Ukraine and Russia step up a confrontation, and the US is not a bystander
Ukraine and Russia step up a confrontation, and the US is not a bystander
Spate of fumbled spycraft may be laughing matter for ordinary Russians, but not for Vladimir Putin
For a secret service, Russiaâs GRU spy agency has been in the public eye an awful lot lately.
And it hasnât been a good look.Advertisement
Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, the GRU â" the countryâs military intelligence agency â" is more accustomed to being feared than being mocked.
But a recently exposed run of bumbling spycraft â" think Austin Powers, not James Bond â" has made the spy agency the subject of biting humor, at which Russians happen to excel.
Memes and jokes abounded on Russian social media last month after an unintentionally comic turn on RT, the Kremlin-backed international broadcaster, by the two men suspected of traveling to Britain and trying to kill turncoat Russian spy Sergei Skripal. The pair claimed, unconvincingly, to have been innocent tourists drawn to eccles iastical architecture in the quiet southern English city of Salisbury.
Another wave of online gibes came this month when authorities in Britain, the Netherlands and the United States unveiled what they described as compelling proof of cyberattacks around the world by Russian intelligence agents, resulting in the indictment of seven Russian agents by the U.S. Justice Department.
The consequences for Russia have been anything but amusing, including diplomatic expulsions and sanctions. But the humiliating espionage-related gaffes and brazen denials, while providing plenty of fodder for dark humor, are probably no laughing matter for Putin, analysts say.
âThe real source of frustration for Russian leadership is not at the credibility of Russia as some sort of normal, [law]-abiding state in an international system that has now been exposed for having conducted all these notorious operations,â said Michael Kofman, a specialist in Russian military and s ecurity issues at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.
Instead, he said, the Kremlin is worried about its âbrand, image and reputation as a great power.â And Putin, a former KGB officer whose approval ratings have been slipping, is doubtless âunhappy with the image of Russia as being incompetent, and the potential public perception of themselves as fools,â Kofman said.
Some Putin-watchers saw peril for the head of the GRU, Igor Korobov. Unconfirmed reports in the Russian press said that after the U.S. indictments of seven military intelligence officers, the Russian president summoned Korobov for an official dressing-down.
In the eyes of the Kremlin, the Russian intelligence services are so closely associated with the state itself that âitâs an embarrassment to the state that Putin is the head of,â said Alina Polyakova, an analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. âItâs almost a personal attack.â
Still, the Kremlin is not at all likely to change its behavior despite the now very public revelations about sloppy spycraft.
âIf Putin is showing his anger, it is not because they are spying and hacking and killing, but because they are not doing it well enough,â Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services and a senior fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, wrote in a blog post.
The overarching Kremlin narrative, primarily for a domestic audience, is that of Putin standing up to an arrogant West â" and any tactic employed is presented as a fair one, analysts said.
However implausible official denials might be, opinion polls show most Russians believe their government is routinely accused by foreign powers of acts it did not commit â" for example, meddling with U.S. elections.
The Skripal affair has been a case in point. In March, when the former Russian spy and his daughter, Yulia, were found to hav e been poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok, the Kremlin not only vehemently denied involvement, but demanded definitive proof of the suspectsâ guilt, which seemed at the time like a tall order.Advertisement
But British authorities, painstakingly poring through footage gathered by near-ubiquitous security cameras, identified two Russian men traveling under the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, and produced a meticulous timeline of their movements.
It was at that point that the Kremlin appeared to overplay its hand and tip the grim episode into farce: The two sat for the RT interview, earnestly insisting they were sports nutritionists on a holiday jaunt to Britain â" and that with all the iconic tourist sites available to them in London, what they really, really wanted to see was the cathedral in a provincial city.
Russian Twitter memes depicted the two spies striking an elaborately casual demeanor at the Salisbury tra in station, with Queen Elizabeth II peering suspiciously at them. A cartoon showed them dragging a towering Soviet-era statue to compare its height with the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.
A Russian political scientist, Grigorii Golosov, mused on Facebook that thanks to the efforts of the two, the word âNovichokâ was now better known to non-Russian speakers than âSputnik.â
Then it got worse for Russia: Bellingcat, an independent investigative journalism website based in Britain, revealed the identities of the two as Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga. Not only were they both GRU officers, it developed, but each had been designated a Hero of Russia, Russiaâs highest military honor.
By then, the dark online jokes were primed and ready. When it came to light that Mishkin, during his upbringing in a rural town, had been a teenage DJ with a penchant for Europop, a Russian news outlet swiftly pulled together a compilation of the top hits of the era and dubbed it âDJ Novichok EuroDance Mix.â
Soon afterward, Dutch investigators announced that they had ousted four Russian spies who were caught red-handed trying to hack into the computers of the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which had been investigating the Skripal case.
As the Kremlin railed against a Western plot to discredit Russia, a slapstick-style slip-up came to light: The agents had saved their taxi receipts from the GRU headquarters in southern Moscow to the airport, where they caught a flight to Amsterdam.
And the exposed agents unwittingly led researchers down a trail revealing a consecutive passport-numbering system that in turn led to the exposure of 305 agents in one traffic-police database â" each of whom had registered their cars at the address of the GRU headquarters.
During Russian spiesâ recent spate of seemingly fumbled misdeeds, the Kremlinâs response has been solidly consistent, analysts say.
âStep No. 1 is deny; Step No. 2 is to undermine whoever made the allegations,â said Polyakova. âAnd usually Step No. 3 is to spin multiple versions of the story, to try to confuse the public narrative about what is the truth, and what is not.âAdvertisementSource: Google News Russia | Netizen 24 Russia
Syria Says It 'Will Feel Safer' with Russia's New Missile System and Boosts Ties with Iraq
Syria's top diplomat said Monday that Russia's delivery of modernized air defense systems would not only secure his country but the region as a whole.
Speaking beside Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem praised the two countries's victories over the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), whose defeat "will benefit all the countries of the region and the world," according to his ministry. The Syrian military has also faced off against a 7-year insurgency and intermittent attacks by Israel, which targets suspected Iranian positions across the country.
While Russia has sought to balance its ties to fellow Syria ally Iran and Israel, the accidental shootdown of a Russian Il-20 surveillance plane by Syrian anti-aircraft fire responding to an Israeli air raid prompted Moscow to enhance Syri a's defenses by delivering S-300 surface-to-air missile systems.
"Not only Syria will feel safer owing to supplies of S-300 air defense missile systems, " Muallem told reporters in Damascus, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency. "The deployment of this defense weapon will help make the situation more stable and safe across the Middle East."
Russia delivers the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in this footage shared October 2 by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Moscow's decision to supply Damascus with the improved anti-aircraft and missile defense system came after Syria accidentally shot down a Russian plane during an Israeli air raid.
The S-300 transfer has angered the U.S. and Israel, which have both targeted Syrian government positions in the past. Israel has conducted over 200 strikes against sites it claimed were forward bases set up by Iran and the regional militias it supports, while the U.S. has twice bombed Syrian government targets in response to alleged chemical attacks carried out by the Syrian armed forces.
The U.S. and Israelâ"along with other states, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkeyâ"also funded efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the wake of a 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising, accusing him of war crimes. Since 2014, the U.S. has focused on tackling ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In 2015, Russia intervened to help the Syrian military battle militants and insurgents.
Assad only considers Russia and Iran to be legitimate partners in the conflict and has called on other foreign forces to withdraw immediately, but the U.S. has warned it would not leave until Iran and its regional allies remained. Iran and Russia also work with the Iraqi government, which the U.S. has supported since invading a nd overthrowing former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003. The resulting unrest empowered a Sunni Muslim insurgency that helped give rise to ISIS, which reached its height of power in 2014.
ISIS has been mostly confined to desert stretches in the vast border between the two countries. They face opposition from U.S.-backed Iraqi troops, Kurdish fighters, and Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias. They also go up against the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by the U.S., and the Syrian military, who are backed by Russia and Iran.
Both governments regained control of their border last year, but the Syrian side remains split between the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Having recently reopened the country's borders with Jordan and the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, Muallem expressed his desire to reopen the border crossing between Syria's Al-Bukamal and Iraq's Al-Qaim "soon."
Syrian troops gesture as they carry the national flag in the village of Suwayyah, near the Syrian border town of Al-Bukamal, shortly after defeating ISIS there, November 9, 2017.
Iraqi troops and members of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces enter the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province near the Syrian border, as they fight against remnant pockets of ISIS, November 3, 2017.
Jaafari's own ministry said that he emphasized "the depth of relations between Baghdad and Damascus based on the common interests and dangers that face the two brotherly peoples, pointing out that Iraq is keen to open new horizons for cooperation in all fields, especially in the fiel d of counter-terrorism in order to preserve the achievements of Iraqis and Syrians in their war against ISIS terrorist gangs" during the talks.
The Baathist leaderships of Iraq and Syria were rivals for decades. The two countries did not grow close until Hussein was overthrown, after which both Damascus and Tehran established ties to the new administration in Baghdad. The U.S. has accused Iran of fostering unrest in Iraq and closed one of its consulates there earlier this month following attacks Washington blamed on local forces backed by Tehran. The neighboring Shiite Muslim countries have remained close, however, and Russia too has sought to expand its relationship with Iraq.
Despite its military ties to the U.S., Iraq expressed interest in acquiring advanced Russian air defenses earlier this year. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Interfax news agency late last month that Moscow may be willing to authorize the deployment of troops to Iraq, as it did in Syria, to battle ISIS if it was requested by Baghdad.Source: Google News Russia | Netizen 24 Russia
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