Peddling certainty

Some of you may remember the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ produced by the British government prior to the invasion of Iraq. This laid out the government’s evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I gave it a read at the time. It was most unconvincing, consisting of numerous statements along the lines that ‘Iraq could have this’, ‘It might have that’, and so on. The Executive Summary, by contrast, was very different. All the caveats had disappeared, to be replaced by an almost 100% certainty that Iraq was knee deep in deadly weapons. The next day when the media reported the dossier, they just reported the Executive Summary. The ‘coulds’, ‘mights’ and ‘possiblys’ in the main text were nowhere to be seen. I knew then that something fishy was going on.

My career in military intelligence was relatively short, but one thing I learnt from it is that intelligence analysts tend towards caution in their assessments. They don’t want to be proven wrong, and so lace their reports with words like ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’. This is especially true when providing analysis rather than reporting pure data. Whenever you read something which claims 100% certainty, you should be immediately suspicious.

As regular readers will know, I am of the opinion that there are good reasons to suspect Russian involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yuliia Skripal in Salisbury. The behaviour of the alleged poisoners, Petrov and Boshirov, was, to say the least, odd, and their interview on RT utterly unconvincing. Which is where we come on to the organization Bellingcat, which claims to have identified Boshirov’s real identity.

The first thing to say about Bellingcat’s research is that it is ingenious. Unfortunately, their claims about Petrov’s and Boshirov’s passport applications are unverifiable, as we don’t have access to the originals, and so can’t check want Bellingcat is saying. Still, it’s undoubtedly interesting. Likewise, the organization’s latest investigation, which claims to identify Boshirov as a colonel in the GRU, named Chepiga, deserves to be added to the file as something worth further investigation. I absolutely don’t dismiss this stuff out of hand.

But there’s something which annoys me about Bellingcat nonetheless. It’s the certainty with which it makes its claims, and then the certainty with which those claims are reported by the press. The intitial Bellingcat report on Petrov’s and Boshirov’s alleged passport application stated that the organization’s investigation,

Has confirmed through uncovered passport data that the two Russian nationals identified by UK authorities as prime suspects in the Novichok poisonings on British soil are linked to Russian security services.

Note the word ‘confirmed’. This is incorrect. What the investigation does is provide information to suggest a link between the suspects and Russian intelligence. It doesn’t prove it. If you find the evidence convincing, I’d allow you to say ‘probable’, or to put in some sentence like ‘we assess with a high degree of confidence that,’ or whatever. If you did that, then you’d be writing like a proper intelligence analyst, pointing out to the reader that this is an assessment not a fact, and that there is some uncertainty. But Bellingcat doesn’t do that. It’s ‘confirmed.’

The second Bellingcat report on the subject makes the same error, beginning with the headline ‘Skripal Suspects Confirmed as GRU Operatives’. Note again the word ‘confirmed’ – no doubt there at all. The same happens again with Bellingcat’s latest. This starts with the headline ‘Skripal Suspect Boshirov Identified as GRU Colonel Anatoly Chepiga.’ In this case, the word ‘identified’ is categorical. Bellingcat is claiming that this is definitely true, not raising the possibility that it might be so. As the article which follows says,

Bellingcat and its investigative partner The Insider – Russia have established conclusively the identity of one of the suspects in the poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal. … Bellingcat was able to conclude with certainty that the person identified by UK authorities as ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga.

But have they established this ‘conclusively’? What they’ve actually done is tracked down a Russian military officer, Colonel Chepiga, and provided some evidence to suggest that he might be in the GRU. They’ve then provided some photos to show that Boshirov looks a bit like Chepiga. But that is absolutely not ‘conclusive’ proof that Boshirov is Chepiga. Again, Bellingcat  is making categorical claims that its evidence doesn’t support. Boshirov may indeed be Chepiga – I don’t rule that out – but it is wrong to say, as Bellingcat does, that on the basis of its evidence one can ‘conclude with certainty’ that the two are the same.

This is especially true as Bellingcat  made no forensic effort to compare the photos of Boshirov and Chepiga. I’m no fan of Craig Murray, who it seems to me has popped far too many red pills but, as you can read here, he at least bothered to run some facial recognition software, and got results which suggest that the two aren’t the same guys at all. I’m not at all qualified to comment on forensic matters. Perhaps further investigation will reveal that the two faces are in fact identical. Or maybe they won’t. I merely raise the issue to say that if you want to make the sort of identification Bellingcat makes you have to do a bit more work before coming out with statements about concluding ‘with certainty’. It’s dishonest reporting.

And it matters. The reason it matters is that the press doesn’t tend to go for nuance. If you make claims of certainty, the press will run with them and repeat them as if they are true. And this is what we saw in the British press following the Bellingcat story:

bellingcat

Observe how all these headlines treat Bellingcat’s claim as proven fact. Now, perhaps further investigation will prove Bellingcat to have been right. I consider it perfectly possible. But as a former intelligence officer, the claims to absolute certainty bug me. Proper reporting requires analysts to make the reader aware of all the underlying assumptions and uncertainties, as well as the additional information which is required to confirm the hypothesis being advanced. Bellingcat doesn’t do any of that. It peddles certainties. And that sort of thing has gotten us into all sorts of trouble in the past. Reader beware.

 

Living in wacko-land

A chance encounter with a Twitter post got me following links on the internet today as I filled in time between classes. I know that there’s a lot of truly rotten stuff out there, and every now and again I write some piece denouncing some example or other. But on the whole, I try and stay clear of it. Still, immersing myself in all this was rather interesting, so I thought that I would share the results.

The Tweet which got me started was this one from Toronto-based Ukrainian-Canadian ‘political analyst’ Ariana Gic, who writes occasional columns for outlets like the Atlantic Council. I’m always rather sceptical of ‘independent analysts’ who seem to lack an institutional base, and am frankly amazed that one can making a living that way, but apparently one can. Anyway, this is what Ms Gic had to tell us yesterday.

gic

I don’t think that I need to discuss this, as I’m sure you can all see the point without further commentary, but it’s perhaps useful to add the fact that the officer commanding Soviet forces in Kiev until his death in combat on 20 September 1941 wasn’t an evil ‘Moskal’ but a Ukrainian, General Mikhail Kirponos. But that’s by the by. Not knowing anything about Ms Gic, I decided to see what else she has written. And then, following the links from what I found, I ended up discovering what a bunch of others have written recently too. Here’s some of the results:

1) The World Cup ‘revealed Russian chauvinism.’ According to a piece by Ariana Gic in the EUObserver, the World Cup displayed the nasty nationalism prevalent in the Russian population. This is a favourite theme of Ms Gic, who is keen that we should all know that Ukraine’s (and the West’s) real enemy is not Putin or his ‘regime’ but the Russian people. ‘Kremlin propaganda tapped into existing Russian exceptionalism, imperialism, chauvinism, & hatred of Ukrainians,’ she tells us on Twitter, adding that we must fight the ‘lie of the good Russians’.

2) Ms Gic’s Twitter account connected me to that of another Canadian activist, Marcus Kolga. A man of, I think, Latvian descent, Kolga played a prominent role in the lobbying which produced the Canadian Magnitsky Act. According one of his latest Tweets:

Interference in Canada’s 2015 election confirmed & there are constant attempts by Kremlin to undermine Canadian democracy, alliances + policy. Not simply a 2019 election interference problem but attack on democracy.

I read the Canadian newspapers every day and have yet to see any indication of Russian interference in our 2015 election. But never mind. Kolga tells us it’s ‘confirmed’! Pursuing him a bit further, I discovered a bunch of articles he’s written for publications like the Toronto Sun. In one of these he informs us that the Russian annexation of Crimea was just like the Soviet annexations of the Baltic States in 1940 and that Vladimir Putin is involved in ‘relentless attempts to deny the Soviet occupation and repression of these nations.’ This is odd, as I’ve never seen any such attempt. But I’m just an academic who’s written a couple of peer-reviewed articles about Putin’s speeches. What do I know?

Kolga will be one of the panelists at a seminar held by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute here on Ottawa on Thursday. The blurb for the seminar tells us:

Russia uses hybrid or asymmetric tactics to advance its goals in Eastern Europe and beyond. … An important element is its use of disinformation and offensive cyber activities. Russian websites have already tried to spread vicious rumours about NATO troops in the Baltics. Closer to home they have spread rumours about the family history of Canada’s foreign minister and have worked to manipulate aspects of Baltic history in an effort to marginalize their security concerns. Kremlin meddling was clearly a factor in the US, French and German elections and Canada can expect the same in future elections. … To shed light on this issue, MLI is hosting a panel event that will bring together some of the leading thinkers on the strategic threat posed by Russia.

It’s nice to see that this well-balanced seminar hasn’t predetermined the issue of the Russian ‘threat’. I have better things to do than spend a couple of hours listening to how terrible it is to ‘spread rumours [sic] about the family history of Canada’s foreign minister.’ I won’t be attending.

3) After a diversion into the territory of Mr Kolga, Ms Gic next directed me to something by Paul Goble, whose work I generally avoid. In a recent article for Euromaidan Press, Goble claims that in Donbass, ‘Moscow is replacing local people with Russians.’ Citing ‘US-based Russian journalist Ksenia Kirillova,’ Goble tells us that locals are being arrested and ‘replaced by new arrivals’ from Russia. ‘Most of them are coming from Vorkuta and Irkutsk’, says Goble, adding that

Kirillova does not say, but it is clear from her interviews that the “DNR” officials backed by Moscow are interested in promoting the departure of the older residents and their replacement with more malleable and thus reliable Russians from distant regions of the Russian Federation. 

Ariana Gic comments that Goble’s story tells us that Russia is trying to ‘forcibly change the demographics of the local population in occupied Ukraine’. This amounts to ‘ethnic cleansing, and a war crime under Art 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention,’ she says. Think about this for a moment. Just how many Russians would you have to import from Vorkuta and Irkutsk in order to reconfigure the demographics of Donbass? And just how how many Russians do you imagine are going to want to move to a war zone with an almost non-existent economy? To quote John McEnroe, ‘You cannot be serious.’

4) After pursuing these links a bit more, I finally, and I know not how, ended up on a page full of Twitter postings by Andreas Umland, which in turn directed me to a gem of an article by Paul Knott in the New European, entitled ‘Meet the Most Dangerous Man in the World.’ And who is the ‘most dangerous man in the world’? Alexander Dugin, of course. Knott notes that those who have studied Dugin, like Marlene Laruelle of The George Washington University, consider his influence exaggerated. But facts and scholarly analysis be damned! Knott knows better. ‘Dugin is heavily promoted by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media and has strong ties to the military,’ he tells us, adding that Vladimir Putin ‘is in thrall to him.’ ‘The substantial influence Dugin exerts over ultra-powerful people like Putin and, indirectly, Trump, makes him a frightening figure,’ says Knott. Dugin as the puppet master of Donald Trump? Is that what we’ve come to now? Knott was a British diplomat for 20 years. It makes you wonder about how they do their recruiting in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Reading all this, one feels like one is living in wacko-land. And it’s just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. One of the organizations Ms Gic writes for is ‘Stop Fake’. If only!

Johnny Russkii Strikes Again

‘We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.’ Viktor Chernomyrdin.

As Viktor Chernomyrdin wryly observed, the Russian state doesn’t have the greatest reputation for competence. For some reason, though, its secret services are an exception. From the time of the Trust right up to contemporary stories of Trump-Putin collusion, the Soviet/Russian secret services have appeared not only as ubiquitous but also as awesomely efficient, able to infiltrate governments worldwide, eliminate their enemies, and, in the case of Trump, even elect presidents. Watch the TV show The Americans, and you’ll get the impression that there’s just about nothing these guys can’t do.

For some this is proof positive that Russian military intelligence (GRU) couldn’t possibly have been involved in the Salisbury poisoning case. After all, the GRU are meant to be supreme professionals, but the Salisbury poisoning was so badly botched it smacks of rank amateurism. As for the supposed GRU agents, Petrov and Boshirov, not only did their actions in Salisbury display a distinct lack of professionalism, but their performance in their TV interview made them appear as less than intellectual geniuses, in short not at all the kind of people you’d expect in a supposedly elite organization.

But what if it’s all a myth? What if the Russian secret services are not so much Max Otto von Stierlitz as they are Johnny English? In light of recent revelations, it’s a possibility seriously worth considering.

Take, for instance, the widespread claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. When details finally emerged of the Facebook and Twitter advertisements which are meant to have been the centrepiece of the great Russian plot, one could only conclude that they were remarkably crude. And then there was the fact that the ‘Russians’ (if it was they) spent hardly any money campaigning for Trump in swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, but a whole lot more in Washington, DC, which votes roughly 90% Democratic. Clearly, somebody didn’t have a clue what he or she was doing.

And now there’s the curious case of the GRU passports. Following the revelation of the passport details of Salisbury suspects Petrov and Boshirov, Bellingcat made the curious claim that you could identify Russian secret service personnel by the number of the issuing authority listed on their passports. This immediately struck me as bizarre. Would it not be incredibly stupid to have a special issuing authority just for VIPs and secret service personnel, so that passport control officers in foreign countries could immediately spot your spies?? This must be rubbish, I thought. Nobody would be that stupid. But then came some more revelations today from the Russian online media agency Fontanka.ru.

Fontanka had the ingenious idea of tracking down people whose passport numbers were very close to those of Petrov and Boshirov. This it was able to do by the fact that their names appear in public records, such as when they’ve paid traffic fines or bought property. The results are rather interesting.

One of those with a passport number close to Petrov and Boshirov is a guy named Krymsky. Fontanka found that he’d paid a 3,000 ruble fine in July 2015, and listed his address as 76B Khoroshevskoe Shosse. The building at that address is said to contain the ‘offices of several military units, including Branch Number 45807, whose commanding officer is Igor Korobov, the head of the GRU.’ It also happens to be ‘just around the corner from the GRU’s Moscow headquarters.’ As if that isn’t suspicious enough, another person with a similar passport number, by name of Andreev, also gave his address as 76B Khoroshevskoe Shosse when paying a fine. In autumn 2016, Andreev apparently flew to Belgrade with a guy named Potemkin. And guess what? When purchasing a plot of land and later buying a Nissan car, Potemkin also said that he lived on Khoroshevskoe! Coincidence? It seems unlikely. Of course, we only have Fontanka’s word for it that all this is true. But on the assumption that the Fontanka journalists haven’t made the whole thing up, it does seem rather probable that the GRU has been caught with its pants down, as it were.

Is the GRU stupid enough to launch an operation like that in Salisbury? Is it so dumb as to give its secret agents passports with consecutive numbers and an easily identifiable issuing code so that everybody scanning a Russian passport can immediately tell who’s a spook and who’s not? Having spent some time in military intelligence myself, I have to say that you can’t rule it out. And if you share Chernomyrdin’s view of his country’s competence, it’s more than just a possibility. What’s life in the GRU really like? Is it like the von Stierlitz classic Seventeen Moments of Spring? Or is it more a case of Johnny Russkii Strikes Again? The more we find out, the clearer the answer becomes.

Rush to judgement

Going to war is generally a bad idea. I’ve long been interested, therefore, in analyses which provide some clues as to why political leaders make the almost certainly stupid decision to do so. For that reason, I’m grateful to RT for bringing to wider attention a report commissioned by the Norwegian government entitled ‘Evaluation of Norway’s Participation in the Operations in Libya in 2011’. RT gets a lot of abuse for publishing ‘fake news’, but it does provide a public service in producing stories which otherwise don’t get any attention in the English-speaking media. This is a good example.

Norway played a leading role in NATO’s 2011 campaign to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Norwegian Air Force contributed six jets to the NATO mission, and dropped around 600 bombs on Libya, accounting for about 15% of the NATO total. At the time, the military campaign had almost unanimous support among Norwegian politicians, but by 2017 some of them had developed doubts, and so the Norwegian parliament instructed the government to conduct an inquiry into the operation. The report of the committee of inquiry has just been issued (unfortunately only in Norwegian), and can be downloaded here.

Outside of Norway, the press has almost entirely ignored the report, but RT picked it up, publishing an article entitled ‘Norway didn’t know much about Libya yet helped bomb it into chaos, state report finds.’ The article goes on to tell us that:

A Norwegian state report says the officials “had very limited knowledge” of what was going on in Libya, but promptly decided to join the US-led intervention, turning the once thriving North African nation into a terrorist hotbed. Norway rushed to help its NATO allies to pound Libya with airstrikes in 2011, without understanding what was actually happening on the ground or the dire consequences the intervention might lead to, a new state report has concluded. The commission, chaired by former Foreign Minister Jan Petersen, found that politicians in Oslo “had very limited knowledge of Libya” when they dragged the nation into the US-led bombing campaign against the Libyan government. “In such situations, decision-makers often rely on information from media and other countries,” the report says.

This perked my interest, so with the help of Google Translate, I’ve given the report a read. In fact, it says a lot more than the RT article suggests, and covers matters such as the legality and constitutionality of Norway’s war against Libya, the conduct of Norwegian military operations, and the humanitarian and political aspects of Norway’s involvement in Libya. What interests me most, however, are the findings concerning the decision-making process, so I will concentrate here on those.

As RT says, the report notes that Norwegian politicians knew very little about Libya or the conflict which erupted there in 2011. This is stated several times: ‘When the uprising started in February 2011, the knowledge about Libya among Norwegian decision makers was very limited’; ‘The Norwegian authorities had limited Libya expertise’; and so on. To compensate for this, the Norwegians relied on two sources: their allies, and the media. The former painted a very negative picture of the situation in Libya. According to the report, once Norway’s French and British allies had persuaded the UN Security Council to authorize military action, ‘the Norwegian authorities did not find it necessary to verify the Security Council’s understanding of the situation.’ As for the media, its reporting was one-sided and pressured the Norwegian government to act forcefully. Consequently, the report concludes, the evidence

suggests that warnings from, among others, Libyan opposition groups in exile, some regional actors, and human rights activists were accepted without any kind of critical examination.

In these circumstances, Norwegian leaders assumed the worst. Fearing that a massacre of the people of Benghazi was imminent, they felt that they needed to act immediately. According to the report, ‘The decision was taken in a very small circle’, and was ‘taken very quickly.’ The smaller parties in the ruling coalition were then ‘exposed to relatively large pressure’ to fall in line.

The speed of the decision-making left no time to adequately consider not only the evidence, but also the pros of cons of action and inaction. What becomes clear from the report is that Norwegian leaders considered only the possible negative consequences of failing to act without considering the possible negative consequences of acting. In particular, the report notes that the Norwegian government feared that if nothing was done, ‘there was a real danger that the country would be divided into two … the conflict would lead to government collapse and further fragmentation of what was already considered a dysfunctional state.’ It was feared that this might lead to a flood of refugees from Libya into Europe. What’s ironic about this is that exactly the things the Norwegians feared would happen if they didn’t act are what did happen because they did!

It is quite obvious from the report, however, that nobody thought of this. The report is written in the sort of bureaucratic style which doesn’t directly criticize policy. Instead, it hints, making suggestions which if you read between the lines point out that something went badly wrong. It concludes:

Norwegian authorities should work systematically in order to ensure the widest possible decision-making basis, including building up an organizational culture which facilitates a more systematic analysis of different scenarios and unknown variables. Possible measures are:

  • The establishment of so-called red teams, who have a mission to point out the challenges and consequences of an intervention.

  • Use of checklists in connection with the preparation of decisions. Such lists can be of great use in crisis situations, where a one-sided interpretation based on incomplete facts can weaken the understanding of the situation.

The fact that the committee of inquiry felt it necessary to make such recommendations is revealing. It indicates in a subtle way that the Norwegian government did not carry out a ‘systematic analysis of different scenarios and unknown variables’, and did not consider ‘the challenges and consequences of an intervention’, but did follow ‘a one-sided interpretation based on incomplete facts.’ It’s well-hidden, but it’s a pretty damning conclusion. Simply put, the government didn’t consider alternative possible outcomes of their actions, let alone weigh the pros and cons of different options, but just chose one option on the basis of inaccurate information which it didn’t bother properly to check.

To be fair, the report does take pains to point out that the Norwegian government was operating under intense pressure in what appeared to be an emergency situation which required a rapid decision, and that it did so in an atmosphere of great uncertainty. For this reason, it doesn’t criticize what was done but treats it as understandable in the circumstances. I have some sympathy with this perspective – it’s quite easy to criticize from a distance when one isn’t under the same sort of pressure and when, with the benefit of hindsight, one has the relevant information at one’s disposal. But, while I have some sympathy, I can’t ultimately accept the argument. In the first place, time pressure isn’t a reason not to consider the possible consequences of what one is planning to do. And second, neither the Norwegian government nor any of its NATO allies acted as if they were in a situation of uncertainty. Rather, the problem was that they seemed all too certain that their analysis was right and said as much in the most categorical terms.

In short, there was a rush to judgement. Alas, this wasn’t a one off. It’s a story we’ve seen repeated in many countries on numerous occasions in recent years. I wish I could say that it is shocking. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise.

Mutual disbelief

A few months ago, the Joint Investigation Team which is examining the 2014 shooting down of Flight MH17 asked Russia to provide evidence about the origins of the anti-aircraft missile used in the attack. Today the Russian Ministry of Defence did just that, producing documents showing that the missile in question (identified by the serial numbers on the missile fragments) had been produced in Soviet Russia and then transferred to an air defence unit in Ukraine in 1986. The implication was that the missile was Ukrainian, and that therefore Ukraine, not Russia or the rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic, must have been responsible for downing MH17 (assuming that the rebels didn’t capture the missile from the Ukrainian Army, which can’t actually be ruled out).

The immediate reaction of Western journalists was to scoff at the Russians’ claim. For instance, The Daily Telegraph’s Alec Luhn wrote on Twitter, ‘In short, Russia has cited its own documents to claim the missile that downed MH17 was delivered to Ukraine in 1986 and never left.’ Quite where Russia would have gotten documents on the matter other than from Russia is a question Luhn ignores, but his insinuation is clear: Russian documents can’t be trusted, and so this story isn’t worth further investigation. The Financial Times’s Max Seddon was equally dismissive. ‘How convenient for them to have discovered this now, four years after the fact,’ he wrote on Twitter (where the top of his feed continues to show a Tweet saying that ‘Russia’s team is so bad fans are worried they won’t make it out of the World Cup group stage’!). And the Kyiv Post’s Christopher Miller showed a picture of a giggling journalist, and remarked ‘The face of the person in the crowd at the Russian MOD briefing on MH17 tells you all you need to know about the latest desperate attempt to deflect blame for the disaster.’

Western journalists’ rapid dismissal of the Russian documents contrasts with their equally rapid acceptance of documents purporting to be the passport applications of Salisbury poisoning suspects Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. I have absolutely no idea whether any of these documents are genuine. For all I know, all or none or some of them might be. What concerns me here is what the journalists’ reactions tell us about their biases, namely that as a matter of course they don’t trust anything coming out of the mouth of Russian officials.

My observations of the Russian media show me that the same is true of Russians, albeit the other way round, i.e. they display an almost total distrust of anything said by Westerners. RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who carried out a recent interview with the Salisbury suspects, expressed the sentiment very clearly on the political talk show 60 Minutes the other day. She didn’t have an opinion as to whether Petrov and Boshirov were telling the truth, she said, but what she did know was that Western intelligence agencies had lied about Iraqi WMD and had published a document which named her 27 times as leading an effort to undermine American democracy, something which was completely untrue. Why she should believe anything the West said, she asked? Reading the Russian press, and watching other TV shows, I get the impression that this attitude is fairly widespread.

There are some good reasons for Westerners not to trust the statements of the Russian government (which has, to say the least, been less than transparent and truthful regarding its involvement in the war in Donbass), as well as for Russians not to trust what’s said in the West (where both politicians and journalists have peddled all sorts of nonsense on matters such as Iraqi WMD, Colonel Gaddhafi giving his troops Viagra in order to commit rape, Russian atrocities in Syria (while ignoring the destruction caused by American bombing), and so on). Western commentary on Russia is often so far removed from reality as to appear deranged. The same, sadly, is often true of Russia commentary on the West. My point, therefore, is not to say that one side or other is right or wrong. Rather, it is that we seem to have reached a situation in Russian-Western relations of almost complete mutual disbelief. The perception that the other side is engaging in propaganda and ‘information war’ leads people to instinctively dismiss what it is saying, even when it is well-grounded in fact. That in turn leads them to adopt extreme positions, thereby rendering themselves even less credible in the eyes of the other side. The result is a vicious circle of escalating distrust.

Is there any way out of this mess? As I’ve said before, I’m not optimistic.

Stubborn resistance

The latest edition of the journal Ethics and International Affairs contains a number of interesting articles on international law and the ethics of war. Several of them are worth commenting on, but I want to focus on a piece by Alex Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia. Bellamy is the author of quite a good introductory book on just war theory. As his job title would suggest, he’s something of an R2P advocate, and in his latest article he tackles the idea that during civil wars outside parties should support the state against insurgents. This idea rests on the principle that the state will probably win, and so it’s best to help it win as quickly as possible, so reducing overall bloodshed. The fact that Bellamy considers it necessary to address the idea is almost certainly a product of the situation in Syria, where government troops are the on verge on launching a final offensive to clear the country of rebel forces. The final triumph of the ‘Assad regime’ now seems so certain that even as hawkish a commentator as Max Boot has said that it would be best at this point if everybody helped Assad so as the get the war over and done with. Bellamy doesn’t like this. He calls it the ‘fatalist approach’ and in his article, entitled ‘Ending Atrocity Crimes: the False Promise of Fatalism’, he urges the likes of Boot to reconsider.

Now, I’m all for people taking on Max Boot, and would normally side with anybody who wants to do such a thing, but in this case, Boot is closer to the truth than Bellamy. For all his aggressiveness, Boot’s ultimately about the forceful pursuit of the national interest, not grandiose ideas of human rights or the international order. Liberal interventionists like Bellamy, by contrast, are all about the latter. And that’s where they go badly wrong.

In his article, Bellamy admits that the idea of helping states to defeat insurgents is not without merit, even in cases where the states in question are guilty of serious crimes. He points out that ‘when states prevail quickly over their domestic opponents, they tend to kill fewer civilians’. Wars in which the rebels prevail and which end in regime change tend, by contrast, to be very prolonged and involve much more death and destruction. Also, peace is normally more long lasting when one side or other wins decisively.

Despite this, Bellamy argues that helping states defeat their rebel enemies is a bad idea. He provides three reasons, which he calls ‘recurrence, precedence, and rights’. First (‘recurrence’), if states learn that they can employ atrocities against their citizens and get away with it, they will do so again and again. As he says, ‘Vladimir Putin came to power by employing indiscriminate violence against Chechnya to good effect in the Second Chechen War, and went on to support similar tactics in Syria.’ Second (‘precedence’), if states see that the international community turns a blind eye to criminal activity by other states, and even helps those states achieve victory, they will draw the conclusion that they can behave badly too. Again, he cites ‘the aforementioned adoption by Syrian government forces of tactics perfected by Russia during the Second Chechen War.’ And third (‘rights’), ‘Privileging order by standing aside as grave violations of rights are committed is patently inconsistent not only with the obligations of international human rights and  humanitarian law but also with the principles and purposes of the United Nations itself’. Ignoring such violations in order to bring wars to a quick end would do ‘great harm to the legitimacy of both the international legal order itself … and the compact between states and peoples.’

Bellamy remarks that his approach is a rule-consequentialist one, that is to say that he is arguing about what would be the best rule rather than what is best in any single instance. The fact that in some individual cases supporting a repressive government would bring a war to an end and so reduce suffering is not reason enough to create a rule that one should always do such a thing. If this was done all the time the negative consequences would outweigh the positive ones. One must, therefore, accept the additional suffering in this one case in order to support the rule which does the most good when applied repeatedly.

I have no problem with rule consequentialist arguments and have often used them myself. But they are very dependent upon judgements of future consequences which one cannot actually know. In this specific case, I think that Bellamy’s judgement is rather coloured by inaccurate assessments of how actions in one instance impact upon actions in another. His arguments concerning recurrence and precedence, for instance, draw on the Chechen example and claim that failure to confront Russia in Chechnya led to Russia, and Syria, committing atrocities during the Syrian civil war. But the link between Russian tactics in Chechnya and the methods used in Syria is decidedly tenuous. As I’ve said before, the tactics and level of force employed by the Russians and Syrians are not very obviously different from those employed by the United States and its various allies in places such as Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. And that is for the very good reason that if you’re going to expel a heavily armed and determined enemy from a city, then you don’t have many options other than to act in that way. In short, it’s got nothing to do with recurrence or precedence.

Moreover, as I’ve also said before, the elevation of ‘rights’ over peace is contradictory because by extending war and increasing the level of violence one inevitably undermines people’s rights, in particular the right to life. It’s also wrong to claim, as Bellamy does, that it’s a mistake to prioritize order over rights, for the simple reason that order is an essential precondition of rights. Bellamy ends his article by saying that we ‘need a politics of stubborn resistance.’ I find this phrase rather scary. In the case of Syria, what could this mean but war and yet more war? After all, if we aren’t going to let Assad win, there’s only two alternatives: war without end; or a war to overthrow the government (which only be achieved at a massive cost in human life). It’s hard to see how either option would enhance Syrians’ rights.

In any case, I think that Bellamy is tilting at windmills, in that I don’t think that there are many people who are saying that it should be a general rule that in civil wars one should always support the state. After all, if it’s a war which the state is losing, the logic of ending it quickly would dictate supporting the rebels. Perhaps a better rule might be to support whichever side is most likely to win in order to enable it do so as rapidly as possible. But that also wouldn’t be a very good rule, as it’s not that easy to predict who’s going to win and people are going to get it repeatedly wrong and end up supporting the weaker side, so making things worse. For instance, based on my memories on what was being said at the time along the lines of ‘Assad is doomed’, I’m reasonably confident that when the Americans decided to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels they were pretty confident that they were backing a winner. Instead, they backed a bunch of losers, and so prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people.

Studies have shown very clearly that, absent foreign intervention, civil wars generally finish fairly rapidly. Foreign intervention is strongly correlated with longer wars and increased suffering. If I may turn Bellamy’s rule consequentialist logic against him, then it is clear that if one is looking for the rule which over time does the least harm, then it isn’t one which says intervene on behalf of the state in civil wars, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf of the rebels, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf the side most likely to win. Rather, it’s one which says ‘Don’t intervene at all!’ For sure, that would require us to refrain from intervening in the few instances when intervention might do some good, but it would also force us to refrain in the far more numerous instances when it would do harm. Overall, the world would be much better off as a result. The dogmatic pursuit of human rights may make people feel virtuous, but in the end morality has to rest on practical realities, and those dictate that the strategy of ‘stubborn resistance’ is deeply counterproductive.

Novichok suspects

With good reason, the news that the British police have identified two suspects in the Salisbury novichok poisoning case confirms what most people already thought – that those responsible came from Russia. The claims that the alleged perpetrators were agents of the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, and that the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was ordered by somebody at a high level outside the GRU remain unproven. Nevertheless, the latest news puts the Russian government in an awkward position and places a serious burden of responsibility on it to take action against the alleged assassins.

The British police have said that the names of the two assassins – Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – are likely aliases, and have appealed for help in discovering their true identities. The British government, meanwhile, has said that the two are GRU agents. This is somewhat problematic. How can the British know that the pair work for the GRU if they don’t actually know who they are??

petrov_boshirov
‘Aleksandr Petrov’ and ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ in Salisbury.

Also problematic was a statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said today that:

The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command. So this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.

This may well be true, but it is an assumption not a fact, and personally I tend not to assume too much discipline on the part of Russians. As yet, the Russian state must remain a prime suspect in the affair, but the case against it cannot be considered closed.

Still, if it is true, as reported, that traces of novichok were found in the two men’s hotel room, it is next to impossible to deny that they were indeed the people responsible for the attack (while also raising some interesting questions about how they failed to poison themselves, and so on). Given this, we can say with some certitude that the assassins travelled to the UK from Russia on Russian passports. That places a serious burden of responsibility on the Russian government to do something to address what was a serious crime. If the two weren’t GRU agents, as the Russians insist, then the only way for the Russian authorities to clear their own name is to help the British identify Petrov and Borishov and then take action against them. Failure to do so will inevitably be interpreted as an admission of guilt.