Silence of the cows

Russia and the West have long denounced one another for spreading disinformation. In a new report published by The Interpreter magazine, and entitled The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, authors Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev go a step further and accuse Russia of ‘weaponizing’ information. Weiss and Pomerantsev have also discussed their findings in a podcast on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Power Vertical blog.

The report’s primary thesis is that Russia is using information not as propaganda, but rather as a ‘weapon’ in a campaign of ‘aggression’ against the West, in order to ‘confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze’. ‘The border between “fact” and “fiction” has become utterly blurred in Russian media and public discourse’, claim Weiss and Pomerantsev, ‘the notion of “journalism” in the sense of reporting the “facts” or “truth”, has been virtually wiped out.’

Unfortunately, the report is couched in terms which suggest that it more suited to political polemic than objective journalism or academic research. Take, for instance, this segment out of a particularly polemical paragraph:

Land that was not so long ago the cynosure of the worst atrocities of modernity has once again become an active war zone, above which commercial airliners filled with hundreds of foreign-born innocents are blown out of the sky with impunity. A former KGB lieutenant-colonel, rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe, stands an excellent chance of outstripping Josef Stalin’s tenure in power and now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries. As if to demonstrate the seriousness of his threat, he dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers into their airspaces on a near weekly basis.

Let us dissect this segment bit by bit:

  • First, the authors’ use of language distorts reality by suggesting that things which have happened just once are regular occurrences, so making them seem more threatening. Note, for instance, the plural word ‘airliners’. Precisely one airliner has been shot down over Ukraine. That is bad enough, but Weiss and Pomerantsev use deceptive language to suggest something even worse. Also, observe how the authors claim that Putin ‘now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries’. This no doubt refers to a statement by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that Putin told him that if he wanted to he could have troops in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest within two days. The word ‘speaks’ suggests a regularly repeated, ongoing habit, whereas in fact we have one instance in which Putin allegedly ‘spoke’. This is a subtle difference, but it is important.
  • Second, the story of Putin threatening to invade NATO countries is entirely uncorroborated, and comes from a source with a strong interest in making Putin look bad. But even if true, it does not constitute speaking ‘openly’ of invading NATO countries given that the conversation was private. Moreover, we don’t know why Putin said what he did (if he did). Perhaps he did so in response to a threat from NATO, as a way of saying ‘don’t attack Russia because Russia can hit back hard and fast’, in which case his statement was defensive in nature, not aggressive. Context is everything, but Weiss and Pomerantsev make no attempt to address this. Instead they suggest that it is an objective truth that Putin is even now openly threatening to attack NATO. This is deceptive.
  • Third, note how Putin is described as ‘rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe’. Strictly speaking, this is not a lie. There is a rumor to the effect that Putin owns a majority share in the commodity trading company Gunvor, giving him a personal wealth of $40 billion. The problem with this preposterous rumor is that the only source for the information is an entirely unsubstantiated claim by Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, who is a cousin of the deceased exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a man described by a British judge as a liar. Repeating unfounded rumors is an easy way of blackening somebody’s reputation, but it is not good journalism.
  • Fourth, the paragraph repeatedly slips in irrelevant points whose only purpose is emotional – to turn the reader’s mind against Putin by means of association. See how I slipped in the stuff about Berezovsky in the last bullet point, to turn you against Belkovsky by associating him with a liar. Weiss and Pomerantsev use this trick repeatedly. Thus we have a reference to the ‘worst atrocities of modernity’, as if the current war in Ukraine is somehow comparable; then we have a mention of the KGB; and finally there is a comparison with Josef Stalin, a man who oversaw the deaths of millions of people. Weiss and Pomerantsev at no point directly tell readers that they are making these comparisons, but their intent is clear.
  • Finally, we read that Putin ‘dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers’ into the ‘airspaces’ of NATO countries ‘on a near weekly basis’. But a complete list of incidents involving Russian aircraft assembled by the European Leadership Network lists only two NATO countries (the Netherlands and Estonia) as having their airspace violated in the past twelve months, one of them (the Netherlands) only once. Even the more regular alleged intrusions into Estonian airspace (about five in the past six months) are not ‘near weekly’ and in any case ‘result from an unsolved airspace issue where Russian air traffic control overlaps Estonian airspace.’ Furthermore, none of these intrusions involved nuclear bombers. Such aircraft have entered the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of the United States, but ADIZs are not part of national airspace and entering the American ADIZ is a not a violation of U.S. sovereignty. Contrary to what Weiss and Pomerantsev write, there are no instances of nuclear bombers entering the airspace of NATO countries.

All these distortions appear in just one half of one paragraph. The authors accuse the Russian media of disinformation, but they are guilty of the same thing themselves.

Also interesting is the organization Weiss works for. The Interpreter magazine is a product of The Institute of Modern Russia, whose president (and source of funding) is Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of another disgraced former oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It is relentlessly hostile to the current Russian government. So too is The Power Vertical podcast. The Americans did not found and subsidize Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War for the fun of it. Rather, these radio stations had the specific purpose of subverting communism in eastern Europe. To some extent, the subversive objective remains unaltered, at least as far as Russia is concerned. You don’t turn to The Power Vertical if what  you are looking for is balanced discussions of modern Russia reflecting multiple points of view.

In short, The Interpreter and RFE/RL are ‘weapons’ too. Weiss’ and Pomerantsev’s report is very much of a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Or as the Russians say, ‘чья бы корова мычала а твоя молчала’: some people’s cows can moo, but yours should keep quiet. Hence the title of this post.

9 thoughts on “Silence of the cows”

  1. Nice work, Paul – Weiss is the only one with whom I’m familiar, but his shrill mendacity is straight out of La Russophobe, who was fond of the line that “Putin is buzzing the American coast with nuclear bombers”, and used it repeatedly even after she was corrected several times.

    Any bomber can be a nuclear bomber if it is big enough to carry a nuclear bomb. Does that mean everyone needs to tremble in fear of a turboprop-driven aircraft that has been flying since 1956? I hope not. The TU-95 is selected for reconnaissance missions because of its range, not because of its armament, and that it is still effective is testament to the vision of its designers and the skill of its builders.

    Weiss has the fervor and sales pitch of a carnival barker crossed with a tent-meeting revivalist, and he probably does not know that he is full of shit – he likely believes with the greatest earnestness that the world’s problems would clear up and the sun would smile again if only Putin were assassinated or otherwise removed from power – all that bloodstained hands and black heart stuff is as real to him as 12 eggs to the dozen. Because he’s a zealot and a nut.

    At least one major western source – The Economist – had to acknowledge in print that there was no substantiation to the Major Shareholder In Gunvor story as far as Putin is concerned. Gennady Timchenko (Armenian by birth, incidentally) threatened to sue them, and they printed a retraction; their source, too, was Belkovsky.


  2. Nice parsing and analysis. I’m sure you know this but: it’s beneath you.

    I’m glad you drew attention to the article as opposed to the eponymous event. I watched the whole presentation at the Legatum Institute website. Believe me, the article’s a good time saver.

    Regardless, my favourite moment was actually from some RT stringer doing – to my mind – a lack-lustre gonzo journo treatment of the thing:

    The best moment in the piece is when he asks Pyatt at the event – titled “The Menace of Unreality: Combatting Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century” – what he thinks is Russia’s biggest lie about Ukraine. His answer? “That Ukraine is a divided country.”

    Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha.

    I’ll give him this: like all good marketers his faith dictates he can sell ANYTHING.

    My question: does that reply evince desperation or chutzpah?


  3. Errrr… Seems i wasn’t finished…

    The great irony of that event was this: the first rule of disinformation warfare is you always accuse your enemy of committing the crimes you yourself are planning. It covers the “battlefield” with doubt at the least. At most: you’ve put your opponent on left foot off the get go. Call it first mover advantage.

    What’s particularly laughable is that the narrative of “Russian aggression” has played as well as it has. The whole notion is so delusional in view of the facts that to a growing minority of people in the west it is like being presented with an X-ray of western media taking of a “barium swallow” exam: who’s on the “team” is blindingly obvious. Just look at who the Guardian’s “eastern partnership” sources includes.

    In this context the idea that the disinformation is coming from Russia should be laughable.


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