Search This Blog


Friday, 27 November 2015

Coming to Terms with Odessa Ukraine: How Maidan Reshaped the Ukrainian Diaspora

Canadian Cossacks at Dauphin's Canadian National Ukrainian Festival, 2011.

For over a century Ukrainians facing economic deprivation and political instability have left their homeland to find work in distant countries. As successive waves of mass migration gained momentum Ukrainian communities emerged in Europe, North America and even farther afield. From its very beginning, Ukrainian emigration to Europe and North America in the nineteenth century took place in parallel with the first attempts by Ukrainian intellectuals to construct a shared sense of nationhood. A Ukrainian nation-building project that hoped to unite divided territories through a shared linguistic and cultural heritage became intertwined with processes of transnational migration and community-building. This expanding Ukrainian diaspora played a key role in debates over Ukrainian identity as the boundaries of what constituted a possible territorial space for Ukrainian statehood remained contested.

Starting with clusters in Austria or Germany of so-called Ruthenians from Halychyna and Bukovyna who were heavily influenced by nascent forms of Ukrainian nationalism, by 1900 tens of thousands of migrants who self-identified as Ukrainians went on to settle in Canada and the United States. During the subsequent twenty years, war and revolution displaced further thousands of Ukrainians from the former Austrian-Hungarian lands as well as a fragmenting Russian empire, with the reach of Ukrainian diaspora networks spreading to Brazil, Argentina and Australia. These transnational communities became increasingly politicised, as political exiles including the followers of Hetman Skoropadsky, Nestor Makho or Simon Peltiura set up rival politcal structures in diaspora communities to gain recruits for the political comeback in Soviet-controlled Ukraine they pined for. 

This increased politicisation of disapora milieus was reinforced by particular patterns of migration experienced by Ukrainians from Halychyna and other parts of Ukraine controlled by Romania or Poland. In Canada in particular, the mass internment of citizens from Austro-Hungarian territories, including Ukrainians, helped reinforce the importance of community organisations working to protect members of the diaspora from the state. While most Ukrainians from these Western regions settled permanently in their new places of residence, a significant number engaged in circulatory migration to non-Soviet Ukraine until 1939. Individuals or even whole families would spend a few years in North America before returning to Halychyna or Bukovyna. In Europe intellectuals and labourers would regularly move back and forth between German, Austrian or French cities and their home regions. As various radical Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalist (OUN) factions rose to prominence in the 1920s, the ideas of influential figures aligned with the movement such as Stepan Bandera and Dmytro Dontsov began to spread to diaspora milieus. By 1939 the political life of the Ukrainian diaspora mirrored religious and political trends reshaping non-Soviet Ukraine. This dynamic helped to anchor a set of linguistic and ethno-nationalist assumptions about Ukrainian identity that shape the stance of most diaspora organisations to this day.

The strong cultural cohesion of Ukrainian communities in North America meant that their institutions were in a position to integrate a large influx of refugees that fled Ukraine after the Second World War. The arrival of many supporters of the OUN and the Ukrainian Patriotic Army (UPA) who had fought Germans, Soviets and Poles in turn helped reinforce a romanticised ethno-nationalist historical narrative in churches, Sunday schools and youth movements such as CYM (Спілка Української Молоді/Ukrainian Youth Organisation) or the Plast scouting federation. Stepan Bandera's presence in Munich until his assassination in 1958 and Dmytro Dontsov's exile in Montreal until his death in 1973 meant that diaspora milieus came into direct contact with the dominant figures of interwar Ukrainian nationalist thought. Though a surprising number of Ukrainian-Canadians and Ukrainian-Americans were able to visit Soviet Ukraine after the mid-1960s, the barriers to regular interaction between Ukraine and its diaspora led to significant cultural divergences between the two sides. In Germany, communities that were predominantly the product of refugee migration contained many senior OUN/UPA activists. Strong community ties with West European conservative movements and security services reinforced deep hostility to any aspect of Soviet society right up until the collapse of the USSR.

Cold War texts promoting the Ukrainian national cause

Nevertheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union had a very different impact on the diaspora in Germany than on Ukrainian communities in North America. Though both Canada and the United States saw renewed growth in immigrant numbers from Ukraine, it did not fundamentally reshape community institutions. By contrast in Germany a numerically smaller community was overwhelmed by new immigrants that continued to circulate back and forth between Ukraine and the cities they had moved to in a way that would have been impossible before 1990. As a consequence, while North American diasporas only had a limited degree of contact with the cultural and political context of post-Soviet Ukraine many of the tensions over language, identity and national myth that were a crucial feature of 1990s Ukrainian politics had a strong impact on the internal development of communities in the EU.

These structural differences need to be kept in mind when approaching diaspora responses to the Orange and Maidan Revolutions. Since 1990, Ukrainians in Canada and the United States remained largely insulated from the cultural shifts that led to the emergence of what one could call a Russophone Odessa Ukraine nationalism that now complements what Andrew Wilson once defined as Ukrainophone Halychyna Ukraine nationalism and linguistically mixed Dnieper Ukraine nationalism. Within the diaspora in the EU, however, frustration with highly corrupt state institutions was more central to shaping attitudes towards developments in the homeland. In order to understand how the diaspora in North America has responded to the emergence of a militant civic Ukrainian nationalism since the occupation of Crimea, we therefore need to reflect on how these differences in social structure and identity narratives between the diaspora in the EU and in North America has led to distinct patterns of engagement with the politics of post-Maidan Ukraine.

A collective reframing of identity narratives among diaspora communities as well as in Ukraine was already apparent at key moments of escalation during the Maidan protests. The adoption of the symbols of the Bandera OUN by both Ukrainophone and Russophone demonstrators who had not previously been associated with nationalist ideologies led to ambivalent responses among many diaspora organizations and international support groups for the protest movement. Undoubtedly the revival of aspects of Stepan Bandera and Dmytro Dontsov’s radical ideology among Ukrainian nationalists and their adoption by many Russophone Ukrainians after Maidan was endorsed with enthusiasm by certain diaspora milieus. Even in the 1990s, quite a few diaspora activists in Canada would have seen the revival of Bandera symbols as a sign of national renewal. Yet in 2014 key stakeholders within the social mainstream of diaspora communities such as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress were perfectly aware of how fraught a revival of OUN symbols would be within Ukraine as well as with EU partners.

Ukrainian Youth Association meeting in Acton Ontario, 2012

Once armed conflict gained momentum in the Donbas region an exclusive focus on the Ukrainian language, another pillar of diaspora identity discourse, also became a problematic basis for mobilizing support to halt Russian infiltration. Contrary to deep suspicion over the loyalty of Russophone Ukrainians harboured by much of the diaspora in North America, many volunteer fighters and regular soldiers came from communities in which Russian was the predominant language. As a consequence, Ukrainian-Canadian and Ukrainian-American organisations pledged to defend the dominance of the Ukrainian language found themselves fundraising for nationalist volunteer battalions dominated by Russian-speakers. This dynamic was reinforced by a shaky interim Ukrainian government doing its best to shore up the support of Russian-speakers after self-inflicted propaganda disasters over the language issue. In this context, while the preservation of Ukrainian as a language of state was still seen as a crucial means of differentiation from neighbouring societies, Russian-speakers were also recognized as fully Ukrainian if they adopted a set of shared symbols and cultural norms defining the relationship between the individual and the nation.

While Ukrainian communities in Europe had already struggled with the integration of Russian-speakers since the early 1990s, the notion of Russian-speakers willing to fight and die for Ukraine represented a fundamental challenge to ethno-nationalist assumptions underpinning diaspora identity in North America. With a profound threat to Ukrainian independence after the loss of Crimea forcing swift action by civil society to compensate for state paralysis, diaspora organisations engaged with efforts to contain the crisis in the Donbas region in a way that gave them little time to openly oppose an increasing emphasis within Ukraine on the civic components of Ukrainian national identity. As a consequence, diaspora networks acquiesced to the priorities of Ukrainian military, political and civil society leaders rather than trying to actively reshape the debate to reflect their own priorities. The depth of the crisis of 2014 and the way in which Russian-speakers became a key component of a rapidly expanding Ukrainian security sector forced diaspora communities to accept a redefinition of Ukrainian identity that until then had largely been resisted in North America and evaded in Europe.

Yet there were also social and institutional factors that helped diaspora communities adjust to a shift towards a civic basis for Ukrainian identity while still retaining a sense of cultural continuity that integrated Maidan, the struggles for Odessa and Kharkiv as well as the Donbas war that followed into a familiar historical narrative. In searching for explanations why civil society, business milieus and even established political factions had been willing to engage in tenacious acts of protest, many diaspora activists emphasised a long standing national foundation myth that located the basis of modern Ukrainian nationhood in Cossack polities of the sixteenth century that were the product of fierce defiance of external authority. This shared Cossack myth was also appropriated by volunteer battalions attempting to bind an often diverse range of recruits into an emerging post-Maidan military ethos.

Cossacks at the Euromaidan protests, December 2013

This emphasis on a Cossack myth familiar to anyone with experience of diaspora church and educational structures helped link a brutal and confusing war with a recognisable narrative of betrayal, survival and liberation. By providing shared symbols that could link diverse milieus in Ukraine with European and North American diaspora communities, the Cossack myth provided a means through which more problematic aspects of Ukrainian identity discourse could be put aside. Building on a tradition going back to Hrushevsky’s initial historical works of the late nineteenth century, in the process deeply problematic aspects of early modern Cossack history such as Khmelnytsky’s pact with the tsars of Muscovy or anti-Jewish pogroms were glossed over. Rather it was the image of a Cossack republic made up of self-organized bands that decide the fate of their Hetman that helped a diverse range of milieus in Ukraine and the wider diaspora build a shared identity narrative in the face of crisis during the Maidan protests and the military campaigns that followed.

When witnessing the Maidan protests first hand or from afar through social media, diaspora commentators quickly recognised the symbolic and rhetoric allusions to the Cossack myth that permeated Maidan from its very beginnings. It was this shared imagery of the Cossack warrior defending his or he freedom from a tyrannical ruler that enabled diaspora communities to reconcile their own traditionally ethno-nationalist narrative of Ukrainian identity with the multi-lingual and multi-religious realities of early twenty first century Ukraine that manifested themselves in their country of origin. Key moments such as clashes between Maidan protesters and Berkut police units for control of Hrushevsky street or the final street battles of late February 2014 were interpreted with familiar frames of reference based on the Cossack myth that enabled diaspora observers and supporters to revise their assumptions about Ukrainian society while still retaining a sense of cultural continuity. The appearance of protesters in Cossack dress, the ritual “warning” drumming on Hrushevsky street, the creation of relatively disciplined paramilitary units within Maidan self-defence that consciously modelled their structure of military organization on the Cossack bands, all these factors were key to enabling this enormous conceptual leap from one model of identity to another in a very compressed period of time.

Maidan 'Hundreds' in front of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament), 22 February 2014

This use of the Cossack narrative to reinforce shared narratives of identity despite linguistic and religious diversity gained redoubled importance in the military mobilisation efforts that followed the fall of Yanukovych. With the Ukrainian Army in a near terminal crisis in April and May 2014, the use of Cossack titles, symbols and language provided a unifying element that could anchor a chaotic war effort with a familiar warrior ethos. This shared symbolic resource became a key feature of volunteer battalions, in terms of dress, rhetoric and symbols to the extent of even shaping responses to combat on the battlefield. Despite the often underrated ideological differences between various nationalist battalions as well as within the Ukrainian military and intelligence services, the language of the Cossack myth helped instil a particular warrior codex that could be presented as uniquely Ukrainian. From the perspective of diaspora networks not particularly familiar with the ideological worldview shaping volunteer battalions or the neo-Soviet traditions of regular military units, the Cossack myth again provided a key theme that provided a point of identifiable connection with a wider effort for communities in North America that were both geographically and culturally distant from the social order of contemporary Ukraine.

Troops from the 79th Airmobile Brigade mock Vladimir Putin in the summer of 2014 by re-enacting Repin's 1891 painting, 'Reply of the Zaporizhian Cossacks to the Sultan'.

While the Cossack myth was a crucial symbolic resource that strengthened the commitment of Ukrainian diaspora communities to Ukraine's fraught national mobilisation efforts, it was the survival of the modern Ukrainian state that proved crucial in shaping the form this engagement took. In and of itself the Maidan Revolution was to a large extent driven by a profound distrust of state institutions that came to be seen as corrupt and oppressive. Both the popular defiance of police intimidation and the seizure of administrative buildings after the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) enacted the so-called Dictatorship Laws of 16 January 2014 represented the culmination of deep popular resentment over the extent to which the state was failing its citizens at home and abroad.

This hostility to Ukrainian state institutions found considerable resonance across the diaspora. Many members of Ukrainian communities in North America who have worked or lived in Ukraine over the past two decades have come away with a profound sense of disillusionment as the realities of an oligarch dominated society clashed with the myths of their own identity narrative. For large swathes of the Canadian and American diaspora, Kuchma’s equivocation about the role of the Russian language and Yanukovych’s comeback in 2010 were taken as profoundly frustrating signs that the state was dominated by Russified elites unwilling to protect Ukrainian culture. By contrast, for Ukrainian communities in EU member states the disillusion was often more the result of regular contact with corrupt state institutions that  obstructed business projects, property purchases and other forms of engagement with day to day life in Ukraine. In this context, the Maidan movement's demand for state reform resonated strongly with diaspora communities disappointed in the fact that the post-Soviet Ukrainian state had not built the Cossack utopia that nationalists had yearned for when dreaming of an independent Ukraine.

Despite such profound disappointments diaspora organizations and activists engaged with civil society initiatives focused on reform of existing state institutions rather than a utopian vision of dismantling them and starting anew. Though more radical milieus within diaspora communities actively supported nationalist groups such as the Svoboda Party or Praviy Sector, the main community organizations in Canada, the United States, the UK and Germany worked with organizations and state institutions that had a reformist rather than a revolutionary emphasis. Similarly, in the rush to rebuild Ukraine’s security infrastructure after March 2014, diaspora communities provided far more aid to volunteer regiments that cooperated with the state such as Donbass, Dnipro-1 and even the radical nationalist Azov rather than units such as Praviy Sektor or Sich that openly threatened to use violence against institutions that did not fulfil their demands.

Euromaidan Canada fundraising dinner in Toronto, 26 April 2014.
Note the ticket price.

By contrast, indications of how the diaspora could have responded had Maidan protests or Russian military operations led to a complete collapse of the Ukrainian state can be seen in the traumatic experience of other immigrant milieus. From Turkish guest workers in 1980s Germany through to transnational networks from various Arab societies over the last two decades, a crisis resulting in a collapse of trust in the state has often had a radicalising effect on diaspora communities. Such knock-on effects of destabilisation in a country of origin has regularly drawn deeply alienated immigrant communities into civil conflicts on the side of political movements whose actions accelerated a conflict spiral. Other diasporas faced with armed conflict in their countries of origin have often become a major source of funding and personnel for movements that operated outside state control. In societies where the state has collapsed such as Yemen or where an armed group at war with the state becomes politically dominant as in the case with Kurdish communities, diasporas have often become enmeshed with insurgencies that fostered profound hostility towards state institutions of their country of origin. With considerable levels of population circulation between EU member states and Ukraine as well as a rose-tinted view of the ethno-nationalist legacy of Stepan Bandera in Canada and the United States, in the hyper-charged atmosphere of 2014 the risks were high of a similar radicalising effect on diaspora milieus feeding back into events in Ukraine. 

While the Maidan protests were driven by mass defiance of state authority, the speed of President Yanukovych's fall ensured that hostility within diaspora communities towards Ukrainian state institutions dissipated quickly. Though such diaspora support efforts were initially linked to civil society and volunteer paramilitaries resisting Russian aggression, these groups gradually connected this mobilisation with a wider effort to restore state power in a framework based on the rule of law. This shift was also reflected in a level of engagement with state institutions in countries of settlement not seen since the Cold War, as diaspora organisations in the EU and North America worked hard to lobby their governments to provide weapons and financial support to a Ukrainian state struggling for survival. For many diaspora activists and organisations support for an uprising against the misuse of state power swiftly shifted to a support effort for a national mobilisation effort to save Ukrainian statehood.

The past two years have not just proven a remarkable period of turmoil in Ukraine, they have also fostered a shift in attitudes among large parts of the Ukrainian diaspora that would have been considered barely imaginable for previous generations. Even a decade ago, many diaspora organisations in North America pushed Ukrainian governments to adopt a more clearly defined ethno-nationalist agenda and looked at what they considered to be the neo-Soviet tendencies of the Ukrainian state with great scepticism. For Ukrainian communities in the EU, a deep disillusion with the deep-seated corruption that had created the conditions necessitating emigration also fostered scepticism over national identity debates that dominated Ukrainian politics and state institutions impervious to change.

Odessa Ukraine Nationalism: Russophone Ukrainian Patriots

The Maidan protests helped accelerate a cultural and political process of reassessment among diaspora communities in both the EU and North America. The intensity with which both supporters of civic models of Ukrainian identity as well as ultra-nationalist groups for which language debates only played a secondary role helped drive the Maidan protests forward had a profound impact on identity discourses within diaspora milieus. Increasingly it seems that intellectual debates within Ukraine are coming to reshape diaspora attitudes as well, fostering acceptance that a Russophone Odessa Ukraine could be as loyal and worth defending as more established forms of Dnieper Ukraine or Halychyna Ukraine identities. The manner in which a diaspora mobilisation effort became linked with the defence of Ukrainian statehood also revived a focus on institutional engagement and reform that had largely gone into abeyance after profound disappointment set in over the stagnation of the 1990s and the failures of the Orange Revolution.

Crucially, by reaching back to the Cossack myth to build a shared framework for debate and defiance, the movements on the Maidan and the military units struggling to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression used a symbolic resource that was immediately recognisable to diaspora communities that were not necessarily familiar with the complexities and nuances of contemporary Ukrainian society. By building their symbolic Cossack fortress, the Maidan protesters not only used a shared ideological language that could mobilise resistance within Ukraine, they also created a dynamic that is transforming identity discourses across the diaspora in ways that will continue to resonate over the coming decades.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Go Big or Go Home?: The Kremlin's Syrian Dilemma

Syrian protesters in Kafranbel, 2012.

Since the illegal seizure of Crimea, every rhetorical twitch from Russia's political elite has been dissected by observers desperate to establish where exactly Vladimir Putin is taking Russia. Faced with an increasingly erratic Kremlin, each policy shift or photo opportunity has unleashed rampant speculation. From the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and Putin's ten day disappearance to a surreal photo session at a gym with the ever hopeful Dmitri Medvedev, such obsessive scrutiny of every move Russia's leaders make has not necessarily had a positive impact on debates over the future course of Kremlin policy. Having witnessed various covert attempts to subvert the Ukrainian state after the Maidan protests brought down Viktor Yanukovich, many mainstream observers immediately see conspiracy and master strategy in every action taken by Putin and his political partners. As a consequence, such analysis often portrays Putin's actions as the product of a coherent covert strategy, though the evidence often suggests they are actually chaotic improvisations from a figure struggling to retain control of Russian society.

Until recently, this tendency among analysts to overinterpret often quite mundane measures as evidence of some deeper agenda has made me reluctant to set out suspicions I shared with many colleagues about a developing shift in Russian foreign policy. Though signs of an expanding Russian presence in Syria started becoming apparent by May this year, too often such rumours, images and social media chatter have proven to be exaggerations or even outright fabrications. As many of those who recently shared a report based on fabricated documents about Russian casualties in Donetsk and Luhansk realised, it is usually best to verify such vague rumours and cross-check striking social media information with experienced colleagues before making any firm claims. Though snippets of information provided tantalizing hints of a growing Russian military presence in Syria, reports were too fragmented to dispel the concern that this would prove to be just another red herring reflecting wishful thinking among external observers and activists on the ground.

Yet in the last ten days there have been a growing signs that what had once been vague rumours may have a basis in fact. Two weeks ago images of Russian soldiers in Syria around the Russian Navy's maintenance base in Tartus circulated on social media. Following this up, the Oryx blog produced reports minutely analysing recent Syrian television reports of combat in Latakia province and discovered voices shouting in Russian from modern armoured personnel carriers. Western media outlets also picked up reports of growing numbers of Russian military personnel in Damascus, though much of this information is difficult to verify. A hardy band of ship-spotters in Istanbul noted increases in the number of Russian naval supply vessels moving through the Bosphorus from Sevastapol to Tartus. By early September Ruslan Leviev established that the Kremlin has systematically reinforced its position in Tartus, and is taking a more active role in the Assad regime's military campaign in Latakia with UAVs and crews for modern APCs. 

As evidence mounted over the past two weeks, a whole range of pro-Kremlin figures in such as the German lobbyist and media personality Alexander Rahr, have kept repeating that Putin's upcoming speech at the United Nations General Assembly might prove the basis for a "grand bargain". Though impossible to achieve anywhere outside of Putin's own propaganda universe, Rahr and other pro-Kremlin media conduits express the belief that such a bargain could be based on Russian concessions in Syria in exchange for Western concessions in Ukraine. At the same time, there have been a spate of on the ground television reports by Russian journalists glorifying Assad's Syrian Arab Army (SAA) on Moscow media outlets such as Lifenews or Rossiya 24.  By 4 September reports in the New York Times and Novaya Gazeta provided more detail about how what the latter called Vladimir Putin's "Second Hybrid War" in Syria may end even more badly for Russia than the first in Ukraine's Donbass region. The US State Department released a transcript in which Secretary of State John Kerry expressed deep concerns over the possibility of a Russian military build up in Syria to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Within four days and after chaotic denials the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged the implementation of a train and equip programme for the Assad regime's Syrian Arab Army.

With this confirmation that the Kremlin is embarking on its own Levantine adventure, it is worth establishing  why Vladimir Putin should take an enormous gamble that risks dragging Russia into another political quagmire so soon after his efforts in Ukraine have fallen apart. Setting out key strategic factors that may have shaped such a massive change in course could help us establish the possible long term impact it could have on the Middle East and the Putin regime. In particular, there are two key strategic factors that may have played a decisive role in encouraging the Kremlin to opt for escalation. The first is the sudden shift of fortunes in the battle for control of Idlib and Latakia provinces. The second lies in the very nature of the relationship between the Assad regime and the Russian state.

When it comes to recent developments in the battlefield, the swift collapse of the Syrian Army in Idlib province between February and May 2015 has already been described in great detail by perceptive analysts such as Charles Lister or Hassan Hassan. Between mid-February to early June 2015, the Assad regime's SAA lost complete control of Idlib City as well as all other cities and towns in Idlib province. By July, only the Shiite majority market town of Fu'ah held out against besieging rebel forces. From Idlib City onwards, each of these assaults was announced in advance by a new alliance of rebel factions  called Jaish al Fatah. Though dominated by Ahrar-Ash-Sham, a mix hard line Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, other factions in Jaish al Fatah include more moderate nationalist militias that emerged after the collapse of the Free Syrian Army as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has openly declared its allegiance to Al-Qaida. 

Backed with a large influx of Anti-Tank-Guided-Missiles (ATGM) supplied by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia with the likely knowledge if not consent of the United States, Jaish al Fatah was able to execute tactical battlefield plans and target strategic goals in a disciplined fashion that went far beyond previous Syrian rebel campaigns. From February onwards, daily ATGM attacks devastated the regime's armour and artillery units. Sudden raids in early March cut the regime's supply lines between key towns. By the time Jaish al Fatah announced its assault on Idlib City, the SAA's ability to respond and bring in fresh troops without weakening its positions around Damascus and Latakia had fallen away. On 24 March Jaish al Fatah forces entered the city, which was cleared within four days. Over the next month every other city in Idlib province was picked off in a similar fashion, beginning with days of ATGM strikes before a lightning seizure of regime positions. By 23 April rebels stormed the city of Jisr al Shughur in a single day, opening up the main highway to rebel held territory in Latakia province and enabling Jaish al Fatah to start offensive operations in the Ghab plain to the south, the gateway for any campaign to seize Hama City. 

Along with the new found cohesion and discipline of rebel forces in the Jaish al Fatah alliance, two factors will have caused consternation among those in the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defence who believe Assad's fall would be serious blow to Russia's prestige as a great power. Of especially great concern to both Moscow and Tehran would have been the difficulties the Assad regime has recently founded in recruiting fresh manpower into the SAA. These problems have been made worse by a reluctance among those who have joined a network of militias known as the National Defence Forces (NDF), funded and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to fight far from their local communities. 

Researchers with a deep understanding of regime milieus such as Joshua Landis or Aymenn Al-Tamimi have noted that many core supporters within the Assad family's own Alawite community or other key minority groups such as the Druze are increasingly unwilling to risk their lives for a regime that seems unable to secure victory or peace. While Iran has supplied allied Hezbollah and Iraqi militia forces for several years, these units have increasingly been used to solidify the defence of Damascus from another increasingly assertive and well-supplied rebel alliance in the Southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra. With fewer and fewer fresh troops willing to be moved away from their towns at its disposal, the Assad regime has found it difficult to reinforce strategic positions at moments of crisis. As a consequence, once under pressure and without support from a strong local NDF presence, the SAA has been prone to sudden routs. Since January 2015 these chaotic retreats have become ever more frequent, with the loss of Idlib to Jaish al Fatah and Palmyra to the so-called Islamic State (IS) only the most well known examples.

What is likely to be of equally grave concern to strategic planners in Moscow is the greater willingness of external backers of Syrian rebel groups to coordinate efforts and provide Jaish al Fatah with a seemingly unlimited supply of ATGMs. And this despite its cooperation with Jabhat al Nusra and other groups with a jihadi orientation. In previous years it was exactly this form of collaboration between more moderate Syrian rebel groups and jihadi militias that kept American agencies in particular from providing crucial support to Saudi, Qatari or Turkish efforts to arm opposition forces. Even as late as 2014, moves by Nusra-affiliated units to take apart a rebel group run by the nominally pro-Western Jamal Maarouf, ostensibly because of his links to organized crime, seemed to have ended the possibility of any external support for rebels in Idlib province. Though the reasons why the Americans got out of the way are still a matter of speculation, the fact that the assertive behaviour of Nusra did not sabotage the Jaish al Fatah project indicated that key states in the region were prepared to go much further to weaken the Assad regime than ever before.

With an attempt by regime forces to regain control of the Ghab plain led by the rather eccentric 'Tiger' Suhail al-Hassan ending in fiasco by 27 August, it has become clear that the SAA is no longer able to conduct effective offensive operations without extensive external support. Though Iran has channelled enormous efforts into building the NDF militia network and providing thousands of Shiite foreign fighters through Hezbollah, the sustained losses these units have had to endure have forced it to focus its efforts on securing Damascus and the Lebanese border. Moreover, facing the tasks of keeping Assad afloat in Syria, Hezbollah dominant in Lebanon and Islamic State out of Baghdad, Iran may be experiencing strategic overstretch with few spare resources to help reinforce areas of strategic interest to Russia if they come under attack.

Since February 2015 the Kremlin has therefore had to watch a battlefield dynamic unfold in Syria that is bringing rebel forces backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia within striking distance of the regime's area of core support in Latakia and Russia's naval facilities in Tartus. At the same time, in the east IS has seized the final set of oil fields that were once supposed to provide the basis for cooperation between the Assad regime and Rosneft as well as other Russian corporations. Rather than representing a piece of a master strategy to defeat the West as several excitable commentators in the United States have suggested, the Russian surge in Syria is actually a response to the accelerating breakdown of the ability of its only ally in the region to sustain effective military campaigns. Though a collapse of the SAA would not mean Syrian rebels or IS would be able to overcome the NDF or Hezbollah in regions where Alawites or Shia communities are dominant, it would reduce Assad's ability to prevent the further political fragmentation of these regions into the playground of rival militia warlords who have emerged through the NDF. Without a cohesive military and intelligence structure directly under the control of the Assad family, there will be no Syrian regime left to sustain the Kremlin's role in the Middle East, a role Vladimir Putin seems to believe is crucial to Russia's great power status.

Yet the Kremlin's current Syrian dilemma should not necessarily have made a direct Russian military intervention inevitable. With greater diplomatic room for manoeuvre in which Putin may have sustained better relations with France or the United States by not doing things like, say, invading Ukraine, the Kremlin could have been in a better position to strike an agreement with various powers involved that sustained its perceived interests. Even in an environment in which it faces deep distrust from the United States, the Europeans and the Saudis, greater openness to proposals to replace Assad with a less morally compromised figure from within the pre-2011 state structures such as Farouk al Sharaa, could have given the Kremlin the diplomatic flexibility to pursue some kind of compromise agreement that allowed it to save face. By opting to "go home" rather than to "go big", even now Vladimir Putin could use the slight improvement in relations with Washington over the nuclear deal with Iran to maintain some influence in any new Syrian government involving both regime and rebel elements while winding down a costly commitment eating up resources Russia needs elsewhere. If he were still alive, this is perhaps the course Yevgeny Primakov, with his vast experience of the Middle East and better appreciation of the limits of Russian power, would have recommended to the Kremlin's current Vozhd.

Beyond Vladimir Putin's own great power complex, however, there are also some deeper structural factors embedded in the very nature of the Kremlin's long-standing relationship with the Assad regime that are likely to have increased the pressure on him to "go big". For the way in which the Kremlin has provided support to the regime since the Syrian revolt of 2011 has been shaped by the longstanding relationships built through forty years of Soviet and then Russian collaboration with the Assad family. As Efraim Karsh pointed out in 1993, the foundations of an often fraught alliance between Moscow and Damascus were based on extensive military cooperation, arms deals and limited intelligence sharing. Though Moscow did not provide unlimited support in order to avoid going too far in provoking Israel and the United States, this military cooperation was extensive enough to build deep links between the Russian army and intelligence services and their Syrian counterparts. Most recently, the capture of an extensive GRU listening post near the Golan Heights in October 2014 only just abandoned by Russian technical staff provided further proof of how this well-established relationship was sustained even after the Assad regime embroiled itself in a civil war.

These established structures of military cooperation provided the basis for the Russian effort to support its Syrian ally and sustain its influence in the Middle East since 2011. The large deliveries of Russian arms and equipment have been usually designed to sustain the power of a Syrian military reeling from the mass desertion of Sunni conscripts and officers. In a similar fashion, intelligence cooperation between Moscow and Damascus has run through established institutional relationships between the GRU and the gaggle of intelligence agencies that Hafez al Assad, Bashar's father and predecessor, established in the 1970s to cement his control over Syria and influence in Lebanon. Without any alternative institutions or social movements through which it can project its power in the Levant, the Kremlin is completely dependent on these links with the pre-2011 Syrian military and intelligence establishment to sustain its position in the Middle East. Even if Bashar al Assad were to survive in some capacity, the final crumbling of the Syrian army and intelligence services into just one group of militias among many would severely limit the ability of the Kremlin to influence outcomes in any grand bargain over the future of the Middle East between the EU, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Moreover, while Vladimir Putin may be dependent on the old pre-2011 establishment to keep his place at the Middle Eastern diplomatic table, the Iranian government has pursued a course in Syria that provides it with options in case Assad falls. Rather than relying on established institutions, by setting up a new institutional framework around the NDF network of militias coordinated by Hezbollah, Tehran ensured that it would have an extensive range of proxies around Damascus, Homs and Latakia to protect its interests in any post-Assad settlement. At times Tehran's focus on strengthening the NDF has run completely counter to the Kremlin's attempts to rebuild the SAA, with pro-Assad militias pressuring the leadership into diverting Russian arms deliveries to their fighters rather than an increasingly fragile army. 

Even in a future peace settlement, the integration of NDF militias alongside rebel armies such as Jaish al Fatah can enable Iran to retain significant influence in Syria through a new security framework that would see a reduced role for exactly those pre-2011 elites on which Russia relies so heavily. While many commentators have viewed the Russian surge as a sign of a solidifying alliance between Russia and Iran, it is in fact the product of a situation in which Tehran has gradually expanded its diplomatic and military flexibility in Syria through means that have severely narrowed Moscow's own freedom of action. Such a growing divergence of interests in the Levant indicates that the high point of cooperation between both sides has been reached and that a more fraught period in Russian-Iranian relations may lie before us. 

As a result of both recent major shifts on the battlefield and deeper structural factors, it seems the Kremlin had decided that to "go home" it has to "go big" first. A Russian surge based on an extensive train and equip programme for the SAA would rebuild a Syrian military primarily dependent on Moscow that can balance the power of Hezbollah and NDF forces loyal to Tehran. In its ideal scenario, the Kremlin presumably believes that through a revival of the pre-2011 Syrian security infrastructure it can entrench its position in the Levant, help defeat IS and play a primary role in shaping the development of a post-Assad order. Without this direct influence, it is doubtful whether the remaining diplomatic tools at Moscow's disposal such as its seat at the UN Security Council would be enough to provide it with the leverage to remain a major player outside Europe and Central Asia. In this context, while Brian Whitmore is right in pointing how the Russian surge is part of wider diplomatic strategy to encourage the West into considering a second "reset" in relations with Russia, the emerging train and equip programme for the SAA is the central pillar to this last ditch Kremlin attempt to restore its great power status rather than an afterthought.

No doubt Vladimir Putin and his allies in Russia's elites have convinced themselves that they have the military means to restore the SAA and even make a major contribution to defeating both IS and Syrian rebel armies. But to any observer of both Russia and the Syrian civil war outside the Kremlin information bubble, this strategy seems loaded with borderline-insane levels of risk. Following a string of defeats on all fronts against Syrian rebel armies, IS and on a more covert level the Kurdish YPG, it is increasingly apparent that Assad's Syrian army is closely approaching the point of no return. At the same time, there are signs that Iran is using its influence over the NDF to prepare for a post-Assad future in which any preservation of the Kremlin's influence is at best a secondary concern. Just as the British and Americans faced pressures to escalate their involvement further in Iraq or Afghanistan every time local security forces proved unable to hold on, in a few months the Kremlin may be confronted with the same dilemmas it faces now over deepening involvement or abandoning the SAA. Yet the introduction of further Russian troops into Syria risks bringing the moment closer when Russian families start asking why their husbands and sons are dying in Qardaha or Homs, compounding a domestic crisis from which Vladimir Putin is so desperately trying to escape.


Thursday, 20 August 2015

Sanctuaries Burning: The Impact of Anti-Refugee Activism on German Politics

Refugee and local children under police guard in Freital, Saxony.

A little more than ten months ago the streets of Dresden saw the first demonstration by the Pegida movement. Initially Pegida, short for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, mobilised only a few hundred participants in response to clashes 
over the Battle of Kobane in German cities between Kurdish activists and jihadi sympathizers. For Pegida's organizers, these disturbances symbolized the German government's inability to keep Islamists out of Germany and migrants under control. 

To the surprise of many, perhaps even the Pegida organizers themselves, by October 2014 tens of thousands of demonstrators were taking part in weekly marches directed against the so-called Islamicisation of Europe, mass migration as well as political or media elites many participants believed were directly enabling such perceived threats to German identity. While civil society and local politicians in Saxony were slow to respond for specific regional reasons I have outlined elsewhere, attempts to organise Pegida demonstrations in other German cities they were swiftly confronted by larger numbers of counter-demonstrators opposed to what they considered to be a revival of the worst excesses of the 1990s radical right. With such initiatives in support of diversity enjoying the backing of the main political parties and mobilizing significant numbers not only across the country but even in Leipzig, Saxony's other major city, by March 2015 the Pegida protests seemed to lose momentum. Within months a steep decline in numbers taking part even in Pegida's core events in Dresden raised hopes that the islamophobic and anti-migrant agendas this movement represented were not going to have a transformative effect on the German political system.

Yet while the Pegida demonstrations have largely disappeared from the scene, six months later a continuing wave of street violence and arson attacks directed at migrants and refugee accommodation indicates that this movement emboldened many who feel threatened by mass immigration and cultural diversity. Though the vigorous response of civil society and some politicians in the Green Party, SPD and CDU halted the momentum of the Pegida protests, the sense that they gave expression to widespread discontent with immigrants as well as political elites has given many in the radical right the feeling that they can now challenge the constitutional order of the Federal Republic through direct action. For the newly founded Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), association with Pegida helped national conservatives within a party unsure of its ideological direction to recruit more right wing members and to force out any remaining economic liberals. That leading conservatives in the CDU and the CSU often picked up on such Islamophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric to prevent their voters from shifting to the AfD only further opened a space for the radical right. 

In the years preceding the Pegida protests, social trends seemed to point against the re-emergence of this kind of vicious circle. As the massive migration surge triggered by the collapse of Yugoslavia and the USSR waned in the mid-1990s and more people of migrant origin became German citizens, centre-left and centre-right politicians largely distanced themselves from anti-migrant populism. The bombings and shootings committed by small networks of neo-Nazi terrorists such as the NSU were taken to be a sign of the isolation of an extreme right unable to mobilise large numbers of people rather than its resurgence. Yet crude islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment never disappeared among a sizeable number of voters in the Federal Republic. Crucially, however, the disastrous lack of coordinated resistance against the Pegida movement by local political elites in Saxony created an environment in which such attitudes managed to regain a sheen of respectability. Suddenly, obscure local figures on the radical right realised that they could gain national notoriety with escalatory rhetoric that often tacitly encouraged individuals to use force against migrants and refugees or anyone willing to help them settle.

As a consequence it seems unlikely that a surge of localized protest against refugee housing across Germany will abate any time soon. These protests are often accompanied by violence against migrants as well as volunteers, police and public servants responsible for their protection. In towns such as Saxony's Freital, leading figures from various Pegida splinter groups are now involved in agitating against refugee housing in ways that have focussed the anger of right wing demonstrators as much at local politicians and civil society activists as refugees. It is now clear that despite its implosion, the Pegida movement enabled more radical elements to connect with one another directly or online. This network effect means that what would once have been minor local protests against refugee accommodation now quickly attract right wing activists from other cities or regions to the latest flashpoint. These campaigns have also seen ever greater cooperation between figures who relentlessly support the Kremlin's anti-Western stance, many of whom like the editor of Compact magazine, Jürgen Elsässer, were once part of the pro-Soviet Left, and radical right groups who often still claim that Slavs are racially inferior

Pro-Russian, Anti-Immigrant: Jürgen Elsässer's Compact Magazine

The response of German police and intelligence services to this growing threat is hampered by the way the structures of such radical right networks have evolved. Unlike the more hierarchically structured neo-Nazi groups in the early 1990s, radical right networks now tend to be organized in a networked fashion through social media without any clear central leadership. This means that many attacks on migrants, civil society or representatives of the state are the result of local disgruntled individuals or groupuscules that are difficult to track. As with similar trends in jihadi milieus, it is becoming more difficult for the security services to penetrate and anticipate where the next radical right attack or destabilizing local protest may take place. For many who in the early 1990s witnessed how anti-migrant populism from mainstream politicians helped trigger the anti-foreigner pogroms of Hoyerswerda, Solingen and Rostock and many similar incidents, these are all disturbing signs.  

Yet this is not just about social struggles over repeated waves of mass migration. Rather, the post-1989 radical right has always portrayed mass migration as a symptom of what it considers to be a wider attack by the German state and its Western allies on "traditional Germanic culture"In this context, representatives of established political parties, which accept or at least are willing to discuss immigration reform and the acceptance of refugees are presented by the radical right as "un-German" in accepting greater diversity. It is therefore no coincidence that communities in which the radical right has stoked tension over migration have also seen growing attacks on civil society activists, more mainstream politicians and representatives of the state. Some of the most prominent cases, such as a bomb attack on a Die Linke city councillor in Freital or the burning down of a barn owned by civil society activists in Mecklenburg Vorpommern already hark back to the relentless campaigns of intimidation in the 1990s by radical right groups who hoped to create what they called "National Liberated Zones" (National Befreite Zonen). That a decade later members of the NSU terror group gunned down police officers as well as migrants fits into this underlying ideological pattern. 

The strength of civil society as well as the fact that there are now more politicians and media organizations willing to protect diversity despite the populism of certain tabloids and parts of the CDU/CSU, indicate that the current surge of activity by the radical right won't lead to a broader shift in social attitudes towards migration among most Germans. Of course many people will remain fearful of migration, but they will largely try to communicate their concerns through established civic institutions. Yet small emboldened minorities can still do a lot of damage to community relations and cause security services a lot of trouble. Once again it seems that certain members of the political establishment have forgotten that such radical networks are as much a threat to them as they are to every new migrant and refugee seeking sanctuary in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Putinism's Middle East Echoes - Part 3: Post-Putinism and Ali Abdullah Saleh's War of Revenge

Vladimir Putin and Ali Abdullah Saleh, Zhukovsky 2010.

Post-Putinism and Ali Abdullah Saleh's War of Revenge

A few weeks after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, odd reports emerged concerning the seeming disappearance of Vladimir Putin. On 5 March, rumours in Moscow about the lack of any sightings of Russia's President began to be picked up by journalists and on social media. In the following days, a wave of speculation attracted the attention of the wider media. From outlandish theories over the birth of a son to mutterings that a coup d'etat may be imminent, the botched and chaotic handling of Putin's vanishing act by his public relations team reinforced the perception that a power battle was taking place within the Kremlin. Though Putin's resurfacing on March 16 helped to dampen such speculation, the barely suppressed panic his absence had caused among Moscow as well as regional elites has added considerable momentum to a wider debate over what might happen if he was permanently removed from the scene. Though the Kremlin swiftly shifted to business as usual upon Putin's return, the way in which his absence has concentrated minds about the manner and consequences of his fall may be the most damaging legacy this episode has left for his regime.

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate about how Putin may fall is what most analysts assume will not happen. A general consensus has taken hold among Russia scholars that the Kremlin, for all its obsession with 'color revolutions',  is not likely to be brought down through mass protest. While there are some milieus in Moscow and St. Petersburg that may be willing to protest, Sam Greene and other analysts have concluded that they simply don't have the numbers to overwhelm the massive security presence the regime has built up in Russia's two dominant urban centres. 

Though economic protest may take a political turn in key regions such as Kaliningrad, Karelia or perhaps even Tatarstan if the Kremlin botches its response, it is difficult to see how such local demonstrations could reach a national scale, particularly if the regime accuses regional activists of separatism. Other possibilities such as a violent military coup were also dismissed, with Russia watchers setting out how difficult it would be for officers outside the Kremlin inner circle to conspire before being stopped by the FSB. Though the proliferation of armed nationalist groups and the influence of Chechen units in Moscow is likely to become a deepening source of instability, they do not have the capacity or necessarily even the will to attempt to bring down the regime without powerful allies within the highest levels of government. 

As these other options were dismissed, many prominent Russia watchers such as Mark Galeotti, Vladimir Ryzhkov or Lilia Shevtsova set out what they believed to be the most likely scenario for Putin's eventual fall. Often described as the 'soft coup' or 'Khruschev option', this is presented as a potential moment of elite consensus where all key figures within the leadership come to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin is no longer able to safeguard the survival of the status quo and their position within it. As with the fall of Nikita Khrushchev in August 1964, key figures would move swiftly to remove the current President's access to the levers of power before replacing him with a more pliant successor who could both stabilise relations with Ukraine and the West (hopefully on Russia's terms), while also ensuring that any necessary reforms did not impinge on the power base of each of the key Kremlin factions. While popular protest over economic matters, a military quagmire in the Donbass and a severe economic recession may all contribute to this scenario, ultimately this would be a meeting of grey men in grey suits ensuring the peaceful removal of the president as part of a wider drive to stabilise the regime rather than to replace it.

The popularity of this scenario among so many perceptive observers of Russian affairs is based on a notion that it is rooted in regime practice in recent Russian and Soviet history. The removals of Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin are used as precedents, where a similar confluence of internal and external crises (which in the Khrushchev case included an uprising in the regions) led key decision makers to come together and force the figure at the apex of the Soviet or Russian power vertical to leave without putting up a fight. The way in which these historical examples played out has fostered the assumption that the path to Post-Putinism would be similar, in that a figure that dominates the Russian state would be forced to quietly bow out and watch as his subordinates openly disavow significant parts of his political agenda.

If one considers how Russia under Putin has evolved away from the industrial structures of its Twentieth century and towards a patrimonial social framework closer to that of contemporary Middle Eastern regimes, then these assumptions become decidedly problematic. The manner in which the crisis of the modernization project of High Putinism flowed into the fragmentation of power and state paranoia of Late Putinism parallels developments in Egypt and Pakistan has been outlined in the two previous posts in this series. Yet in both cases the culmination of these crises played out in the aftermath of the sudden death of the central figure within both regimes, an outcome that is less likely in Russia. In Egypt, the death of Nasser in 1969 gave his successor, Anwar Sadat, an opportunity to reorient the regime through a so-called de-Nasserization programme. In Pakistan, the rather suspicious death of Zia ul Haq in a plane crash in 1988 enabled the return of elite pluralism with the political comeback of the Bhutto family, a form of resurgence of former opposition groups which may take considerably more time in the Russian context.

There is, however, one example in the Greater Middle East of an attempted peaceful removal of an authoritarian leader steeped in the use of disinformation and hybrid tactics that should attract the attention of Russia watchers. Along with Putin's disappearance, March 2015 saw another major geopolitical surprise with the Saudi bombing campaign against the Yemeni Houthi movement and troops loyal to its ally former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This external intervention was the culmination of developments in Yemen that have interesting parallels to the proliferation of crises that may face the Putin regime over the next few years. It is not just that Saleh's quip that "ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes" is also a pretty apt description of the challenges Putin faces in sustaining control over contemporary Russian politics. The slow collapse of the Yemeni state in the final years of Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule and his current campaign against all those who expedited his peaceful removal indicates that an authoritarian leader removed from power in a soft coup can remain in a position to sabotage his successors. While the language with which Yemeni and Russian society are described may differ enormously, below the surface many of the dynamics that led to Saleh's war of revenge can also be found in Late Putinism.

Ali Abdullah Saleh provides his own take own take on the origins of the 'Arab Spring

Though it is difficult to imagine now, there was a time when Saleh was seen as a figure who could guarantee the unity and stability of an impoverished and fractious society. His early military career took shape in an environment marked by civil war and political turmoil. In the late 1950s a Republican revolt failed to dislodge the Imamate, a quasi-monarchical hereditary autocracy backed by Saudi Arabia. An Egyptian military intervention ordered by Nasser to support the Republican side quickly followed, leading to a long civil war that only ended after Cairo withdrew its forces in 1967 and the Saudis abandoned their support of the Imam in 1970. Having largely fought on the Republican side of the conflict, Saleh emerged as a young but experienced officer with a reputation for getting things done in the newly consolidated Yemen Arab Republic. As older officers became enmeshed in factional infighting, Saleh slowly built complex tribal alliances with established regional clan leaders while presenting himself to the wider world as a modernizing leader in the Nasser tradition.

Thus, when his predecessor, North Yemen President Ahmed Hussein Al-Ghashmi was assassinated in 1978,  Saleh was ideally positioned to gather support both from traditional leaders with strong links to Saudi Arabia as well as American and European diplomats who saw opportunities in a reformed and modernized North Yemen. In the ensuing decade, Saleh was able to entrench his power network to the extent that when financial pressures led to the unification of North Yemen with the neighbouring People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990, he was in a position to maintain strong influence over all levels of government despite sharing power with Southern leaders. Though the breakdown of this agreement ultimately led to civil war in 1994, Saleh’s dominance in the North enabled him to mobilise a coalition of forces that pulverised a divided Southern leadership in Aden,. The successful suppression of the Southern elite ensured that tribes and interest groups allied to Saleh would benefit from Yemen’s newly found oil wealth. 

Yet it was the manner in which Saleh secured this dominance which sowed the seeds for his downfall and war of revenge two decades later. Rather than relying on a brittle military, Saleh used semi-feudal tribal levies as well as jihadi veterans of the Afghanistan War as shock troops. In the final assault on Aden, the Southern capital, Saleh deployed hybrid tactics that would have been familiar to Pakistani or Russian leaders. After the sacking of Aden and other Southern cities, Saleh's Northern jihadi and tribal supporters were rewarded with property and businesses expropriated from those that had lost out in the conquered territories. While this secured their loyalty in the short term, it enabled senior Northern tribal leaders such as the Ahmar clan to expand their personal power bases, while, as Stephen Day has indicated, alienating a large proportion of the Southern population in the process.

Moreover, the Saudi-backed jihadi networks Saleh invited in to help seize Aden slowly expanded their reach in an increasingly destabilizing fashion, as Gregory Johnsen has explored in great detail. Some turned on the Saleh regime and merged with Al Qaeda by the early 2000s, attracting the unwanted attention of the United States and its expanding drone assassination operations. As corrosive was the aggressive missionizing of former Sunni jihadis who remained loyal to Saleh. By challenging the established social order in Northern provinces such as Saada, the aggressive approach taken by radical Salafists and former jihadis provoked an uprising by a Zaidi Shia traditionalist movement led by Hussein al-Houthi, which went to war several times with the Yemeni state between 2004 and 2011.

By relying on non-state actors to secure his position in 1994 and retain control in the ensuing two decades, as Sarah Phillips indicated even before the mass protests of 2011, Saleh ultimately created the foundations for his own downfall. With his claims to be an agent of modernization a long distant memory, by the time the first Arab Spring protests gained momentum in Sanaa and became intermingled with separatist resentments in Aden the state institutions which Saleh needed to either satisfy the demands of protesters or quash them through swift action had been hollowed out. With military and police units loyal to individual commanders connected to tribal networks, Saleh again was reduced to calling in the help of tribal allies to keep control. The very corruption based on oil revenue and foreign aid which fuelled the 2011 protests thus remained essential to Saleh's hold on power. Without these cash transfers his remaining allies were likely to join the clans and officers that had already defected. His temporary removal from the scene to a Riyadh hospital after barely surviving a bomb attack on 3 June 2011 was enough to convince his allies that a deal was needed to force his resignation and end the state paralysis that was undermining whatever stability remained in Yemen.

Thus followed the kind of peaceful removal of an authoritarian leader that matches scenario many Russia watchers would assume would play out in the final days of the Putin regime. Concerned that tension between Saleh and senior figures that had abandoned the regime such as General Mohsen Ali and the head of the Ahmar tribal confederation could escalate into a civil war, external powers such as the Saudis, the US and the UN worked together with local elites to ensure a peaceful handover of power. Despite such foreign mediation, Saleh's peaceful removal from power had the hallmarks of an elite coup. Once core regime loyalists within the General People's Congress (GPC), his personal political party, began negotiating with senior protest leaders and the powerful Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Islah Party, as Adam Baron and Iona Craig observed there were clear signs of an elite consensus that his resignation was overdue.

In order to prevent the Northern Houthi movement and Southern separatists taking advantage of the situation, a so-called 'National Dialogue' was put in place which was to act as a form of constitutional convention to modernize and democratize the Yemeni state. Not coincidentally, this was to go hand in hand with an extensive restructuring and re-equipping of the Yemeni Army to enable it to suppress Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and wrest restore the state's monopoly of violence over such political actors as the Houthis, tribal networks or the Hirak separatists. While Saleh resigned with as good grace as he could muster, he was promised immunity and his supporters were able to retain positions within the military and state bureaucracy. In order to secure the political transition, a former Southern ally of Saleh's, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was allowed to stand for president unopposed to ensure the stable functioning of government as changes were slowly put in place. By the spring of 2012, as American and European leaders touted the 'Yemen Model' as an example of successful political transition in the Middle East, Saleh seemed to be settling in to a comfortable retirement in his Sanaa villa.

Minus the foreign involvement (though China could take a direct interest), this easing out of Saleh by members of his own power vertical comes close to the elite coup model that many Russia scholars see as the only way in which Vladimir Putin's rule could be ended relatively smoothly. Just as Saleh's GPC core reached out to military defectors, tribal leaders, and protest coordinators, Kremlin loyalists could work with disaffected members of the elite, alienated regional leaders and prominent members of the opposition to arrange a stage-managed removal of Putin in a way that does not threaten the core interests of those involved. Putin's fate would be determined by the willingness of his supporters to arrange a meeting in the Kremlin where he would be clearly told that his time is up before being sent to enjoy quiet retirement under intense surveillance. In that context, the 'Yemen Model' touted by Western officials was often presented as a format that could be used to manage transition processes in other parts of the world. As late as January 2014, the US State Department was promoting the political process in Yemen as a success as other aspects of the Obama team's foreign policy approach came under pressure.

A year later the situation looks very different. Once the Hadi government failed to come to grips with a growing lack of security and botched reforms of petrol subsidies, the Houthi movement took the opportunity to use mass protests to attack pro-government militias and seize control of Sanaa by October 2014. In the ensuing months, the Houthis gradually forced members of the political elite loyal to Hadi to flee Northern Yemen and by late February 2015 had launched an offensive on the main Southern centres of Taiz and Aden, leaving the National Dialogue process in tatters. Building on initially tenuous links with the Tehran, the Houthis did their best to court Iranian support for their increasingly open takeover of the Yemeni state.

Yet as the country drifted into chaos, what took observers most by surprise is how GPC factions and elements within the security services loyal to Saleh played an active role in aiding the Houthis to seize strategic targets. Once bitter rivals now collaborated in systematically eliminating shared opponents and courting an Iranian government interested in causing trouble for Saudi Arabia in a neighbouring state. This improbable Saleh/Houthi partnership culminated with the continuing assault on Aden that ultimately triggered a Saudi military intervention driven by fear of growing Iranian influence in Yemen. As Saudi jets hammer Sanaa and Houthi artillery pounds Aden,  Saleh has tried to reposition himself as a major player in a way that those that had arranged his removal from power would have thought  unimaginable in 2012.

As we watch Saleh hold rousing patriotic speeches to his supporters in front of his bombed out residence and try to manoeuvre his family back into contention on the international stage, it is worth pondering what lessons his war of revenge may teach us about any effort by Russian elites to quietly topple Vladimir Putin. For Saleh's bloody comeback has been enabled by the kind of hollowing out of state cohesion and the use of non-state actors to achieve strategic goals that have been a hallmark of Putin's survival strategy since the Bolotnaya protests.  While the internationally backed deal within Yemen's elite around the National Dialogue process helped remove Saleh from power, as Farea al-Muslimi warned, neither Hadi nor his allies were in a strong enough position to remove the many officers and officials in the security services loyal to the old regime. Deep rivalries between Yemeni military units and security agencies meant that those that had turned on Saleh were often more distracted with bureaucratic turf battles than keeping an eye on what the Saleh clan were getting up to. Saleh's extensive arming of non-state tribal and jihadist allies as well as the militarization of his Houthi and Southern opponents meant that it he could find enough potential allies throughout Yemen who he could work with to undermine the stability of a state no longer under his control.

The sudden successes of Al Qaeda affiliates in Hadhramaut province in 2012, weeks after Saleh had been forced to resign, were in retrospect a clear indication not only of state weakness but also of active attempts by officers unhappy with the new order to undermine any attempt to entrench a post-Saleh power structure. Despite their long standing rivalry with his own patronage network, Saleh found in the Houthis a well-armed and highly motivated movement equally disatisfied with the National Dialogue and willing to do anything to disrupt it. Thus while the West and the GCC promoted the 'Yemen model' and Sanaa elites wrangled over the constitutional details, the Houthis began their direct assault on a fragile Yemeni state while Saleh's allies quietly undermined it from within. Yet rather than achieving a shared swift victory and a new division of spoils, from September 2014 onwards each move by this Saleh/Houthi alliance to consolidate power only fractured the country further into warring fiefdoms and set the stage for a Saudi military intervention whose relentlessness few had anticipated.

Die-hard Saleh supporters denounce Saudi airstrikes, 10 May 2015

Just as Saleh was able to build on a network of supporters within state institutions and armed non-state actors, any newly reconstituted Kremlin elite would have to contend with Putin loyalists in the security services as well as militarized social milieus that may not take kindly to any attempt to change course. As we have seen in the previous post exploring legacy of High Putinism, the personalized nature of Putin's control of the Russian state is likely to make it extremely difficult for any of his successors to rein in institutions seeking to regain their autonomy. If Putin is ushered off the scene in a way that permanently isolates him from those still loyal to him within federal and regional institutions, then it might be possible for a new president to reassert central control over time. Yet any elite coup which simply removes Putin from power without rooting out his underlying support network provides him with opportunities to sabotage any post-Putinist settlement. Even if Putin were to lose his life in any Kremlin turmoil, there is a strong likelihood that many unhappy with a new order would take up the standard of Putinism in a counter-offensive against a new power vertical. Unlike Khrushchev, it is highly unlikely that Putin will simply sit quietly in his dacha writing bitter memoirs out of loyalty to an overarching institution like the Soviet-era Communist Party. Rather, the likelihood is greater that he, like Saleh, would work with any allies he could find to reassert his political influence and demonstrate that without his consent Russia cannot remain stable.

In this context, the proliferation of armed non-state actors that has become a characteristic of Late Putinism would provide Putin with opportunities for revenge against his opponents which Khrushchev simply had no access to. Just as Saleh could make deals with armed tribal networks and even former enemies in the Houthi movement who disapproved of Yemen's new political course, Putin can work with pseudo-Cossack groups, Chechen units under Ramzan Kadyrov's control, nationalist militias in Donbass, organized crime and discontented regional leaders who have the means with which to disrupt the state's monopoly of violence. Unless any successor is willing to engage in ruthless purges that in themselves could destabilize the state, Putin loyalists within the security apparatus and key ministries would be likely to find opportunities to paralyse the state's response to any armed opposition and discredit its new leadership in the eyes of the wider Russian public. In any post-Putinism scenario, a deposed leader who has relied so heavily on hybrid tactics to secure his position when in power is unlikely to abandon them when seeking revenge against his successors.

As an example of how an attempt to remove an entrenched leader can go disastrously wrong, the resilience of Ali Abdullah Saleh should give Russia watchers pause for thought. The widespread consensus that an elite coup could head off popular discontent without destabilizing the Kremlin's power structure presupposes the kind of institutional stability Soviet leaders could count on when they plotted against Nikita Khrushchev. Yet as we have seen in this and the previous two posts in this series, key aspects of the contemporary Russian state bare a greater structural resemblance to certain societies in the Greater Middle East than to the institutional framework of the Soviet Union. In a context in which the loyalty of semi-autonomous bureaucracies and regional barons is defined through their relationship to a specific leader and a proliferation of armed groups erode the state's monopoly of violence, a quick recalibration of the power vertical after Putin's fall seems unlikely. Even in such an initially benign scenario, the risks would remain high that a vengeful former Vozhd would rather bring down the state than see allies who had betrayed him prosper after a successful transition. The disastrous consequences of such an act of revenge by a deposed authoritarian leader are there for all to see in the bombed out streets of Aden and Sanaa.


Any historian using comparative methods to explore a contemporary political debate needs to acknowledge the limitations of this approach. For all the structural parallels that may exist between societies that are the subject of analysis, important differences in economic, political and cultural development that need to be kept in mind. There are therefore a number of important caveats when trying to establish what lessons can be learned from the contemporary history of the Greater Middle East when it comes to developing insights into the possible paths Russia may take.

When looking at the remarkable parallels between the highly personalized nature of the Egyptian political system that emerged under Gamal Abdel Nasser and the High Putinist era between 2000 and 2012, then key differences in economic structure also become apparent. The challenges the Kremlin faces in managing post-industrial decline and a rentier economy based on oil prices are very different from those Nasserist economic planners had to cope with when trying to industrialize a post-colonial economy heavily dependent on agriculture and cotton production. The major differences in economic development between 1990s Russia and 1950s Egypt meant that in certain key policy areas Putin and Nasser opted for very different ways of managing their relationships with business and regional elites.

The similar ways in which Vladimir Putin and Muhammad Zia ul Haq used hybrid tactics to pursue internal and external political strategies make the trajectory of Pakistani politics after 1988 an interesting case study for those trying to establish what the historical legacy of Late Putinism may become. Yet Zia himself was the product of military and religious traditions very different from those of the entrepreneurial security circles to which Putin belongs. As Shuja Nawaz has explored, Zia's formative years serving in the British Empire's Indian Army and within the Pakistani military meant that his contact with the world outside the officer corps remained limited. However much it also served his strategic goals, Zia's emphasis on the Islamicization of Pakistani society stemmed from a deep sense of personal faith. In particular, Zia always kept his distance from a business elite with which he did not feel culturally at ease. By contrast, Putin's rise began in a St Petersburg mayor's office in which former intelligence operatives, businessmen and gangsters mixed easily in the pursuit of profit. Moreover, for all the noisiness of Putin's apparent devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church, it remains as yet unclear whether this is a result of any deeply held religious beliefs or out of purely tactical considerations. These differences in outlook and leadership style need to be taken into account when one looks at the parallels between the legacies of the Zia and Putin regimes.

With all the useful analogies one can draw between the circumstances that brought down Ali Abdullah Saleh and those that may lead to Vladimir Putin's fall, one of course needs to remain conscious of the major differences in the international position of their respective countries. As a resource poor state surrounded by wealthier and more militarily powerful neighbours, Yemen has regularly suffered from covert meddling and open armed interventions that have had a deeply disruptive effect. During his long period in power, Saleh has had to balance the competing demands of the Saudis, the Americans, the Europeans and Iran, who each have tried to influence Yemeni politics in ways that benefited their own economic or strategic interests. By contrast, despite the Kremlin's constant warnings about foreign meddling in Russian affairs, as the leader of a nuclear armed former superpower Putin has military, media and financial resources to assert his power on the international stage that Saleh can only dream of. As a result, the impact rival states have on Putin's political calculations are very different to the kind of external pressures faced by Saleh and his current Houthi partners.

Yet for all these important differences between contemporary Russia and states in the Greater Middle East, the structural parallels between these societies are far greater than those between the Putin regime and its Soviet or Tsarist predecessors. The personalized style of Putin's power vertical is far removed from the way in which even under Brezhnev, the Communist Party created an institutional and ideological framework that limited the freedom of action of rival factions within the Kremlin. Moreover, by the mid-nineteenth century, the legitimacy of Tsarist autocracy was anchored on a centuries old dynastic myth of which the fifteen year old Putin regime can only dream of. Yet a power vertical based on mutual dependencies between a corrupted leadership and state, business or regional elites that relies on a proliferation of armed non-state actors is a combination you can find both in Russia and states in the Greater Middle East.

That does not mean that Russia will inevitably suffer the various forms of societal breakdown we are witnessing today in Egypt, Pakistan or Yemen. Rather, a clearer understanding of how these societies drifted into a state of near permanent crisis would help scholars and policy makers to develop insights that can help prevent similar outcomes in the Russian Federation. The highly personalized nature of Nasser's regime ultimately eroded institutional mechanisms a central executive needs to hold strong state bureaucracies in check. Those in Russia trying to restore an institutional framework not dependent on a specific individual could draw key lessons about how such a process can go awry from recent developments in Egypt. Any post-Putin government struggling to restore the state monopoly of violence in the face of armed non-state actors could do well to examine the ongoing struggle in Pakistan to overcome the social damage caused by hybrid warfare. And perhaps most importantly, the dire consequences of the inability of a new Yemeni leadership in 2012 to uproot the power network of a former dictator may provide some indications of the tough decisions Russian politicians and civil society leaders may have to make in the immediate aftermath of any form of elite coup.

Over the past seventy years there has been a long history of political interaction and cultural exchange between Russia and the societies of the Greater Middle East. How these links between Moscow, Cairo, Islamabad and Sanaa may have contributed to the emerging structural parallels between Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and several states in the region would be a very useful topic for further research. At the very least, it would move away from a focus on the Kremlin's evolving relationship with the West towards setting out how contemporary Russian politics may have been the product of a variety of different external cultural and economic influences. Future scholars may even uncover how commercial and political links built between Russian and Middle Eastern elites from the 1950s onwards played a role in shaping the conditions that made the Kremlin's current power vertical possible. In that case, perhaps the next edition of Roger Owen's excellent book The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life may even end up with a chapter about a certain Vladimir Putin.