War: what’s in a word?

A few years back, one of the big discussion topics among international relations professors was the idea of ‘securitization’ devised by the ‘Copenhagen School’ of security studies. Securitization theory suggested that security was ‘an essentially contested concept’ – i.e. that there isn’t an objective definition of ‘security’; it is what you say it is. Security is a ‘speech act’. By labelling something as a matter of ‘security’, you make a claim that it is of special importance, requiring a special response, including additional state resources.

Following this logic, various scholars then argued in favour of ‘securitizing’ certain policy issues – e.g. climate change, poverty, inequality, etc. They argued that they could push these up the policy agenda by relabelling them as matters of national security. People thus began speaking about ‘environmental security’, ‘human security’, and so forth.

Critics raised a couple of objections to the concept of securitization.

First, it’s questionable whether security really is a postmodernist ‘essentially contested concept’. Believing that one definition is as good as another is a form of moral relativism which denies us the ability to make valid judgments. Some things physically threaten life and property in a way that others don’t, and we have to have some word which helps us separate the one from the other. Some things are matters of security; others aren’t. It’s more than a ‘speech act’.

Second, labelling things as security issues when they aren’t produces bad policy. The security label tends to create a certain mentality which encourages a specific form of policy response –aggressive, secretive, heedless of people’s liberties, and so on. If you call AIDS a security threat, then AIDS victims become security threats also. The victims become social outcasts, they don’t come forward for treatment, and the disease spreads further. Securitization is not generally a good idea.

All of this is by way of an introduction to Mark Galeotti’s new report entitled Hybrid War or Gibridnaia Voina: Getting Russia’s Non-Linear Challenge Right, which was published today. In his Executive summary, Galeotti says:

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies. This is often described as ‘hybrid war,’ a blend of the military and the political, but in fact there are two separate issues, two separate kinds of non-linear war, which have become unhelpfully intertwined. The first is the way—as the Russians have been quick to spot—that modern technologies and modern societies mean that a shooting war will likely be preceded by and maybe even almost, but not quite, replaced by a phase of political destabilization. The second, though, is the political war that Moscow is waging against the West, in the hope not of preparing the ground for an invasion, but rather of dividing, demoralizing and distracting it enough that it cannot resist … The two overlap heavily, and maybe they could usefully be regarded as the two sides of a wider form of ‘non-linear war.’ The instruments which make up ‘political war’ are also crucial to the earlier phases of ‘hybrid war.’ … What has emerged, if not wholly new, is certainly a distinctive way of war.

My objections to this are very similar to those made against the securitization theory:

First, Galeotti, in essence, is attempting to engage in a ‘speech act’ – trying to make a claim that the Russian threat is of special importance because it is ‘war’, and that it therefore requires a special policy response. But war is a very specific thing, involving large-scale organized violence. It has its own laws, its own ethics, its own particular nature and dynamics. What happens when two armies fire multiple rocket launchers at one another is not in any reasonable way comparable to what happens when journalists in two countries fire accusations at one another.

Second, labelling the current tensions between Russia and the West as ‘war’ creates an unproductive, even dangerous, security mentality, and results in undesirable policies. One can see this process at work in the discussions about ‘Russian propaganda’ and Russian ‘information war’. Framing this as a security issue, or even worse as a matter of war, has resulted in proposals to restrict freedom of speech and blacken the reputations of those who have unwelcome views. More generally, saying that ‘The West is at war’ with Russia encourages policies which raise tensions even higher, and make it increasingly difficult to engage in the sort of constructive dialogue which is required to overcome our mutual problems.

Certainly, Russia and parts of the West are engaged in political competition. Definitely, each side is trying to influence the population of the other. Absolutely, they have different ideas of how the world should be organized. But competition is not war. Labelling it as such is not helpful.


There has been much discussion in the Russian media this week of a resolution by the European Parliament calling on the European Union to develop a ‘strategic communications’ plan to counter propaganda from the Russian Federation and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This follows a report issued last month by the policy department of the EU’s Directorate General for External Policy, entitled EU Strategic Communications with a View to Countering Propaganda.

The report, and the ensuing parliamentary resolution, repeat much of what has been said in other documents denouncing ‘Russian propaganda’ which I have covered in this blog: Russia is waging information war against the West, and trying to divide the European Union; RT is bad, bad, bad; something must be done. Where the EU breaks new ground is in directly comparing the Russian Federation with ISIS, and treating the two as if they are one and the same in terms of the threat which they pose to Europe. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this aspect of the EU’s action which has caused outrage in Moscow.

At the heart of the complaint about ‘Russian propaganda’ is a fear that the Russian media is countering the prevailing narrative in the West about international affairs. As the report notes, ‘Russia fosters an anti-interventionist narrative’ and seeks to ‘ convince European audiences that the EU is focused on imagined threats from Russia and neglecting the real ones from the south.’

Putting aside whether this is a good or bad thing, what intrigues me is the Eurocrats’ belief that they can deal with the existence of a Russian counter-narrative by pumping money into counter-propaganda. After all, the narrative which the Russians are trying to undermine is the one which prevails throughout the bulk of the Western media. It is hardly lacking in support already.

In another document issued last month, British neoconservative think tank The Henry Jackson Society denounced ‘Putin’s useful idiots’ in the West and called on academics and journalists to do more to spread the bad news about Russia.  ‘Academics, commentators, and others should raise awareness in the West of the nature of the Russian regime’, says the Henry Jackson Society, ‘Outside of the expert community, there is a general lack of awareness of the Russian regime’s use of selective terror and its criminality – the regime’s dubious origins in the 1999 apartment bombings; its involvement in the murder of people like Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky, and Boris Nemtsov; its military tactics in Syria.’

This is a very odd claim given that ‘outside the expert community’, in the mass media which ‘ordinary people’ consume, denunciations of the Russian government’s criminality are two a penny. ‘Russian propaganda’ hardly registers against the torrent of Russophobia coming in the opposite direction. If people do turn to the Russian media, it is quite probably because they want to hear something different. Churning out even more anti-Russian material is unlikely to make a difference.

This is especially true if the operation is government-run. The EU resolution reflects a strange belief that officially-sponsored efforts to fight the Russians will be more successful than those of the massed ranks of the Western press. Page 9 of the report contains this remarkable, and quite amusing, nugget of information:

The multi-language broadcaster Euronews was launched on 1 January 1993 to promote European unity by presenting information from a distinctly European perspective. …  Since its launch, Euronews has received EUR 240 million worth of funding from the European Commission, EUR 25.5 million of which came in 2014. … On several occasions, Euronews has been accused of biased reporting, particularly through its Russian language service. Coverage of the 2008 war in Georgia, the 20th anniversary of Ukrainian independence in 2011, the 2014 referendum in the Donbas and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as events in Transnistria has been accused of being unbalanced and pro-Russian.

Even the EU’s own propaganda outlets are ‘pro-Russian’, it seems. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Friday book # 45: Origins of the Russian Civil War

Civil wars begin in many ways, but one is when a radical minority seizes power by force and seeks to impose its agenda on a largely unwilling population. Most people aren’t interested in politics and just want to get on with their lives. But in such circumstances, some will be found who decide to fight back. So it was in Russia between 1917 and 1921. In this week’s book, Geoffrey Swain puts the blame for the Russian Civil War firmly on the shoulders of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. As Swain says:

The Russian Civil War was an unnecessary war. It was a war brought about by Lenin when he wrecked the Railway Workers’ Union talks on 4 November 1917.  … [He] realized that in the absence of an international civil war he would have to impose his views through a civil war in Russia, and could do so by relying on the greed of the German imperialists.

That seems a fair conclusion to me, but no doubt the Leninist sympathizers among my readers will disagree.


Several stories

Here are several stories I read this week which I think are of interest:

1. Aleksei Petrov, deputy dean of the department of history at Irkutsk State University and regional head of the electoral monitoring group Golos, was dismissed from his university job last week following an investigation by the local prosecutor. According to the university, Petrov had more than once been absent from campus on working days, and had rescheduled classes.

Not everybody accepts this story. The prosecutor investigated Petrov after receiving two complaints. One, from a ‘concerned citizen’ named Sergei Poznikov, alleged that the professor was engaging in political activity at the expense of his professional duties. A second, anonymous, complaint alleged that Petrov is ‘an excessively liberal-minded historian’ who ‘publicly presents and promotes insufficiently patriotric views during his lectures.’ Some therefore think that Petrov’s dismissal is politically-motivated.

In far-off Ottawa, I can’t say which version of events is true. Perhaps there is a bit of truth in both of them. But some details are disturbing. Why is a professor’s schedule a matter for the public prosecutor not the professor’s immediate supervisor? And why would a prosecutor feel that it was his business to investigate a professor for being ‘excessively liberal-minded’? This is a story that seems to merit deeper investigation.

2. The Ukrainian Minister of Culture, Evgeny Nishchuk, made a fool of himself during a television interview, when answering a question about why the south-east of the country had not accepted Ukrainian culture. Nishchuk said:

The situation in the east and south is an abyss of consciousness. Moreover, when we speak of genetics in Zaporozhe, in Donbass, these are imported towns. There’s no genetics there, these are consciously imported.

‘Ukraine’s Minister of Culture spoke of the “genetic impurity” of the inhabitants of Donbass’, ran the headlines in the Russian press immediately afterwards. Ukrainian officials regularly complain about Russian ‘propaganda’, but they then go out of their way to hand Russian ‘propagandists’ free gifts. Oleg Liashko, the leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party, called Nishchuk an ‘idiot’. For once, I have to agree with him, but sadly for Ukraine, this is not an isolated incident of ministerial idiocy.

3. Fortunately, salvation for Ukraine has arrived in the form of 23-year old law graduate Anna Kalynchuk, who has been appointed to head the lustration department which is charged with purging the Ukrainian government of corrupt officials. This follows the appointment last week of a new Deputy Minister of the Interior, 24 year-old Anastasiia Deyeva. According to The Guardian:

‘Ukrainian politics looks increasingly like a circus show in which clowns come to succeed frustrated professionals,’ Kiev-based independent political analyst Vadim Karasyov said Wednesday. ‘The resignations of top professionals and new scandalous appointments send a bad message both to society and western partners who expect from Ukraine quite a different outcome of the reforms.’

Personally, I’m inclined to give Kalynchuk and Deyeva chance – youth isn’t necessarily a disqualification. Besides, can they really be much worse than the people like Nishchuk who are currently running the show?

Lazy Journalism

One of my main gripes with Russia-bashing journalists is the apparent laziness of much of their output. There are lots of stories which could legitimately be used to paint Russia in a bad light (I’ll discuss one of those later this week). But instead of doing the hard work of investigatory journalism, they instead propose radical ideas based on wild speculation. In this way, their work comes to resemble the ‘Russian propaganda’ they so like to despise.

Take, for instance, the latest Guardian article by Luke Harding. This contains a veritable smorgasbord of allegations which are not only unsubstantiated but also quite extreme.

First, Harding lists a whole load of things that ‘Putin wants’, which may indeed be what Putin wants, but then again may not be, as Harding doesn’t tell us how he knows what Putin is privately thinking. Next, having mentioned that Western countries have sanctioned various members of the Russian president’s entourage, he adds, ‘It’s widely believed in Washington that their assets are Putin’s, running into the hundreds of billions of dollars.’ The last time I heard this rumour, Putin was reported to be worth $40 billion. Now, ‘it’s hundreds of billions’. Where on earth does this figure come from?

Whatever the answer, Harding imagines that Putin has found a use for his hypothetical ill-gotten cash – giving it to Donald Trump. Harding mentions Trump’s connections to Paul Manafort, who was previously an advisor to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. On the basis of this connection, he says: ‘It’s unclear how much Russian cash underpins Trump’s sprawling property portfolio.’ By ‘unclear’, he means that he doesn’t actually have any evidence that Trump is bankrolled by the Russians. His only support is a quotation from Francis Fukuyama to the effect that Trump has never said anything negative about Putin. ‘Fukuyama asked if Putin had “hidden leverage”, “perhaps in the form of debts to Russian sources that keep his business empire afloat”,’ Harding notes

Does Trump actually owe the Russians a lot of money? ‘Again, no one knows,’ says Harding. Nevertheless, he feels confident enough to add, ‘For months, lurid theories have circulated about what compromising information Russia’s spy agencies may have on Trump. The FSB – the successor agency to the KGB, once run by Putin – specialises in gathering kompromat, material that might be used for blackmail. The agency is adept at bugging, clandestine video surveillance and other covert tricks.’ On a visit to Moscow, Trump stayed in the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The Russian secret services may have filmed him there and got something to blackmail him with, Harding says. ‘There is no proof that any compromising video exists,’ he writes, ‘But the FSB would certainly have been interested in this kind of stuff: this is, after all, what it does.’ Actually, not only is there ‘no proof’; there’s no evidence at all!

Put all this together, and what do we have? ‘It’s widely believed’; ‘it’s unclear’; ‘perhaps’; ‘no one knows’; ‘lurid theories’; ‘there is no proof’. Surely the Kremlin critics can do better than this?

A dire warning

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of a warning ignored.

In autumn 1916, as the political situation in the Russian Empire worsened, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, General M.V. Alekseev, penned a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, in which he wrote:

Your Imperial Majesty, I consider the minute has come when I am obliged to report the true state of affairs to You. The whole rear of the army … is in a state of ferment. … All this is leading slowly, but steadily, toward an inevitable outburst of stormy emotions among the people.

Next to alert Nicholas of impending danger was his cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, who sent the Tsar a pair of letters containing inflammatory accusations against the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Word of the letters reached the empress, who declared herself ‘utterly disgusted’ and denounced the Grand Duke as one of her ‘greatest enemies’.

Finally, exactly one hundred years ago today, on 20 November 1916, the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, turned up at the Supreme Headquarters in the town of Mogilev. On arrival, he invited the Head Chaplain of the Russian Army, Georgii Shavelskii, to speak to him. Shavelskii revealed that he too had issued a warning to the Tsar. ‘You did well’, said the Grand Duke, ‘But the problem is … her, only her [the Empress]. Take her away, put her in a monastery, and the Emperor will be a completely different person.’

Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich

After talking with Shavelskii, Nikolai Nikolaevich went to visit the Tsar. Most of their conversation was businesslike, but shortly before leaving and returning to the Caucasus, the Grand Duke broached the subject of possible revolution and urged the Tsar to appoint a government enjoying the support of Russia’s parliament, the Duma. Later he described the scene as follows:

I spoke with Nicky in a very sharp manner. … He just said nothing and shrugged his shoulders. I told him straight: ‘It would be more pleasant if you swore at me, struck me, chased me out of here, rather than say nothing. Don’t you see that you will lose your crown? Come to your senses before it’s too late. Install a responsible ministry.’

According to Shavelskii, the Grand Duke pointed to the room occupied by the Tsar’s son and heir, and told him: ‘If you won’t take pity on yourself, take pity on him.’ But the Tsar refused to heed his advice.

On his way back to the Caucasus, Nikolai Nikolaevich stopped in Kiev, where he met the Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Mariia Fedorovna. On 22 November 1916, she recorded in her diary: ‘We are on the threshold of revolution. … Let us hope that Nicky’s conversations with four different people will open his eyes. Alekseev, Shavelskii, Nikolai [Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich],and finally Nikolasha [Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich], whom it was evidently hardest and most unpleasant to listen to, have all told him the truth.’

When revolution broke out in Russia two months later, the Tsar could not say that he had not been warned.

The enemy within

In democratic countries, disagreeing with government policy is nothing unusual. But Russophobic paranoia has reached such a peak that those who dare to propose better relations with Russia are increasingly facing pressure to be silent. Even daring to suggest that Russian-Western tensions are not entirely Russia’s fault is enough to get one labelled ‘pro-Russian’ and a possible threat to national security. The struggle with the enemy without has now turned into a struggle against the ‘enemy within’.

A report published this week by the Atlantic Council entitled The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses. denounces the ‘Putinverstehern [Putin understanderers], useful idiots, agents of influence, or Trojan Horses’ who are allegedly subverting European democracy, and proposes various measures which European governments should take against them.

Continue reading The enemy within

Friday book # 43: Lenin, the man behind the mask

Unlike most of my books, I can remember exactly where I read this week’s one, Ronald Clark’s 1988 biography of Lenin. It was in late 1989 or early 1990, when I was an infantry officer in the British army and my company had been sent to spend a week on ‘site guard’ at a depot somewhere in Germany. It wasn’t a particularly onerous duty. Apart from leading an occasional patrol around the perimeter, there wasn’t much for the officers to do, so I took Lenin along to while away the time. The available options for entertainment were a) read about Lenin or b) join the boys in watching the same German porn movies over and over again. Being a nerd, I chose Lenin, though it came with an interesting sound accompaniment from the video player in the room next door.