Book Review – John Helmer

The back of Australian journalist John Helmer’s memoir The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia contains an endorsement from Euromaidan Press describing him as one of a group of ‘Pro Kremlin leftists and liberals … who echo the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda’. I take it that Helmer, who reported from Russia for about 30 years, considers being insulted by Euromaidan Press a sort of compliment. The charge that he’s a ‘pro-Kremlin’ propagandist is not, however, unusual. A couple of years ago, Helmer hit the headlines here in Canada when he used his blog Dancing with Bears to spread the story of the Nazi connections of Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather. This was rapidly denounced by Freeland and Prime Minister Trudeau as ‘Russian disinformation’, as if Helmer was simply doing the bidding of the Russian government. A report by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institution about Russian disinformation similarly remarked that ‘Recent articles on Helmer’s blog also promote other Kremlin positions’, and commented that, ‘John Helmer is also a regular contributor to a well-known anti-Semitic, pro-Kremlin media platform called Russia Insider.’ (I suspect this isn’t true and Russian Insider has just republished stuff from Dancing with Bears). Suffice it to say that Helmer is not much loved by the Russophobic wing of the Western political spectrum.

You’d think, then, that The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia would be full of pro-Kremlin propaganda, painting Russia in glorious colours as a land of milk of honey. If so, you’ll be very surprised. This isn’t a book which makes Russians – or anybody else for that matter – look good at all. The first half is primarily an account of Helmer’s near-fatal dealings with the Russian aluminium company Rusal and its owner Oleg Deripaska. Helmer recounts how two Rusal agents attempted to bribe him to write a positive review of Rusal prior to the company’s attempt to sell shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. When Helmer refused to do so, but instead published articles indicating that Rusal was in financial trouble, three armed goons turned up at his apartment and attempted to gain entry. Wisely, Helmer and his wife refused to let them in, but instead called the police, who soon arrested them and found in their possession not only weapons but also incriminating documents linking them to Rusal. It seemed like a pretty clear case of attempted murder, and the police, according to Helmer, were keen to press charges.

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At that point, however, things changed. Somebody somewhere called some bigwig, and the initial policemen were taken off the case and replaced by new ones, who declared that the whole episode was just a misunderstanding and then let the goons off scot free. Helmer subsequently persuaded a court to order the police to reopen the case, but they never did anything more.

That wasn’t the end of Helmer’s problems. A few months later he was stripped of his official accreditation as a journalist, and so forced to leave the country. Subsequent attempts to obtain a Russian visa have all failed. He is, in effect, persona non grata and banned from Russia. His crime – stepping on the toes of the people with power and influence.

The second half of Helmer’s book covers a different story: accusations made by a washed-out former KGB agent Yury Shvets that Helmer and his wife had been Soviet spies. The story continued to circulate for years despite the fact that various newspapers had been forced to recant it and admit that there was no evidence to support it. Helmer uses the episode as a means of lambasting the journalist ethics of some of his colleagues, who don’t let such awkward things as the truth get in the way of a good headline. He ends his book with what may be said to an overall comment on the state of Western journalism:

Repeat a lie often enough and it will erase the truth as if it never existed. So long as the subject is a Russian one, this is the rule for all conmen and reporters to get away scot-free, with the cash.

The Man Who Knows Who Too Much About Russia is replete with conspiracy, shady characters, and murky goings-on. The picture it paints of Russia is hardly a positive one. Rather, it’s portrayed as a country in which oligarchs are happy to murder journalists, and use their influence to subvert the judicial process and to persuade the government to have those they fail to kill expelled from the country. Helmer doesn’t even let Vladimir Putin off the hook. It is surprising, he says, that Western observers ascribe such power to a man ‘of such smallness’, ‘who does what the oligarchs’ interests dictate’. Overall, Helmer concludes, Russia is ruled ‘by small men scheming at crimes, and defeating their enemies, domestic and foreign, who are not less small and criminal themselves.’

It’s somewhat surprising, therefore, that the more Russophobic elements of the Western commentariat are so keen to portray Helmer as a Russian propagandist. He is clearly nothing of the sort. But the last part of the phrase quoted above provides a clue. He lambasts the Russians. But he portrays Westerners as no less corrupt. He complains at length, for instance, that the Australian authorities failed to protect him when warned that his life was in danger because they didn’t want to alienate Deripaska and Rusal, who were investing large sums of money into the Australian economy. Helmer is an equal opportunity critic. And in the current political climate that is unacceptable. One is either with us or against us. Any signs of whataboutism, or any criticisms of the prevailing Western narrative which indicate that you’re not 100% on our side, are proof positive that you must be a fully paid up Kremlin agent. It is, of course, absurd, but alas it seems that that’s the way it is.

Overall, then, I’d say that if you’re the sort of person who likes moral clarity, and is looking for a black and white tale with good guys and bad guys, this book isn’t going to be to your liking. There aren’t any good guys here. But if you’re of a more cynical frame of mind, relish stories of conspiracy and all-round corruption, and tend to think ‘A plague on all your houses,’ then The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia will probably be right up your alley.

(Russian) military virtues

As well as my article on Putin’s rhetoric, another piece of my academic writing has appeared in print this month – a chapter on the subject of ‘Discipline’ in a new book entitled Military Virtues. In this I note that discipline has two meanings – first, ‘measures, including, but not limited to, coercion, used by those in authority to ensure desirable behaviour among subordinates’, and second ‘a state of mind manifested in certain forms of behaviour.’ I conclude:

The ideal is soldiers who can be relied upon to exercise self-control and self-restraint, and to act with precision, exactitude, and timeliness. The ideal of discipline, therefore, is not soldiers who merely obey out of fear of punishment, but soldiers with the spirit to discipline themselves even when authority is weak or absent.

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A Study of Vladimir Putin’s Rhetoric

Just got back to Ottawa. In lieu of a post, here’s a link to my latest academic article, which was published online by Europe-Asia Studies today. Apparently, there’s free access for the first 50 downloads.

This article analyses the political rhetoric of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Scholars and journalists have devoted considerable space to discussing Putin’s policies, but have paid little attention to his political speeches, often assuming that he is purely a pragmatist and that his rhetoric is therefore of little interest. This article argues that a comprehensive analysis of rhetoric helps to reveal Putin’s political and ideological orientation. To do so, the article carries out a systematic examination of Putin’s political speeches and interviews, and shows that Putin has demonstrated an overall consistency in the general line of his views, albeit with certain changes within that line. Therefore his rhetoric is more than an instrument to confuse political opponents and should be taken seriously as an indication of Putin’s policy direction.

Book review: Putin’s world

There are books which remain in my memory because they’re good. There are others which I remember because they’re awful. And then there are those I soon forget about, because they’re just kind of middling – solid, but uninspiring. Angela Stent’s new book, Putin’s World: Russia against the West and with the Rest, is one of the latter. Stent is an old ‘Russia hand’, having flitted in and out of government and academia in the United States for many years, including a stint as National Intelligence Officer for Russia. In Putin’s World, she examines Russian foreign policy and seeks to explain ‘how Putin’s Russia has managed to return as a global player and what that new role means.’ She generally does a competent job, starting with some historical context, and then going through Russia’s relations with various countries, such as Germany, Ukraine, China, and Japan, before coming on to US-Russia relations. Those who don’t know much about Russian foreign policy could learn a lot from all this. But as someone who has already studied the subject, much of it was already rather familiar and I had to will myself onwards in order to finish it. If it had been truly terrible, with outrageous propositions such as in Luke Harding’s Collusion or Timothy Snyder’s Road to Unfreedom, it would actually have been rather more interesting. As it was, I found it respectably ok, but a little dull.

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Spot the difference

Remember this story, which appeared on the BBC in September 2016?

The US ambassador to the UN has accused Russia of “barbarism” over the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Samantha Power said Russia had told the council outright lies about its conduct in Syria. She said Russia and the Syrian regime were “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city”.

Samatha Power’s accusations against the Russians were hardly unique. They were in fact pretty much the norm among American commentators throughout the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo. For instance, Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote the following denunciation of Russian ‘brutality’:

The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

Meanwhile, the ‘brutal’ and ‘barbaric’ methods of the Russians were contrasted with the relatively benign tactics of the American military. As Zack Beauchamp commented in Vox:

While the United States and its allies are waging a targeted air campaign against ISIS and other extremists, Russia and the Syrian government are launching an all-out assault on a single city, an assault heedless of the civilian casualties. Washington and its allies have killed innocents but work to avoid it. Russia and Syria — which are carpet-bombing densely populated civilian areas with indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs — don’t.

Americans weren’t the only ones to take this line. Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson, for instance, remarked that Russia was becoming a ‘pariah nation’ due to its attacks on Aleppo, some of which, he claimed, were ‘unquestionably a war crime’.  And Mark Galeotti commented in Foreign Policy magazine, that:

Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechn War. … These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.

Fair enough, you might say – a lot of innocent people died in Aleppo. According to Wikipedia:

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a pro-opposition non-governmental organization, reported that the Russian bombardments killed at least 1,640 civilians in the Aleppo area: 1,178 civilians died between 30 September 2015 and 1 August 2016, while additional 462 civilians were killed from 19 September 2016 until 30 November 2016.

It’s impossible for me to validate these figures, which could be criticised for the fact that they come from a ‘pro-opposition’ organization. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s take them as reasonably accurate. Now let’s compare them with something else – the numbers killed by air and artillery strikes carried out by American forces and their coalition allies in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa. As I reported a year ago, when a team from the  UNHCR entered Raqqa after its liberation from the forces of the Islamic State, its members recorded that they witnessed a ‘level of destruction which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.’  Since then, analysts have been trying to calculate the human cost of this destruction, and today we have the results.  According to the BBC:

More than 1,600 civilians were killed in US-led coalition air and artillery strikes during the offensive to oust the Islamic State group from the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017, activists say.

Amnesty International and monitoring group Airwars said they had carried out investigations at 200 strike locations … Researchers spent about two months on the ground in the city, carrying out investigations at strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors. They were able to directly verify the names of 641 victims, and there were very strong multiple sources for the rest, Amnesty said.

So, there we have it. In a campaign marked by ‘war crimes’, ‘brutality’, and ‘barbarism’, the Russians killed 1,600 civilians. Meanwhile, in the campaign for Raqqa, the Americans killed … 1,600 civilians! Can you spot the difference? I can’t.

 

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