Russia’s ‘hybrid’ wars and China’s belligerent expansionism

A game about he Russian tactic of maskirovka, Moscow’s hybrid war

The Wikileaks revelations described the Russian Federation as a ‘Mafia state’, but is this really such startling news? It was obvious soon after a drunken Yeltsin virtually gifted the resource-rich state industries to highly-placed and cunning apparatchiks that Russia resembled the Wild West rather than developing a conventional system of government for the world’s largest state. Bloomberg’s article here details the the effect of hybrid wars on the Russian economy.

Yeltsin’s actions, and the failure of the political classes to stop him, robbed the extremely poor of the true value of the nation’s assets, running into hundreds of billions of pounds. The instability inherent in what amounts to an unsound economic policy brought about massive losses to these new super-rich a couple of years back because of the volatility of the Russian market. The last decade has also seen oligarchs being jailed or fleeing the country altogether, their underlings being murdered and press freedoms curbed – even to the extent of organised murder of journalists – to stifle debate and possible dissent. 

China is attempting to expand its territory and increase its natural resources, against the wish of smaller nearby states.. Artificial islands are under construction in the disputed South China Sea as the Chinese state makes relentless efforts to expand it’s geographical boundaries at the expense of its neighbours. In 2012 the Communist Party reclassified the South China Sea as a “core national interest”, placing it alongside such sensitive issues as Taiwan and Tibet. It means China is prepared to fight to defend it. 

Beijing’s claim includes the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel Islands and the area it encompasses comprises an “expanse stretching right up to the coasts of the Philippines and Vietnam and even Borneo.” The vast majority of the South China Sea is claimed by the Chinese, in an area which is demarcated on maps by the ‘nine dash line’. 

This territorial ultimatum by China is yet another example of the Asian superstates flexing their muscles knowing that their surrounding neighbours are too small and weak to make a stand. To resolve this imbalance these countries are forced to align themselves with the US, or as in the case of Ukraine, the EU, in order to make the playing field more even. Of course, alignment with the US is deeply unpopular to the world at large, paradoxically because they see the US as ‘the bully’ or thinking of itself as ‘the world’s policeman’. Such arguments provide no resolution to the problem of the balance of power between smaller states and superstates, nor the possibility that China and Russia will almost inevitably seek to take advantage of the weaknesses of more democratic states and their unwillingness to stand up to them.

The most alarming aspect of this new world is that, in twenty-five, maybe fifty years, it will be Russia that will have the single largest economy – along with China – and they will probably be calling the shots (no pun intended). Many in Europe fear the spread of Islam, and their fear may be justified if it concerns those involved in terrorism. What the fundamentalists should fear – along with us – is the new world order that is about to emerge. The freedoms that we cherish and that the Islamic fundamentalists despise may be swept away by these countries as they expand, but the paradox will be that none of us will gain from a ‘Mafia’ overlord and fledgling democracy overseen by a proletariat in the coming generation. You only have to look at human rights in China, and the treatment of the Uighur Muslims in Urumqi, and what happened in Georgia and Azerbaijan to realise what the future may bring. These superstates are slowly expanding and will become larger as time goes on. We are feeding crocodiles here and weill will be on their menu in the future.


Hideous deceit from the pro-Russian rebels and hideous nightmares in ‘Russian’ Crimea

While the Crimean population now suffers all but a complete breakdown in its infrastructure, because of the speed of change of ‘sovereignty’, leading to chaos as the logistical nightmare of supplying around 2.5 million people with the necessities of life, the un-elected, self-imposed soap factory owner, acting as ‘mayor’ of the city of Slovyansk says “We don’t have any direct contact with the special services of the Russian Federation”

After a swift annexation comes the reality as hundreds, if not thousands, queue daily to try and obtain their new Russian passports and documentation.

In the queue for a passport

The queue inside the passport office in Simferopol

Virtually all government offices have largely stopped operating because of the impossibility of dealing with even simple detail, such as understanding newly accepted Russian law – following the abandonment of Ukrainian law – and the impact that it might have on the transaction being negotiated.

queues outside passport office Crimea

People in the street in Simferopol waiting for their new, Russian passports

Most banks have closed because of the legal complications and currency difficulties. Land registry offices remained shut because the transfer of property must now be conducted under Russian law. This also affected court cases, which have been delayed until clarity is issued over how they should conduct existing and then future cases. Food imports are hit-and-miss and causing shortages as a result. The local McDonald’s has shut down citing operational difficulties. It is currently impossible to import the products because of logistical problems. Metro, a German, multinational supermarket chain has also shut down. Most US/EU-based businesses want to avoid possible sanctions elsewhere for operating in Crimea. The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is not helping matters and further  sanctions because of this may well effect the businesses’ ability to operate at all.

No more Big Macs in Simferopol, Crimea

No more Big Macs in Crimea

Some people are finding life more difficult than others such as Ukrainian priests,  dissident political activists, even gay people, who are now coming under the scrutiny of the local militia, in the absence of a structured police service, and bolstered by the newly (and homophobic) Russian Orthodox Church. The illegal ‘swap’ in nationality is unlikely to see more tolerance from the mother state, as anyone with pro-European views, beliefs or even if they are simply gay may well find life distinctly uncomfortable. Switching countries has introduced chaos and confusion to any need that was once basically simple:  driver’s licenses and vehicle registration, insurances and even something as simple as school curriculums, which may be viewed as inappropriate in the new order, post-Ukraine. For the Crimean people, these are very uncertain days.

“In the mindset of Moscow, pro-Russians can seize power, but not Ukrainians in Kyev”

Denis Pushilin, center, head of the self-styled People’s Republic of Donetsk

Denis Pushilin, center, head of the self-styled People’s Republic of Donetsk

The ‘dignitary’ is a smooth-tongued former-croupier-come-former-salesman in a Ponzi scam run by Sergei Mavrodi, Moscow’s equivalent to Bernie Madoff. The only authority this band of ‘friends’ have being the Kalashnikov and the black balaclava, Denis Pushilin has now cast off his former covert identity and surfaced as the leader of the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Whilst many find him genuine, many others, including officials in the Donetsk region,who have negotiated with the pro-Russians, see him and his followers as opportunists, front men for the New Russia and the forces that try to bring about a greater Russia.

Pushilin, won 77 votes when he ran for parliament a few months ago, but he recently re-invented himself as the self-appointed leader of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, occupying the regional governor’s office in eastern Ukraine. Conspicuous because of his suave, salesman-like spiel and by his dapper suits – all of which distinguish him from the dowdy, grubby men sporting mis-matched army surplus fatigues who man the barricades – Pushilin lends a reassuringly articulate, but suspiciously opportunist voice, detailing prevailing pro-Russian worries: They simply do not trust the interim leaders in Kyev who overthrew Viktor Yanukovych. It doesn’t help that Yanukovych was born in Donetsk.

Despite all the ‘we don’t want to be a part of Russia’ rhetoric, most are seeking a referendum based on joining Crimea by passing into Russian statehood. “There will be a referendum,” Pushilin said. It appears that this region has a de-facto Ponzi-scheme salesman president-elect, if the matter is ever put to a ballot, which is highly unlikely considering that the Russian ethnics are not in the majority in this industrial region, as can be seen here:

The Ukrainian National Census, 2001 (you will need to Google translate the page) detailed the following demography within the Donetsk Oblast: Ukrainians:  2,744,100 (56.9%), Russians:  1,844,400 (38.2%), Greeks:  77,500 (1.6%), Belarusians:  44,500 (0.9%), others (2.3%). However, the languages spoken within the region are: Russian:  74.9%, Ukrainian: 24.1% but it must be remembered that the region is on the border with Russia, where it would be expected to see such language transference, from a larger country with a much larger economy.

His ‘deputy’, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the ‘people’s mayor’ of Slovyansk, a two-hour drive north of Donetsk, is a completely different character. In his fifties, and much less brash, dealing with the media scrum is way out of his comfort zone. A much more rugged, hands-on man, is much more characterised by his gold teeth than his bold smile.

Ponomaryov vehemently denies taking orders from the Kremlin or liaising with Russian commandos. “There is not a single Russian soldier or an active member of Russian Armed Forces in the Slovyansk area, and no contact with Russian authorities, its state security services or military,” Ponomaryov said.

The fact remains that the well-rehearsed, military precision of the ‘men in green’ is totally uncharacteristic of the cobbled together militia that the public see through contact with the media. Any reasonable observer would surmise that the Russian special forces are responsible by virtue of the discipline displayed in some of the offensives – these tend to be the initial advances to attack in order to achieve a bloodless victory.

John R. Schindler, once a National Security Agency (NSA) counterintelligence officer, now an academic at the Naval War College, calls it “special war […] an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense.”  Schindler coined the term, particularly as Russia excels at special war, which was first used in the post-Soviet war in Chechnya back in 1994 to regain control of the state by sending in Russian soldiers who disguised themselves as pro-Moscow Chechens.

Hiding the identity of Russian forces with balaclava-style masks and no insignia inhibits the potential for discovery and denunciation, and has definitely become a key tactical element that has been used in wars and conflicts over the last two decades in the former Soviet sphere. Russia’s addiction to ‘maskirovka’, as it is called, has been used increasingly under the direction of Putin, whose central command is largely comprises his old colleagues from the KGB, the former Soviet intelligence agency.

In 2013, Schindler wrote in the journal ‘The National Interest’ (on page 177)  “NATO’s Baltic members are accustomed to regular harassment by Moscow, with aggressive espionage, subversion, and manipulation of local politics, business, and Russian minorities being part of daily life in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russian intelligence services are highly active in the Baltics and generally treat them as less than sovereign states, much less NATO member countries. But the return of a conventional military threat from Russia, coupled with press releases from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin that seem nostalgic for the Soviet period, has led to a mounting sense of dread in the Baltics”.

If you look at the map shown hereunder and imagine all of the grey/blue areas as part of a ‘New Russia’, you can see the logic, and it is chilling. It would find Russia with a border touching Romania and would include the Russian-ethnic diaspora in the disputed area of Transnistria in Moldavia. All of that would keep NATO out of Russia’s home water, the Black Sea.

Ukraine % ethnic Russian population