Media Link: “A View from Afar” on the moment of friction, and more.

After a hiatus of over four months Selwyn Manning and I finally got it together to re-start the “A View from Afar” podcast series. We shall see how we go but aim to do 2 episodes per month if possible.

Here we start of with a catch up on events since the last podcast of 2023. Selwyn liked the KP moment of friction post from April 1, and so we used it as the stepping stone into a discussion that incorporates material from several recent KP posts and other news. I hope that you find the podcast of interest. You can find it here.

A moment of friction.

In strategic studies “friction” is a term that it is used to describe the moment when military action encounters adversary resistance. “Friction” is one of four (along with an unofficial fifth) “F’s” in military strategy, which includes force (kinetic mass), fluidity (of manoeuvre), fog (of battle) as well as uncertainty (of outcomes, which is usually referred to in military circles as the “oh F**k” factor)). Friction comes from many causes, including terrain, countervailing force, psychological factors, the adversary’s broader capabilities and more. As German strategist Karl von Clausewitz noted, friction can be encountered at the three levels of warfare: strategic, operational and tactical.In other words, “Clausewitzian friction” is not just confined to the battlefield.

The notion of friction is drawn from the physical world and has many permutations. It is not confined to one particular element or dimension. It is about opposition, even if of similar elements or forces, including the element of will. For example, when they meet, fluids and air of different weights create turbulence. Fire on different fire extinguishes or expands. Earth on earth leads to crumbling or inertial momentum. The product of the combination of these physical forces, say fluid on air or earth or fire, depends on the relative weight of each. The same goes for psychological factors in human contests. Mutatis mutandis (i.e., with the necessary changes having been made), this is applicable to international relations. It may seem like a conceptual stretch but I see the use of the notion of friction in terms of international relations more as an example of conceptual transfer, using Clausewitz as a bridge between the physical and the political/diplomatic worlds (more on this later).

In the past I have written at length about the systemic realignment and long transition in post Cold War international relations. The phrase refers to the transition from a unipolar post-Cold War international system dominated by the US (as the “hegemon” of the liberal internationalist world order) to a multipolar system that includes rising Great Powers like the PRC and India and constellations of middle powers such as the other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, South Africa and recently added members like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ethiopia and perhaps Argentina (if it ratifies its accession)) as representatives of the rising “Global South.” In spite of their differences, these rising power blocs are counterpoised against what remains of the liberal institutionalist order, including the EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia. I have noted that the long moment of transition is characterised by international norm erosion and increased rule violations and the consequent emergence of conflict as the systems regulator until a new status quo is established (and from which that new status quo emerges). That conflict may come in many guises–economic, diplomatic, cultural and, perhaps inevitably, military or some combination thereof. When conflicts turn military, the moment of force has arrived. And when force is met by opposing force, then friction is inevitable.

Here I extend the notion of friction to include the international moment that we are currently living in. That is, I have conceptually transferred the notion of friction to the international arena because “transfer” in this instance means applying the notion of friction to a wider environment beyond the physical plane without distorting its original meaning. That allows me to avoid the methodologically dubious practice of conceptual stretching (where a term is stretched and distorted from its original meaning in order to analytically fit a different type of thing).

The long transitional moment is what has taken us to this point and allowed me to undertake the transfer, and it is here in the transitional trajectory from unipolar to multipolar international systems where the future global status quo will be defined. It is a decisive moment because it is the period where force has become the major arbiter of who rises and who falls in the systemic transitional shuffle. Given that there are many competitors in the international arena who are capable and willing to use force as well as other means to advance their interests, I suggest that the global community has reached its moment of friction, that is, the turning point in the long transitional process. Everything that has come before was the lead-in. Everything that comes after will be the result of this conflict-defined moment.

It is no exaggeration to write this. Besides the Ruso-Ukrainian war and the Israel-Hamas war, there is the armed stand-off in the Red Sea between Iran-backed Houthis and a naval coalition led but he US, the ongoing skirmishes between PRC naval forces and those of the Philippines, Vietnam and Western naval forces as well as the PRC military threats to Taiwan, the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict along the Israel-Lebanon border, Islamist violence in the Sahel and Eastern Africa as well as in Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other other parts of Central Asia, ongoing conflict in Syria between Assad’s Russian-backed forces, the remnants of ISIS and Western-backed rebels, the Turkish-Kurd conflict along the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi borders, the civil war in Libya, escalating fighting between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda over mineral rich areas in and around the eastern Congolese city of Goma (in which private military companies and irredentist militias are also involved), narco-violence in Latin America that has reached the level of challenging state monopolies over organised violence in places like Ecuador and parts of Mexico, piracy in the Indian Ocean and in the Malacca Straits, cross-border ethno-religious conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the PRC and Gaza, tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea and more. Norms and rules governing interstate as well as domestic forms of collective behaviour are honoured in the breach, not as a matter of course. Individuals, groups and States are increasingly atomised in their perspectives and interactions and resort to the ultimate default option–conflict–to pursue their interests in the face of other’s opposition..

Friction extends to economics. The era of globalisation of free trade has ended as nations revert to post-pandemic protectionism or focus on “near-“and “friend-shoring” in order to avoid supply chain bottlenecks resultant from commodity production concentration in a small number of countries. Although not a trade pact strictly speaking, the PRC Belt and Road Initiative undermines Western trade agreements like the TPPA and lesser regional arrangements because it ties developmental assistance and financing to Chinese industries and markets. Intellectual property and technology theft is wide-spread despite International conventions against them (endnote just by the PRC). The era of Bretton Woods is over and the agencies that were its institutional pillars (like the World Bank, IMF and regional agencies such as the IADB and ADB) are now increasingly challenged by entities emerging from the Global South like the China Development Bank and BRICS common market initiatives.

In addition, as part of international norms erosion and rules violations, many diplomatic agreements and treaties such as those prohibiting the use of chemical weapons and even genocide are also now largely ignored because, in the end, there is no international enforcement capability to reinforce what is written. The International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court can impose sanctions and issue arrest warrants but have no enforcement authority of their own. The UN can authorise peace-keeping missions and issue resolutions but is subject to Security Council vetoes on the one hand and belligerent non-compliance in the other (besides Israel ignoring UN demands for a cease-fire and humanitarian pauses in Gaza, people may forget that there are UN peace keeping missions in the Sinai, Golan Heights and Israel-Lebanon border, including NZDF personnel among them, because these “blue helmet” missions have had no ameliorating impact on the behaviour of the participants in the Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah-Syria conflict). Adverse rulings in international courts have not stopped the PRC island-building and aggressive military diplomacy in the South China Sea. The examples are many. Given that state of affairs, States and other actors increasingly turn to force to pursue their interests.

Whatever restraint was promoted by the laws of war and international conflict-resolution institutions during the post-Cold War interregnum has been abandoned or become exceptions to the new anarchic rule. One might even say that the international community is increasingly living in a state of nature, even if the terms “anarchy” and “state of nature” are loose interpretations of what Hobbes wrote about when he considered the Leviathan of international politics. But the basic idea should be clear: the liberal internationalist system has broken down and a new order is emerging from the conflict landscape that characterises the contemporary international arena.

Again, the friction is not just things like the military confrontations between Russia, Russian and Iranian-backed proxies in the Middle East and the PRC against a range of Western and Western-oriented nations in the Western Pacific. The BRICS have proposed to develop a single unitary currency to rival the Euro and are openly calling for a major overhaul of international organizations and institutions that they (rightfully so), see as made by and for post-colonial Western interests. But the question is whether what they have in mind as a replacement will be any better in addressing the needs of the Global South while respecting the autonomy of the Global North. My hunch is that it will not, and will just add another front to the moment of friction.

I shall not continue enunciating the reasons why I believe that we have arrived at an international moment of friction (e.g. cultural degradation and social vulgarisation, etc.). That is because I cannot specify what will be come given that push has now led to shove, nor can I offer a solution set to the problems embedded in and underwriting this sorry moment. What I can say is, just like the fact that we need to learn to embrace uncertainty in the transitional process since outcomes are not assured and guarantees cannot be offered (although some industries like tobacco, liquor, weapons and insurance all profit during times of uncertainty and market hedging strategies become the common response of risk-adverse actors to uncertain economic times, so can be calculated or anticipated), so too we must, if not embrace, then learn to prepare for an era in which friction will be the dominant mode of international transaction for some time to come.

For small countries like NZ, repeating empty mantras about foreign policy “independence” no longer cuts it even as a slogan. The moment of international friction poses some existential questions about where NZ stands in the transitional process, how it will balance competing international interests when it comes to NZ foreign and security policy, and about who to side with when conflict comes.

Because it will.

Forget the date. This is no April Fools joke.

Another Brief on Intelligence Matters.

Although my son is still in hospital he is recovering well and should be sent home soon. We dodged a bullet thanks to the Starship medical staff.

While at the hospital a reporter from one of Argentina’s oldest and most influential papers got in touch with me to discuss the case of the Russian double agent (for the UK) Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were poisoned some years ago by Russian agents but survived and then disappeared. Some time ago they were reported to be hiding in NZ and I was asked about that by various media, and the Argentine reporter had seen some of the news coverage that mentioned me. He was most focused on the details of the case and whether the the Skripals could still be in NZ if they ever were. But before that he wanted a primer on intelligence operations. Here is the Q&A in English.

Why do countries spy and why do they react negatively to being spied upon? What is intelligence collection and what type of people are selected to become intelligence agents?

Espionage and intelligence-gathering is rooted in human nature. Humans fear uncertainty, and a way to diminish uncertainty is to gather information about uncertain subjects, be they economic, military, natural, political or social. It helps determine intentions as well as capabilities or other factors otherwise unknown. From that intelligence-gathering, knowledge is achieved and uncertainty is diminished. And if it is true that knowledge is power, then power is enhanced by intelligence-gathering.

Intelligence collection and analysis comes in three forms: human intelligence, signals/technical intelligence and open-source intelligence. Human intelligence refers to human collectors, i.e. intelligence agents of the State and non-State actors (say, private security firms or investigators) who collect information from personal observation, interactions and exchanges with people in a designated functional areas, regions or countries. State intelligence agents work in two ways. One is under the protection of a diplomatic passport. Known as “official cover” agents, this includes military attaches as well as other diplomatic personnel whose activities are recognised by host countries but which often extend beyond the official remit outlined in their credentials. If caught and accused of espionage, official cover agents are detained and deported as per diplomatic protocol (that is, they received diplomatic immunity).

Non-official cover (NOC) agents are what are traditionally known as spies. They are the stuff of cloak and dagger stories but the reality is a bit more mundane in most instances. They work under the cover of assumed names, aliases and occupations, for example as businesspeople, academics or developmental aid workers, among many other “covers.” If caught, they are subject to the full penalties of the jurisdiction in which their offenses were committed and where they are charged (including being subject to the death penalty in many countries). They receive no diplomatic immunity. The outed US spy Valeri Plane (outed in 2003 by the W. Bush administration as revenge for husband refusing to go along with their lies about Iraq having nuclear weapon precursor yellowcake stockpiles), who used a job as a petroleum executive as cover for her espionage activities in the Middle East, is an example of such a so-called “NOC.”

NOCs tend to work in a highly compartmentalised or “siloed” manner, dealing with one agency liaison up the collection chain and putting degrees of separation between the down-chain primary source contacts (informants who may be conscious or unconsciously helping the NOC and be paid or unpaid depending on who they are) in order to maintain tight operational security. The means of feeding intelligence up the chain are many, involving technical tools as well as personal interactions.

There is a sub-set of human intelligence agents that might be called “hunter-killers.” While all human intelligence agents will be trained in things like surreptitious entry, lock-breaking, concealed observation (static and in motion), eavesdropping and other such tradecraft, the hunter-killer sub-set includes assassination in their repertoire. The lethal means can include a range of tools, to include poison, blades, firearms, explosives or armed unmanned vehicles (for example, the CIA has its own UAV fleet, as does Mossad, among others). The individuals who engage in this type of activity are, at least when tasked to do such things, not true spies in the proper sense of the term since their focus is not on obtaining information but on acting on information previously obtained, although they may work in partnership with official or non-official cover agents because their priority focus is on tracking and eliminating targets. They are essentially assassins, although they may even engage in broader combat activities depending on circumstance. Intelligence agencies maintain paramilitary units for such purposes, and they can be embedded in or along with military forces. Given the threat environment in which a State operates and the nature of the adversaries being confronted, the number of hunter-killer agents, units or teams may be large or small. Israel has a large number of such people. The US has a fair number. New Zealand has none, as far as is known or admitted. In general and as can be expected given the nature of their rule, authoritarian regimes use hunter-killers more than democracies.

The ideal human intelligence agent must have a calm and even temperament, be able to display coolness under pressure, be resourceful, have a keen sense of curiosity and ingenuity when problem-solving, have the ability to think laterally and “out of the box,” and have a capacity to “silo” or compartmentalize their work so that their real work life as intelligence collectors is undetectable in their personal, public and private lives. They must be able to ward off being compromised, be it sexually, financially or socially. They must be able to keep a secret and rationalize their personal morals and ethics with their professional ethos and obligations. They must have a deep sense of and commitment to public service (service to the State on behalf of the Nation).

Selection to become a human intelligence agent varies from country to country. Along with the traits mentioned below, in authoritarian regimes party and personal loyalties to political elites are a significant factor in recruitment and selection. In democracies, they are not. Modern intelligence agencies in democracies maintain professional standards for recruitment and promotion that are neutral when it comes to partisan and personal politics. They use advanced psychological testing to determine a candidate’s fitness to serve. These include cognitive, physical and intellectual testing, often involving real-case scenarios in which a candidate is placed in a pressure situation in order to evaluate their decision-making capabilities. Once a candidate has been accepted into service and learned the tools of the trade (“spycraft”), they are matched with a suitable cover profile and trained in how to maintain that profile in the field (be it as a diplomat, military officer or undercover agent). There are variations to this scenario but the overall thrust is very similar in most developed States, and in fact in some instances (5 Eyes) intelligence agencies have exchange programs for officers from allied States in order to improve professional standards amongst them.

Question Two: It is said that Russia prefers human intelligence collection whereas the US and UK prefer technological means. Is this true and if so, why?

During the Cold War and the first 20 years of the post-Cold War environment, the US had a great advantage in signals and technical intelligence (SIGINT/TECHINT), moving far beyond the early 20th century techniques of eavesdropping on phones and/or in public and private places or using radar, sonar or advanced photographic techniques. It expanded the SIGINT/TECHINT collection domain to include space and submarine collection capabilities as well as sophisticated electronic and technical collection platforms using infrared, acoustic signature detection, computer intercepts and then cyber-hacking. As a result, it placed less emphasis on human intelligence collection, in part because it is a US cultural trait to believe in the superior benefits of advance technologies in everything from kitchens, cars and television to warfare. As a result, as of the 1970s the US diverted intelligence resources and focus towards signals and technical intelligence collection to the detriment of human intelligence collection. Also remember that CIA activities in Chile, Indonesia, and many other places had placed a stain on the reputations of field agents and undercover officers involved in those activities, so the move away from human intelligence collection was an expedient way of getting out of the unwanted limelight.

As a result, human intelligence collection (HUMINT) was maintained  but in diminished numbers. Given the changing priorities of the post-Cold War geopolitical environment, it left an unbalanced focus on post-Soviet dynamics without a shift to emerging threats such as ideologically motivated non-State actors like al-Qaeda.  For that HUMINT work the US increasingly relied on Israel and other allied countries. The emphasis on SIGINT/TECHINT was reproduced and compounded by the 5 Eyes network, which created economies of scale in that form of intelligence gathering that began to dominate the overall information acquisition process in their respective communities even if human intelligence agents were tasked with following up on information obtained and gleaned by SIGINT/TECHINT means by any of the partners.

The problem with over-emphasising signals and technical intelligence collection is that it often cannot discern real intent by separating bluster and idle talk from a commitment to action. Operational security counter-measures can also thwart effective SIGINT/TECHINT collection. In addition, the trouble with relying on partners for human intelligence collection and analysis is that the intelligence comes “filtered” by the interests of the sharing State, not all of which are exactly coterminous or identical to those of the US (and vice versa for its partners). In recent years the US has revived its human intelligence programs, but they are playing catch up when it comes to recruiting people with the appropriate language, social, cultural and personal skills to operate under deep cover (or even officio cover) in foreign environments. People with backgrounds in anthropology and sociology are high value recruits, but the number of them are small when compared to the amounts of subjects/targets that need covering.

As an example, when 9/11 happened the US military intelligence is reported to only have 3 Arabic speaking linguists in their ranks. NZ human intelligence (the SIS) had none, and even with the recruitment of Muslim, Chinese and Polynesian New Zealanders in recent years, it lags far behind when it comes to people with the requisite skills to undertake both official cover and NOC work given the threat environment in which NZ now operates.

As for the Russians, the situation was different. Because the Soviet Union/Russia and the PRC were considerably behind the US when it came to signals and technical intelligence well into the 1990s, they both emphasized and put resources into human intelligence collection. For decades even that form of intelligence collection was limited to internal intelligence and counter-intelligence (for example, against counter-revolutionaries, some of whom had foreign backing) and in their near abroad or against strategic adversaries (the US and its major allies). Over time the human intelligence capabilities of the USSR and later Russia expanded to have a global reach, something that China has emulated today. Other countries such as Israel have developed similar capabilities, using Jews in the diaspora as collection agents (known as “sayanim”). 

However, in the 21st century both Russia and China have put much effort and resources into developing state of the art signals and technical intelligence collection capabilities Although they do not have the economies of scale available to the 5 Eyes Anglophone signals intelligence network, they have developed sophisticated capabilities of their own. The advent of social media has facilitated and accelerated this effort, something seen in the disinformation and misinformation campaigns undertaken by the Russian signals intelligence agency, the GRU, against Western democracies via the work of dedicated units such as the Fancy Bear cyber-hacking group that interfered with and continues to interfere in US and other democratic elections while promoting socio-political discord and right-wing conspiracy theories (including in NZ).

Hence, while it is true that Russia has traditionally favored human intelligence collection methods, to include hunter-killer activities, that is no longer the absolute case. Both it and the PRC have a very expansive and sophisticated signals and technical intelligence capabilities, including in space, in the atmosphere, on land and under the sea.

Examples of technical and signals intelligence collection include photographic and thermal imagery from space, submarine interceptions (“tapping”) of undersea communications cables (such as by the PRISM system used by 5 Eyes), airborne photography, jamming and early-warning detection, metadata targeted and bulk collection of internet communications, and acoustic “reading” of vibrations from interior conversations on exterior surfaces such as windows. Plus all of the old fashioned techniques such as telephone wiretapping, coding and decoding, encryption and decryption, etc. Artificial Intelligence has been used for some years now even if the commercial applications have only become operational in recent times, and is set to become a dominant means of extracting actionable intelligence from vast quantities of data as well as more rapidly recognising, analysing and filtering threat assessments and other intelligence priorities.

Questions 3 and 4: How does UK intelligence operate and why does it treat intelligence gathering differently from espionage?

Before delving into the specifics of the question, allow me to note that oversight and regulation of intelligence operations and agencies differs greatly between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes use intelligence agencies for domestic espionage, paralleling or supplementing the work of police intelligence units that are focused on crime-fighting. In such cases the focus of intelligence agencies is on domestic political dissent, subversion, foreign agents (counter-espionage), and a number of other targets such as environmental activists and other non-conformists who the regime deems to be enemies of the State. Intelligence units are bound by their own internal rules and procedures, which usually are much looser than those in democracies. They also have para-military units of the “hunter-killer” type that are tasked with hunting down and eliminating opponents at home and abroad. The Skripal case is an example, as was the Operacion Condor network operated by the Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s. Authoritarian intelligence agencies and agents are not bound by the rule of law but by the boundaries set by the political (often military) leadership of the regime.

In contrast, intelligence agencies in democratic regimes operate according to the rule of law and constitutional principles. They are more restricted in their freedom or latitude of action. They tend to limit their domestic activities to counter-espionage and transnational crime with State or ideological connections, such as when monitoring and countering Hezbollah activities in the Tri-Corner region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay (where drugs, weapons an extremists congregate for mutually beneficial purposes). In general, however, domestic intelligence collection is a responsibility of the police or gendarmes, not intelligence agencies, who only work with the domestic intelligence units of the police and gendarmes when specifically tasked to do so and within defined legal authority.

Because of that intelligence agencies in democracies have a primary focus on foreign and transnational intelligence gathering and threat identification and analysis as well as counter-espionage. They are bound by numerous legislative and legal restraints on their activities and a system of checks via courts and other oversight mechanisms. Unless the circumstances are exceptional (say, a bomb about to go off in a crowded train station), they must adhere to civil liberties and other democratic rights accorded to the population. And even then they often need the authorization of a special court or judge in order to legally infringe on individual and collective rights and constitutional norms.

To be clear, these norms have been violated in many instances by spy agencies in liberal democracies, including in the US, UK and NZ, but if discovered they are liable under the law and can be held accountable by oversight agencies as well as legislatures (if the Executive will not act against them in such instances). Intelligence agencies do not operate according to the whims of the political leadership, but in accordance with and under penalty of law.

In terms of how the UK approaches intelligence matters, it conforms with the democratic model outlined above. It uses legal frameworks to determine the distinction between intelligence gathering by the British State, its allies and partners and even private parties like corporations, versus espionage by foreign States or British nationals working for foreign states or front entities (such as by and for Chinese firms and “friendship societies” connected to PRC military intelligence via “United Front” entities). Having a legal framework delimiting what is and is not permissible when it comes to intelligence collection and the means used to that end gives the British State (and other States in their own ways), legal cover and authority to disrupt and prosecute (often clandestine) intelligence-gathering activities deemed unlawful and illegal.

Put simply, in the UK and other democracies intelligence collection done under official cover is considered permissible up to a point. Intelligence collection done under non-official cover is considered espionage and punishable by law. If an official cover intelligence officer from a foreign embassy goes beyond his recognized intelligence gathering duties (say, by trying to poison a dissident in England), that person will be charged and a warrant issued for their arrest even if they are deported under rules of diplomatic immunity. If a Russian NOC attempts to poison someone and is caught, s/he is out of luck.

Espionage is what the bad guys do; intelligence collection is what the good guys do, and the legal distinction is there to preserve that fiction.

Question Five: Where are the Skripals?

The Skripal’s are likely in a 5 Eyes country. They need to be in a place where they can go relatively unnoticed, where security can be provided for them and where there are not many other Russians around unless those Russians are sympathetic to the Skripals and have been security vetted. They will be provided with fake identities and documentation and take language lessons to disguise their thick English/Russian accents. They will be coached on how to act under their assumed identities, for example, as a retired Bulgarian businessman and his middle-aged daughter who cares for him as per traditional custom. They could be located in a city without many Russians where they can disappear in the crowds or, contrastingly, in a rural area far from prying eyes. That depends on their personal characteristics. If they are urbanites then they would stick out in a rural setting and probably have difficulties coping, much less assimilating. Many factors will determine where exactly they are re-located and hidden from Russian intelligence.

Of course, they may be relocated to a non-5 Eyes country such as Argentina or South Africa. But Skirpal’s spying was done for the UK and 5 Eyes, not other States, so other States would be reluctant to incur Russia’s wrath in the event they are discovered. Plus, other States may be more susceptible to corruption, leaking and not be able to provide adequate levels of discrete but effective security for them. So it seems to that a 5 Eyes country is the most likely place where they have been relocated.

That could be Australia, which has few Russians, lots of anti-Russian sentiment and both large cities and remote rural areas. Likewise, Canada. Even Wales or Scotland might serve the purpose. New Zealand is too small, in my opinion, and the US, although immense, has large Russian expat communities that are not all opponents of the Putin regime and is over-run with Russian spies in any event. So my guess is that they will be in a medium sized town or city in a rural area of a large or relatively unpopulated country or area of a country with few Russians present. But there are people who are experts in this so I can only speculate as to their exact location.

One final observation. The Skripals were poisoned, like other Russian double agents. Russia reserves poisoning for traitors of some importance, not just anyone. People of lesser status fall out of windows, get run over or die in a variety of crashes and explosions, depending on opportunity (remember the Wagner Group boss Prigozhin’s plane crash last year). Lesser rivals such as journalists and whistleblowers get shot. It will therefore be interesting to find out what killed the dissident and opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who supposedly died of “natural causes” in a Siberian prison camp at age 47. My hunch is that he may have received the ultimate (ironic) honour in the way in which his demise came about.

Or to draw the analogy this way: my Italian grandmother was once discussing with my parents the death of a cousin of hers who had mob ties in New York City. My parents asked her about how he died and she said “from a heart attack.” When challenged because the press had covered the story of a low level mobster getting “hit” in some criminal feud, she replied “yes, he died of a heart attack when a piece of hot lead went through it.”

In Russia the heart attack is induced by poison, but only for the special few.

Media Link: The Hamas-Israel War as a Global Catalyst.

Readers will recall that I have been writing about the transition from unipolarity to multipolarity in international affairs since the inception of this blog. Although still in progress, that realignment has pretty much proven true but not in the way I and others assumed that it would. Rather than a move to a system dominated by several Great Powers balancing each other on specific policy issues within a common institutional framework, what is emerging is two competing constellations of States joined by non-State actors such as high technology firms and various ideological proxies and surrogates. These blocs are not formal alliances but instead are loose networks of actors that share perspectives and values on the world order. One defends the current status quo, the other does not.

The one that does not represents the post-colonial Global “South.” The one that does represents the liberal internationalist order created by and for imperialist/colonial and neo-imperialist/post-colonial Northern powers beginning in the 17th and continuing well into the late 20th century. The Global South bloc is led by Russia and China, who beyond their Northern locations trade on their revolutionary legacies of the 1950s through to the 1990s, when they supported resistance and liberation movements against colonialism and imperialism across the globe. The Global South bloc includes other members of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, India and South Africa), to which will be added Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen next year.

The intention of this emerging constellation, which also has North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia and several Sub-Saharan African States as potential members, is not so much to push a Southern Hemisphere outlook on world affairs but to create a parallel institutional edifice that will eventually replace liberal internationalist institutions as the main conduits of international exchange. Things like the Belt and Road Initiative, growth of the China Development Bank as a rival to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the move to use the Chinese Yuan as a reserve international currency rather than the US dollar when providing loans to infrastructure development projects, as well as the proposed move to create a BRICS currency that will rival the Euro and US dollar, all are part of replacing the Western-centric institutional framework with a more “South”-centric organisational apparatus.

In this week’s A View from Afar podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss how the Hamas-Israel war is a precipitant for the consolidation of this new type of bipolarism–two multipolar constellations competing with each other on numerous geopolitical fronts. Although it is still too early to see the final configurations of these blocs and whether they will translate into rival security alliances down the road (with all the dangers that entails), we try to explain how shifting perceptions on the global “street” (as opposed to between governments) are laying the foundations for a fundamental shift to the new systemic alignment.

Media Link: “AVFA” on regional realignment in the Sahel.

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss regional realignment in the Sahel region of Africa. Subjects include the Nigerian coup, the new dictatorship belt stretching from Sudan to Guinea (Red Sea to the Atlantic) through Chad, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, Russian influence and historical legacies, the decline of Western influence and the emergence of the Wagner PMC as the new East India Trading Company with military, diplomatic and economic roles to play in the pro-Russian tilt currently underway in that geographic transition zone between Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa. There was much ground to cover so have a look/listen here.

Media Link: “AVFA” on Oppenheimer’s Nightmare.

Last week former President and Prime Minister, now Deputy Chair of the Russian Security Council Dimtry Medvedev warned that Russia would use nuclear weapons if its forces in Southeastern Ukraine were on the verge of defeat, using the argument that the region was Russian and the use of nuclear weapons was a justified act of self-defence. Meanwhile, in the coming few days we shall witness the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the dawn of the nuclear (weapons) era. And coincidentally or not, in recent weeks the movie “Oppenheimer,” about the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” was released to popular and critical acclaim. That got me to thinking about where the world stood today when it came to the potential use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The situation is not good.

As it turns out I have an indirect connection to the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project that Oppenheimer directed and which led to the devastation of the two Japanese cities. Using that as a potential “hook,” I pitched the idea of doing a podcast on the subject of nuclear and other arms control efforts to my “A View from Afar” co-host Selwyn Manning. He asked that we also consider potential solution sets to the currently sad state of affairs when it comes to nuclear, chemical and biological arms control agreements, where the conventions that have been agreed upon are now either suspended, have lapsed or are being ignored. It seems that, as I have written about previously, in times of global systemic realignment, norms erosion and violation is a defining feature of the transitional moment. As things stand, solutions are hard to come by because although technical fixes are available, decisions about the use of WMDs are ultimately political. That was true for the Manhattan Project in 1945 and it is true today, and in today’s world the political will to renew and enforce arms control and non-proliferation agreements is not a universal value. It is a sobering realisation, one that drove Oppenheimer into anti-nuclear activism back then and one that we are confronted with now.

Your can catch the podcast here.

Media Link: “AVFA” on NZ-PRC trade and Prigozhin’s “pronouncement.”

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I decided to do a “near-far” sequence and look at the recent NZ trade mission to the PRC in broader context before turning our attention a discussion of what the Wagner Group incursion into Russia means in the short and medium terms. Short answer: Who knows? You can find the podcast here.

When a “coup” is not a coup.

In the wake of the short-lived Wagner Group incursion into Russia I decided to tweet some basic definitions of various irregular collective action taken against political regimes and ruling elites. That was in due in no small measure to my frustration with mindless media in NZ and elsewhere originally labelling the event as a “coup” (as in coup d’état) before settling on “mutiny” after the fact. I figured that I would flesh out the tweets and publish them here.

A coup d’état (French, a strike against the State) or “golpe” (Spanish, golpe de Estado or blow to or against the State) is an armed intervention by the military and other elites against a civilian regime. A putsch (German, a violent attempt to overthrow) is a failed armed intervention by the military and civilian factions in order to produce a coup (I am indebted to Ian Morrison for correcting my initial characterisation). A mutiny is an armed protest by elements in the military against other units and/or their superiors.It does not involve civilians and tends to focus on internal, institutional grievances. A Rebellion/Revolt is an armed uprising by sectors of society against political elites, sometimes with military support. The difference between the two terms is due to the size and scale of the armed collective action–rebellions are larger than revolts and span a broader set of grievances. An insurrection is an armed uprising by elements of civil society against the ruling regime, sometimes with military support. A revolution is a grassroots act of mass collective violence against a regime followed by parametric (political, economic and social) change of that regime and in society. A pronunciamento Spanish, a pronouncement or declaration) is an armed ultimatum or statement of intent and claim by elements of the military, paramilitary militias or armed elements of civil society. It is designed to convey a message and a seriousness of purpose to targeted elites regarding their handling of certain grievances held by those making the pronouncement. It is not designed to provoke regime change per se but instead seeks to force an outcome favourable to those making the demands (my thanks to Adam Przeworski for bringing this to my attention).

Note that under certain conditions one type of event can lead to another in a cascade effect, e.g. a pronouncement leading to a rebellion leading to an insurrection that results in revolution. We also must distinguish between armed inter-elite quarrels (coups, putsches, some pronouncements), mutinies and civil society uprisings.

As for the Wagner foray into Southwestern Russia and the outer Moscow region, my impression is that it was a testing of the waters taken in order to gauge what support Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has within the Russian military and public. Remember that Prigozhin did not target Putin himself, just his High Command. In fact, for a year now Prigozhin has used his media platforms to call for the removal of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He has labeled them cowardly and corrupt, noted that their children live the lives of pampered princelings and princesses in places like Dubai, and holds them responsible for command failures and the needless deaths of thousands of ordinary Russian soldiers. He has even called for their execution. But he has said nothing about Putin, who grew up in his hometown of Saint Petersburg.

In my opinion, Prigozhin wants to lead the MoD, not remove Putin. In fact, allowing Putin to remain as president might make it easier for Prigozhin to exercise real power from the Ministry of Defense as well as direct the prosecution of the war. We also must remember that there are other private military corporation (PMCs) operating in Russia, the largest being the one controlled by GASPROM, the state oil and gas monopoly. Prigozhin is well aware of their capabilities and presumably would like to consolidate them under an umbrella organization with global reach. Wagner fits that bill.

Having seen the lukewarm military/public response to his pronouncement, he decided that now was not the time to storm Moscow. Instead, he cut a deal with Putin that allowed he and his men to re-locate to Belarus and eventually elsewhere (since Wagner has a significant presence in many places a bit more hospitable than Belarus and where he would be less vulnerable to Russian retaliation). Even if he did not enter Moscow Prigozhin damaged Putin’s strongman image and may have fatally weakened Shoigu and Gerasimov’s positions. After all, Russian oligarchs and attendant economic elites may now see a reason to hedge their bets when it comes to the possibility of victory in the Ukraine and the durability in power of Putin and his coterie.That means exploring post-Putin options (which to be fair are as of yet invisible and which are likely to be just as authoritarian as the current ruling crowd). The Russian public is also more aware of elite fractures within the regime, so this move may be just the first salvo in a more prolonged power struggle within Russia. In fact, Prigoshin has made comparisons between the current situation in Russia and the 1917 Bolshevic Revolution, so even if he is not conceptually clear on what the purpose of his move was (other than the preposterous “march for justice” he claimed it was), he clearly sees Russia in a pre-revolutionary light.

Anglophone media bobbleheads and opinionators went to their stock analogies of poisoned teas and open high rise windows to characterise Prigoshin’s future. I disagree with them because Prigozhin has an insurance policy. Prigozhin’s insurance policy is, most immediately, that Putin needs Wagner if he is going to get any positive military result in Ukraine. If he kills Prigozhin, Wagner will quit the fight or suffer big defections and Russia will lose in Ukraine. That would likely spell the end of Putin. More broadly in terms of insurance against retaliation, Wagner also serves as a foreign ambassador and liaison between the Russian government and a number of state and non-state entities in the rougher parts of the world. It makes billions of dollars by offering protection to Chinese and other diamond and gold mining investors in Africa (a percentage of which goes to Russian state coffers), and provides military advice and personal protection to a rogues gallery of despots in Africa and the Middle East. It is a de facto (grey area) arm of the Russian state in many places where official relations are lacking or where the Russians believe that there is a need for them to be hidden from public view. Heck, Wagner are even rumoured to have some sort of operation in the Chatham Islands!

The Wagner Group may be known for its use of conscripts and brutality but in true mercenary fashion it has a senior cadre of hardened, smart and cunning military strategists drawn from around the world, including several Western countries. They are paid well and their families are well looked after. They are loyal to Prigozhin, so if he goes (one way or the other) then they go, And because Wagner operates in many different places, has its hands in many pies and delves into a broad array of endeavours (including signals intelligence, psychological operations and cyber crime), it has leverage on Putin. That is why Putin must allow Prigozhin to live, as least for the moment or until the war with Ukraine comes to an end. He needs Wagner in the fight (which makes Prigozhin’s current decision to withdraw his troops from Ukraine an additional pressure point on Putin and his military command).

In any event what Prigozhin did with his advance on Moscow was not a coup, or a putsch, or even a mutiny (since his troops are not part of the Russian military even while fighting alongside it). It might plausibly been called a revolt or a rebellion if it had garnered more popular support, but it did not reach the level of insurrection or revolution–at least not yet. So I am left with “pronouncement” as the best way of characterising the move because if nothing else, this pronouncement could well be a prelude of things to come.

Media Link: “AVFA” on disinformation and Global South perspectives on the Ruso-Ukrainian war.

In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about how to approach disinformation in the contemporary media landscape and Global South neutrality or support for Russia in the Ruso-Ukrainian war. The discussion takes a few turns.

Media Link: Disinformation at RNZ.

I was fighting a head cold when I did this interview so was not as lucid as I would have liked to be, but credit to RNZ for giving me the airtime. It has to do with the placing of Russian disinformation talking points in stories on Radio New Zealand’s digital platform. Knowing about Russian disinformation campaigns in the US dating back to at least 2016 as well as similar campaigns in various European states since that time, and watching the spread of foreign sourced disinformation during the pandemic and afterwards here in NZ, I have been trying to call attention to the insidious nature of these types of psychological warfare. After all, if you can subversively undermine trust and confidence in liberal democratic governance from within, then there is no need to confront it from without. The Russians are not the only ones who play this game.

The good news is that Western intelligence agencies, including those in NZ, are belatedly focused on countering the phenomenon.

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018894129/buchanan-says-he-sounded-alarm-over-disinformation-in-nz