Kremlin killings?

The front page of Sunday’s edition of The New York Times bears the headline ‘More of the Kremlin’s Critics are Ending Up Dead’. According to the long article which follows: ‘Muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistle-blowers and other Russians who threaten that image are treated harshly — imprisoned on trumped-up charges, smeared in the news media and, with increasing frequency, killed.’ The article then cites Gennadi V. Gudkov, ‘a former member of Parliament and onetime lieutenant colonel in the KGB’ as saying, ‘The government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies. … It was not just Litvinenko, but many others we don’t know about, classified as accidents or maybe semi-accidents.’

I have two serious doubts about the Times article. First, it makes a claim about an ‘increased’ frequency of state-sponsored murder without providing any evidence that such murders are indeed more frequent than in the past. The article mentions 13 deaths. The great majority of these occurred before Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. This is hardly evidence of an ‘increasing’ frequency of state-sponsored murder

Second and more importantly, the article fails to provide evidence that most of the people it mentions did indeed die unnatural deaths and also died at the hands of Kremlin assassins.

There is certainly an element of truth in the article. It seems clear that the Russian secret services were responsible for the death of at least one of those mentioned – Ibn al Khattab – while a second – Sergei Magnitsky – died in police custody. It is also not unreasonable to claim a link between Russian intelligence and the death of Alexander Litvinenko, while the death of another person mentioned – Alexander Perepelichny – undoubtedly seems suspicious. Had the New York Times limited itself to those cases, it would have been on much more solid ground. Unfortunately, it goes beyond them and includes several more cases in which people apparently died of natural causes, or in which evidence of a link between the Kremlin and the death in question is not provided.

Take, for instance, Oktai Gasanov, who was connected to the company Heritage Capital, which Russian police accused of fraud – a case which led to Magnitsky’s imprisonment and death. But Gasanov died while the alleged fraud would have been still in its early stages. There was no reason for the Kremlin to be interested in him. Furthermore, The New York Times lists his cause of death as ‘heart failure’. Similarly, the article mentions the deaths in 2016 of two former officials of the Russian sports anti-doping agency, Nikita Kumaev and Viacheslav Sinev. I haven’t been able to find details for Sinev but Kumaev is said to have died of a heart attack. In neither case does The New York Times or any other source I have found provide any evidence that either man’s death was other than natural. There has been speculation that Kumaev was about to ‘reveal all’ about Russia’s doping policies, and perhaps The New York Times thinks that he was murdered to stop this. But if so, it doesn’t say so, let alone provide any proof.

In two other instances, the article mentions people who clearly did suffer unnatural deaths, but without giving any indication of why it thinks these deaths were linked to the Kremlin. The first case is that of Ivan Kivelidi, a business killed by cadmium poisoning in 1995. As The New York Times itself admitted at the time, then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin ‘expressed outrage over Mr Kivelidi’s death’ at a Cabinet meeting, and attended his funeral. The second case is that of Mikhail Lesin, who died of ‘blunt force trauma’ in a Washington hotel room in 2015. But Mr Lesin was a Kremlin loyalist, not an opponent. The New York Times wants us to believe that Russian intelligence killed both Mr Kivelidi and Mr Lesin, but it provides no evidence, and it seems rather unlikely.

There is a case to be made that the Russian state has been involved in some extrajudicial killings. But the lack of evidence produced by The New York Times in the majority of the cases this article lists makes its overall thesis very unconvincing.

Hamadan

The announcement that the Russian air force has begun to use the Hamadan airfield in Iran to bomb targets in Syria makes me wonder if somebody in the Russian Ministry of Defence has a sense of history. It is 100 years to the week since the Russian Army abandoned Hamadan to Ottoman forces during the First World War.

The Russian Expeditionary Corps under General N. N. Baratov occupied Hamadan in December 1915 as part of a campaign to prevent pro-German forces from seizing control of Persia. In spring 1916, Baratov advanced into Iraq in an effort to relieve British forces surrounded by the Ottomans at Kut. After the British surrendered in April 1916, Baratov retreated back into Persia and concentrated his forces at Hamadan. On 3 August 1916, the Ottoman 13th Corps under Ali Ihsan Bey commenced offensive operations in Persia, and on the night of 9-10 August, Baratov abandoned Hamadan, never to return.

cossacks in persia
Cossacks in Persia, First World War

Trump’s Ukrainian connection

‘Donald Trump has a responsibility to disclose campaign chair Paul Manafort’s and all other campaign employees’ and advisers’ ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities.’ So says Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook. This follows allegations in The New York Times that Manafort received millions of dollars in cash payments while serving as an advisor to the Ukrainian Party of Regions prior to the 2014 revolution which drove the party and its leader, President Viktor Yanukovich, from power.

Mook’s demand builds on previous allegations linking Trump to leaked documents from Clinton’s email server, which were supposedly hacked by the Russian intelligence services.  The Democratic tactic appears to be to convince the American public that Trump is some sort of puppet of the Kremlin, who if elected would sell out American interests to Russia.

Unfortunately for this narrative, the most important fact is that the source of Manafort’s alleged money isn’t actually Russian – it is, or rather was, Ukrainian. Nevertheless the Clinton campaign and some of the media are tying the case to Russia by calling the Party of Regions ‘pro-Russian’. This is a misnomer. Yanukovich and his party were only pro-Russian to the extent that they were not Ukrainian nationalists or avidly pro-Western. They drew most of their support from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, especially although not exclusively in the south and east of the country. They passed legislation which gave minority languages, including Russian, some legal recognition; they renewed Russia’s lease on the naval base in Sevastopol; and they opposed NATO membership for Ukraine. But that was about the extent of their pro-Russianness.

Yanukovich, in fact, resisted Russian efforts to persuade Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union, and was far from being opposed to closer relations with Western Europe. One of the major reasons why Yanukovich’s November 2013 decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union caused an uproar was that he himself had been promising such an agreement for a long time. Had the EU offered him acceptable terms, he almost certainly would have signed up. Russia found Yanukovich to be a very unreliable partner, and he was certainly not a mere ‘Kremlin stooge’.

It seems that the Russians actually found it easier to do business with the supposedly pro-Western Yulia Timoshenko in her time as Ukrainian Prime Minister than they did with Yanukovich. It is worth noting why Timoshenko ended up in prison – for signing a gas supply deal with Russia which allegedly betrayed Ukrainian interests in favour of Russia. Yanukovich’s government, in other words, imprisoned Timoshenko for being too pro-Russian!

The division of pre-Maidan Ukrainian politics into pro-Western and pro-Russian camps is overly simplistic. The competing political groups in the country represented different oligarchic and other interests, whose primary concern was promoting those interests, not pursuing alliances with this or that foreign power. As a Russian official once put it to me, ‘Yanukovich isn’t pro-Russian, he’s pro-Yanukovich’.

Similarly, the Party of Regions wasn’t pro-Russian, it was pro-Party of Regions. Paul Manafort denies taking cash payments from the party, saying that ‘the New York Times has chosen to purposefully ignore facts and professional journalism to fit their political agenda.’ But even if he had actually taken the money, it wouldn’t have proved that he had ‘ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities’, because the Party of Regions wasn’t such a thing. It may suit the Clinton campaign to use this story to suggest that Trump and the Kremlin are closely connected, but this story doesn’t show anything of the sort.

Friday book # 31: Icebreaker

This week’s book is Victor Suvorov’s controversial Icebreaker, published in 1990. In this Suvorov claimed that Stalin was planning to attack Germany in 1941, and thus that the German attack on the Soviet Union could be seen not as an act of aggression but rather as a pre-emptive strike.

icebreaker1

A few years later, there were several revelations from the Soviet archives which at first glance appeared to lend some credence to Suvorov’s thesis. I have clipped several newspaper articles about these in my copy of the book, including the 1995 piece from the Moscow Times below. Subsequent studies by historians such as Gabriel Gorodetsky, however, have thoroughly debunked Suvorov’s thesis, and I don’t know of any serious historian who still supports it.

icebreaker2

Two views of Russia

Two recent editions of academic journals provide very different views of modern Russia and its political system. According to one, Russia is a ‘fascist’ state, whose rulers ‘show an utter contempt for Russia’s people’. According to the other, Russia’s government and people broadly share the same priorities; the government pays close attention to the wishes of the people, who in return see the government generally, though not overwhelmingly, positively.

The first assessment comes in a special edition of Communist and Post-Communist Studies devoted to the topic ‘Between Nationalism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism in Russia: Exploring Vladimir Putin’s Regime’. Edited by Canadian-Ukrainian scholar and vocal Putin critic Taras Kuzio, it contains articles not only by Kuzio himself but also (among others) by Rutgers University’s Alexander Motyl and the author of the Window on Eurasia blog, Paul Goble, both of whom are well known for their hostility to the Russian government.

Motyl’s contribution is entitled ‘Putin’s Russia as a Fascist Political System’. Motyl proposes that ‘Putin’s Russia may legitimately be termed fascist.’ To make this argument, he examines various definitions of fascism and then creates his own, calling fascism ‘a popular fully authoritarian political system with a personalistic dictator and a cult of the leader’. The rest of his article consists of an effort to show that all these features exist in Putin’s Russia.

The centrepiece of Motyl’s thesis is his claim that Russia has evolved from a ‘soft’ authoritarian state into a ‘fully authoritarian’ one. One can certainly argue that political opposition in Russia is constrained. Nevertheless, opposition exists and is tolerated. It didn’t, and wasn’t, in fascist regimes, such as 1930s Italy or Germany. In Russia, people hold rallies denouncing Putin and his ‘regime’. They publish books saying the same thing. They appear on radio and television. They make their hostility to their government clear on the internet. That is hardly compatible with ‘full authoritarianism’, let alone fascism. (Can you imagine Mussolini permitting such things?) Motyl’s thesis is well wide of the mark.

Rather better is an article by the University of Arizona’s John P. Willerton, entitled ‘Russian Public Assessments of the Putin Policy Program: Achievements and Challenges’, in the new journal Russian Politics, which has just produced its second edition.

Willerton avoids making moral judgements about Putin and his government, and limits himself to a study of how the Russian people assess their government’s performance. He notes that, ‘However one judges the state of the Russian polity, whether as some sort of “hybrid regime” or a returned “soft” authoritarian state, there is no doubt that Russian public preferences matter for the country’s political life, and elites – including Vladimir Putin – are well aware of this. … There is considerable evidence that Putin and his team are highly concerned about public opinion.’ Having been in power for 15 years, Putin and those around him need to perform well and fulfill public expectations in order to avoid ‘policy weariness’ and possible ‘mounting public impatience.’

As a first step, Willerton describes the policy priorities established by Putin in various areas. These are: ‘efficient state institutions’, ‘quality of social services’, ‘protection of people’s rights and freedoms’, ‘higher standard of living’, ‘provision of goods and services to the public’, ‘revitalization of cultural life’, ‘promotion of traditional families’, ‘fight against crime and corruption’, ‘ensuring social justice’, ‘returned trust to institutions’, and ‘protection of Russia internationally’. Using data from opinion polls, Willerton finds ‘a high correspondence between Putin and public assessments as regards what are important policy matters.’ In short, the ‘regime’ and the public care about the same things.

However, ‘the public’s assessments of the Putin team performance in addressing these eleven policy concerns is much more mixed.’ Russians rate Putin’s foreign policy highly, but their assessments of achievements in domestic policy are ‘middling … in some cases modestly good, while none can be described as failing.’ Russians think that the government is doing reasonably well in ‘providing goods and services necessary for the people’ and ‘efficient state institutions’ but less well in providing ‘better quality of social services’ and in fighting crime and corruption. Given the regular complaints by foreign commentators about increased government repression, it is interesting that Russians give their leaders an ‘above average’, though not ‘high’, rating for protecting their rights and freedoms.

The government can be reasonably satisfied with these results, Willerton suggests, but adds that there are some causes for concern. While the public’s top priorities are a higher standard of living, better social services, fighting crime, and ensuring social justice, it rates the government’s performance slightly lower on these matters than on those which it considers less important, such as more efficient state institutions and protecting the traditional family. Also, Russians rank Putin much higher than other than political actors, although everyone associated with the current ‘regime’ (e.g. the United Russia party and the Cabinet of Ministers) does much better than opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, who is rated very negatively. Willerton concludes:

The Russian public shares the same policy priorities as the governing Putin team, and that public offers a basically positive assessment of the performance of that team in implementing those policy priorities. The Russian public expresses strong confidence in Vladimir Putin himself, who appears as a paramount leader who stands above his team associates and the institutions – governmental and nongovernment – which they lead. The public’s confidence in those associates and institutions, however, is restrained, suggesting acceptance rather than enthusiasm. Meanwhile, if the public’s reaction to Putin critic Aleksei Navalny is any indication, elements strongly opposed to the Putin team’s efforts enjoy little support from the Russian mainstream.

Russia, the West, and the world

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