Archive for November, 2010

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Europe on Alert

November 21, 2010

Photo by Getty Images

By Brian J. Forest, Contributing Editor
 
In the latest in a series of threats to Europe this month, Germans are on high alert after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government warned of a possible attack from Islamist extremists.
 
Speaking Wednesday, Merkel’s interior minister, Thomas de Maziere, said the government was concerned that terrorists might be planning a so-called ‘Mumbai-style’ attack at the end of the year. He urged vigilance but cautioned the public to avoid panic and “not allow international terrorism to limit our lifestyles nor our culture of freedom.”
 
Even so, German law enforcement has stepped up patrols and officers are preparing for a busy holiday season. The New York Times reported Saturday that German officials are tracking two men from Pakistan’s Waziristan region who may be awaiting a shipment of explosive devices. Both are thought to have gone into hiding by dressing in Western-style clothing and staying away from telephones and the mosque. 
 
The weekly Der Spiegel also reported on a threat to the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin in early 2011, although many have dismissed that threat as overly speculative.
 
These threats come on the heels of a wave of package bombs shipped from leftist militants in Greece to foreign leaders—one of which was addressed to the chancellor herself—and a foiled terror attack in France.  Last week, five French nationals—four men and a woman—were arrested in connection with what the interior minister called a “conspiracy to prepare a terror attack.”
 
Parcel bombs originating from Yemen were also recently intercepted in the United Kingdom and Dubai. The Yemeni-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula boasted that the bombs required little more than “a few months of work and a few thousand bucks,” and that it planned to ship more.
 
Even with so many threats affecting Europe and its Western allies, officials have urged calm. Speaking in Lisbon on the sidelines of the NATO summit, Merkel assured the public that all necessary measures were being taken to ensure safety. She also sounded a note of defiance, saying that despite the plots, “we are determined not to be deprived of our free way of living by such threats.”

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“Merchant of Death” to Stand Trial

November 19, 2010

Viktor Bout behind bars in Thailand. Photo by Reuters.

Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR) issued this interesting development, which may explain the intricate relationship between Viktor Bout, so-called “Merchant of Death” and Russian Intelligence. Bout was extradited to the United States from Thailand. On Wednesday, he pleaded not guilty to four terrorism-related charges, including conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing weapons to terrorists groups.  According to STRATFOR, his former backers are more concerned with what Bout might reveal.

Bout, a former Soviet Air Force officer who speaks six languages, started a logistics company after the Soviet collapse. His firm became a major arms distributor willing to provide products and transportation where no one else would go. (The United States once engaged him to ship material to Afghanistan and Iraq.)

He spent most of his time in Russia due to fears of arrest abroad. Thai Police arrested Bout in March 2008 in Bangkok after he met with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which Washington has labeled a terrorist organization. During the meeting, he agreed to sell the group $5 million in arms.

Russian officials frequently have protested developments in the case against Bout, who probably has connections to Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. Moscow fears he might reveal his connections with intelligence and organized crime networks that reach high levels in the Russian government, a concern doubtless shared by other countries he dealt with. STRATFOR sources say he began to be cut out of deals with the Russian establishment at the same time the United States began to pressure his activities. In 2004, the United Nations placed travel restrictions on Bout, and the Bush administration ordered U.S. entities to cease doing business with him.

Two years ago, Bout would have been a great source for intelligence on arms networks and possibly Russian intelligence operations and Kremlin involvement in international conflict. While such information is no longer actionable, it remains Bout’s main bargaining chip with the prosecution. What Bout will reveal, and whether it will aid U.S. arms-trafficking and counterintelligence investigations, remains to be seen. Even if his information is dated, it will still provide good leads and allow for a good assessment of topics of interest to the United States.

Information from Bout also may play a role in the ongoing Kremlin wars, specifically the struggle over Russia’s intelligence agencies. Bout was rumored once to have had connections with some of the Kremlin’s most powerful players. He may have a larger role in what seems to be a brewing bureaucratic battle between the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, and the SVR, its foreign one. After the embarrassment of the 10 Russian spies arrested by the United States in June, a Russian official identified the defector who exposed them in a probable swipe at the SVR and its director, Mikhail Fradkov.

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Russia’s Privatization Debate

November 18, 2010

Photo by Reuters.

By Graig Klein, Contributor

Russia is in the midst of debating an economic plan that would privatize and essentially “de-socialize” thousands of government owned companies and assets.  What makes Russia’s political and economic response to the global recession interesting is that it may provide the arena for the long anticipated showdown between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev.  Although both leaders originally supported the Economic Ministry’s privatization proposal, several conservatives known as siloviki, serving in the Kremlin have voiced opposition to privatization. 

For those living in capitalist societies, the concept of privatization seems like an appropriate and obvious response to dwindling government funds and lack of external investment. But one must remember that although Russia is no longer the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the yokes of communism and socialism have not been fully broken.  Russia continues to maintain ownership, and therefore exclusive investment, revenue and technology rights, of several crucial and strategic assets including oil and natural gas fields.  By no means is Russia fully embracing capitalism by privatizing a laundry list of companies, in fact, according to the privatization plan, companies critical to national security such as Rosneft, an oil giant, would ultimately remain nationalized because at most, only 40 percent of critical companies would be available for private investment and ownership.  Although the plan is for limited privatization, it would still be a major step for Russia, a country that has foregone major privatization since the early 1990s when it undertook its first post-communism privatization maneuver. 

The more interesting aspect of the privatization plan is not the plan itself; it’s the debate it is creating.  The original privatization plan was supported by both Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, but after the siloviki bloc voiced opposition, Russian leadership is faced with deciding between the original economic plan of privatizing limited shares of strategic companies or foregoing the privatization of such companies and sacrificing $29 billion.  The international political scene has watched as Medvedev has increasingly flexed his muscles in challenging Putin’s national policies, especially democratic values.  Medvedev argued that Russians were not as willing as Putin believed to sacrifice political rights and freedoms to pursue stability and economic prosperity. 

In Russia, economic prosperity acts like a phoenix, just as in the early 1990s when Russia first pursued industrial privatization, new industrial privatization and future economic growth may force allegiances aside and lead to the ultimate showdown between the two men. 

Putin has maintained a strong-hold on Russian politics since ascending to the Presidency and “tutoring” his successor, Medvedev, but the global recession and national security interests have forced Russia to not only break the yoke of nationalized industries, but also the yoke of Putin’s seemingly endless political control.  Although the two leaders originally supported the same plan, the siloviki bloc has forced the issue to be re-assessed which allows Putin and Medvedev to support opposing plans.  The global recession may provide the ultimate showdown.