As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University? (Blackadder)
There are things I get wrong and things I get right. What’s sad is that the latter are often things I would prefer to have gotten wrong – for instance some gloomy prediction. In my last post, I remarked that Western commentators would most likely not hear the message Vladimir Putin felt he was sending in his comments about Russian weapon developments, but would instead interpret them as signs of aggressive intent. This was one of those predictions I would have preferred to have got wrong. Instead, just a day later, it’s looking like I was right.
As I sat down to my bowl of Cap’n Crunch at breakfast this morning, I found myself staring at the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, which was emblazoned with the headline ‘Putin’s War Games’ and a picture of a portrait of Putin by Ukrainian artist Dasha Marchenko made out of bullet cases.
Just in case any readers didn’t get the point that Putin is an evil mass murderer and threat to all we believe in, two articles then followed to rub in the message. The first, by Shannon Gormley, was a fairly unoriginal repetition of all the normal claims about Russian cyber information warfare, including some that have been pretty thoroughly debunked, such as that Russia ‘has likely sponsored the “leave” vote in Britain’ (Ms Gormley clearly hasn’t read Facebook’s announcement this week that it had failed to find evidence of a coordinated Russian cyber campaign related to Brexit). Russia, says Gormley, is ‘an insolent brat and an incurable bully,’ which will likely target the Canadian election in 2019 (quite why, I cannot imagine, as there isn’t a single ‘pro-Russian’ party to be found), and its ‘goal is to delegitimize democratic institutions.’
In short, there’s nothing in this article you haven’t probably heard a hundred times, so I’ll focus instead on the second piece, which was even more outrageous. Written by National Post journalist Joseph Brean, it spreads over two pages, with a headline on the first page saying ‘The Man Who Would be Tsar’, and one on the second page saying ‘Crazy like a stone sober fox’. Of course, Putin has never expressed any desire to be Tsar and certainly isn’t crazy, so the article gets off to a very bad start. It then gets worse.
Brean, as I predicted commentators would, uses Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly to draw Russia and Putin as a threat to the West. Regarding Putin’s speech, Brean remarks that, ‘The threat was clear. Pay attention, or else.’ Putin, according to Brean, ‘calmly offered a vision of nuclear apocalypse.’ Russia having all these weapons Putin spoke about is bad enough. What’s worse is that the man in charge of them appears to be insane. Brean writes that Putin ‘takes mad gambles that would doom a lesser dictator’. He and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
may not be so different. Putin is playing the same game, just with many more bombs. … It recalls Robin Williams’ famous standup bit about the atomic bomb with his slurring imitation of a vodka-soaked Russian general: ‘We have many bombs, we don’t know where they all are…’
There’s a casual racism about Russians at evidence here, as in Gormley’s comment about Russia being an ‘insolent brat.’ Brean goes on to say that ‘Putin has always seemed crazy’, but also notes that Putin keeps coming out on top when he gambles, which would suggest that the ‘gambles’ perhaps weren’t really ‘gambles’ at all.
But logic isn’t particularly important here. Nor is truth. What matters is piling up the assertions of evil and insanity. After annexing Crimea, Brean claims, Putin ‘could have set his eyes on Kazakhstan’ but didn’t because he couldn’t afford to pick a fight with China. But, when has Putin ever expressed any interest in annexing Kazakhstan? Other sins of Putin include military ‘provocations’, such as buzzing Western aircraft, and rehabilitating Joseph Stalin. According to Brean, ‘Putin has always supported a “Stalin cult”.’ As regular readers of this blog will know I have often pointed out, with ample evidence, that this claim is clearly false. So what is Brean’s evidence for the Stalin accusation? It turns out that it’s a quotation from Ukrainian-Canadian nationalist scholar Taras Kuzio, who could hardly be called the most neutral and balanced of commentators.
Putin, we are told, ‘will be elected by hook or crook’ in the forthcoming presidential election. Brean cites Professor Neil MacFarlane of Oxford University as saying that, ‘He is unstoppable domestically because he has stopped those who might stop him.’ Professor MacFarlane is a respected scholar, but I have to question him here. Who are these people who might have stopped Putin? Alexei Navalny, whose support is regularly measured at around 2%?? And if not him, who else? Nemtsov, Kasyanov, Kasparov? Hardly credible alternatives in terms of popular support. Perhaps Oxford is in need of a new professor of cunning.
Putin, says Brean, has become ‘something like a warrior philosopher king’, as shown by the fact that ‘he assigns his underlings to read pre-Soviet authors like Vladimir Solovyov’. How terrible that is! Vladimir Solovyov! For sure there’s some weird stuff in his writings, but also much which even by today’s standards is quite progressive. Perhaps Brean ought to read The Justification of the Good, the book the Kremlin circulated a few years ago, and then tell us quite what’s so horrible about it. I think that he’d struggle to do so.
I have no problem with people criticizing Russia. What bugs me is the extreme, and often fallacious, manner in which they do so. In my speech in Copenhagen on Monday, I remarked that much of what is written about Russia in the West is ‘garbage’. And here we have it. Two pages of stinking rot. If Putin imagines that he will be able to bring these people to their senses by waving a big stick in their faces, he’s sorely mistaken. The problem is that reason doesn’t seem to work either. At this point, I am beginning to doubt that anything will, apart from the eventual passage of time. In due course, this will all calm down and we’ll look back it as a time when for a moment the world went mad. I suspect, however, that we’ll have to wait for quite a while.