Friday book # 17: Russian military emigration

I bought today’s book while researching my doctoral thesis about Russian military emigres in the 1920s and 1930s. It is the first in a series of volumes containing documents from the Russian archives about White Russian military organizations’ activities in that period. The officer circled on the cover is General A.P. Kutepov, the commander of the 1st Army Corps of the Russian Army of General Wrangel. Kutepov is perhaps best known for being kidnapped by the Soviet secret services in Paris in 1930. His exact fate thereafter remains unknown.


The Bolshevik

Last week I gave a talk at the Canadian War Museum on the subject of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich and the First World War. Prior to the talk, I was taken downstairs into the vault to see one of the museum’s large and excellent collection of paintings. Entitled ‘The Bolshevik’, and painted in 1919 by British artist David Jagger, it was eventually bought by Lord Beaverbrook. He then gave it to the Canadian War Museum, which has never put it on display. I think that it is very striking, and given that it has sat unseen in various museum vaults for nearly 100 years, the general public deserves finally to view it. So here is a digital copy of it kindly provided to me by the war museum.

David Jagger, The Bolshevik, CWM 19710261-0204, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum



Chatham House Rules

The head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation recently caused something of a scandal by writing an article suggesting that Western powers were waging an ‘information war’ against Russia. This, wrote Bastrykin:

is evidenced by the increase in US government spending on programs for the so-called development of democratic institutions in countries bordering on Russia and in the Central Asian states. … About 4.3 billion dollars have been allocated under this item in 2017, and around a billion dollars will go to programs for the so-called fight against corruption and supporting democracy in countries neighbouring Russia. Funds already received under this program have been spent by various non-governmental organizations under the guise of promoting education, developing civil society, and other seemingly useful purposes. The outcome has been the incitement of anti-Russian moods in neighboring countries, the shaping of the pro-American and pro-western so-called non-systemic opposition in Russia, and the spread of inter-confessional and political extremism within our country.

To counter this alleged information war, Bastrykin called for ‘a wide-ranging and detailed verification of the compliance with federal legislation of all religious, ethnocultural, and youth organizations’, as well as increased censorship of the internet and the criminalization of ‘the denial or falsification of historical events of particular importance to a state and society.’

Virtually simultaneously, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (aka Chatham House) published a report by Ukrainian analyst Orysia Lutsevych saying almost exactly the same thing, but the other way around – Russia is waging an information war in the countries adjacent to it; it is using the media and non-governmental organizations under the guise of promoting education, developing civil society, and other seemingly useful purposes.

The Chatham House report, entitled ‘Agents of the Russian World: Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighbourhood’, maintains that:

Russia employs a vocabulary of ‘soft power’ to disguise its ‘soft coercion’ efforts aimed at retaining regional supremacy. Russian pseudo-NGOs undermine the social cohesion of neighbouring states through the consolidation of pro-Russian forces and ethno-geopolitics; the denigration of national identities; and the promotion of anti-US, conservative Orthodox and Eurasianist values. They can also establish alternative discourses to confuse decision-making.

And how does Russia do this deadly deed of confusing democracies with ‘alternative discourses’? According to Lutsevych, through such dastardly techniques as ‘working with universities and schools globally’ to promote the Russian language. (How dare they!) Russia also ‘imposes its own version of history’ (‘imposes’, mark you!). Lutsevych writes that, ‘Although the Soviet historical narrative is recognized in the West as highly politicized and biased, Russia resists what it considers to be efforts by other sovereign states to reassess the events of the [Second World] war’.

Lutsevych complains that the former head of the Russian railways Vladimir Yakunin ‘has established the St Andrew’s Foundation and the affiliated Centre for National Glory. Both have the objective of promoting the Russian national heritage and peaceful coexistence of various nations and religions’. ‘Peaceful coexistence’ – shocking! We cannot have any of that. Organizations like these are ‘proxy groups’ actually working to destabilize neighbouring states, claims Lutsevych. Leading them is the Russian international development agency Rossotrudnichestvo. This operates a sinister ‘network of 60 Russian centres of Science and Culture’ around the world. I was at a meeting at one of these recently. I thought I was there to discuss academic exchanges. In reality, I learn from Lutsevych, I was one of the Kremlin’s ‘useful idiots’, for Rossutrudnichestvo is actually a political organization ‘consolidating the activities of pro-Russian players … and disseminating the Kremlin’s narrative’.

‘Russian state media operating abroad’, Lutsevych says, ‘must be closely monitored for compliance with the broadcasting regulations of their host countries and, where necessary, sanctioned for violations’, and ‘the activities of proxy groups in host countries should be closely monitored, and groups should even be closed down.’ It’s great to see that we in the West occupy the high moral ground.

Friday book # 16: Peter the Great

I bought this week’s book when I was 16 years old and read it while on a Russian language summer course at the University of East Anglia. It is one of the books which inspired me to become a Russian historian. What really excited me, though, wasn’t Robert Massie’s descriptions of Peter the Great, but rather Charles XII of Sweden taking on the entire Turkish army with just 100 men of his own, and galloping incognito all the way across Europe to get back home. What a guy!


legal blowback

Lawfare, according to Wikipedia, is ‘the illegitimate use of domestic or international law with the intention of damaging an opponent, winning a public relations victory, financially crippling an opponent, or tying up the opponent’s time.’ It is highly questionable what would constitute an ‘illegitimate use of the law’, but what is true is that certain people are turning to the courts as a political tool, and that some courts seem willing to help them by making what seem to be highly politicized judgements.

In March of this year, for instance, a US court ordered Iran to pay $10.5 billion in damages to relatives of victims of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. And today the US Supreme Court determined that Iran must pay almost $2 billion to relatives of Marines who died in an attack on their base in Beirut in 1983. Yet in an interview this week, US president Barack Obama opposed attempts to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks. Obama declared: If we open up the possibility that individuals in the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries. Thus it is o.k. for Americans to sue Iran for $10.5 billion for 9/11, even though Iran was not responsible, but not o.k. to sue Saudi Arabia, even though a link is much more likely.

This arbitrariness has not passed Russians by. Russian officials were particularly riled by the 2014 decision of a Dutch court to award $50 billion in damages to former shareholders of the oil firm Yukos for the allegedly illegal seizure of their assets, despite the fact that the Russian Federation had not ratified the treaty which was being used to pass judgement against it. In a much discussed article this week, Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, expressed his frustration, declaring:

Clear examples are the decisions on the Yukos affair, the decision on the murder of former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, the report of the Dutch security council on the results of the research into the shooting down of Malaysian Boeing MH17, the inquiry by the American FBI into the legitimacy of the award of the right to hold the World Cup to Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022, the kidnapping and forcible rendition to the USA and sentencing to a long term of imprisonment of our citizens Viktor Bout and Konstantin Iaroshenko, etc.

Bastrykin is not alone in his frustration. In a 2014 article in the Review of Central and East European Law, Russian legal scholar Mikhail Antonov notes that disenchantment with the application of international humanitarian law has driven Russian jurists to become increasingly conservative and determined to defend Russian sovereignty. This trend culminated this week in a decision by the Russian Constitutional Court to ignore a demand by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that prisoners should be allowed to vote in elections. According to RT, this ‘was the first implementation of a law introduced in December 2015. This act allows the Constitutional Court to overrule the decisions of international courts if such decisions contradict the principle of supremacy of the Russian Constitution.’

To date Russia has had an excellent record in implementing ECHR decisions – far better in fact than many Western European countries. This reflected the importance given to the rule of law by the Russian authorities. I believe that the December 2015 law mentioned above and the Constitutional Court’s decision are therefore steps in the wrong direction. But they are perhaps inevitable consequences of what is seen as the biased implementation of international law – legal ‘blowback’, if you like.

Fortunately, a sign that things might be changing came this week with another court decision – this time by another Dutch court, overturning the outcome of the 2014 Yukos case. The US Supreme Court’s judgement against Iran suggests that the Americans are losing none of their appetite for ‘lawfare’, but the Yukos case suggests that perhaps the Europeans are.

Book review: Putin country

Journalist Anne Garrels’ new book Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia is the product of twenty years of visits to the city of Chelyabinsk. A lot of reporting about Russia focuses on Moscow, but the Russian capital is abnormal in many ways, most notably because of its comparative wealth and the presence of a large, educated, and relatively liberal elite. Analyses of Russian public opinion based on Moscow are likely to be wide of the mark. Garrels therefore provides a useful picture of what life is like elsewhere in Russia.

In the Soviet era, Chelyabinsk was a centre of the nuclear industry and thus closed to most Soviet citizens as well as to foreigners. To Garrels its people serve as a proxy for the majority of Russians who support Vladimir Putin and her study is marketed as an attempt to understand them. To my mind, though, that’s not really what this book does. While it does contain some interviews with Chelyabinsk residents who support Putin, there is little analysis of why they hold the beliefs they do. Nor does Garrels spend a lot of time describing people who are not involved in politics, business, or some sort of activism, but just go to work every day and don’t do anything out of the ordinary. Readers do get to meet a taxi driver, Kolya, but even his story is somewhat unusual as it involves drug addiction, time in prison, and infection with HIV.

Moreover, most of the stories in the book are rather negative. We learn that Russian health care is a ‘mess’. We meet those trying to cope with the city’s growing drug addiction problem, whose efforts are thwarted by ‘Neanderthals’ in the government and conservative social organizations. We learn of massive cheating in Chelyabinsk’s universities. We discover that heavy-handed actions by the security services are alienating the city’s Muslims. We read of the horrific pollution caused by the local nuclear industry and of an environmental activist who is jailed for daring to point this out. We meet a forensic expert turned undertaker, whose associate is murdered and who is forced to sell his business after he refuses to bribe local officials. We encounter a journalist whose son is arrested after she writes articles critical of the city administration, and a protestor who receives death threats from what ‘were clearly Putin’s thugs’. And so on.

Overall, the image Garrels paints of Chelyabinsk is a pretty grim one. More important, she doesn’t do much to help us understand why this is ‘Putin Country’. The best that she can come up with is that ‘most everyone seems apathetic, cowed, or bought’. She quotes a liberal film director who says that, ‘It’s a bipolar disorder’, and a former journalist who complains of the  Russian people that, ‘They are still slaves’.

And yet, there are moments in the book which suggest a rather different story. Garrels notes that under Putin, ‘Salaries were being paid. Social services improved. Pensions increased. Credit and mortgages were finally available’. After a few years, ‘the center of Chelyabinsk was unrecognizable … The renovated city center has become a popular gathering place. … the cobblestoned streets … now harbor elegant shops, restaurants, and bars. … Where not long ago there wasn’t a single decent hotel, there are now many.’ There are a ‘new park, new hockey rink, malls, and supermarkets … the skyline is cluttered with cranes.’ We learn that ‘Several ski resorts are in development’, and that just outside Chelyabinsk, ‘you reach villages which are turning into helter-skelter suburbs’. Despite the detailed stories of intimidation recounted by Garrels, she admits that in general ‘small to medium-sized businesses … are no longer subject to the criminal shakedowns of the 1990s.’ And she introduces us to some successful farmers, who ‘were able to buy improved Russian tractors … [other] domestically produced equipment … cutting their expenses’, and who are now ‘moving into IT’. After the litany of stories of corruption and intimidation, one wonders how this is all possible. Business appears to be prospering, and the government obviously isn’t stealing everything, but is channelling at least some of its funds into genuine improvements of social infrastructure.

A balanced conclusion might be that Chelyabinsk – and one assumes, many other places like it – have made enormous progress over the past 20 years and continue to do so, but could be doing even better if it wasn’t for the sort of corrupt behaviour Garrels describes. Garrels analyzes the bad news very well, but to get the good news, you have to read between the lines.

Sun Tzu in Syria

‘What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy’, wrote Sun Tzu. ‘Next best is to disrupt his alliances. The next best is to attack his army.’ Sun Tzu urged generals to avoid direct confrontation with their enemies as much as possible, as well as to avoid the obvious. ‘March by an indirect route’, Sun Tzu wrote, ‘War is based on deception … He who knows the art of the direct and indirect approach will be victorious’. Judging by a report it issued this week entitled ‘Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin’s War in Syria’, the Atlantic Council, a fiercely anti-Russian think tank, appears to be no big fan of Sun Tzu.

The Atlantic Council’s report was written with the support of the ‘citizen investigative journalists’ organization Bellingcat. It analyzes the targets struck by the Russian airforce during its six-month long bombing campaign in Syria. The Russian government has accused Bellingcat of fabricating data for the report. For simplicity’s sake, however, I will assume that the document is accurate in its claims concerning whom and what the Russians bombed and judge it purely on its own terms. The information in the report raises significant questions about the accuracy and competency of the Russians, and about the ethics and legality of their targeting decisions but although the Council hints at such matters it doesn’t seem desperately interested in them. Instead, its primary complaint is that Russia has been practising deception in Syria (Sun Tzu would approve!), and has not been attacking ISIS but rather the ‘moderate rebels’.  Consequently, the report says, ‘The Russian bombing had minimal effect on ISIS’ and ‘it weakened the US-backed opposition significantly more than it did ISIS’.

This does not appear to be true. In the past two weeks, the Syrian Army has won a couple of major victories against ISIS, recapturing the towns of Palmyra and al-Qaryatain. It seems possible that the army may now advance still further into ISIS territory. The Atlantic Council’s report seems to provide a clue as to why these recent victories were possible.

‘In the early summer of 2015’, the report says, ‘Assad’s forces suffered a series of major defeats at the hands of ISIS, the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra front and US-backed armed opposition groups. Many of these defeats were close to Assad’s heartland on the western coastline.’ This suggests that ISIS, the Nusra front and the ‘US-backed armed opposition groups’ were in effect allied against the Syrian government. The Syrian Army lost ground to ISIS because it was under threat close to its centre of gravity from the other groups. Only by first neutralizing those others could the army have any hope of striking back against ISIS. This is what Russia did by striking the Nusra front and US-supported ‘moderate opposition’. The result was that the Russians were able to force the ‘moderates’ to agree to a ceasefire. This then freed the Syrian Army to attack ISIS. In short, the Russians followed Sun Tzu, taking the indirect approach by attacking ISIS’s allies rather than ISIS itself. The result was a military success.

The authors of the Atlantic Council’s report think that the Russians should have gone directly after ISIS, and that they somehow behaved badly by failing to do so. It seems to me that all the authors actually prove is that the Russian general staff are better strategists than them.

Nee, nee, nee

‘Ik zit in de puree, nee, nee, nee’ (‘I’m in trouble, no, no, no’), sang the Dutch television character Kabouter Plop. Well now, the Dutch have voted No to the European Union’s association agreement with Ukraine. In a referendum held in the Netherlands today to approve the agreement, 61% voted no, with a turnout of 32%. The EU and Ukraine are both in trouble.

The last time that I broached the topic of the referendum, one commentator claimed that it didn’t matter because the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2013 was never about association with the EU, but rather was a protest in favour of ‘European values … for the right to a respectable life, to a democratic choice, for the right to live free of oppression, free of corruption.’ A conversation I had with a couple of Czech central bank officials about 15 years ago shows why this response underestimates the association agreement’s importance.

I asked the Czechs why they wanted to join the EU. They replied that personally, they didn’t, but what they did want to do was carry out a series of far-reaching free market reforms. They knew that these would be extremely unpopular and unless the reforms could be linked to something else, the Czech people would reject them. At the same time, the officials recognized that most of their compatriots did want to join the EU, believing that doing so was the path to prosperity. The bankers didn’t share this belief, but they realized that they could use it. By signing an agreement with the EU obliging the Czech Republic to carry out the reforms in question as a prerequisite for EU membership, they could force their reluctant compatriots to accept what they would otherwise have rejected. The purpose of the EU membership agreement was not, therefore, to achieve EU membership, but rather to provide the country’s free market elites with a tool they could use to beat their opponents into submission.

The same principle applies to Ukraine’s EU association agreement. I would be surprised if many of those in authority in Kiev truly believe that their country is on the march towards EU membership, but some of them do at least want to reform their country to become what they might call ‘a normal Western European country’. The economic and social reforms they desire are unpopular, but the association agreement gives them the means they need to overcome opposition. One can observe this in the debate which occurred over prohibiting discrimination in the workplace against gays and lesbians. Initially, the Ukrainian parliament rejected legislation designed to do this. Then, after being told that they had to pass the legislation if the EU was to provide the visa-free access promised in the association agreement, the parliament changed its mind. Take away the agreement and all sorts of other unpopular reforms will suddenly become much more difficult to enact because it will no longer be possible to blackmail Ukraine’s parliament in this way.

Fortunately for the pro-Western ‘reformers’, the referendum is consultative only; the Dutch government does not have to abide by its result. Given the low turnout, which only just surpassed the 30% minimum legally required to validate the result, the government may well feel that it can get away with ignoring the vote. Alternatively, it may negotiate some very minor modifications to the association agreement in order to give the appearance of respecting the people’s wishes, without actually ripping up the agreement entirely. Even if either of these scenarios transpires, some damage will still have been done. The agreement’s power as a tool to browbeat opposition depends upon people believing that some day they will reap all the benefits they think it promises. The more it becomes clear that EU citizens aren’t at all interested in providing Ukraine with any benefits, the harder it will become to sustain this belief, and the harder the reformers will find it to surmount the obstacles in their path. The pace of change in Ukraine in the past two years has been decidedly slow; at the very least, the vote in the Netherlands means that it is unlikely to become any quicker.