[00:22:44] It also proves to the rest of the world that they’re a global power right.


[00:22:49] Yeah it depends quite how you mean global.


[00:22:52] Syria is not the same as Argentina in terms of deployment. But no I mean it what it does is it takes Russia out of a certain box that had been placed not just in terms of trying to contain it diplomatically but a psychological box in a metal box that people were saying you know we go back to again Obama’s phrase a regional power which. Really went down badly here in Moscow. And what they’re saying is we are no more than that we are we are a power projection nation. Of course there still distinctly weak. I mean it’s worth mentioning that the Russian military have distinct capabilities but it is nothing like what I was the American capacity or military capacities. But nonetheless it can can do something that no one thought he could do which is precisely to deploy forces into Syria and more to the point to sustain that operation. That definitely has forced us to have a reassessment of what Russia can do.


[00:23:53] You’re speaking of Russian military affairs. You recently published something in foreign policy that I wanted to talk to you about. Mark can you tell me what the what the doctrine is and why you are apologizing for creating it.


[00:24:09] Well what the doctrine is is just simply a snappy title.


[00:24:14] It all dates back as I’m sure many of us know to an article that was written by the Russian chief of the General Staff General Gerasimov which appeared in the absolutely tedious military industrial Korea and you know a few people picked it up. It’s meant to have actually been some Estonian analysts respond to it first as being something of interest. They circulated it Robert Colston of the Coalson of RFE RL The American radio station translated it and sent it round and with his permission I put it on my blog with a commentary from me and you know as obviously I want people to read my blog. I gave it a snappy title although I didn’t explicitly say that this was just a placeholder. Nonetheless I called it the Gerasimov doctrine. Ha. He was me thinking I could get away just using a glib phrase and people wouldn’t take it seriously.


[00:25:14] Although the text makes it clear that there is no such coordinated doctrine.


[00:25:19] People that look to that and then saw what happened later on in Crimea and Ukraine and decided that somehow there was this extraordinary sort of coordinated and carefully mapped out Russian doctrine with the Gerasimov was talking about about how the Russians would use non-military means to destabilize countries before sending in troops.


[00:25:39] I can understand to an extent why because that’s what we saw particularly in Donbass how a few caveats need to be applied. First of all given SML wasn’t talking about Russian policy he was talking about how the world looked to Russia.


[00:25:59] Their view is hybrid war Kubelik Novoye now is both the something that is a western Abarbanel American tactic and what he was describing about the use of non-military means to bring countries into chaos is what the Russians see as what happened with the Arab Spring risings the color revolutions against authoritarian regimes in the post Soviet space and then in due course what happened in Ukraine when the storm has that to say Moscow puppet. But certainly Moscow inclined leader Yanukovych was toppled.


[00:26:34] As far as they’re concerned these clearly were not organic to the countries concerned. This is not just people who are fed who had basically got fed up with inefficient and corrupt regimes. No no of course it’s all had to have been coordinated in Langley. And even though I keep telling people in here in Moscow the CIA wishes it had the capacity to basically flip a switch and bring down a government. Doubly wishes it had the capacity to do so without it being leaked to The Washington Post two weeks later that cuts no ice here. They say they have this sense of that’s what the Americans can do. So Gerasimov was describing what he thought was the American Way of War. And you put who is doing that because precisely this is what that the time the Kremlin was worried about. And he’s trying to make the case that look you still need to spend money on all the shiny toys that were in the military need because we actually can respond to that. And what it comes down to it and I’m simplifying slightly but his answer is we can blow the snot out of any kind of Western attempt to destabilize Russia because I think it comes with not just political insurrection but also special forces teams coming across the border and stirring things up and so forth. And if you look for example the first phase of the recent major Zapata military exercises that took place the first phase was basically war gaming that it was incursions by foreign special forces teaming up with local fifth columnists and how the Russian military would deploy devastating fires against it.


[00:28:07] So this is what Dersim was talking about. He was not trying to say hey guys we came up with this great new way in fighting wars. He was saying yes this is how the Americans want to fight wars. And this is how we’re going to resist them. But the trouble is a snappy title a nice phrase carries far far more weight than any amount of sober analysis. And this term Gerasimov doctrine acquired as a Frankenstein’s monster like identity its own lumbering way way way out of my control.


[00:28:41] And so I was just trying desperately to kill the beast that had unleashed any luck so far. Ah God no.


[00:28:50] I suspect that this will be a cross I’ll be carrying for for a long long time.


[00:28:54] And then people say well why does it matter. And I think it matters for two reasons.


[00:29:01] One is that it makes sense to think that the Russian campaign which exists I’m not saying there is not a Russian campaign against us but instead of thinking of it some carefully when it comes concept I think we should realize the extent to which it is fragmentary and opportunistic because that’s a different kind of threat and one that we respond to differently and more generally if we mislabel something we misunderstand it and therefore we don’t prepare properly for it. The essence of the quote unquote Gerasimov doctrine is people understood it. It’s preparing the battlefield for when you sending your little green men your battalion tactical groups in other words for when the soldiers will cross the border. And when it comes to the west I do not believe that is going to happen. The Russians have a very clear sense of Article 5 of NATO the mutual guarantee. And actually they believe that it holds true.


[00:29:54] Are also well aware of the European nature has more ground troops and the Russians have put together instead this is about political war.


[00:30:04] This is about subversion demobilization disinformation etc. are being deployed not to prepare the ground for military conflict but as an alternative to it. So we constantly sitting there waiting for the little green men waiting for the Russian commander to come across the border.


[00:30:20] We will next. What for me are actually much much more serious threats such as for example corruption within the West because these are the things that actually the Russians are definitely to use the other buzzword of the moment weaponized.


[00:30:33] Right. It strikes me both politically and militarily that’s one of the ways that the Kremlin keeps power is by making all of this chaos seem coordinated making it seem more top down than it actually is.


[00:30:46] I guess that’s not a question you know all but still let me let let me agree with you anyway.


[00:30:53] I don’t think I get up and playing with this idea. It’s still an unformed concept but unfortunately the term hard power has been taken. But what is the opposite of soft power soft power which is now fairly well established concept is the idea that basically you can have power by being a state that represents a great example a state that other people in other countries put it very bluntly want to be friends with. And it gives you this kind of network power within the international system. Well that that I’m sort of tentatively calling dark power is if you’re an outsider and you embrace that notion you know you’re not going to get hard power. Let’s be honest there’s a few strong men wannabes who want to be like Putin. Very few countries are actually saying the Russian Federation. Now there is a kind of model that I want to adopt to my country. They don’t really have much power except in the funerals for historical religious ties particularly in the Balkans. Instead they almost decided well if we’re going to be the geopolitical bullies let’s be good ones. That’s be scary ones. You know if you’re going to be a bastard be the best bastard you can be.


[00:32:04] And in that respect actually part of the value of this campaign I know so over the top cases such as the use of nerve agents against a defector in the UK is precisely that it emphasizes the sense that Russia is a scary and dangerous country which therefore gives you a reason to do a deal with it because this is the geopolitics of extortion. If an extortionist is going to come and try and get some shake you down for something that excludes extortionist needs to be scary. And in that respect perversely it also suits Russia for us to overplay how effective and how dangerous and how coordinated campaigns are against us.


[00:32:52] Well for us since that’s very dark note that’s the perfect end to a war college episode. That’s what we’ve learned. So Mark thanks so much for joining us. That was terrific. It’s always a pleasure.


[00:33:08] Thanks for listening to this week’s episode. If you enjoyed it please give us a review on iTunes or wherever you get this podcast. Mark Galliani has a new book coming out in May. It’s called the Vory Russia’s Superman. We’re looking forward to it and we hope you’ll give it a try. By the way he’ll be coming back to talk with us.


[00:33:32] Also we wanted to let you know that you can reach us on Facebook. We’re Facebook dot com slash war college podcast. Stop by and say hi.


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