No collusion. Quelle Surprise!

So it’s official. After almost two years of investigation, involving who knows how many tens of thousands of hours of labour, Special Investigator Robert Mueller and his team have concluded what any sensible person could have told them before they started, that there is ‘no evidence’ that US President Donald Trump has in any way colluded with the Russian Federation. The obvious lack of evidence has not stopped a large cohort of politicians, journalists, and social media trolls from insisting over the past two years that Trump is a Russian agent, a tool in the hands of the Kremlin, or even a ‘traitor’. Along the way, they’ve told us again and again that the decisive revelation was just around the corner, that Mueller would ‘flip’ General Flynn or Paul Manafort, or whoever else, and that these people would soon spill the beans, proving Trump’s guilt beyond all doubt. But now, it turns out that it was all a ‘nothingburger’ after all. Quelle surprise!

Sadly, those responsible for spreading the collusion story are unlikely to pay any personal price for the millions of words of nonsense they have spewed forth since 2016. Don’t expect Luke Harding, Molly McKew, or Rachel Maddow to fall on their swords shouting ‘mea culpa’, let alone expect their bosses to fire them. But there will be a price to pay nonetheless. Some of that price will be domestic-American, and some will be international.

Domestically, the Democratic Party are the big losers here. At some point, late in 2016, while the US presidential campaign was still ongoing, the Democrats decided to play the Russia card big time. As I noted back on 2 November 2016, ‘With a week to go to the US presidential election, Clinton is actually behind Trump in the latest polls. Her response? Double down on the Putin theme.’ But as I also pointed out, ‘it isn’t working’. And it didn’t. The ‘Trump as a Russian agent’ meme served as a distraction from the real problems the Democrats needed to address in order to win elections. But instead of learning that lesson from Trump’s victory, the party quadrupled down on the Russia issue. In the process it has wasted two years hammering home a false narrative which has no obvious relation to the everyday needs of ordinary voters. This can’t be helpful.

The fantasy which Democratic politicians and their enablers in the media have woven has surely also served to discredit them, at least in the eyes of those already inclined to regard their outpourings with some degree of scepticism (true believers will not, of course, be affected). There’s a lot of talk about Russian ‘disinformation’. But whatever rubbish may, or may not, flow out of the orifices of RT pales into insignificance against the vast effluence of rotten manure that pours from the mouths of the American establishment once it firmly sets its mind on something. As I’ve noted before, there’s a reason why people turn to alternative media and conspiracy theorists: they’ve lost faith in the mainstream. The outcome of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal is going to accentuate that tendency. ‘Why should I believe the New York Times or the Washington Post after all that?’ people will ask. And the only possible answer – that for all their faults they’re still better than InfoWars – isn’t always going to convince.

Perhaps, if there was some moderate alternative out there, this wouldn’t matter so much. But another effect of Russiagate has been to silence moderate voices. The collusion story has popularized the idea that Russian ‘agents’ are out there seeking to undermine our democratic systems. It’s not just Trump who’s been accused of working with the Kremlin. The charge has spread far and wide to include anybody who might express doubts about the existence of a massive Russian conspiracy working away to destroy our societies from within. Arguably, Russiagate and the proliferating volume of think tank reports denouncing the ‘Kremlin’s Trojan Horses’ are intimately connected. The result is an impoverished public debate about Russia and the policies that we should pursue toward it.

This in turn has international consequences. Although the collusion story has failed to force Trump out of office, it has obliged him to change the track of his foreign policy. What that policy would have been in the absence of Russiagate, we can never know. But President Trump’s attitude to Russia has been very different to that of candidate Trump. The latter argued in favour of improving relations with Russia; the former has taken multiple actions designed to worsen them. The idea that he may have been driven to do so by a desire to distance himself from accusations of being a Kremlin stooge seems very plausible. Quite possibly, therefore, the collusion accusation has had a very negative, and quite unnecessary, effect on East-West relations.

All of this was quite avoidable. There was no shortage of commentators pointing out from the start the enormous lacunae in the arguments that Trump was a Russian agent, drawing attention to the enormous deficiencies in supposed evidence such as the dossier put together by former British agent Christopher Steele, or demonstrating the sloppy logic in works such as Luke Harding’s dreadful book Collusion. But all this was ignored. One has to suspect that this was because it didn’t suit the purpose, which wasn’t to report the news but to depose Donald Trump. Perhaps the only thing one can say in Russiagate’s favour is that for all its awfulness, it’s still not as crazy as Brexit. We can at least take solace in that.

The Strongmen Strike Back

In his book Modern Russian Theology, American scholar Paul Valliere notes that Western liberals have great trouble understanding the great late nineteenth century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. (I’m not sure that many even try, but let’s put that aside, and consider just the few who do.) Solovyov, explains Valliere, was a liberal theocrat, and that’s something your average Westerner just can’t cope with. S/he sees the theocrat and immediately thinks ‘reactionary’. The idea that there could be a ‘liberal’ theocrat is so completely outside their frame of reference that they dismiss it out of hand, and conclude that the guy really was a reactionary after all (which, of course, he wasn’t).

Solovyov was far from exceptional in combining elements of liberal and authoritarian thinking. As readers of my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism will discover, in the history of Russian political philosophy (as also, I’m sure, in the history of other countries), efforts to do so are extremely common. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Liberalism is a political ideology. Authoritarianism, like democracy, is a method of government. At least in theory, liberal authoritarianism and illiberal democracy are both possible. In practice, of course, such absolute constructs are hard to find, but so too are pure ‘liberal democracies’. Liberalism in its many manifestations – economic, social, political – is often imposed from above on unwilling populations in decidedly undemocratic ways. Economic liberalization in developing countries, for instance, is often the product of intense pressure from Western lenders and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, but it’s certainly not democratic.

My point here is that liberalism v. authoritarianism is a false dichotomy. If nothing else, it ignores the vast differences between different regimes which are labelled as ‘authoritarian’ or ‘illiberal’. Most observers would agree that North Korea fits those descriptions. But many nowadays also apply them to Hungary. Yet to categorize the two countries as in any way alike would be clearly absurd. The differences far outweigh any superficial similarities. Liberalism and authoritarianism are sliding scales, not absolutes. They are also not binary opposites, but are often combined in seemingly paradoxical ways.

Robert Kagan is having none of this, however. Kagan’s a big name in the world of American political commentary, a prominent exemplar of neoconservatism (though apparently he himself prefers to be called a ‘liberal interventionist’). For some odd reason, American governments listen to him, so we have to pay some attention to what he says. And in a long essay in The Washington Post, entitled ‘The Strongmen Strike Back’, what he tells us is that ‘Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic order. … We in the liberal world have yet to comprehend the magnitude and coherence of the challenge.’ As he writes:

Authoritarianism has now returned as a geopolitical force, with strong nations such as China and Russia championing anti-liberalism as an alternative to a teetering liberal hegemony. … It has returned armed with new and hitherto unimaginable tools of social control and disruption … reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within.

According to Kagan, authoritarian rulers are no longer content just to sit at home, but are seeking aggressively to export authoritarianism and undermine democracy in the West. Moreover, he says, ‘These authoritarians are succeeding.’ This, he considers, is extremely dangerous.

Why is it dangerous?

Continue reading The Strongmen Strike Back

National Security Threats

A few days ago, I posted a story about Sweden. Although it’s notionally a neutral country, it contains a strong pro-NATO element which is quite vocal in playing up the threat that Russia allegedly poses to its national security. As part of this trend, the liberal newspaper Vestmanlands Lans Tidning was today in full ‘red scare’ mode, warning Swedes of the terrible dangers posed by a new building being constructed in the town of Vasteras. As you can see in the picture below, the building is scary indeed.

sweden church
A threat to national security

Continue reading National Security Threats

Out of the blue

‘It’s not a question of whether he [Putin] will attack, but where.’ So writes Mikheil Saakashvili on the website of Foreign Policy magazine this Friday. According to the tie-chewing former president of Georgia,

In Crimea, eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, or anywhere else Putin considers Russia’s backyard, territorial gain has never been an end in itself. Putin’s goal today is the same as when he invaded my country in 2008: to tighten his grip on the levers of power in Russia. Whenever Putin’s domestic popularity dips, he either escalates an ongoing conflict or launches a new offensive.

Saaskashvili doesn’t mention his own responsibility for the 2008 Russo-Georgian War or the fact that Putin wasn’t even president of the Russian Federation at the time. He also doesn’t mention that Russia’s other recent military ‘adventures’ didn’t just come out of the blue. The Georgian war came after years of civil conflict in South Ossetia; the war in Donbass after a violent revolution/coup in Kiev; the Russian military campaign in Syria after four years of civil war in that country. In no instance, did Russian troops just appear out of nowhere in a country which was otherwise completely stable. But that is what Saakashvili would have us believe Putin is now planning.

For Putin’s poll numbers are falling. It’s true that they’re still at a level which would cause just about any Western leader to jump up and down with joy, but they’re down from what they were a couple of years ago. And, if you follow Saaskashvili’s thesis, that means that the Russian president will looking for something to divert his people from their domestic travails. And what better than a short, victorious war? For as Saakashvili says, ‘Putin is both predictable and logical: Invading a weaker neighbor delivers a cheaper and faster ratings boost than, say, improving Russia’s dystopian health care system.’

Again, let’s put aside the unfortunate fact that Putin has responded to his recent decline in popularity by announcing reductions in defence spending and a renewed focus on domestic policies, such as health care and infrastructure. Let’s assume our ex-Georgian friend is right. There’s still a problem. Who could Putin invade next? Attacking a NATO member would be too dangerous, says Saakashvili. Putin won’t do that. Therefore, he concludes, ‘Russia’s most likely target in the near future is either Finland or Sweden.’ He continues:

I do not expect Russian tanks to roll into Helsinki or Stockholm unopposed. But it would be relatively simple for Moscow to execute a land grab in a remote Arctic enclave or on a small island, like Sweden’s Gotland, considering the strategic capabilities Russia has built up on its northern flank. After all, who would go to war over a frozen Baltic island or piece of Finland’s tundra. NATO wouldn’t, but Putin would.

So one day, we’ll wake up and discover that Russian troops will have occupied part of Finland or Sweden, with no warning, and despite the fact that Russia has no quarrel with either country and claim on any of their territory. Really? Does anybody believe that? This is nuts.

I realize that picking on Saakashvili is perhaps not fair. It’s been clear for a while that his grasp of reality is a little shaky. But my gripe isn’t really with him. Foreign Policy is normally regarded as a respectable journal. It’s the sort of thing you find on the bookshelves in airports. People read this guff. The editors ought to feel some sense of responsibility for what they publish, and not print absolute hokum which inflames international tensions on the basis of pure fantasy. But it seems like they don’t any more.

Maybe I’m just a typical grumpy old man, imagining that things were so much superior ‘when I were young.’ Perhaps my memory is faulty and journalistic standards weren’t actually any better back then. But when it comes to things Russians, they’re pretty poor right now. No self-respecting journal should be publishing inflammatory nonsense like this. Foreign Policy’s editors should be ashamed of themselves.

Smear job

Writing about Russia is a risky business. Or at least that’s what an article in the Nordic journal Up North tells us. According to the article’s author, Patrik Oksanen, those who dare to talk about Russia are likely to face a wave of criticism and have their reputations dragged through the mud. The results, he writes, are deleterious:

The victim could start to self censor, or leave the field [of Russian studies] altogether. The employer or his peers could start to think ‘where there is smoke there is fire’ and withdraw – both socially and profesional[ly], so as to stigmatize the victim. … People might hesitate to engage, or to enter the field. This will mean fewer thoughts and skills, and that less energy will be put into problems that we have to solve.

Reading this, your first thought might be to welcome the fact that somebody is finally coming out in defence of all those who have in recent times been smeared as ‘Russian proxies’, ‘agents of influence, and ‘Kremlin’s Trojan horses’. You then might celebrate the fact that somebody is at last recognising the harm that such labelling has on public discourse. If so, you’d be wrong. For, according to Mr Oksanen, it’s not the people charged with being Kremlin agents who have been defamed. Rather, it’s the people who smeared them who are suffering. The situation is so bad, he writes, that people are refusing to speak out about Russia’s ‘malign activities’ for fear of the consequences.

Continue reading Smear job

The Russians Done It, #2

A while back I suggested starting a new series entitled ‘The Russians Done It’. Since then, there have been a few items which I could have added to the series, including the story that Russia is responsible for the worldwide measles epidemic. But for episode #2 I’ve instead chosen a piece from Britain’s Daily Mirror, as it provides a good example of how ‘fake news’ is written.


Continue reading The Russians Done It, #2

Hybrid confusion

Well I’m inclined to believe,
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave,
We’d up and fly if we had wings for flying.
Can you see these tears we’re crying?
Is there some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham.

(Mumford & Sons)

The British House of Commons Defence Committee has been holding meetings as part of the ‘UK Response to Hybrid Threats Inquiry’. On Tuesday, it invited along a trio of experts to advise it about the dangers Britain faces from the likes of Russia. As so often in these cases, the guests seemed to be chosen specifically in order to reinforce the existing prejudices of the committee, and the meeting was something of a love-in, with nary a word of disagreement and a lot of chummy use of first names. As the MPs commented on a couple of occasions, the guests were ‘preaching to the choir’. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that the whole episode was characterized by an astonishing lack of intellectual coherence.

The first guest was Chris Donnelly, who has recently acquired fame due to his connection with the Integrity Initiative. As I’ve noted before, Donnelly takes a very extreme position vis-à-vis Russia. He’s also convinced that Britain is at war and needs to start acting like it. I have to say that he wouldn’t be my first choice of person to invite if I was looking for sober, balanced advice.

Guest number two was Robert Johnson, who runs a project titled ‘The Changing Character of War’ at the University of Oxford. I’ve always viewed this with some scepticism. I tend more to follow the line of the eminent strategist Colin Gray, who argues that despite changes in technology, the fundamental essence of war has never really changed at all. But that’s by the by. Johnson is a respectable scholar. He has also written numerous works as a consultant for NATO. I didn’t get the impression that he disagreed with Connelly in any substantial way.

The final invitee was Andrew Mumford of the University of Nottingham. When I looked him up, Google gave me lots of hits for a nice little song called ‘Not in Nottingham’ by Mumford & Sons, but I was eventually able to track him down. He’s written a lot about the British experience in counter-insurgency. His book The Counterinsurgency Myth: The British Experience in Irregular Warfare looks quite interesting.

So what did this trio have to say for themselves?

Continue reading Hybrid confusion

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