Rebels without a cause

I’ve long said that if you want to bring peace to Ukraine, you need to develop a proper understanding of how the war in Donbass began and of the exact dynamics between the various players, including the government in Kiev, the Russian Federation, and the rebel movement. Attempts to view the conflict purely in terms of ‘Russian aggression’, ignoring its internal dimensions, are bound to point towards policies which see the solution as lying solely in pressuring Moscow. Such policies will fail because they ignore the local nature of the rebel movement and the genuine fears and grievances of the people of Donbass. At a minimum a peace settlement will require autonomy for Donbass, an amnesty, and a change in various Ukrainian policies such as those connected with language.

To make this argument, I have provided evidence in this blog and in various academic and other publications that the initial uprising in Donbass was local in nature; that the overwhelming majority of rebels have always been Ukrainian citizens; that the Russian government only slowly and reluctantly became involved (in large part to gain control of a process over which it originally had little control); that Moscow’s preference has always been for Donbass to be reintegrated within Ukraine with some sort of autonomy, a preference which has put it at odds with the rebel leadership; and finally that patron-client relations are complicated and do not give patrons complete ability to manipulate their clients (indeed the patron may even become something of a captive of the client). All this means that the wishes of the people of Donbass and of the leadership of the rebel republics cannot be ignored. Instead of blindly supporting Kiev as it does its best to alienate eastern Ukraine, Western states should be pressuring it to live up to its commitments in the Minsk accords.

This argument is, of course, entirely at odds with the prevalent narrative coming out of Kiev and Western capitals. It is satisfying, therefore, to read a report which pretty much confirms everything I’ve been saying these past five years. Entitled Rebels without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine, the report was published yesterday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG gets a lot of its funding from governments, notably Qatar, Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Norway and Sweden, as well as from foundations such as Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘Kremlin proxy’. That makes its conclusions all the more striking.

Continue reading Rebels without a cause

Fact checking

The big news from Italy this week is the seizure by Turin police of a massive arsenal of weapons held by a neo-Nazi group. Among the weapons was a stonking-big air-to-air missile. Reporting the story, the BBC links the neo-Nazis to ‘Russian-backed separatist forces’ in Ukraine, saying that:

The raids were part of an investigation into Italian far-right help for Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, local media said. … On 3 July a court in Genoa jailed three men who were found guilty of fighting alongside the Russian-backed separatists who control a large swathe of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

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Continue reading Fact checking

Rehabilitating Stalin

Bryan MacDonald posted an interesting thread on Twitter today, which serves as a useful indicator of why it’s worth following RT as well as other more ‘mainstream’ journalistic outlets and why the former can occasionally provide a welcome counterpoint to the latter.

Those who follow Russia-related news will be aware of the regular complaints of the Western press that Vladimir Putin is working day and night to rehabilitate the memory of Joseph Stalin. I’ve dealt with this issue before, pointing out what egregious nonsense it is.  Unfortunately, my influence on public debate appears to be approximately zero, so the idea that Putin is busy promoting Stalin continues to gain traction. As Bryan points out, both The Washington Post and The Guardian have recently run stories on the matter. Let’s take a look.

Continue reading Rehabilitating Stalin

Against Political Slander

We live in an era in which political slander appears to be a common tactic. American politics seems especially toxic, with Donald Trump and his detractors trading insults on an almost daily basis. But the problem spreads far beyond the USA. An example is the ongoing campaign in the United Kingdom to undermine Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by labelling him as ‘Anti-Semitic’. And as everybody who follows Russia studies will know, if you dare to contradict the prevailing narrative which depicts Russia as the source of all evil, you are only too likely to find yourself denounced as a Russian ‘Trojan Horse’, ‘Putin proxy’, or ‘Kremlin agent’. Following on from my last post, therefore, I thought it worth translating another piece out of the latest volume of Ivan Ilyin’s works, namely an August 1939 article entitled ‘Against Political Slander’, which you can find below.

Originally published in German in the Neues Winterhurer Tagblatt in Switzerland, where Ilyin was living after having fled Nazi Germany, it’s notable for a couple of reason: first, for the manner in which the supposedly ‘fascist’ Ilyin passionately defends Swiss democracy and describes himself as a ‘democrat’; and second for its subject matter – political slander – which he depicts as dangerous for any democratic system. ‘If anybody tells an honest worker, who speaks out for justice and the honour of his profession, that because of this he’s “a paid agent of the International”, then this is stupid and vile slander’, writes Ilyin. It’s a message which is remarkably relevant for our times, and one which our modern ‘defenders of democracy’ would do well to heed.

 

Ivan Ilyin, ‘Against Political Slander’ (Switzerland, 29 August 1939)

Yes, the contemporary world engages in slander! That’s not to say that slander was unknown in former times. Humans have always been only too human. But still, slander didn’t become a method, or more precisely it wasn’t raised to the status of a political method in the way that it has been in the past decade. It’s impossible to remain silent about the great dangers involved.

Wherever slander appears, it exerts a harmful and destructive influence all around. For it consists of hate and envy; it is the product of these baneful passions. It’s the lie that passes off as truth. It consciously insults and yet demands revenge. In short, it’s the direct enemy of peace, equilibrium, and mutual trust.

Precisely for this reason slander has a very harmful influence on democratic society. No democratic order can exist in the spirit of slander; it is imperceptibly undermined, it is castrated over and over again, rots and comes closer and closer to death. Anybody who doesn’t understand this or disputes it, really knows nothing about the essence of democracy.

A democracy is not only a ‘multiplicity of independent people’, but much more, it’s a unity of many and independent co-citizens, a unity despite their numbers, a unity which derives from plurality. Try to forget about this unity or to neglect it, and democracy falls apart, like an armful of brushwood which has fallen out of your arms. Democracy does not mean ‘every man for himself’, but ‘all together’; it rests not on centrifugal forces striving to distance themselves from the centre, but on the force of mutual attraction. The people in authoritarian states are united by the corresponding state. We, democrats of the Swiss Confederation, must unite on the basis of voluntary self-discipline, and on the principle of belonging to the Confederation we must unite in a communion of free men who trust one another. If we let this slip, we will turn into dust and worthless garbage. And so we must take care of everything which eases our national – and I mean national, not counterfeit international! – cohesion, and must avoid everything which unjustly and incompetently divides us. Throughout our history this has always been the primary requirement of the state, and now more than ever before. The general situation in the world and in particular its anti-democratic essence requires us Swiss to withstand this experience and present to the world an example of true national community.

A honourable democrat should display respect, justice, and correctness in all his relations with loyal co-citizens who truly and unconditionally stand on the side of the people and the country, and who in good conscience obey the country’s democratic constitution. This is the first manifestation of a healthy democratic spirit. By contrast, all shaming, all unobjective backbiting, and all slander, break and crush these principles of our existence. Hatred – including class hatred – is blind and unjust. We must not profess it; otherwise the demon of ‘alienation’ will triumph. From the earliest times envy has been the father of every hatred and civil war. We must pacify it. We don’t have to respond every time we’re contradicted, to every honest criticism, to every patriotic-democratic word which has been properly expressed, to the commentary which contradicts the truth, to crude blackening or vilification. What are most reprehensible are premeditated efforts to bespatter the pure convictions of inconvenient third parties with caustic remarks designed to sow suspicion, in the hope that ‘some mud always sticks’. This is the method of the imperialist, the ill-intentioned destroyer of peace.

Slander is unjustified suspicion; suspicion incites mutual distrust – distrust at first of the unjustly slandered, then of the lying slanderer, and finally of public speech and of politics in general. For every individual citizen of the country ceases to be able to distinguish truth from lies, honest criticism from slander, and so becomes disinclined to believe anybody or to participate in anything. Who benefits? Only our enemies: the open and secret enemies of democracy, opponents of the Swiss character and independence, enemies of peace and humanity!

We mustn’t beat about the bush: the use of political slander to undermine political opponents and people who defend an alternative political point of view by means of unfounded suspicions, is impermissible, anti-democratic and fatal. Anybody who makes use of it can in no way pretend to the honourable title of true and reasonable democrat.

If anybody tells an honest worker, who speaks out for justice and the honour of his profession, that because of this he’s “a paid agent of the International”, then this is stupid and vile slander. But if a democrat who is loyal to his Fatherland points out to the worker the incontrovertible fact that the ‘United Front’ – or as it’s also called, the ‘Popular Front’ – was dreamt up by the Third International to dissolve and destroy all democracies, and one hears the objection that the person pointing this out is a ‘brownshirt’, i.e. someone who rejects and secretly despises our country, then is political slander, which has been consciously and deliberately turned into a method, and must be stigmatized. Or if the Bundesrat, whose name enjoys respect not only in Switzerland but in all Europe, of if an officer of high rank is daily called a ‘disguised fascist’ because he faithfully and obediently supports the 300-year tradition of our country’s neutrality, then this is base slander, serving only one goal – systematically castrating the Swiss way of life and the needs of the state. It is a conscious lack of objectivity, an intentional dissolution of the trust which needs to exist in a genuine democracy, not only between citizen and citizen, but also between citizens and institutions, and vice versa. It is false, poisonous and fatal. It must stop.

For me, the honourable name of co-citizen is inviolable. It is a treasure which I must preserve. It is a pure voice in the political choir of my people. We democrats are not allowed to act like evil little children who run around in the night defiling decent citizens’ doors or smashing their windows.

We have a responsibility to be pure and dedicated to our Motherland. The politics of slander and suspicion are not Swiss politics. And our politics do not need imports.

Freedom

Yale University professor Timothy Snyder has been making mild waves again this week with an interview in which he pontificated about linguistic policy in Ukraine. On the one hand, Snyder argued in favour of increased Ukrainization; on the other hand he proposed that instead of just repressing the Russian language the Ukrainian authorities should standardize a Ukrainian version of it, in order to distinguish Ukrainian-Russian from Russian-Russian. Personally, as someone who lives and works in a bilingual environment, I can’t quite see why we can’t just let live and let live,  and why it wouldn’t be better if people could live, work, and publish in whatever language suits them, especially in a country in which the population speaks (more or less equally) two languages. It’s amazing how self-proclaimed liberals and democrats seem so keen on measures which seem so obviously illiberal and undemocratic.

In Snyder’s case, however, it’s not altogether surprising. Readers may recall that he has been actively promoting the thesis that contemporary Russia is a fascist state which poses a deadly threat to the entire world. His logic is that the Kremlin has adopted as its unofficial ideology the writings of émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that since Ilyin was a ‘fascist’, that makes the Russian state fascist too. Several other authors have made similar claims. As I’ve explained on several occasions, it’s all nonsense. But there’s something about my character which always makes me doubt myself, even when I’m sure I’m right. Maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted something. You never know. And so, despite the fact that I’ve read a fair amount of Ilyin and yet to come to the conclusion that he’s a fascist, there’s a little voice which pops up and says, ‘Maybe you’re wrong; find more evidence.’

Fortunately, I’ve now had the chance to dig a little deeper. In Moscow a few weeks ago, I met up with Iury Lisitsa, who has edited 30 volumes of Ilyin’s collected works, and he kindly gave me a copy of the newly published volume no. 31 fresh off the printing press. It consists of op-eds written by Ilyin for émigré and Swiss newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, and as such provides a good tool for analyzing the philosopher’s political thought and for testing the ‘Ilyin = fascist, ergo Putin = fascist, ergo Russia = fascist’ thesis a bit further. So far, I’ve yet to read all 900 pages, but I’ve skimmed through most of it, and read some parts of it in detail. It’s interesting stuff.

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Continue reading Freedom

Funny old world

It’s been a fascinating day’s reading on the information warfare front. First on my reading list was a new piece by an old friend – Canadian activist Marcus Kolga. Readers may recall that he’s the guy who called this blog a ‘Pro-Kremlin, extremist, conspiracy theory platform’ and compared it to InfoWars. A dedicated keyboard warrior in the existential battle to defend Canadian democracy, he’s been leading the charge to convince all and sundry that our 150-year old parliamentary system faces a deadly threat from Russian meddling. Something must be done, he says. As he puts it in his latest article:

Politicians, policy-makers, academics and former diplomats who speak on behalf of malign foreign regimes must face a cost for allowing themselves to be used as proxies or ‘useful idiots’ in western media and society.

I don’t know about you, but that put a little chill up my spine. Who knew that the defence of democracy requires people to pay a ‘cost’ for freely expressing their views? I’ve been far too naïve these past 53 years, it seems. I must thank Mr Kolga for enlightening me. I must also thank him for correcting me on some other matters. For instance, I had falsely believed that the ‘Immortal Regiment’ marches popular in Russia on Victory Day were meant to mark the sacrifice of those who died fighting the Nazis. Thanks to Kolga, I now understand that the Immortal Regiment is in fact a ‘neo-Stalinist rally’ and ‘annually glorifies the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe’. It’s good to know that democracy has such noble people defending us against disinformation.

Talking of sacrifice, Kolga isn’t the only one demanding that others pay a ‘price’. Take British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, for instance. Hunt is currently competing to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a job for which he is probably the only person in Britain less suited than his competitor Boris Johnson. Keen to burnish his pro-Brexit credentials, he informed businessmen that if they went bankrupt as a result of a no-deal Brexit, they should understand that it was a sacrifice worth paying. I’m looking forward to seeing what sacrifices Hunt will be making.

Anyway, in a separate story I read that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which Hunt leads, is funding a new anti-disinformation project called the ‘Open Information Partnership’. This bears a striking resemblance to a similar project proposed by the much discredited ‘Integrity Initiative’. It envisages a network of NGOs, think tanks, fact checkers, and so on, dedicated to fighting disinformation. This include such notably unbiased and reliable sources of information as the Atlantic Council. With the likes of these determining what is true and what is false, what can possibly go wrong?

The Brits aren’t the only ones getting deeper into the counter-disinformation game. The US Development Agency (USAID) is to invest millions of dollars into a new ‘Countering Malign Kremlin Influence Development Framework’. As RT reports ‘the US will channel millions of dollars into local media to ensure they are truly “independent”.’  Again, what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, it’s wrong of me to cite RT. After all, Mr Hunt has denounced it as a ‘weapon of disinformation.’ Hunt is a fervent defender of press freedom, as shown by his government’s strong support of Julian Assange. Next week in London, Hunt and his Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland will be co-hosting the Global Conference for Media Freedom. Freeland is the stuck record of international diplomacy, endlessly repeating her commitment to the ‘rules-based international order’, while simultaneously taking the lead in undermining it through her efforts to promote regime change in Venezuela via the so-called Lima Group. She has previously shown her commitment to media freedom by barring Russian media networks RT, Sputnik, Ruptly, TASS, and RIA Novosti from attending the meeting of the Lima Group in February of this year.

Still, media freedom is a fine cause. We should congratulate Hunt and Freeland for doing so much to encourage. But, what then are we to make of this?

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The Global Conference for Media Freedom has refused accreditation to RT. Oh, the irony of ironies. Lord forbid that the media should be allowed to report on a conference on media freedom.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but even in the Cold War I can’t remember the Soviet media being barred from events. There have been ‘no truth in Pravda’ and ‘no news in Izvestiia’, as the saying went, but even while we mocked them we still allowed them the freedom to report. Now, things seem to have changed. Moral posturing goes hand in hand with selective sanctions (did you ever hear Ms Freeland condemn the multiple violations of press freedom in Ukraine?). The one justifies the other. In the name of defending democracy, we punish those who dare to contradict us; in the name of combatting disinformation, we spread it ourselves; and in the name of media freedom, we practice censorship. It’s a funny old world.

The semiotics of fear

I’ve never read the works of Leo Strauss, but a colleague (who we’ll call ‘TK’) once described Strauss’s philosophy to me roughly as follows:

TK: Strauss believed that people don’t actually mean what they say. There’s always a hidden subtext. If you are one of the initiated, who has the key to the code, you can decipher what they mean.

Me: So when Strauss said that people don’t mean what they say, did he mean that? Or did he, according to his own philosophy, actually mean something different? In which case, what he really meant was that people do mean what they say. But if that’s so, then he did mean that they don’t mean what they say. And then, well you get the point – we’re stuck in an endless logical loop.

TK: Indeed. Followers of Strauss are divided on this issue. Some think that he did mean that; some think that he didn’t. They’ve fallen out pretty badly over it.

I’ve no idea if that’s a fair description of Strauss, but it was enough to convince me that I could avoid reading him without doing great harm to my intellectual sanity. Apart from being inherently paradoxical, this sort of thinking is, I think, rather dangerous. It allows anyone who considers themselves one of the ‘initiated’, and as such understands what’s going on beneath the surface, to argue that we should ignore what others are saying because it’s not what they mean. Instead, we should pay attention to the initiate’s interpretation of what they’re saying, even if it’s the exact opposite of the actual words uttered. In this way, our intellectual high priests can convince us that black is white, dark is light, and the moon is made of green cheese.

Let’s take an example. If the Russians deny that they have plans to invade the Baltic states, are they are actually denying that they plan to invade the Baltic states? Or are they, by repeatedly denying the claim, deliberately drawing attention to it, thereby reinforcing in people’s minds the possibility that it might be true? If it’s the latter, then by saying that NATO fears are exaggerated, what the Russians are really doing is constructing a ‘fear narrative’. Denials are admissions, and attempts to reassure are in reality attempts to frighten.

Crazy? Yup. But this is precisely the argument put forward by four Estonian scholars in a new article published in the academic journal Media, Conflict & War. Entitled ‘Discourse of fear in strategic narratives: The case of Russia’s Zapad war games’, it needs to be read to be believed.

Continue reading The semiotics of fear

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