Writing about Russia is a risky business. Or at least that’s what an article in the Nordic journal Up North tells us. According to the article’s author, Patrik Oksanen, those who dare to talk about Russia are likely to face a wave of criticism and have their reputations dragged through the mud. The results, he writes, are deleterious:
The victim could start to self censor, or leave the field [of Russian studies] altogether. The employer or his peers could start to think ‘where there is smoke there is fire’ and withdraw – both socially and profesional[ly], so as to stigmatize the victim. … People might hesitate to engage, or to enter the field. This will mean fewer thoughts and skills, and that less energy will be put into problems that we have to solve.
Reading this, your first thought might be to welcome the fact that somebody is finally coming out in defence of all those who have in recent times been smeared as ‘Russian proxies’, ‘agents of influence, and ‘Kremlin’s Trojan horses’. You then might celebrate the fact that somebody is at last recognising the harm that such labelling has on public discourse. If so, you’d be wrong. For, according to Mr Oksanen, it’s not the people charged with being Kremlin agents who have been defamed. Rather, it’s the people who smeared them who are suffering. The situation is so bad, he writes, that people are refusing to speak out about Russia’s ‘malign activities’ for fear of the consequences.
Given the amount of stuff which is published about Russia’s ‘malign activities’ on an almost daily basis, I was rather surprised by this conclusion. It doesn’t strike me that people afraid to produce such stuff. But Oksanen is sure it’s the case, and to prove his point he tells us the sorry story of Swedish academic Martin Kragh, who works at the University of Uppsala.
In 2017, Kragh, along with co-author Sebastian Asberg, published an article in the Journal of Strategic Studies entitled ‘Russia’s strategy for influence through public diplomacy and active measures: the Swedish case’. For the most part, this was a run of the mill expose of ‘Russian disinformation’. A lot of it focused on the output of the Russian media agency Sputnik. Kragh and Asberg went beyond that, however, and under the rubric of Russian ‘active measures’ commented that, ‘There exist examples of actors in Sweden, such as politicians, academics and newspapers, who wittingly or unwittingly perform a role as agents of influence or interlocutors of disinformation.’
Kragh and Asberg then provided details, in some cases giving names and in others not giving them but instead providing enough information to make those accused easily identifiable. Supposed agents of influence included the left-wing tabloid Aftonbladet, businessman Carl Muerling, environmental and peace activist Tord Bjork and, rather bizarrely, Alexei Sachnin, a former member of the decidedly anti-Kremlin Russian political group Left Front, who was living in Sweden as a political refugee.
Throwing fuel on the fire, a few months later the Atlantic Council published a report The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 3, which contained a chapter by one Henrik Sundbom, who had previously collaborated with Kragh on another work. In the Atlantic Council report, Sundbom carried on where Kragh and Asberg had left off, naming those Swedes who, he felt, were acting on behalf of the Kremlin. Environmentalists came under particular scrutiny.
Unsurprisingly, those labelled as ‘agents of influence,’, enactors of ‘active measures, and ‘Trojan horses’ were none too pleased with what they considered were defamatory accusations. Muerling went so far as to declare that, ‘my life changed’ as a result of the accusations. Many of those involved therefore decided to strike back, writing articles, sending letters of complaints to the Journal of Strategic Studies and Uppsala University about alleged errors in Kragh’s work, and mobilizing others to do likewise on their behalf. Thus began what Oksanen describes as a ‘large scale attack’ on Kragh’s reputation.
In the process, Aftonbladet overstepped the mark, calling Kragh an agent of the British intelligence service MI6. This was because his name appeared on documents leaked from the files of the British Foreign Office funded Integrity Initiative, indicating that Kragh was a member of the Initiative’s Swedish cluster, Kragh denies the charge, and I’m inclined to believe him, as the files in question actually only list people that the Initiative would have liked to recruit rather than ones that they did. But regardless of the truth of the accusation, its inflammatory nature has allowed Kragh and his allies to counter-attack. The result was a public letter by several Swedish academics defending Kragh, and then Oksanen’s article. Together, these portray Kragh as the innocent victim of a Kremlin-directed smear campaign.
This framing of the issue is, in my opinion, revealing. The title of Oksanen’s article is ‘How the Kremlin silences critics: the Swedish case.’ Discussing those who criticized Kragh, the article notes that, ‘Most of them were all well known actors who support Russian views in Sweden, actors that had either in public openly supported Russia, or are trying to influence things in amore clandestine way – or both.’ The headline, as well as this quotation, and in particular the use of the word ‘clandestine’, make it clear that the author regards the complaints not as the natural reaction of people who felt themselves defamed but rather as a product of the Kremlin. No evidence is, however, provide to support this insinuation. In fact, it is notable that only one of the published criticisms of Kragh’s work came from Russia, and that appeared in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, an outlet that nobody in their right mind could describe as ‘pro-Kremlin’. For whatever reason, this just isn’t considered relevant.
This isn’t an isolated incident. After the Macdonald Laurier Institute published a report by Marcus Kolga about Russian ‘disinformation’ in Canada, a flurry of complaints were sent to Institute. These led to Bill Browder tweeting that Mr Kolga was subject of a Kremlin campaign to discredit him. But I know for a fact that it was nothing of the sort. It was just a bunch of people who were pissed off that they, or people they knew, had been defamed. The idea that the likes of Kragh and Kolga are ‘victims’ is absurd.
In their universe, however, it seems as if people who disagree with them about Russia can’t be doing so be doing so because there are some genuine reasons for a different opinion or because they just have a different conception of their country’s national interests. It must be because they are ‘witting or unwitting agents of influence.’ And labelling them that way isn’t smearing them. If they complain, however, then that means that they’re smearing you. Moreover, they’re clearly acting on behalf of the Kremlin when they do so.
This is, of course, nonsense. People do what they do for their own reasons, not because the Russian state is directly or indirectly impelling them to do so. And calling people ‘agents of influence’ is indeed defamatory. This whole story reminds of a schoolyard bully who is shocked when those he bullied hit him back, and then runs to the teacher to complain that he’s been attacked.
To conclude, therefore, I’d like to return to Oksanen’s words above, where he writes that smear tactics deter people from engaging in discussion, which means ‘fewer thoughts and skills, and that less energy will be put into problems that we have to solve.’ I agree 100%. We shouldn’t be calling people agents of MI6, but we shouldn’t be calling them Kremlin agents either. Perhaps Kragh and others like him should reflect for a moment about how they like it when people accuse them of working on behalf of a foreign power, and in the future think twice before themselves making such accusations about others.