Today I recorded a long chat with Regis Tremblay about Ukraine, Donbass and Russia as part of his ‘Global Conversations’ series. You can watch it below. (Hopefully, he will correct the PhD thing!)
Today I recorded a long chat with Regis Tremblay about Ukraine, Donbass and Russia as part of his ‘Global Conversations’ series. You can watch it below. (Hopefully, he will correct the PhD thing!)
In a new article for RT, that you can read here, I discuss the recent march in Kiev in commemoration of the 14th SS Galicia Division. I conclude that Ukraine is not a fascist state but does have a fascism problem.
Since I wrote this, President Zelensky of Ukraine has condemned the march and told the Kiev city authorities to investigate why it was permitted. This is all well and good, but one has to ask what took him so long. Things like this are hardly a rarity in some bits of Western Ukraine. Does it only matter if it happens in the capital? Will Zelensky now put a stop to it throughout the country, or continue turning a blind eye as long as it stays clear of Kiev itself? I’m can’t say that I’m confident that it will be the former.
What a f****ing disgrace! I did develop a bit of a potty mouth while in the army, but I generally refrain from bad language on this blog. But there are times when it just spontaneously spews out in disgust at the sheer utter revolting vileness of the British press.
I know. It’s always been bad. But one could distinguish between the likes of The Sun and The Mirror on the one hand, and the more serious ‘broadsheet’ press on the other, treating the former not so as newspapers but as a type of entertainment while expecting some degree of seriousness from the latter. Alas, those days are long gone, especially when it comes to all things Russian. Instead of honest reporting, what we get from too much of the British press is a torrent of extreme Russophobic propaganda masquerading as news. It is truly a f***ing disgrace.
What brought on this rant? The answer is an article in today’s copy of The Guardian about Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Even by the rotten standards of The Guardian it plummets the depths of propagandistic nastiness, serving no purpose other than to incite hatred of Russia, while doing its darndest to undermine worldwide efforts to get us out of the covid pandemic. We’ve seen many (invalid) complaints about Russia spreading anti-vax propaganda. Well, here here we British anti-vax propaganda of the basest kind. It kind of makes you want to vomit.
The gist of the article is summed up in the headline and subtitle: ‘Is Russia’s Covid vaccine anything more than a political weapon? Observers say the Sputnik V jab is aimed more at sowing political division than fighting coronavirus.’
WTF? I mean, really. WTF? Russian researchers really went to all the effort of developing a coronavirus vaccine so that they could ‘sow political division’ in the West? Listen to yourself speaking, man. Are you serious?
Unfortunately, author Jon Henley is, and embarks on a long explanation of just how vile the Russians are for having developed a solution to a worldwide plague.
To do this, Henley resorts to one of the techniques for writing bad articles I mentioned in a recent post – namely, citing a bunch of people who agree with the narrative he’s trying to spread, while ignoring any other voices or alternative explanations. It’s a hatchet job, pure and simple, designed to discredit both Sputnik V and the Russian Federation.
The article, in other words, is just one Russophobic comment piled up on another – Bam, bam, bam. Take that, Sputnik V! What it isn’t is fair and balanced reporting.
So it is that Henley starts us off with a statement that
Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has yet to win EU regulatory approval and is likely to play little part in the bloc’s rollout, but it has already achieved what some observers say is one of its objectives – sowing division among, and within, member states. “Sputnik V has become a tool of soft power for Russia,” said Michal Baranowski, a fellow with a US thinktank, the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s planted its flag on the vaccine and the political goal of its strategy is to divide the west.”
Baranowski’s evidence for this claim? He doesn’t provide any. Of course, he doesn’t. It doesn’t exist. Has anybody associated with the Russian government or the Sputnik vaccine ever stated such an objective? No. Baranowski’s accusation is entirely speculation on his behalf.
But Henley thinks that there is some evidence, and so brings out his second quote, this time from an EU official:
“Russia’s low vaccination rate just doesn’t tally with it having a supposedly cheap, easy-to-make and effective vaccine,” one EU diplomat said. “Either Moscow’s being altruistic, which seems unlikely. Or it’s prioritising geopolitics over Russians’ needs.”
This is just BS. Total utter BS. Putting aside the idea that Russians are incapable of altruism, if Henley spent even a micro-second checking, he’d discover that a) Russia does have a ‘cheap, easy-to-make and effective vaccine’, and b) the reason for the low vaccination rate in Russia is not that Russia is ‘prioritising geopolitics over Russians’ needs’, by for instance sending vaccines abroad while not distributing them at home, but a reluctance by Russians to take the vaccine. In Moscow, for instance, the vaccine is freely available for all, and has been for some time, but only about 10% of the city has bothered getting a shot. You can walk into the GUM shopping mall any time you like and get the vaccine. I’ve read that the line-ups are minimal. People just aren’t doing it.
That means that there are some genuine criticisms that can make of the Russian government’s handling of the covid crisis. It has done a very poor PR job persuading its population of the merits of getting vaccinated. But the accusation that it is favouring geopolitics over its own people’s needs is just plain false.
Henley, however, ploughs on regardless, wheeling out his third rent-a-quote, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, telling us that:
The prime minister of Lithuania, Ingrida Šimonytė, tweeted in February that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, saw the shot not so much as a “cure for the Russian people” as “another hybrid weapon to divide and rule.”
Well, if the Prime Minister of Lithuania says it, it must be true. Right?
To make sure we’re on ball, Henley next casts some doubt on the efficacy of Sputnik-V, though deigning to cite Russian health officials rebutting such doubts. But whether Sputnik works well or not isn’t really Henley’s topic. It could be 100% effective but still a bad thing, he implies, because it’s ‘dividing’ Europe (which is obviously more important than health issues – I find the callousness of the approach at this point rather startling). Thus the article tells us:
Whether or not the EMA –[European Medical Agency] approves Sputnik V and whether or not it ever arrives in sufficient numbers, observers argue it has already done significant damage, with EU national and regional leaders leveraging it for their own political ends. In some countries, it has caused mayhem: the Slovakian prime minister, Igor Matovič, was forced to resign this month amid a bitter dispute over a secret deal to buy 2m doses despite the disagreement of many in his four-party coalition. … Sputnik has also cost the health and foreign ministers of the Czech Republic – both opposed to the shot’s deployment without EMA approval – their jobs, fired by the prime minister, Andrej Babiš … In Germany … three states including Bavaria have either struck or are negotiating Sputnik deals.
Obviously, Moscow somehow planned this all along! As if. And in any case, so what? Everyone and his dog is saying that EU’s vaccine program has been a mess. If states seek to go around it and vaccinate their people by getting Sputnik-V, isn’t that a good thing? But no, not for Mr Henley, who returns to his original source, writing that:
For Baranowski, Sputnik’s rushed approval, online propaganda and carefully selected destinations add up to a Russian strategy that is “neither innocent nor humanitarian. It is part of exactly the same game, of dividing the west, that we see in Moscow’s use of military power, cybersecurity, energy security.”
And it’s working, he said: “It’s dividing various European actors pretty well. Until Sputnik V has EMA approval – at which stage, of course, there’s no problem: the world needs vaccines – it’s become a political litmus test for whether you are for or against the EU’s programme. That’s eroding confidence. And that’s what Putin wants.”
Ah, yes. ‘That’s what Putin wants’. Which is odd, because he’s never said so, nor given any indication that that’s what he’s thinking. But it seems as if Mr Baranowski has a means of getting inside Putin’s head. One of those Russian ‘directed energy weapons’ redesigned for a new purpose, maybe?
This isn’t serious reporting. It’s just an unsubstantiated thesis, with the author making up for the lack of concrete evidence by throwing in a bunch of quotes from hostile witnesses. It’s hateful. Insofar as it increase vaccine scepticism and may hinder the use of what appears to be a very successful medical product, it is also harmful. By publishing this, The Guardian has plunged so deep, it’s gone even beyond the lower depths. Shame on you, Guardian. Shame.
In my latest article for RT, I discuss a new monument unveiled last week in Sevastopol. The Monument to the Victims of the Civil War, otherwise known as the Monument to Reconciliation, seeks to overcome the Red-White divide, and honours those who fought on both sides of the fratricidal conflict. You can read the article here.
Several press articles I’ve seen in the past few days have annoyed me rather, but I think that they are useful as examples of how reporting on Russia is distorted. For they demonstrate the methods used by journalists to paint a picture of the world that is far from accurate.
The articles in question come from those bastions of balanced reporting, The New York Times and The Guardian. The first is from Sunday’s edition of the NYT, with the title ‘The Arms Dealer in the Crosshairs of Russia’s Elite Assassination Squad’. This discusses Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, whose weapons were destroyed in an explosion in the Czech Republic in 2014, allegedly by Russian secret agents.
The second article is also from the NYT. This one has the title ‘After Testing the World’s Limits, Putin Steps Back From the Brink,’ and analyzes what author Anton Troianovski calls Russia’s ‘escalatory approach to foreign policy’, as seen by the Russian military build up near the Ukrainian border.
The third and final piece is from The Guardian, and is about last week’s protests in support of jailed oppositionist Alexei Navalny. This is somewhat schizophrenic, on the one hand saying that the pro-Navalny movement is in trouble, but on the other hand portraying the protests as a relative success and ending on a confident note that however grim things look for the opposition now, this can change at any moment.
Anyway, as one reads these articles one notices certain techniques that are used to paint a distorted picture of reality. So if you want to be a journalist, here’s what the articles teach that you should do:Continue reading How to Write a Bad Article about Russia
My last couple of posts have focused on bad writing about Russia, so today I’d like to talk about something rather better – Timothy Frye’s new book Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia. I have my quibbles with some of what Frye has to say, but in general this is a big step up in quality from most of what I read about modern Russia.Continue reading Book Review: Weak Strongman
Having said in my last post that you shouldn’t disbelieve everything that the press tells you about Russia, I find myself returning once again to examples of bad reporting, as these seem to be rather more prevalent than the good variety. Bad journalism, though, is not all the same. It takes different forms, and some examples from this week and last prove the point.
First off is report by the BBC’s Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg that came out yesterday, which you can watch on the BBC website. Rosenberg travelled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk supposedly to find answers to the question ‘In what direction is Russia heading?’, Krasnoyarsk being chosen because it’s geographically more or less slap bang in the middle of Russia.
As I note in an analysis of the report published today by RT (which you can read here), it’s not very good. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres to Krasnoyarsk, Rosenberg tells us absolutely nothing about the city itself, but limits himself to interviewing three people who tell him a bunch of things he could just as easily have heard if he’d stayed in Moscow. The whole piece is then framed, start and finish, by a statement that “Russia is heading towards a big catastrophe.” Ah yes, Russia is doomed! How many times have we heard that one?
Frankly, I can’t imagine why Rosenberg bothered going to Krasnoyarsk to do this. Having travelled that far, he could have made an effort to explore the city and tell us how things are there. But none of it. It was just another excuse to tell us that Russia is going down the plughole.
This then is one type of bad reporting: it consists of focusing on selling a given narrative rather than trying to understand and explain the object under study.
This type isn’t untrue, it’s just not very interested in anything that doesn’t fit the chosen story. The second type, by contrast, bends the truth to fit the narrative.Continue reading More Bad Journalism on Russia
Last week saw the wheels come off yet another false story concerning Russia, namely the claim that Russian intelligence had paid the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. It was always highly dubious, but that didn’t stop many from repeating it as gospel truth. Apparently, the US intelligence community now admits that it has only ‘low to medium confidence’ in the accusation, which doesn’t mean that they are entirely rejecting it, but does pose a lot of questions about why so many people, including major media outlets, hyped a story for which there was never a substantial basis.
Alas, it’s hardly a lone case and, as I’ve said before, poor reporting matters not only because it’s inaccurate (though that it is bad enough), but also because it discredits the media. The result is that when the press does report something truthful which makes Russia look bad there are a substantial number of people who refuse to believe it. But it’s a mistake to decide that because so much reporting is false, all of it is. Some of it is true. The Russian state is far from a paragon of virtue and engages in its fair share of bad behaviour.
An example is the news this weekend that the Czech government has accused agents of Russian military intelligence of blowing up an arms depot in the Czech Republic, an action that resulted in two deaths. As with so many of these stories, it’s impossible to 100% verify the claim from the information available in the press. But I found myself convinced.
Supposedly, the purpose of the attack was to destroy weapons owned by Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Grebev. who is said to have been selling weapons to people deemed undesirable by the Russian government. That provides motive.
On top of that, the Czech government reports that shortly before the explosion, the depot was visited by two men whose passport photos match those of the notorious Petrov and Boshirov, who were identified by the British police as being in the town of Salisbury on the day that former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok. Petrov and Boshirov have also been identified as members of Russian military intelligence. So we have opportunity as well.
All that doesn’t constitute proof, but it’s fairly convincing. Identical-looking people, with links to a foreign intelligence agency, turn up in the same places and on the same days as a poisoning and an explosion. What are the odds that it’s coincidence? Pretty low, in my opinion. It seems to me that the Czechs have got the Russians bang to rights on this one.
Likewise, I think that this news should dispel any doubts that anybody still has about the role of Petrov and Boshirov in the Skripal poisoning. I for one never thought that they were in Salisbury to ‘look at the spire’. A less plausible pair of cultural tourists it would be hard to find. But anybody who was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt should now think again. As I said, it’s too coincidental to be innocent. Likely as not, the Russians are guilty as charged, both in Salisbury and in Czechia.
Perhaps it’s my background as an intelligence officer, but I’ve long felt that intelligence agencies should stick to information gathering and give up all that ‘covert operations’ nonsense. Coups, assassinations, sabotage, and all the rest of it – what difference have they made at the end of the day in the grander scheme of things? Precious damn little as far as I can see.
But they do result in harm. Russia’s goons seem to show a reckless disregard for the possibility of collateral damage, leaving nerve agent-filled bottles lying around for members of the public to pick up, and blowing up arms dumps in a way that kills innocent bystanders. They also appear to be more than a little sloppy in their tradecraft, regularly leaving behind more than a few traces of their actions, with the result that their plots keep being revealed and their identities known to the public.
All this has a very negative effect on Russia’s international reputation. Extremely negative. I really can’t exaggerate how bad the effect is. It’s terrible. If I were working in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs I’d be tearing up my hair in despair as I have to once again cover up the idiocy and criminality of my country’s security and intelligence services.
Ideally, the person at the top of the bureaucratic food chain would put a stop to it. Unfortunately, it would seem that, even if he can’t be proven to have ordered any specific mission, he protects those who do. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly doesn’t rule the roost.
It’s common for the Russian government to blame Russophobia and ‘fake news’ in the foreign press for hostility it faces from Western states. There is an element of truth in that claim, and this blog has devoted more than a little time to demonstrating it. But, Russophobia only has traction because it makes sense to people, and it makes sense because even if the Russian state doesn’t do all the things it’s accused of, it does do some of them. It’s not all fake news.
I’ve often said that Western states need to be more introspective and recognize their own responsibility for the problems of the world. The same goes for Russia. Ultimately, if Russia is in a difficult diplomatic position, the actor mostly to blame isn’t hard to find – the Russian state itself.
I appeared on RT’s Crosstalk on Friday to discuss Ukraine. You can watch it here:
In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the chaos that is American policy towards Russia. First, US president Joe Biden phones Vladimir Putin and suggests that they normalize relations and hold a summit. Then he slaps a bunch of new sanctions on Russia and expels 10 Russian diplomats. Meanwhile, in other news, 2 US warships headed towards the Black Sea, and then turned around and said that they weren’t going to go the Black Sea after all. In other words, a picture of total foreign policy confusion.
To my mind, the phone call and summit offer were something of a blip in American policy, brought upon by a sense of alarm at the possibility of war between Russia and Ukraine. This induced the Americans to try and row back a bit. The problem is that the current in the other direction is just too strong, and so they ended up even further downstream than before.
In any case, I’m not sure that the Americans actually know how to change directions. Take a look at their policies towards Cuba and Iran – they’ve been sanctioning them for decades. It hasn’t made those countries more friendly, but they keep on at it. The policy is a complete dead end, but it’s like America is a massive 18-wheeler that has entered a narrow cul-de-sac and just doesn’t have the maneuverability to get out again. All it can do is keep trying to ram through whatever is blocking the way out, smashing itself (and the obstacle) up in the process, but not getting anywhere.
By now, you’d have thought that they’d have learnt not to keep driving into cul-de-sacs. But, for some reason they keep on doing it (Venezuela is another one). It seems like there’s no learning process.
Other than backing out, the18-wheeler has only chance to escape – when it first enters the cul-de-sac, and still has forward momentum. That’s the moment when the driver needs to step on the gas and smash through the obstacle. After that, occasional little shoves from a standing start won’t do the trick, especially if somebody is busily strengthening the obstacle all the time.
It’s the same with sanctions. Academic studies suggest that if they are to succeed in coercing the targeted party, they need to be fairly comprehensive and immediate – that’s to say, you need to do a lot and do it all at once. Gradual incrementalism is doomed to failure. The target adapts and is often one step ahead, limiting his vulnerability long before you hit him.
So it is with American sanctions against Russia. The latest round will have very limited practical effect. But bit by bit, the sanctions are having the effect of cutting Russia off from America. As that happens, America loses whatever leverage it had at the start. That in turn means that each successive round of sanctions has less prospects of causing real damage than the last.
In short, it’s a dead-end, and no amount of effort to bash through the obstacle is going to work. Sooner or later, the 18-wheeler will have to back out. Judging by past experience, later is more likely than sooner. The danger is that it may be so late that by then the vehicle will have fallen entirely apart. At that point, its only hope will be that a nice new Chinese tow-truck comes along and rescues it.