Guilt by association

‘Extremists turn to a leader to protect Western values: Vladimir Putin’. So screams the headline of an article in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. The article takes up an entire page, an indication that the newspaper’s editors consider its message to be of great importance. It says:

Throughout the collection of white ethnocentrists,  nationalists, populists and neo-Nazis that has taken root on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Putin is widely revered as a kind of white knight: a symbol of strength, racial purity and traditional Christian values in a world under threat from Islam, immigrants and rootless cosmopolitan elites. Fascination with and, in many cases, adoration of Mr. Putin – or at least a distorted image of him – first took hold among far-right politicians in Europe, many of whom have since developed close relations with their brethren in the United States. Such ties across the Atlantic have helped spread the view of Mr. Putin’s Russia as an ideal model. … Russia also shares with far-right groups across the world a deeply held belief that, regardless of their party, traditional elites should be deposed because of their support for globalism and transnational institutions like NATO and the European Union.

Building on this, the article paints Russia as a threat to national and international security, because of its ‘efforts … to organize and inspire extreme right-wing groups in the United States and Europe.’

And yet, buried in the middle of the article are a number of interesting titbits which undermine this thesis. After claiming that Russia has provided financial and logistical support to far-right forces in the West, the article admits that ‘the only proven case so far involves the National Front in France’. Moreover, Russia ‘has jailed some of its own white supremacist agitators’, and, as the New York Times confesses,

Mr. Putin has never personally promoted white supremacist ideas, and has repeatedly insisted that Russia, while predominantly white and Christian, is a vast territory of diverse religions and ethnic groups stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Nor has he displayed any sign of hostility toward Jews, a fact that has infuriated some of Russia’s more extremist nationalist groups.

One might imagine that at this point the article’s authors would change tack and take the opportunity to argue that Putin had been wrongly tarred with the extremist brush. This, however, would undermine the apparent purpose of the piece, so instead the authors plough on ahead with the tarring, while making an increasing mess of themselves in the process.

For instance, after discussing alt-right activist Richard Spencer, who recently caused a scandal by making a Nazi salute and shouting ‘Hail Trump’, the article says ‘Mr. Spencer acknowledged that Mr. Putin did not share his ideology.’ Next, the authors mention a conference of European and American nationalists organized in Russia by the Rodina party (which got about 1% of the vote in the recent Duma elections), but cite organizer Fyodor Biryukov as saying that ‘the Kremlin had not supported the event.’ Despite this, the article concludes that ‘Mr. Putin’s Russia [is] now the home of a new global alliance of far-right groups.’

The New York Times never says as much, but with a sort of ‘wink, wink’ it implies guilt by association: ‘White ethnocentrists and neo-Nazis’ like Putin, ergo Putin must be a neo-Nazi. This is a classic example of what is sometimes called the ‘association fallacy’ or ‘bad company fallacy’. And yet, the evidence in the article doesn’t actually support the message implied in the headline. It isn’t ‘fake news’, but it’s misleading nonetheless.

Friday book # 46: The Russian Roots of Nazism

In this week’s book, Michael Kellogg examines the impact of Russian émigrés on the development of Nazism, focusing particularly on an émigré organization known as ‘Aufbau’. Kellogg concludes that ‘The National Socialist movement developed primarily as a synthesis of radical right German and Russian movements and ideas. … White émigré Aufbau members significantly influenced Hitler’s political, military, and ideological views.’  This is an interesting thesis, but I think that it greatly exaggerates Aufbau’s importance. After all, Aufbau believed in Russo-German cooperation against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, but Hitler never showed any interest in cooperation with Russians, even those who were willing to cooperate with him.


Don’t mention the war

Yesterday Vladimir Putin approved a new ‘Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation’. Documents like this are aspirational; they reflect what a government would like to do, not what it is able to do. They are also for public consumption; their purpose is to send certain signals to the policy community, both inside and outside of government. Nevertheless, they are up to a point a fair reflection of how the government views the world at the time of writing.

In my last post I spoke of the idea that Russia is at ‘war’ with the West. Certainly, some Russian nationalist politicians and intellectuals would agree with that idea (or at least consider that the West is waging war on Russia). They regard globalization as a tool of American hegemony, see ‘democracy promotion’ as an American tool to destabilize the world and prevent anybody from challenging US supremacy, talk in terms of ‘geopolitics’ and the ‘clash of civilizations’, and stress the need to fight back against ‘American aggression’, to isolate Russia from globalizing processes, and to create a genuine Eurasian Union as a counterbalance to US hegemony. If the Russian government truly is at ‘war’ with the West, these are the sort of ideas one would expect to find in the new Foreign Policy Concept.

The Concept contains nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it repeats again and again the desire for good relations with all of Russia’s ‘partners’, and the need to promote multilateral organizations and international trade. This does not mean that it doesn’t criticize the West at all. The document says that ‘the contemporary world is passing through a period of profound changes, the essence of which is the formation of a polycentric international system.’ The West’s efforts to prevent this are increasing instability in international relations, it asserts. To this it adds that Russia must ‘resist the attempts of individual states or groups of states to revise the generally recognized principles of international order’ by, for instance, using the excuse of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. Despite such expressions of irritation with Western foreign policy, the Concept does not conclude that Russia must fight back against the United States and its allies, turn back the clock of globalization, and construct a new Eurasian civilization. Indeed, geopolitical and civilizational discourse are entirely absent from the document.

Instead, the Concept speaks of supporting ‘universal democratic values’. It promotes the idea of ‘regional integration based on the norms and rules of the World Trade Organization,’ and says that Russia ‘intends to actively support the formation of a just and democratic economic trading and financial system in the world … as the conditions of the contemporary world economic challenges demand a common approach … [and] international cooperation.’ This approach is hardly likely to provide much succor to Russian nationalists who want their country to turn its back on globalization.

The document calls for ‘genuine unification of the efforts of the international community.’ It speaks of the European Union (EU) as an ‘important trading and foreign policy partner’, and speaks of Russia’s interest in ‘a constructive, stable and predictable cooperation with the countries of the EU’, as well as of Russia’s wish ‘to create a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean on the basis of the harmonization of the processes of European and Eurasian integration’.  It talks also of Russia’s desire for ‘an equal partnership’ with NATO and ‘mutually beneficial relations with the United States’ through ‘the development of dialogue with the USA’, which would lead to ‘constructive cooperation with the USA’.

This is very much the tone of the document as a whole. It says that Russia wants ‘economic partnership’ with ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, ‘partnership with India’, ‘strategic partnership’ with Vietnam, ‘mutual cooperation’ with  Australia and New Zealand, development of ‘bilateral relations’ with the states of the Near East and North Africa, ‘strengthened relations with the states of Latin America’, and so on and so forth. In short, Russia wants to be friends with everybody.

That is probably unrealistic, but it is interesting that the Russian Foreign Ministry has stated such an aspiration. Completely lacking in the new foreign policy concept is any sense that Russia has enemies, that it is under attack, that it has to take offensive action to defend itself, that it needs to batten down the hatches and prepare for assault, that it should take the lead of the forces of anti-globalization, or anything similar. The Concept repeatedly states that Russia’s relations with foreign countries must be based upon ‘mutual respect’ – an indication that it will not pursue better relations by abandoning its own interests – but this is certainly isn’t the product of a government which thinks it is at war.

War: what’s in a word?

A few years back, one of the big discussion topics among international relations professors was the idea of ‘securitization’ devised by the ‘Copenhagen School’ of security studies. Securitization theory suggested that security was ‘an essentially contested concept’ – i.e. that there isn’t an objective definition of ‘security’; it is what you say it is. Security is a ‘speech act’. By labelling something as a matter of ‘security’, you make a claim that it is of special importance, requiring a special response, including additional state resources.

Following this logic, various scholars then argued in favour of ‘securitizing’ certain policy issues – e.g. climate change, poverty, inequality, etc. They argued that they could push these up the policy agenda by relabelling them as matters of national security. People thus began speaking about ‘environmental security’, ‘human security’, and so forth.

Critics raised a couple of objections to the concept of securitization.

First, it’s questionable whether security really is a postmodernist ‘essentially contested concept’. Believing that one definition is as good as another is a form of moral relativism which denies us the ability to make valid judgments. Some things physically threaten life and property in a way that others don’t, and we have to have some word which helps us separate the one from the other. Some things are matters of security; others aren’t. It’s more than a ‘speech act’.

Second, labelling things as security issues when they aren’t produces bad policy. The security label tends to create a certain mentality which encourages a specific form of policy response –aggressive, secretive, heedless of people’s liberties, and so on. If you call AIDS a security threat, then AIDS victims become security threats also. The victims become social outcasts, they don’t come forward for treatment, and the disease spreads further. Securitization is not generally a good idea.

All of this is by way of an introduction to Mark Galeotti’s new report entitled Hybrid War or Gibridnaia Voina: Getting Russia’s Non-Linear Challenge Right, which was published today. In his Executive summary, Galeotti says:

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies. This is often described as ‘hybrid war,’ a blend of the military and the political, but in fact there are two separate issues, two separate kinds of non-linear war, which have become unhelpfully intertwined. The first is the way—as the Russians have been quick to spot—that modern technologies and modern societies mean that a shooting war will likely be preceded by and maybe even almost, but not quite, replaced by a phase of political destabilization. The second, though, is the political war that Moscow is waging against the West, in the hope not of preparing the ground for an invasion, but rather of dividing, demoralizing and distracting it enough that it cannot resist … The two overlap heavily, and maybe they could usefully be regarded as the two sides of a wider form of ‘non-linear war.’ The instruments which make up ‘political war’ are also crucial to the earlier phases of ‘hybrid war.’ … What has emerged, if not wholly new, is certainly a distinctive way of war.

My objections to this are very similar to those made against the securitization theory:

First, Galeotti, in essence, is attempting to engage in a ‘speech act’ – trying to make a claim that the Russian threat is of special importance because it is ‘war’, and that it therefore requires a special policy response. But war is a very specific thing, involving large-scale organized violence. It has its own laws, its own ethics, its own particular nature and dynamics. What happens when two armies fire multiple rocket launchers at one another is not in any reasonable way comparable to what happens when journalists in two countries fire accusations at one another.

Second, labelling the current tensions between Russia and the West as ‘war’ creates an unproductive, even dangerous, security mentality, and results in undesirable policies. One can see this process at work in the discussions about ‘Russian propaganda’ and Russian ‘information war’. Framing this as a security issue, or even worse as a matter of war, has resulted in proposals to restrict freedom of speech and blacken the reputations of those who have unwelcome views. More generally, saying that ‘The West is at war’ with Russia encourages policies which raise tensions even higher, and make it increasingly difficult to engage in the sort of constructive dialogue which is required to overcome our mutual problems.

Certainly, Russia and parts of the West are engaged in political competition. Definitely, each side is trying to influence the population of the other. Absolutely, they have different ideas of how the world should be organized. But competition is not war. Labelling it as such is not helpful.


There has been much discussion in the Russian media this week of a resolution by the European Parliament calling on the European Union to develop a ‘strategic communications’ plan to counter propaganda from the Russian Federation and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This follows a report issued last month by the policy department of the EU’s Directorate General for External Policy, entitled EU Strategic Communications with a View to Countering Propaganda.

The report, and the ensuing parliamentary resolution, repeat much of what has been said in other documents denouncing ‘Russian propaganda’ which I have covered in this blog: Russia is waging information war against the West, and trying to divide the European Union; RT is bad, bad, bad; something must be done. Where the EU breaks new ground is in directly comparing the Russian Federation with ISIS, and treating the two as if they are one and the same in terms of the threat which they pose to Europe. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this aspect of the EU’s action which has caused outrage in Moscow.

At the heart of the complaint about ‘Russian propaganda’ is a fear that the Russian media is countering the prevailing narrative in the West about international affairs. As the report notes, ‘Russia fosters an anti-interventionist narrative’ and seeks to ‘ convince European audiences that the EU is focused on imagined threats from Russia and neglecting the real ones from the south.’

Putting aside whether this is a good or bad thing, what intrigues me is the Eurocrats’ belief that they can deal with the existence of a Russian counter-narrative by pumping money into counter-propaganda. After all, the narrative which the Russians are trying to undermine is the one which prevails throughout the bulk of the Western media. It is hardly lacking in support already.

In another document issued last month, British neoconservative think tank The Henry Jackson Society denounced ‘Putin’s useful idiots’ in the West and called on academics and journalists to do more to spread the bad news about Russia.  ‘Academics, commentators, and others should raise awareness in the West of the nature of the Russian regime’, says the Henry Jackson Society, ‘Outside of the expert community, there is a general lack of awareness of the Russian regime’s use of selective terror and its criminality – the regime’s dubious origins in the 1999 apartment bombings; its involvement in the murder of people like Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky, and Boris Nemtsov; its military tactics in Syria.’

This is a very odd claim given that ‘outside the expert community’, in the mass media which ‘ordinary people’ consume, denunciations of the Russian government’s criminality are two a penny. ‘Russian propaganda’ hardly registers against the torrent of Russophobia coming in the opposite direction. If people do turn to the Russian media, it is quite probably because they want to hear something different. Churning out even more anti-Russian material is unlikely to make a difference.

This is especially true if the operation is government-run. The EU resolution reflects a strange belief that officially-sponsored efforts to fight the Russians will be more successful than those of the massed ranks of the Western press. Page 9 of the report contains this remarkable, and quite amusing, nugget of information:

The multi-language broadcaster Euronews was launched on 1 January 1993 to promote European unity by presenting information from a distinctly European perspective. …  Since its launch, Euronews has received EUR 240 million worth of funding from the European Commission, EUR 25.5 million of which came in 2014. … On several occasions, Euronews has been accused of biased reporting, particularly through its Russian language service. Coverage of the 2008 war in Georgia, the 20th anniversary of Ukrainian independence in 2011, the 2014 referendum in the Donbas and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as events in Transnistria has been accused of being unbalanced and pro-Russian.

Even the EU’s own propaganda outlets are ‘pro-Russian’, it seems. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Friday book # 45: Origins of the Russian Civil War

Civil wars begin in many ways, but one is when a radical minority seizes power by force and seeks to impose its agenda on a largely unwilling population. Most people aren’t interested in politics and just want to get on with their lives. But in such circumstances, some will be found who decide to fight back. So it was in Russia between 1917 and 1921. In this week’s book, Geoffrey Swain puts the blame for the Russian Civil War firmly on the shoulders of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. As Swain says:

The Russian Civil War was an unnecessary war. It was a war brought about by Lenin when he wrecked the Railway Workers’ Union talks on 4 November 1917.  … [He] realized that in the absence of an international civil war he would have to impose his views through a civil war in Russia, and could do so by relying on the greed of the German imperialists.

That seems a fair conclusion to me, but no doubt the Leninist sympathizers among my readers will disagree.


Several stories

Here are several stories I read this week which I think are of interest:

1. Aleksei Petrov, deputy dean of the department of history at Irkutsk State University and regional head of the electoral monitoring group Golos, was dismissed from his university job last week following an investigation by the local prosecutor. According to the university, Petrov had more than once been absent from campus on working days, and had rescheduled classes.

Not everybody accepts this story. The prosecutor investigated Petrov after receiving two complaints. One, from a ‘concerned citizen’ named Sergei Poznikov, alleged that the professor was engaging in political activity at the expense of his professional duties. A second, anonymous, complaint alleged that Petrov is ‘an excessively liberal-minded historian’ who ‘publicly presents and promotes insufficiently patriotric views during his lectures.’ Some therefore think that Petrov’s dismissal is politically-motivated.

In far-off Ottawa, I can’t say which version of events is true. Perhaps there is a bit of truth in both of them. But some details are disturbing. Why is a professor’s schedule a matter for the public prosecutor not the professor’s immediate supervisor? And why would a prosecutor feel that it was his business to investigate a professor for being ‘excessively liberal-minded’? This is a story that seems to merit deeper investigation.

2. The Ukrainian Minister of Culture, Evgeny Nishchuk, made a fool of himself during a television interview, when answering a question about why the south-east of the country had not accepted Ukrainian culture. Nishchuk said:

The situation in the east and south is an abyss of consciousness. Moreover, when we speak of genetics in Zaporozhe, in Donbass, these are imported towns. There’s no genetics there, these are consciously imported.

‘Ukraine’s Minister of Culture spoke of the “genetic impurity” of the inhabitants of Donbass’, ran the headlines in the Russian press immediately afterwards. Ukrainian officials regularly complain about Russian ‘propaganda’, but they then go out of their way to hand Russian ‘propagandists’ free gifts. Oleg Liashko, the leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party, called Nishchuk an ‘idiot’. For once, I have to agree with him, but sadly for Ukraine, this is not an isolated incident of ministerial idiocy.

3. Fortunately, salvation for Ukraine has arrived in the form of 23-year old law graduate Anna Kalynchuk, who has been appointed to head the lustration department which is charged with purging the Ukrainian government of corrupt officials. This follows the appointment last week of a new Deputy Minister of the Interior, 24 year-old Anastasiia Deyeva. According to The Guardian:

‘Ukrainian politics looks increasingly like a circus show in which clowns come to succeed frustrated professionals,’ Kiev-based independent political analyst Vadim Karasyov said Wednesday. ‘The resignations of top professionals and new scandalous appointments send a bad message both to society and western partners who expect from Ukraine quite a different outcome of the reforms.’

Personally, I’m inclined to give Kalynchuk and Deyeva chance – youth isn’t necessarily a disqualification. Besides, can they really be much worse than the people like Nishchuk who are currently running the show?

Russia, the West, and the world

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