A question of attitude

A couple of Ukraine-related items caught my attention this week.

The first is a report by Baylor University professor Serhiy Kudelia which discusses how to bring peace to Donbass. Kudelia starts by saying that Western states have regarded the resolution of the war in Donbass as being dependent on changing Russian behaviour. This is insufficient, he says, for ‘the successful reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine … rests on designing a new institutional framework that can provide long-term guarantees to civilians and separatist insurgents.’ Kudelia says that academic literature on conflict resolution would suggest four elements to such a framework:

  1. Autonomy for Donbass within Ukraine. Such autonomy would come with risks, by entrenching local rulers with patronage networks outside of central control and with the means to challenge central authority. To reduce these risks, Kudelia suggests giving autonomy not just to the territories currently controlled by the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR), but to the whole of Donbass, thereby bringing within the autonomous region some more pro-Ukrainian elements of the population as well as groups not connected to the DPR/LPR power structures. He also suggests devolution of power within the autonomous region to weaken the potentially disruptive consequences of hostile elements controlling the region’s government.
  2. Transformation of the rebel state and military structures into political parties. Experience in other countries suggests that when this happens, the prospects of a successful transition increase substantially.
  3. Comprehensive and unconditional amnesty for everyone involved in the war. For obvious reasons, rebel leaders won’t agree to the first two proposals without an amnesty. Past experience speaks to the necessity of this measure.
  4. No elections in Donbass for two to three years. Kudelia notes that, ‘Holding elections in a volatile post-conflict environment creates ample opportunities for voter intimidation, electoral fraud, and disinformation campaigns that could build on conflict-related divisions.’ Kudelia doesn’t say who would rule Donbass in the meantime. I would have to assume that it would mean that the existing authorities would remain in place. That could be problematic.

With the exception of that last point, these are sensible suggestions. But when boiled down to their essentials, they don’t differ significantly from what is demanded in the Minsk agreements – i.e. special status for Donbass and an amnesty. As such, while I don’t think that the leadership of the DPR and LPR would like these proposals, my instincts tell me that they would be quite acceptable to the Russian government, which would probably be able to coax the DPR and LPR into agreeing to them. If implemented, the results would be something Moscow could portray as a success of sorts.

And there’s the rub. For that very reason, I can’t see Kiev agreeing to any of this. Kudelia’s argument is founded on the idea that there’s more going on in Donbass than Russian aggression. Accepting that something has to be done to ‘provide long-term guarantees to civilians and separatist insurgents’ means accepting that there are civilians and insurgents who need reassuring, not just Russian troops and mercenaries. And that means changing the entire narrative which Kiev has adopted about the war. So while Kudelia’s proposals make sense (after all, what’s the alternative? How could Donbass be reintegrated into Ukraine without autonomy and an amnesty?), what’s lacking is any sense of how to get there.

A large part of the problem, it seems, is the attitude in Kiev. This becomes very clear in the second item which caught my attention – an article on the website Coda entitled ‘Now Healthcare is a Weapon of War in Ukraine.’ The article describes how the DPR and LPR are encouraging Ukrainians to come to rebel territory to receive free medical treatment, and then using this as propaganda to win support for their cause. This is despite the fact, as the article shows, that the medical facilities in the two rebel republics are in a very poor state. Author Lily Hyde isn’t able to confirm how many Ukrainians have taken up the rebel offer of free medical aid, but does repeat a claim by the rebel authorities that 1,200 people have done so.

What interests me here is not the sensationalist headlines about healthcare being weaponized, but the question of why Ukrainians might feel it necessary to go to the effort of crossing the front lines to get treatment. And the article provides an answer, namely that parts of Donbass ‘are trapped in a precarious limbo, still under Ukrainian government control but cut off from key services like healthcare.’ The war destroyed much of the healthcare system in Donbass, but ‘Ukraine provides no financial or other incentives for medics to work in frontline areas’, and has done little to repair shattered infrastructure. Healthcare seems to be a lower priority than fighting ‘terrorism’.

While the DPR and LPR use healthcare as a ‘weapon’ by providing it to people, Kiev has ‘weaponized’ health in another way – by depriving people of it. As the article reports:

Kiev has not outlawed receiving medical treatment in occupied Donetsk or Luhnaks. But collaborating with the separatists – or supporting their propaganda efforts – is illegal. How exactly such charges are defined is not clear, but past experience has taught both individuals and organizations to be wary of such accusations. The Ukrainian authorities have investigated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Ukraine who have provided foreign-funded medicines and other supplies to occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. NGOs working there have been banned by the de fact authorities [of the DPR and LPR] on similar charges. Doctors have found themselves placed on blacklists by both Ukrainian officials and the separatists, accused of being ‘terrorist collaborators’ by one side, or of being spies by the other.

Hyde contrasts the Ukrainian government’s policies towards the DPR and LPR with that of Georgia, where:

The government offers free healthcare for people from Abkhazia, a breakaway territory it still claims which is now under de facto Russian occupation. The government is building a modern hospital in the nearest town to the boundary line, aimed at people from Abkhazia.

Essentially, says Hyde, it’s ‘a question of attitude’. She cites Georgy Tuka, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Temporarily Occupied Territories – ‘“There’s a wish to punish people,” Tuka acknowledged.’

That’s quite an admission from a government minister.

Even if the details need fleshing out, the institutional framework required to reintegrate Donbass into Ukraine has been pretty obvious for a long time now. The problem has been getting people to accept it. It is indeed, therefore, ‘a question of attitude’. Sadly, the prevailing attitude stands firmly in the way of the institutional changes required for peace. The desire seems to be to punish people, not to reach agreement with them in order to promote reintegration and reconciliation. The issue, then, is whether this attitude can be changed (and if so, how) or whether it is now so firmly entrenched that there is nothing which can be done. Sadly, I fear that it may be the latter.

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Book review: Russia’s Response to Sanctions

Do sanctions work? More precisely, have the sanctions imposed on Russia in recent years worked? Given the growing tendency of Western states to resort to economic sanctions against countries they dislike, these are important questions. In the case of Russia, sanctions are the main tool used by the West to express its opposition to Russian foreign policy, and more generally to the ‘Putin regime’. Discovering whether they are achieving their supposed objectives (whatever those may be) should be a priority for students of international affairs, as well as for politicians.

According to the University of Birmingham’s Richard Connolly, however, ‘do sanctions work?’ is the wrong question, or at least it’s a question that can’t be answered until other questions have been answered, most notably ‘what is the effect of sanctions on the targeted country?’ And to answer that question you have to consider other ones, such as ‘how exactly do sanctions impact the targeted country?’ That in turn requires one to investigate in depth the political and economic structure of the target to understand how it operates and how it responds to external pressure. Every country is different, and operates according to a set of ‘intricate relations’ between the state, its citizens, and the various institutions within it. As yet, however, studies of the sanctions imposed on Russia have not sought to take these into account, leading to simplistic analyses. As Connolly says in his new book Russia’s Response to Sanctions, ‘Policymakers and other public figures prone to making hyperbolic statements about the state of the Russian economy today, and then using those statements as a basis for formulating policy and attitudes towards the country, often appear to do so without the aid of even a rudimentary understanding of Russia and its economy.’

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Continue reading Book review: Russia’s Response to Sanctions

Misery

A couple of things caught my eye while I was perusing the book section of Sunday’s New York Times while sipping my post-dinner coffee tonight. The first was a review of Keith Gessen’s new novel A Terrible Country. In this, reviewer Boris Fishman tell us that:

Gessen’s book feels like one of recent literature’s most accurate portrayals of modern Russia, which is to say that I was miserable for hours after reading it.

Because, as you know, Russia is a miserable place and everyone there is just miserable all the time. Miserable, miserable, miserable. Ask all the people who went there for the World Cup. They’ll tell you what a miserable time they had. You won’t find anybody there having fun, or even with a smile on their face. Just miserable.

I think it’s fair to say that the New York Times doesn’t care for Russia very much. Which is where the second thing I noticed in today’s paper comes in. For right at the end of the book section is this week’s bestseller list. And these are the top two of the non-fiction category.

  1. The Russia Hoax, by Gregg Jarrett. (Broadside). The Fox News analyst makes his case for why the FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is without legal merit.
  2. Liars, Leakers and Liberals, by Jeanine Pirro. (Center Street). The legal analyst and Fox News host argues in favor of President Trump.

If the only American media you consumed was the New York Times, you’d come to the inevitable conclusions that a) Americans are united in their obsessive hatred of their president, and b) it’s all the fault of those horrible Russians who colluded with Trump to get him elected. But judging by the bestseller list, it’s not the New York Times which Americans are getting their news from. It’s Fox. And despite the Times and other media outlets spending the past 18 months relentlessly pursuing the Russiagate collusion story, it seems that a whole lot of Americans aren’t buying it.

All of which, I think, might give those miserable Russians some cause at long last to smile.

The use of force

There are occasions when statements of the blindingly obvious are rather revealing, although not in the way that those making the statements intend. One doesn’t learn anything new about the specific matter being discussed – as it’s blindingly obvious, one knew it already – but one does learn something about the person making the statement, namely that it wasn’t so obvious to him or her. And that’s where it can get quite interesting.

Journalist Simon Saradzhyan has worked in Russia for 15 years, and is now part of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he runs, and writes for, the website Russia Matters. In his latest article, he has a go at explaining in what conditions Russian president Vladimir Putin is willing to endorse the use of force. He writes:

In my view, at least two conditions need to be in place for Russia’s leadership to seriously consider this option. They can be broadly defined as follows: First, Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests that he thinks cannot be neutralized by any means short of force. … The second condition for Russia to use military force against another country is that Moscow must have a reasonable hope that such actions would yield a net reduction in threats to Russia’s vital interests (“Condition 2”). This may not mean outright victory. But Russian leaders must be confident that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs.

To prove this case, Saradzhyan refers to the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015, and contrasts these with the non-use of force in cases such as Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and Armenia (2018). The first case (Georgia, 2008) is rather problematic because Putin wasn’t President of Russia at that time, and I’m not aware of any evidence that the decision to counter the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not Dmitry Medvedev’s. But that’s by the by. What really interests me here is Saradzhyan’s two conditions. Reading them was another of those occasions when I felt a powerful urge to say, ‘Well, duh!’. Putin, we’re told, only uses force when vital interests are at stake and a cost-benefit analysis suggests that benefits will outweigh costs. Of course! What else would you expect? After all, what’s the alternative? To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be crazy. All Saradzhyan’s thesis tells us is that in his opinion Putin is a rational actor.

So why are these two amazingly obvious conditions such a revelation? Why does Saradzhyan think that they will tell anybody anything that a rational person should not already expect? I see two possible explanations.

First, the image of Putin as irrational and unpredictable is so deeply embedded that an analysis which describes him as something different is considered revelatory, penetrating, and insightful rather than merely prosaic.

Second, Saradzhyan and his intended audience don’t understand that his conditions are simply common sense and should apply to everybody everywhere. And the reason why they don’t understand this is because those conditions are not Western practice.

And that’s where this article’s statement of the blindingly obvious becomes quite interesting. For, viewed this way, what this article explains to us is not the conditions under which Putin uses force so much as the conditions under which the West does so – when vital interests aren’t at stake, and when we end up worse off afterwards. Judging by this article, we’ve now become so used to this that anything else apparently comes as a big surprise.

Cui bono?

I’m not a great fan of Marxist philosophy, but one thing it has got right is the need to be sceptical when faced by what academics like to call ‘normative’ claims, and to be aware that such claims often hide a bid for power. When faced by such a claim, one should always ask ‘Cui bono?’ – who benefits?

At present, politicians and political commentators are making much of the alleged threat to democracy posed by social media, ‘fake news’, and ‘disinformation’. This is leading to demands for social media to be more tightly regulated and for action to be taken against those supposedly guilty of spreading fake news, notably the Russian government. Yesterday’s big news was an announcement by Facebook that it had removed 32 accounts ‘believed to have been set up to influence the mid-term US elections in November.’ According to Facebook, these accounts were responsible for 9,500 posts and had spent $11,000 on advertising. Personally, I don’t regard this as a big deal. In a country in which political campaigns cost billions of dollars, I seriously doubt that $11,000 on Facebook is going to make any difference. For sure, there’s a lot of garbage to be found on social media, which also make it easier for people to hide their true identity. But I remain utterly unconvinced that ‘fake news’ on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is that important, if only because nobody has yet to produce any hard evidence that such ‘news’ has actually swayed any significant number of voters.

Why then are so many people getting so worked up about it and demanding action? An interim report published last week by the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee provides some clues. Entitled, ‘Disinformation and Fake News’, the interim report says that,

There are many potential threats to our democracy and our values. One such threat arises from what has been coined ‘fake news’, created for profit or other gain, disseminated through state-sponsored programmes, or spread through the deliberate distortion of facts, by groups with a particular agenda, including the desire to affect political elections. … We are faced with a crisis concerning the use of data, the manipulation of our data, and the targeting of pernicious views. In particular, we heard evidence of Russian state-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK through social media. … In this rapidly changing digital world, our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose. … Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions.

You will note how this is couched in terms of normative claims concerning ‘democracy and our values’. But if you dig a little deeper, you will see that there is something else going on here. In its first two paragraphs, the report says:

  1. In this inquiry, we have studied the spread of false, misleading, and persuasive content, and the ways in which malign players, whether automated or human, or both together, distort what is true in order to create influence, to intimidate, to make money, or to influence political elections.

  2. People are increasingly finding out about what is happening in this country, in their local communities, and across the wider world, through social media, rather than through more traditional forms of communication, such as television, print media, or the radio.

Call me a cynic, but in my eyes, paragraph 1 simply describes democratic politics, a process in which people ‘distort what is true in order to create influence … or to influence political elections’. In an attempt to define ‘fake news’, the committee likewise describes a number of things which to my mind sound just like normal political or journalistic practice, e.g.

  • ‘Manipulated content: distortion of genuine information or imagery, for example a headline that is made more sensationalist.’
  • ‘False context of connection: factually accurate content that is shared with false contextual information, for example when a headline of an article does not reflect the content.’ [As I can personally testify from having had my articles appear under utterly misleading headlines put in by newspaper editors, this and the previous bullet point are absolutely standard journalistic practice.]
  • ‘Misleading content: misleading use of information, for example by presenting comment as fact.’ [As I’ve pointed out before, this is also completely standard.]

If the Committee were really investigating ‘fake news’, it would have to investigate itself and all its members’ colleagues, and indeed their entire profession. It would then have to consider all the profound questions which such an investigation would raise. But that, of course, is not going to happen. Likewise, the committee would have to investigate ‘traditional’ forms of journalism, which are guilty of many of the dubious practices identified. But that isn’t going to happen either. Instead, the report focuses entirely on the new phenomenon of social media, as if ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ were primarily their fault, rather than, say, the fault of politicians who mislead in order to win votes.

Paragraph 2 reveals what’s really at stake here. People are now finding out about the world in ways which the politicians aren’t able to manipulate as successfully as the previous sources of information. Power is shifting. They don’t like it. And they want to stop it.

The question then is how to do that. The answer is to find some ‘malign persons’ or institutions who can be associated with the shift of power and used to discredit it. This is where Russia comes in handy. And sure enough, the interim report devotes several pages to discussing the evil impact of Russia on British democracy, and in particular alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum. The evidence provided for this interference is pretty weak, much of it consisting of a discussion of businessman Arron Banks, who provided millions of pounds to the Leave campaign, and who also held some meetings with Russian officials to discuss business deals. Somehow, this connection is meant to show ‘Russian interference’, but quite how is never explained.

What’s clear is that the result of the Brexit referendum really irks the committee. It keeps coming back to it, mentioning, for instance, connections between the Vote Leave campaign and the companies AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica, which used data mining techniques to gather information from Facebook for political purposes. This made me think that maybe there’s a hidden agenda here. In the USA, it’s obvious that the paranoia over ‘Russian interference’ and the malign influence of social media is driven by power struggles within the political elite, prompted by the angst caused by Donald Trump’s election. Is it the same in the UK?

To answer this question, I did a bit of investigating and looked up the members of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and whether they had supported Remain or Leave during the Brexit referendum. The interim report lists 12 members of the committee. Here are the results:

Damian Collins MP (Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe) (Chair) – Remain.

Clive Efford MP (Labour, Eltham) – Remain.

Julie Elliott MP (Labour, Sunderland Central) – Remain.

Paul Farrelly MP (Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme) – Remain.

Simon Hart MP (Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) – Remain.

Julian Knight MP (Conservative, Solihull) – Remain.

Ian C. Lucas MP (Labour, Wrexham) – Remain.

Brendan O’Hara MP (Scottish National Party, Argyll and Bute) – Remain.

Rebecca Pow MP (Conservative, Taunton Deane) – Remain.

Jo Stevens MP (Labour, Cardiff Central) – Remain.

Giles Watling MP (Conservative, Clacton) – Remain.

Christian Matheson MP (Labour, City of Chester) – Remain.

Does it make sense now?