5 May 2022
“…the gods themselves…”
By Neil Tidmarsh
Alexei Navalny and his anti-corruption, pro-democracy activists insist that Russia’s security and intelligence services are institutionally stupid. He even has a term for this stupidity: “Moscow4”. The documentary film Navalny (a must-see, available on the BBC iPlayer) supplies ample evidence to support that claim. And this column has itself been bewildered by the antics of Russia’s spooks on more than one occasion.
The film also explains the derivation of the term. A few years ago, hackers broke into the system of a Russian security chief, discovering that his password was the rather too obvious ‘Moscow1’. So he had to change his password. To defend himself from further attacks he needed a password which was secure, something obscure and unpredictable, something that the hackers wouldn’t be able to guess. So what did he choose? ‘Moscow2’. An open door for the hackers and in they went for the second time. So the chief had to change his password again. And what did he choose this time? ‘Moscow3’. Yet again the hackers piled in. And yet again the chief changed his password. To ‘Moscow4’. And in the hackers went, yet again…
There were what appear to be two good examples of Moscow4 in the news last week.
First, a ‘Western-backed terrorist plot’ to assassinate a well-known Russian journalist. The FSB announced that six Russian citizens had been arrested and had confessed to being part of a plan ‘supported by the CIA and Ukraine’s SBU’ to kill the television presenter Vladimir Solovyov, a high-profile Putin supporter and champion of the war against Ukraine. The FSB showed images of evidence they’d ‘seized from the suspects’: an entirely predictable collection of weapons, ammunition, bomb-making equipment, fake passports, drugs, fascist literature, three copies of the Sims video game, etc, etc. Hang on. Three copies of the Sims video game? Three sim cards for mobile phones wouldn’t have been surprising (anyone in a clandestine operation would need more than one phone number, as the FSB would know), but three copies of the Sims video game? Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins appears to have the answer to that mystery. He said “I genuinely believe this is a dumb FSB officer being told to get three sims” and making a mess of it by getting the wrong sort.
Second, the Kremlin announced sanctions against almost 300 British members of parliament but seemed to be using intelligence well past its ‘use by’ date – an obsolete list of MPs’ names. The 287 included Dominic Grieve, Rory Stewart, Nicholas Soames, Sarah Wollaston and others who haven’t been MPs since the last election three years ago. And the Kremlin seems to be under the impression that Sarah Wollaston and Grieve are Conservatives; in fact, Wollaston is a Lib Dem and Grieve last stood as an independent. Moreover, the Kremlin somehow missed some of its most outspoken critics in Westminster, such as Labour’s Chris Bryant who was somewhat hacked off at having been left out. And the inclusion of Maggie Throup, too busy recently as vaccines minister to attack anyone let alone Russia, puzzled everybody. How come sourcing an up-to-date copy of Dod’s Parliamentary Companion – openly available online and in all good bookshops – was Mission Impossible for Russia’s intelligence-gathering network?
But stupidity can’t be the only curse of Russia’s security and intelligence services. It looks as if their inefficiencies have two other ingredients: fear and corruption. There are suspicions that the services have been too frightened to give Putin unpalatable but true intelligence about Ukraine’s attitude to Moscow before the invasion and about the progress of the war following the invasion, so have doctored their reports accordingly. The Kremlin is frightened of pro-democracy, anti-corruption activism (Putin is famously reluctant to even speak Navalny’s name) and of Russia’s restive but immensely rich and thus influential oligarchs; so the agencies which monitor and contain such threats have become over-resourced and unchallengeable – and thus, inevitably, sloppy and complacent.
And, equally inevitably, corrupt. In recent years, the spy agencies have allegedly been given billions of roubles to find influential but biddable Ukrainians and seduce them away from the West and into Moscow’s bed. That clearly hasn’t worked terribly well, not least of all because a lot of that cash appears to have gone missing. (Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s near-legendary master of the media, is currently under house arrest, apparently suspected of embezzling funds intended for eastern Ukraine.)
Christo Grozev, the investigator from Bellingcat who’s worked closely with Navalny, has suggested that ‘Moscow4’ should be the motto for this war. All wars are stupid, of course, guaranteed to release all that’s most stupid in mankind. But he has a point. Has there ever been a more stupid war than this one? A war launched by stupidity (rubbish intelligence, delusional decision-making), waged stupidly with tactics and strategy which have proved to be stupid but which will no doubt continue until the whole foolishness concludes with further but as yet unknown stupidities. Anecdotes of unique stupidity coming in from the front line: Russian soldiers digging trenches in Chernobyl’s contaminated soil and looting dangerously radio-active material as souvenirs; Russians persistently flying men and materiel into an airfield covered by enemy artillery (it took six disastrous and destroyed landings before the Russian command decided it was not a clever thing to do); a Russian soldier killed because he’d ditched his kevlar body-armour to make way for a looted computer, etc, etc.
“Against stupidity the gods themselves strive in vain” wrote Friedrich Schiller, anticipating Moscow4 by more than two centuries. Though if he was writing today, he could of course have added “But the Ukrainians are striving rather more successfully.”