Russia: both malevolent and super-efficient

In his 1969 book The Hitler State, German historian Martin Broszat described how the supposedly highly centralized Nazi state was in fact decidedly anarchic. The Fuhrer, wishing to concentrate all power in his own hands, operated a system of divide and rule designed to prevent his subordinates from combining in ways which might thwart his own will. Rather than coming together to make collective decisions, each ministry operated separately with each minister reporting directly to the supreme leader. The effect was to give ministers an enormous amount of independence to pursue policies at odds with what other ministers might want, resulting in continuous power struggles which were determined by access to Hitler. The extreme centralization of power in fact diffused it and made it next to impossible to coordinate activities across government.

This problem of government operating in unconnected silos is hardly unique to Nazi Germany. A few years ago when counter-insurgency theory was all the rage in some Western states, there was a lot of talk about the ‘whole of government approach’, and the need to get all parts of government to push in the same direction. The fact that this idea became so popular was an indication that it wasn’t actually happening. Even highly advanced Western states with relatively efficient bureaucratic systems struggle with this problem. But there is some reason to suspect that it is worse in more autocratic states, precisely because autocratic rulers seek to retain their power to have the final word by dividing government up into silos. As historian David Macdonald has pointed out, this was very much the case in Imperial Russia, where Tsars resisted all attempts to produce ‘united government’.

Despite this, there is a tendency to regard Russia as possessing some super-efficient government system in which all the levers of state power can be coordinated as part of a common strategy in a thoroughly integrated fashion. I mentioned this tendency in my last post, which discussed the writing of the Institute of Statecraft’s Chris Donnelly. Today a copy of the magazine Diplomat & International Canada landed on my desk, and in it I find yet another example of this logic, in the form of an article by Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council.

Blank nails home all the same points as Donnelly: Russia is at war with the West; it’s innately aggressive and expansionist; and it’s extraordinarily effective at combining all the elements of statecraft into an integrated strategy. He cites George Kennan as saying that ‘political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its objectives.’ Russia is doing this, we are told. According to Blank, ‘Russia employs all the instruments of state power in an unrelenting, multidimensional, relatively synchronized and global environment to force the West to accept it as equal in status to the Soviet Union.’ He then proceeds to list all the various means which Russia is employing to this end – military, political, economic, informational, cyber, and so on.

I find this approach curious. I’ve never regarded the Russian state as particularly efficient. It strikes me as odd, therefore, that its most vocal opponents seem to consider it to be such a beacon of competent governance, especially since they also like to emphasize the state’s autocratic nature. As I mentioned above, the ‘whole of government’ approach doesn’t fit easily with autocracy. Commentators such as Donnelly and Blank want to describe Russia as both autocratic and remarkably adept at integrated governmental strategy. In my mind, that combination just doesn’t work.

Blank and co. also seem to suffer from a certain schizophrenia regarding the cause of ‘Russian aggression’. On the one hand, they blame the system of government. Thus, Blank says that, ‘the state of siege in Moscow’s relations with the West flows directly from the nature of the regime itself.’ An aggressive foreign policy is seen as necessary to divert public attention from the internal failings of the authoritarian regime, while efforts to discredit Western democracy are required to undermine the idea that Russia should develop in a more democratic direction. On the other hand, the same commentators as say this also often push the story that Russian aggression is an inherent part of the country’s character. Blank therefore writes:

As Catherine the Great stated, ‘I have no way to defend my frontiers other than to expand them.’ As Russian writers deeply believe, if Russia is not this kind of great power – and it can be no other in their view – it will cease to exist.

But here we run into a contradiction – if the problem is in Russia’s DNA, to use James Clapper’s phrase, then the nature of the regime has nothing to do with it at all, and even a liberal democratic Russian government would be just as ‘aggressive’ as that of Vladimir Putin. One gets the impression that the approach is just to throw down every possible idea which could be made to paint Russia as threatening, regardless of its coherence.

For what it’s worth, my own take on the issue is as follows. First, the idea that Russia is innately aggressive and expansionist is false. While Russia has certainly acted aggressively on occasions, its historical record in that regard isn’t obviously any worse than that of other major European states. Second, there’s no clear connection between regime type and aggression, either in Russia’s case or more generally; current East-West tensions owe much to clashing interests and the structure of the European security system, factors which won’t change no matter who rules in the Kremlin. And third, Russia shows no signs of being particularly brilliant in terms of strategic planning and integrated government; rather, it’s thrashing around in an often incoherent fashion, not in accordance to some master plan but in reaction to others and in an often improvised way.  The idea of Russia as both malevolent and super-efficient may be useful as a way of scaring people, but it has very little to do with reality.

Advertisements

Bad statecraft

In a 2011 article titled ‘The Rubicon Theory of War: How the Path to Conflict Reaches the Point of No Return’, Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney discussed a distinction between ‘deliberative’ and ‘instrumental’ mindsets, and linked this to the origins of the First World War. When in a deliberative mindset, people consider whether they ought to do something; when in an instrumental one, they think about how to do it. Some time in August 1914, the authors argued, European politicians shifted from a deliberative to an instrumental mindset – instead of thinking about whether they should be going to war, they started thinking about how to fight it. Once they did, war became inevitable.

We’ll get back to this a little later, but first we need to take a diversion. As some readers will be aware, the UK-based Institute of Statecraft and its associated project, the Integrity Initiative, have been in the news a lot recently due to leaks of documents about their campaign to combat ‘Russian propaganda’. Today another batch of leaked documents was published on the internet. Among these is a set of notes for a talk entitled ‘Genesis and Features of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine’. The notes seem to be a few years old and to have been written by someone called Jon Searle, who is described as ‘HDIS, Bedford Modern School’. A bit of investigation indicates that Bedford Modern School is an ‘independent day school for boys and girls aged 7 to 18’ and that Mr Searle teaches religious studies there – not an obvious qualification for expertise on Russian hybrid warfare. Given some clues in the document, I’m guessing that Mr Searle didn’t give this talk; rather it was given by a Ukrainian delegation, and these are just Searle’s notes. Anyway, they contain the following striking lines:

General Conclusions.

The Russian Federation is a constant source of aggression aimed at the territorial, economic and political stability of the Russian Near Abroad and other European countries. There is a desire to re-establish Soviet/Czarist Era borders.

Simply responding to Russian actions will be self-defeating.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Question: Where does Russia go next?

Military and political leaders harbour a desire to return to the ‘glory’ of the USSR: aggression is inherent in the Russian condition, ‘aggression will [only] be over when Russia is over.’

This reminds me a bit of James Clapper’s remark that Russians are ‘almost genetically driven to co-opt and penetrate’, though it’s a bit more chilling because of the phrase that ‘aggression will only be over when Russia is over’, which suggests a desire actually to destroy Russia. The fact that Mr Searle doesn’t consider it worth his while to comment critically on all this suggests to me some degree of agreement. In another document, the Institute of Statecraft’s director Chris Donnelly also seems to concur, remarking that, ‘A fundamental, universally-held Russian belief is that Russia can only be secure at the expense of their neighbours’ security. All the Russian leadership and military consider that other countries’ security is secondary to, and must be subordinated to, Russia’s.’

Russia, in short, is innately aggressive. What’s interesting is that Donnelly allies this with a very elevated opinion of Russian strategy and of the qualities of the Russian General Staff. According to Donnelly, Western states are incapable of proper strategy – they’re very bad at defining national interests and directing means to achieve them, and they’re also very bad at coordinating the efforts of all the parts of government towards a common goal. By contrast, he claims, ‘Russian thinking is not fixed but very flexible. The General Staff (GS) is able to change and evolve, learn lessons, develop new capabilities and concepts. Today, this is a very dynamic organisation.’ Russia has an ‘integrated strategic campaign’, says Donnelly, which involves more than just the military, but brings together all aspects of state power in a coherent whole. It is marked by ‘strategic coherence … concepts, training, equipment are coherent.’ This combination of strategic coherence and aggressive strategic culture make Russia a particularly dangerous enemy. Connelly concludes:

This is the strategic situation we will face for the next 25 years. Moreover, the “war” mindset is being pumped into the Russian population. It is one of the great successes of Putin’s propaganda offensive.

Donnelly adds a curious statement, that ‘Seizing and occupying territory is not the ultimate Russian objective, whereas for the Soviet Armed Forces it was. Their objective today is the destruction of our Armed Forces and war-fighting capability.’ I say this is curious because as Clausewitz pointed out, in war ‘the aim is to disarm the enemy.’ So of course the objective of the Russian military in case of war against us would be ‘the destruction of our Armed Forces’. But I don’t think that Donnelly is thinking in those terms. He takes a lot of effort to explain that the boundaries between war and peace have disappeared. So when he talks about the Russians wanting to destroy our armed forces, I think that he means right now, ‘today’ as he puts it, not in some future war.

How is that to be achieved? A clue comes in another report which came to my attention this week, published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and entitled ‘Complex Strategic Coercion and Russian Military Modernization’. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute might seem far removed from the Integrity Initiative, but I read in the blurb at the end that the report’s author, Julian Lindley-French, is among other things a ‘Senior Fellow for the Institute for Statecraft’. According to Lindley-French, Moscow intends to achieve its objectives ‘via complex strategic coercion’:

 The modernization of Russia’s armed forces must thus be seen in the context of a new form of complex strategic coercion that employs systematic pressure across 5Ds: disinformation, destabilization, disruption, deception and implied destruction. Russia’s strategic goal is to conduct a continuous low-level war at the seams of democratic societies. … In the worst case, complex strategic coercion would be used to mask Russian force concentrations prior to any attack on NATO and EU states from above the Arctic Circle and Norway’s North Cape in the north, through the Baltic States and Black Sea region and into the southeastern Mediterranean.

Again, we see an interesting combination of beliefs in Russia as a) inherently aggressive, b) remarkably powerful (able to attack all the way from the North Cape to the Mediterranean!), and c) extraordinarily capable when it comes to strategic thinking and to the enactment of coherent policies which integrate all aspects of state power in pursuit of clearly defined objectives. Allied to this is a belief that the distinction between war and peace has disappeared, and that the West must act as if it is at war.

So, let us return to how I started this post and to the distinction between deliberative and instrumental thinking. When you look at the Institute of Statecraft, you see in essence the following argument: Russia is aggressive, its policy is coherent, it aims to destroy us, and it is already waging war against us. Alternatives – such as that Russian actions are largely reactive and improvised – are not considered. The conclusion is that we should stop thinking about whether we ought to be at war with Russia (we are), and think instead about how to fight it – i.e. we should start thinking instrumentally not deliberatively. And that, far more than Donnelly’s connections with British military intelligence (of which I too could be accused), is what worries me about him. For as Johnson and Tierney point out, what gets you into serious trouble is when you start thinking about how to do stuff which you really ought not to be doing at all. Fighting wars with Russia is a case in point. Donnelly and Lindley-French represent the Institute for Statecraft, but the statecraft they propose is one which we should all reject.

Give and take

Contrary to common belief, civil society is not necessarily synonymous with pro-Western, liberal-democratic values. Many civil society groups promote what might be considered ‘illiberal’, nationalist, or conservative views. This is very much the case in Russia. And this weekend the nationalist version of Russian civil society was out on the streets.

Its aim was to mobilize Russian public opinion against proposals that Russia cede some of the Kuril Islands to Japan. These islands were captured from the Japanese in 1945, but Japan and the Soviet Union (and subsequently the Russian Federation) never signed a peace treaty. This has been a cause of considerable difficulties ever since. Aware of this, and wishing to improve and deepen Russian-Japanese relations, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been conducting intensive negotiations in an effort to finally conclude a peace treaty between their two countries. This has led to speculation that Russia would agree to return two of the Kuril islands to Japan in return for assurances from Japan that it would not allow foreign (i.e. American) troops to be deployed there, along with other concessions.

However, the idea of handing over territory to a foreign power is anathema to Russian nationalists. And so it was that several hundred of them came out onto the streets of Moscow chanting ‘the Kurils are ours’ and carrying placards with slogans such as ‘We’ll hand over Putin rather than the Kurils.’ Similar demonstrations took place also in Khabarovsk and Sakhalin Island.

The demonstrators represented a small fringe of left- and right-wing groups, including the likes of former Donbass rebel leader Igor Strelkov. But polls suggest that their views on the Kuril issue are very much in line with Russian public opinion. According to surveys, about 70% of Russians oppose handing any of the Kurils back to Japan. There is a perception in the West that public opinion doesn’t matter in Russia, that Putin decides what he wants and Russian state media then manipulate the people into following him. But this is a highly simplistic model of Russian politics. There are only so many unpopular decisions Putin and his government can do without threatening their own authority. With their poll ratings already much lower than a year ago due to the decision to raise the pension age, they can’t afford to alienate the Russian people even further by making another deeply unpopular move. As Dmitri Trenin comments in an article in Vedomosti:

Politicians will make decisions and diplomats will seek to work out mutually acceptable solutions, but the key question will be public ratification of agreements, if and when these agreements are reached. The Kremlin needs to understand clearly that it is up against not just Japan but also the Russian public-and based on public opinion surveys, two-thirds of Russians do not want to hand over the islands. The Kremlin will not be able to coerce the people into accepting its point of view.

In short, when it comes to foreign policy, the Russian government’s ability to manoeuvre is limited. Policy making in Russia is a complex process, and public opinion is certainly not the only factor determining outcomes. But it does matter, and it is not fully in the control of the state. Moreover public opinion (and in its organized form, civil society) is not necessarily liberal, is generally very patriotic, and is certainly not inclined towards making unilateral concessions to foreign powers. Solutions much beloved of Western commentators, such as democracy promotion and the enhancement of civil society in Russia, won’t help in this regard. Given the public mood, a more democratic Russia wouldn’t be any more inclined to do our bidding than an autocratic one. None of this means, of course, that the Kremlin won’t make concessions to foreign powers, be it regarding the Kuril islands, Ukraine, or anything else. But they will have to be concessions that it can sell to its public. And that means that the concessions will have to matched with equally significant concessions to Russia from the other side. In short, those wanting to deal with Russia will have to give as well as take. It’s a point our politicians would do well to bear in mind.

Book Review: Russia Without Putin

We need to think about ‘Russia without Putin’, argues Tony Wood, an editor of the New Left Review, in a recent book with that title. By this he doesn’t mean that we should be thinking about how to overthrow the Russian president, rather that we shouldn’t make Putin the centre of every discussion about Russia. Russia isn’t what it is because Putin made it so, Wood argues. He’s a symptom not a cause. Getting rid of him won’t change anything. Instead, if we want to understand modern Russia, we need to look at the ‘broader structural forces’ which have shaped it; i.e. we need ‘to learn to see Russia without Putin’.

wood

Continue reading Book Review: Russia Without Putin

Worst secret agent ever

For the past couple of years, Donald Trump’s enemies have been waiting with bated breath for the moment when Special Counsel Robert Mueller issues what they are confident will be a damning report revealing the multiple terrible sins committed by Trump in his role as a Kremlin agent. Of late, though, there have been hints that they’re likely to be disappointed. Most recently, ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl warned that,

People who are closest to what Mueller has been doing, interacting with the special counsel, caution me that this report is almost certain to be anti-climatic. … We have seen nothing from Mueller on the central question of, was there any coordination, collusion, with the Russians in the effort to meddle in the election? Or was there even any knowledge on the part of the president or anybody in his campaign with [sic] what the Russians were doing, there’s been no indication of that.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite the best efforts of a major part of the American press corps, nobody has yet managed to come up with any concrete evidence of collusion. This, however, has not dampened the spirits of the serried ranks of true believers who remain convinced that proof of Trump’s guilt has never been closer. Indeed, even as Mr Karl was cautioning against such expectations, American political commentators ramped up the rhetoric to a whole new level. The excuse was Trump’s response to the revelation that the FBI had investigated him for being a Russian agent after he fired FBI director James Comey. Asked whether he worked for Russia, Trump called the idea ‘insulting’. It was, he said, ‘the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked’. But, commentators noted, this response wasn’t strictly speaking a denial. ‘What more proof of Trump’s guilt is needed?’, they pronounced, ‘He doesn’t even deny it.’

And so it was that in the past week, commentary passed on from mere accusations that Trump is a Russian spy to statements of near certainty that this is the case. Reading the Globe and Mail over my toast and marmalade this morning, I came across a typical example of this genre by Jared Yates Sexton, a professor at Georgia Southern University, with the title ‘No longer a wild conspiracy theory: the possibility of Trump as Russian agent.’ Mr Sexton declares:

For too long we’ve given Mr Trump and his associates the benefit of the doubt and the cover of incredulousness. For too long we’ve been in denial of the real possibility. …. The possibility that the President of the United States is working for Russia is now real … We simply cannot afford to look away any longer.

I have to say that I don’t know who Mr Sexton is addressing here, who these mysterious people are, who apparently have been giving Trump ‘the benefit of the doubt’ and have been in ‘denial’ about the possibility that he’s a Russian agent. As far as I can tell, the problem hasn’t been one of denial at all – it’s not like there’s exactly been a shortage of politicians and political commentators accusing Trump of being a Russian spy during the past couple of years. But maybe Sexton hasn’t been watching CNN or reading the Washington Post, and has somehow missed all this stuff.

The Washington Post has been banging the ‘Trump is a Russian agent’ drum incessantly, and was at it again this week, with an article by that well-known bastion of common sense and accurate analysis, Max Boot, entitled ‘Here are 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian agent’. Boot’s article doesn’t actually provide any evidence concretely linking Trump with the Russian intelligence agencies, but that’s pretty much par for the course. Boot ends with the words:

Now that we’ve listed 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian assets, let’s look at the exculpatory evidence:

[This page intentionally left blank]

I can’t think of anything that would exonerate Trump aside from the difficulty of grapsing what once would have seemed unimaginable: that a president of the United States could actually have been compromised by a hostile foreign power. … If Trump isn’t actually a Russian agent, he is doing a pretty good imitation of one.

So what does a ‘pretty good imitation’ of a Russian agent look like in real life? To answer that we have to find examples of the Trump adminstration’s policies towards Russia, and fortunately the international press has just provided us with a good example. The German paper Bild am Sonntag reported on Sunday that the American ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, sent letters to companies participating in the North Stream 2 gas pipeline project in which he told them that, ‘We emphasize that companies involved in Russian energy exports are taking part in something that could prompt a significant risk of sanctions.’ A spokesman for Grenell subsequently clarified the Ambassador’s letter by saying that it was not a threat, just a ‘clear message of US policy’, though I have to say that the distinction is lost on me. Grenell’s letter didn’t come out of the blue. The United States has long been doing all it can to sabotage North Stream 2. And Trump himself is fully signed up to the policy. At a meeting with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia last year, the US president declared his opposition to North Stream 2, declaring:

Germany hooks up a pipeline into Russia, where Germany is going to be paying billions of dollars for energy into Russia. And I’m saying, ‘What’s going on with that? How come Germany is paying vast amounts of money to Russia when they hook up a pipeline?’ That’s not right.

This is indeed a ‘pretty good imitation’ of a Russian agent. There’s no doubt about it – Trump is working for the Russians. Why else would he doing his damnedest to destroy one of the Russian Federation’s most valuable international trade projects? Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. If Donald Trump is indeed a Russian agent, I have to conclude that he’s got to be the worst secret agent ever.

It lies within

In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, long before the current frenzy about ‘fake news’ and Russian ‘disinformation’, British journalist Nick Davies sought to explain why the global media contained so much ‘falsehood, distortion, and propaganda.’ According to Davies, up to about the 1980s, mass media was not predominantly concerned with money-making. In particular, what one might call ‘serious’ broadsheet newspapers were rarely profitable and often lost substantial amounts of money. They stayed in business because of the subsidies of rich proprietors who felt that owning a newspaper gave them prestige and political influence. In the 1980s Rupert Murdoch changed all that, and set about turning the mass media into a source of revenue. One way of doing this was by cutting costs, which entailed reducing payroll. Thus began a process in which the number of journalists employed by Western media organizations has plummeted. This process has accelerated in recent years, with newsroom jobs falling by 23% between 2008 and 2017 alone. At the same time, the internet has led to a vast increase in the number of media organizations. The internet has also created intense pressure to produce stories quickly. The result is fewer and fewer journalists forced to produce more and more stories faster and faster. The inevitable consequence has been a decline in quality.

Along the way, investigative journalism, which is slow and labour intensive, has fallen largely by the wayside. Instead, modern journalism has become largely a matter of cutting and pasting. Davies and his research team examined where the stories in newspapers came from. They discovered that the overwhelming majority came from two sources: a) a handful of press agencies, such as AP and Reuters; and b) press releases issued by governments and private corporations. Only a few organizations, such as the BBC, produce most of their own news reports. The majority just cut and paste from press agencies or press releases. Fact checking – which is also slow and labour intensive – has largely disappeared. In his 2006 book War Reporting for Cowards, British journalist Chris Ayres explained how the process works. Arriving in New York as the new US correspondent for the London Times, Ayres meets his predecessor. His job, she tells him, is to watch CNN and read the New York Times and then transcribe them for a British audience. Enough said!

My last post was on a very trivial matter, but I wrote it because it encapsulates the sloppy journalism which results from this process. Unfortunately, it’s endemic, and given the pressures that journalists operate under, it’s probably inevitable and not really their fault. Davies comments that these pressures mean that it’s relatively easy for governments and corporations to manipulate the media. Needing stories, journalists will snap up official press releases and regurgitate them without too much critical analysis. Others will then copy them, and before long the story is accepted everywhere. If you want to know why the English-language media overwhelmingly accepted government claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, this explains a lot.

What Davies doesn’t go into, but I think is also important, is the latitude the modern cut-throat media process creates for biases to influence reporting. Many issues are contested. Perhaps more than one party is issuing press releases. You don’t have time to check the competing narratives, or maybe look for some middle ground. The editor wants the story out now. So you have to choose. Whose press release do you cut and paste? The one issued by the side you believe more reliable, obviously. And how do you decide that? Perhaps years of experience have taught you the correct answer. But perhaps it’s just a matter of personal preference. Reporting on Syria, do you cut and paste the White Helmets’ latest press release, or that of the Syrian government? You don’t like the Syrian government, so you go with the former. Ideally, you’d do more research, but, as I said, there’s no time, so biases govern.

Davies also points out that at any time there is a ‘story’ which prevails. If everybody else is reporting on something, then editors feel that they have to be reporting on it too, regardless of whether there is anything to it. If you want to sell copy, you can’t be the only outlet which is ignoring the ‘story’. You can see this with what is called ‘Russiagate’. For the past two years, Russian ‘electoral interference’, ‘disinformation’ and so on have been the ‘story’. Journalists therefore leap upon anything which feeds this story, even if it doesn’t actually amount to much. By contrast, anything which suggests a different story is ignored. You can see this in the case of the British-run Integrity Initiative, a shady organization funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and dedicated to combatting ‘Russian propaganda’. As Kit Klarenburg points out in an article in Sputnik News, the Integrity Initiative set up one of its ‘clusters’ of like-minded opinion formers in Germany. This cluster was headed by a former British Member of Parliament Harold Elletson, who is believed to have once worked for the British secret intelligence service MI6. Imagine if it became known that a secret network had been set up in Germany to push pro-Russian stories in the German media, and that this network was funded by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and led by a former Russian Duma Deputy who had at one time worked for the Russian intelligence service SVR. One suspects that it would be front-page headlines. Journalists would be all over it. It now turns out that a British funded network, run by a former British spy, has been recruiting Germans to influence Germany public opinion. It seems newsworthy. But how much attention has it gathered from the ‘mainstream’ media? Practically none. It doesn’t fit the ‘story’.

Attentive readers will note that in two days I have twice referenced the Russian media organization Sputnik. This is kind of odd, as I doubt that I have ever read more than about five Sputnik stories. But the narrative above tells me why people might decide to read more. Too much reporting in Western media is sloppy, inaccurate, and biased. I’m certainly not saying that all of it, or even most of it, is. There are some excellent journalists and some first class reporting. But when it comes to Russia, there is a lot which falls short, more than enough for many intelligent readers to realize that something isn’t quite right. The result is a loss of faith in the mainstream media, which induces some to defect to alternative sources, be it Sputnik or anything else.

Those alternative sources may, of course, be worse. But it seems to me to be wrong to blame them for the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the like. Those who campaign against Russian disinformation often demand that governments take action against RT, Sputnik, and others, and propose setting up counter-disinformation centres dedicated to exposing Russian fake news and spreading their own version of the truth. But none of this addresses the root cause of the problem – the failings of our own traditional media. I’m not sure what the solution is – the pressures of the market and the processes unleashed by modern information technology are what they are – but the solution certainly doesn’t involve blaming others. If you don’t report on the Integrity Initiative, for instance, of course people will turn to Sputnik to read about it. And frankly, they’re right to do so – where else can find out about this stuff? So what I’d say to our information warriors is that if you don’t want people turning to Sputnik¸ you first need to get your own act together. As I’ve said before, the root of problem doesn’t lie without; it lies within.

Today’s fake news pedantry

How does fake news get propagated? There are many answers. One is bad translations. Did Vladimir Putin really say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the ‘greatest tragedy’ of the 20th century? Many would say not. The official translation is that the collapse was ‘a major geopolitical catastrophe’, which though similar is actually very different. Did ex-President Ahmadinejad of Iran really say that Israel must be ‘wiped off the map’? Some say yes, but others like Juan Cole argue that what he actually did was express a hope that someday Israel would disappear – again similar, but fundamentally different. The point here is that dodgy, or at the very least contestable, translations can rapidly gain a life of their own and be accepted as absolute truth. They then spread far and wide as a sort of fake news.

Which brings us to this week’s revelation that Vladimir Putin was once an artilleryman. While at university, it seems, he had the rank of reserve artillery lieutenant. This previously unknown detail from Putin’s past soon appeared throughout the Western press. The Guardian, for instance, reported that,

Vladimir Putin has revealed that he commanded an artillery battalion during the Soviet period, a detail of his shadowy biography that was previously unknown.

Putin made the comment during a visit on Monday to St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, where he pulled the lever on a cannon that fires a daily salute at noon over the Neva River.

“I received the rank of lieutenant as an artilleryman, as the commander of a howitzer artillery battalion… 122mm [calibre],” Putin said, according to video footage posted by the Kremlin. He gave no further details.

Other press outlets leapt onto the battalion commander bandwagon. ‘Putin reveals for the first time that he commanded an artillery battalion,’ says the Daily Mail. ‘Vladimir Putin says he once commanded an artillery battalion,’ claims NewsweekAnd so on.

Except Putin didn’t say anything of the sort.

An artillery unit consists of individual guns grouped together into batteries (normally four to eight guns per battery). Batteries are then grouped into battalions (which the Brits sometimes call regiments, though Russian regiments are larger, consisting of several battalions). Assuming six guns a battery, and three batteries per battalion, an artillery battalion might have 18 guns. That’s a lot for a junior reserve lieutenant to command.

The Russian term for an artillery battalion is ‘divizion’ (дивизион), which shouldn’t be confused with ‘diviziia’ (дивизия), which is the equivalent of the Western term ‘division’. But Putin did not say that he had commanded a divizion; he said he had commanded a ‘vzvod’ (взвод). More precisely, his exact words were: ‘ Я получил звание лейтенант как артиллерист, командир взвода управления гаубичной артиллерии’, which translates roughly as ‘I received the rank of lieutenant, as an artilleryman, commander of the control platoon of howitzer artillery’.

So Putin did not say that he commanded an artillery battalion. What he actually said was that he commanded a platoon.

Did anybody get this right? I’ve been able to find only one outlet which did – Sputnik News (though even this managed to screw things up by talking about an artillery ‘division’, which is probably a confusion with the Russian word ‘divizion’, i.e. battalion). Thus Sputnik tells us:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 7 January that he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant as platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division.

‘It turns out, we are both artillerymen. I was promoted to lieutenant as an artilleryman, platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division… 122-millimetre [calibre]’, Putin stated.

I realize that this may appear stunningly pedantic. Battalion, platoon, what does it matter? It matters because in the first place, if you can’t get basic facts right, you don’t deserve to be trusted; and second, because it tells us something about how ‘fake news’ spreads. Someone says something which others consider a juicy story, and then they just repeat it. Along the way, nobody bothers to check the facts. The result is completely false headlines which will no doubt soon be repeated far and wide as established truth.

The battalion commander story was obvious nonsense. Anybody with a tiny bit of knowledge of military affairs should have realized that a reserve lieutenant could not possibly have commanded a battalion. The Guardian, which got it wrong, is of course a bastion of top notch journalism, despite publishing such bloopers as last week’s claim that Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker theory (that Stalin intended to attack Germany in 1941) ‘now has broad acceptance among historians’ (it doesn’t, and has been thoroughly debunked in great detail by Gabriel Gorodetsky and others). Sputnik, on the other hand, which got it right, is a purveyor of fake news and ‘disinformation’. Go figure!