Spot the difference

Remember this story, which appeared on the BBC in September 2016?

The US ambassador to the UN has accused Russia of “barbarism” over the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Samantha Power said Russia had told the council outright lies about its conduct in Syria. She said Russia and the Syrian regime were “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city”.

Samatha Power’s accusations against the Russians were hardly unique. They were in fact pretty much the norm among American commentators throughout the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo. For instance, Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote the following denunciation of Russian ‘brutality’:

The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

Meanwhile, the ‘brutal’ and ‘barbaric’ methods of the Russians were contrasted with the relatively benign tactics of the American military. As Zack Beauchamp commented in Vox:

While the United States and its allies are waging a targeted air campaign against ISIS and other extremists, Russia and the Syrian government are launching an all-out assault on a single city, an assault heedless of the civilian casualties. Washington and its allies have killed innocents but work to avoid it. Russia and Syria — which are carpet-bombing densely populated civilian areas with indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs — don’t.

Americans weren’t the only ones to take this line. Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson, for instance, remarked that Russia was becoming a ‘pariah nation’ due to its attacks on Aleppo, some of which, he claimed, were ‘unquestionably a war crime’.  And Mark Galeotti commented in Foreign Policy magazine, that:

Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechn War. … These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.

Fair enough, you might say – a lot of innocent people died in Aleppo. According to Wikipedia:

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a pro-opposition non-governmental organization, reported that the Russian bombardments killed at least 1,640 civilians in the Aleppo area: 1,178 civilians died between 30 September 2015 and 1 August 2016, while additional 462 civilians were killed from 19 September 2016 until 30 November 2016.

It’s impossible for me to validate these figures, which could be criticised for the fact that they come from a ‘pro-opposition’ organization. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s take them as reasonably accurate. Now let’s compare them with something else – the numbers killed by air and artillery strikes carried out by American forces and their coalition allies in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa. As I reported a year ago, when a team from the  UNHCR entered Raqqa after its liberation from the forces of the Islamic State, its members recorded that they witnessed a ‘level of destruction which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.’  Since then, analysts have been trying to calculate the human cost of this destruction, and today we have the results.  According to the BBC:

More than 1,600 civilians were killed in US-led coalition air and artillery strikes during the offensive to oust the Islamic State group from the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017, activists say.

Amnesty International and monitoring group Airwars said they had carried out investigations at 200 strike locations … Researchers spent about two months on the ground in the city, carrying out investigations at strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors. They were able to directly verify the names of 641 victims, and there were very strong multiple sources for the rest, Amnesty said.

So, there we have it. In a campaign marked by ‘war crimes’, ‘brutality’, and ‘barbarism’, the Russians killed 1,600 civilians. Meanwhile, in the campaign for Raqqa, the Americans killed … 1,600 civilians! Can you spot the difference? I can’t.


Corrupting democracy

One might imagine that the release of the Mueller report would have silenced everybody on the subject of Russian ‘interference’ in American democracy. Unfortunately, so much has been invested in the idea of Russian election meddling that some people just can’t give up. And so it is that Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has produced an 8 page briefing entitled Russian Meddling in the United States: The Historical Context of the Mueller Report. According to Jones,

Moscow’s actions need to be understood as part of a long-term campaign to weaken the United States—Russia’s main strategic competitor—and Washington’s relationship with key allies. During the Cold War, Moscow conducted a similarly aggressive campaign of “active measures” in the United States, not just overseas, including repeated attempts to influence U.S. elections.

To back up this claim, Jones  provides a list of episodes from the Cold War era in which the Soviet Union tried in various ways to influence US politics. For instance, ‘Soviet and Czechoslovak agencies orchestrated a disinformation campaign labeling [1964 presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater as a racist and a KKK sympathizer.’ And prior to the 1968 presidential election, ‘Soviet leaders took an extraordinary step, unprecedented in the history of Soviet-American relations, by secretly offering [Democratic presidential candidate Hubert] Humphrey any conceivable help in his election campaign— including financial aid.’ Finally, ‘On February 25, 1983, KGB headquarters instructed agents in the United States to start planning activities to defeat Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. … the KGB worked with front groups and agents of influence. … Inside the United States, the KGB active measures campaign alleged that Reagan discriminated against minorities, that his administration was corrupt, and that he was too closely tied to the military-industrial complex.’

No doubt this is all true (as indeed were some of the accusations the Soviets made about their American enemies!). But in the first place, the modern Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union. And second, what these examples of Soviet ‘meddling’ all have in common is that none of them had any notable effect. Goldwater lost, but for very good domestic reasons, which had nothing to do with the Soviets. Meanwhile, Soviet attempts to elect Humphrey and defeat Reagan failed dismally. When one looks at the net impact of these ‘active measures’ one has to conclude that it was next to zero. Like a lot of sneaky-beaky Cold War spy stuff, it was completely pointless.

This doesn’t stop Jones from commenting that contemporary Russian ‘meddling’, like its Soviet counterpart, ‘represents a serious threat to U.S. national security.’ ‘U.S. enemies are not just at the gate, they are inside it. Americans need to put aside party policies and confront these threats to freedom and democracy,’ he concludes.

But as it happens, while reading the New York Times book review section this Sunday, I learnt something rather interesting about American democracy in the Cold War. This appeared in a review of the latest book by Robert Caro, the author of an as yet uncompleted multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). Johnson was the man who walloped Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and he was able to rise to the position where he could compete against Goldwater due to having earlier won election to the US Senate, and then having become John Kennedy’s Vice President. LBJ’s first Senate victory came in 1948 when he defeated Texas governor Coke Stevenson by a mere 87 votes. The election was very controversial, however, because of allegations of ballot stuffing. The New York Times reports how 40 years later Robert Caro tracked down Luis Salas, ‘the election judge who, under oath, had certified 200 disputed votes for Johnson in the notorious Ballot Box 13.’ As the Times says:

He [Caro] knocked on the door of a mobile home near Houston, and the frail old man of 84 who answered was only too pleased to fish out from a trunk a 94-page history titled “Box 13,” which described how he had switched votes from Stevenson to Johnson. He was proud of deceiving everyone. “We put L. B. Johnson as senator for Texas, and this position opened the road to reach the presidency.”

Never again would Caro have to equivocate, “No one will ever be sure if Lyndon Johnson stole it.” Now, in [his book] “Working,” he writes yet another definitive sentence: He stole it.

Electoral corruption takes rather different forms nowadays. Corporate lobbying, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the like are far more common than ballot stuffing LBJ-style. But regardless of the form these abuses take, the idea that we have some type of pristine process which is pure and ‘democratic’ until defiled by ‘foreign meddling’ is rather naïve. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t be doing all we can to make matters better, or that we shouldn’t be wary of things which might make them worse. But in doing the latter, we need to keep a sense of proportion and not to over-idealize existing systems or over-exaggerate the scale of the dangers. The likes of Timothy Snyder would have us believe that democracy is on the verge of collapsing into tyranny. In reality, the choices are between various forms of democratic imperfection. Some are better than others, but all are inevitably flawed. A little bit more imperfection here and there isn’t the end of the world.

Peace candidate?

The impending victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian presidential election is splitting the commentariat into two. On the one hand, there are the optimists. Zelensky is less beholden to the nationalist vote than Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko, and has avoided divisive ethno-national language of the sort which has characterized Poroshenko’s campaign. According to the optimists, therefore, he will be much better placed to bring the conflict in Donbass to an end. Serhiy Kudelia, for instance, remarks that, Zelensky ‘offers a new type of political leadership that could improve prospects for reconciliation and the peaceful reintegration of the Donbas in the near to medium term.’

That scares the hell out of hardliners who believe that any peaceful settlement of the war in Donbass would inevitably involve some sort of surrender to Russia. Poroshenko’s supporters thus view Zelensky’s coming triumph far more pessimistically. Poroshenko has been resolute in his refusal to make the concessions necessary to bring peace to Donbass; he has approved numerous nationalist projects, such as laws restricting the use of the Russian language in the media and education, and the decommunization law; and he struck a blow at the Moscow Patriarchate by negotiating the formation of a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Zelensky, it is feared, will not be so reliable.

Both the optimists and the pessimists share the assumption that Zelensky may help bring peace to Ukraine by softening the tough line taken up to now by President Poroshenko; they just differ in their opinion as to whether that’s a good thing. The problem with this assumption is that it’s not exactly reliable.

A common solution to civil conflicts is some sort of power sharing system. This can involve mechanisms to guarantee that minorities are represented in central government structures (e.g. Lebanon and Northern Ireland) or some sort of federalization or confederalization of the country in question (e.g. Bosnia-Herzegovina). These mechanisms have definite disadvantages (for instance, they entrench the divisions which caused conflict in the political system), but in general people consider the price to be one worth paying for peace. In Ukraine’s case, it has long been obvious that the only way to reintegrate Donbass into Ukraine and thereby bring the war there to an end in a manner favourable to Ukraine is through constitutional reform which would give Donbass some sort of special status (i.e. autonomy) within Ukraine, combined with an amnesty for all involved. This is in effect what was promised in the Minsk II agreement of February 2015.

To date, Poroshenko’s government has not only failed to make concessions of this sort. but has also done its best to make it impossible for future governments to do so, by means for instance of a law redefining the conflict in Donbass as a war against the Russian Federation. It is precisely a fear that Zelensky will change direction that inspires the hardliners’ dislike of Ukraine’s likely future president.

These fears, however, are unjustified. As the UNIAN information agency announced today:

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky has said Donbas does not need to be granted any special status. … Zelensky also said that, if elected president, he is not going to sign the law on amnesty for the militants of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’.

Since these are two absolutely necessary conditions for any peaceful settlement of the war in Donbass, this pretty well nixes the idea that Zelensky is the ‘peace candidate’. Further evidence of Zelensky’s future policies towards Donbass can be seen also in a statement of the first ten steps he plans to take upon taking power. Number one is ‘invite the United Kingdom and the United States to join the Normandy format’ – in other words to join the process which is meant to negotiate how the Minsk agreements will be put into practice.

The Normandy format, like the Minsk agreements, are pretty much dead. But bringing the UK and the USA into the peace process is about the last thing you’d suggest if you were truly interested in bringing them back to life. Not only are those countries the two states in NATO (perhaps barring Canada) which are the most resolutely hostile to Russia, but they have also shown not the slightest interest in persuading Ukraine to make the concessions required to fulfil its obligations in the Minsk agreements. On the contrary, the Americans have very much pushed Ukraine in the other direction. Take, for instance, the American response to Vladimir Putin’s proposal for a peacekeeping force in Donbass. Whereas Putin proposed a force which would be deployed along the front line and physically separate the two warring parties, the Americans, through their representative Kurt Volker, have suggested creating a force which would occupy all of rebel-controlled Donbass, take over the rebel republic’s borders with Russia, and disarm rebel formations, all before any political reforms (such as granting of autonomy) are enacted. This plan turns the order of events laid out in the Minsk agreement on its head, and in effect amounts to an abandonment of the agreement and to the rebels’ total abject surrender. For that very reason, it has no hopes of succeeding.

Ukrainian politicians do not yet seem to have grasped the need to compromise, and the Americans in particular have encouraged this blindness. Bringing them into the peace process only makes sense if you have no intention of making concessions yourself and see the solution as lying entirely in pushing things in a more hardline direction through increased pressure on the Russian Federation. The fact that Zelensky has proposed this tells us a lot therefore about his attitude towards Minsk and the peace process more generally – namely, that at this point in time, he’s very much not somebody who’s prepared to do what needs to be done to obtain peace on terms favourable to Ukraine (i.e. see Donbass restored to Ukrainian control).

Instead, based on his current statements, we are more likely to see a continued insistence on the absolute capitulation of the rebel forces and the Russian Federation. The result will be that the conflict in Donbass will continue to dribble along at its current low level for the indefinite future. Of course, the things politicians do once elected often differs from what they promise during elections. And much may change during Zelensky’s presidency which may push him in a different direction. For now, though, the idea that his election will do much to accelerate the arrival of peace in Ukraine seems a little far-fetched.


Cyber interference

(Originally published in two parts on the blog of the Centre for International Policy Studies, here and here.)

“We judge it very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference related to the 2019 federal election.” So says the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s equivalent to America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, in a report issued on 8 April 2019.  In response, the Canadian government has been threatening to regulate social media. As the Chronicle Herald reports:

The world’s major social media companies are not doing enough to help Canada combat potential foreign meddling in this October’s elections and the government might have to regulate them, the cabinet minister in charge of ensuring a fair vote said on Monday.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould spoke shortly after Canada’s electronic signals spy agency said it was very likely that foreign actors will try to meddle in the election.

Gould expects Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to help safeguard the vote by promoting transparency, authenticity, and integrity on their platforms, and said she has been disappointed by the slowness of talks with the companies.

So let’s take a look at this CSE report.

The first thing to note about it is that it’s very short — 24 pages (23 without the very insubstantial footnotes). But if you take out the executive summary and the various explanations of how the report is structured, there are only 16 pages, of which about 80% consists of pictures. The actual text takes only up 3–4 pages, of which only one page discusses the specific Canadian context.

In short, there isn’t much detail in this report. There’s no substance, just some assertions without much by way of supporting evidence or even elucidation of what the assertions mean in practice. It’s very hard to say whether the report’s claims are credible based on what’s in the report, because there isn’t much there.

What are these claims?

First, as Canada is a G7 and NATO member, its political decisions affect the international community more generally. Other states may therefore wish to influence it. Consequently, says CSE, “Foreign adversaries may use cyber tools to target the democratic process to change Canadian election outcomes, policy makers’ choices, governmental relationships with foreign and domestic partners, and Canada’s reputation around the world.” It’s true that they “may” do so, but it’s a leap from may do to will do, especially if what you have in mind is the more malicious forms of influence being discussed. The “will do” claim is decidedly unproven.

In broad terms, states are always trying to influence other states. That’s entirely normal. And it’s obvious that cyber tools will be among those used — for instance, ministries and embassies throughout the world, including those of Canada, regularly use Facebook and Twitter to spread their message. “Digital diplomacy,” therefore, is nothing odd, and if that is all CSE has in mind, there’s no reason to get at all worried by it. States are always trying to influence things such as “policy makers’ choices” and “governmental relationships with foreign and domestic partners.”

More probably, though, CSE has in mind efforts to do these things by more surreptitious means, specifically attempts to change election results. The report mentions that “Cyber threat actors manipulate online information, often on social media using cyber tools, in order to influence voters’ opinions and behaviours.” As with so much of this report, this statement is annoyingly lacking in specifics, but let’s take it as fact that people “manipulate online information,” including during election campaigns. The issue then arises of how much of that is done by foreign actors, and how much by domestic ones.

Unfortunately, CSE ignores this question entirely. If what you’re worried about is that voters are being fed “fake news” and “disinformation,” look no further than your own country’s politicians and their enablers in the media. Brexit, for instance, didn’t happen because of “foreign meddling,” but because of the disinformation spread by pro-Brexit politicians and journalists. None of this is to say that what CSE describes doesn’t and can’t happen, but we need to have a sense of proportion. CSE doesn’t provide any of that.

CSE also notes that political parties and other organizations face hacking threats. This is, of course, true. But cyber security is something that people ought to be paying attention to in any case, regardless of foreigners who might engage in election meddling.

As far as the specific threat to Canada is concerned, CSE says the following:

“Since the 2015 federal election, Canadian political leaders and the Canadian public have been targeted by foreign cyber interference activities. For example:

  • More than one foreign adversary has manipulated social media using cyber tools to spread false or misleading information relating to Canada on Twitter, likely to polarize Canadians or undermine Canada’s foreign policy goals;

  • Foreign state-sponsored media have disparaged Canadian cabinet ministers; and

  • A foreign adversary has manipulated information on social media to amplify and promote viewpoints highly critical of Government of Canada legislation imposing sanctions and banning travel of foreign officials accused of human rights violations.”

No details are provided to substantiate these claims, so we can’t properly evaluate them. Perhaps they are all true, but how significant are they? How much “misleading information” comes from “foreign adversaries”? How influential is it in reality? As for the second and third assertions, they are somewhat laughable. Disparaging cabinet ministers and manipulating information about legislation are hardly the sole prerogatives of foreign governments. They are pretty much the day to day norm of Canadian politics.

Clearly CSE has in mind the story of Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather’s Nazi connections, and the Russian government’s objections to the Magnitsky Act. However, the first story is true, not disinformation, and in any case wasn’t originated by the Russian government but by Australian journalist John Helmer. And of course foreign governments fight back against legislation targeting them with sanctions. Again, that’s just normal. It’s hard to see what the issue is here. But that’s the whole of the evidence that CSE produces to justify the claim that Canada is likely to experience “foreign interference” in its forthcoming election.

In short, it doesn’t add up to much. Of course it is possible that during our forthcoming election campaign people outside Canada will spread messages through social media, some of which will be false, and that various hackers will target Canadian political organizations. It’s right that people should be aware of these possibilities. But there is little to no evidence that they amount to a serious threat to our democratic process.

CSE draws our attention to all sorts of malign activities that foreign actors could do, but all of them could equally be done (and indeed have been done) by domestic actors on a much larger scale. Canadians may remember the “robocall” scandal, for instance, in which the Conservative Party engaged in voter suppression by sending people automated calls telling them that the location of their polling station had changed. The primary sources of electoral manipulation, political divisions, and so on are domestic.

It’s obvious that the primary “foreign adversary” CSE has in mind is Russia. But Russia has nothing to gain from “meddling” in Canadian elections. All the main Canadian political parties are resolutely hostile to the Russian Federation. The Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act passed through the House of Commons unanimously. From a Russian point of view, there’s no difference between Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP, and so no reason to favour one over the other.

Speaking of possible interference in the 2019 Canadian federal election, the CSE report concludes that “it is improbable that this foreign cyber interference will be of the scale of Russian activity against the 2016 United States presidential election.” This is the only reference CSE makes to the scale of the threat, which does not support the idea that this is a major problem.

Unfortunately, this conclusion is lost in the media headlines stating that “foreign interference is likely in Canada’s election.” At the same time, the threat is used to justify calls to regulate social media, and in effect introduce some form of censorship. If only genuine purveyors of “disinformation” and “foreign propaganda” were to be caught up in this censorship, one might not be too alarmed. But recent experience has shown that numerous innocent actors have been accused of being foreign “agents of influence,” “proxies,” “Trojan horses,” “extremist conspiracy theorists,” and so on.

It is all too likely that the relatively minor threat of “foreign meddling” will be used not to hinder the spread of “fake news” but to suppress unwelcome information and viewpoints that diverge from the mainstream. The drive to protect Canadian democracy may, therefore, end up having the opposite effect entirely.

Looking in the wrong direction

This blog returns regularly to theme of disinformation, drawing attention to the fact that the most prevalent sources of disinformation in any country are domestic, not the product of ‘foreign meddling’. For instance, whatever ‘fake news’ Russian bots may have placed on the internet prior to the 2016 American presidential election pails into insignificance with the daily well-publicized deluge of nonsense which came out of the mouth of candidate Donald Trump. Brexit didn’t happen because of ‘Russian interference’, but (among other things) because of the deceitful claims of pro-leave British politicians, such as the notorious claim that the UK would be able to spend 350 million pounds more a week on the National Health Service if it left the European Union. And so on. When you’re looking for disinformation, it makes much more sense to look close to home than somewhere in far off lands.

Despite this, numerous commentators believe that we can learn a lot from one country’s efforts to combat foreign disinformation – Ukraine. A few days ago I mentioned former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. This is what he has to say on the matter:

There’s some lessons to learn for Canadians. I think Ukraine’s on the front line, and there’s a wake-up call that anybody’s election, including ours in six months, could be altered, disrupted or problems could be created in terms of disinformation if you’re not very watchful about it.

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul shares Axworthy’s point of view, saying the following on Twitter:

Just attended a fascinating discussion on Russian disinformation efforts in Ukraine. We Americans could learn a lot from our Ukrainian colleagues.

Various Ukrainians are keen to support this perspective. ‘While unique, Ukraine’s experience holds broader lessons for how to tackle these emerging phenomena [i.e. disinformation],’ writes one. ‘Britain may well face more of such challenges in the future – it should learn the lessons from Ukraine if it wants to deal with them effectively,’ says another.

Ukraine is currently in the middle of a presidential election campaign. So let’s take a look at how the struggle to protect the Ukrainian democratic process from disinformation is going. An article in today’s Kyiv Post has a lot to say on the matter. It tells us:

Amid increasingly fierce competition, the big guns are coming out: negative campaign ads, so-called ‘black PR,’ and online disinformation. … ‘I think there’s a lot of playing hard and fast with the rules of the information space,’ says Nina Jankowicz, a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute and an expert on disinformation. … ads and social media posts intended to mislead and scare voters have come to play a central role in the presidential race.

Apparently, therefore, Ukraine isn’t doing as well as McFaul, Axworthy, and co. would have us believe. So, let’s take a look at what this ‘black PR’ and disinformation consists of.  The Kyiv Post provides some examples, including:

a website with ties to the Ukrainian security agencies has accused the Zelenskiy campaign of receiving financing from the Russian security service and a Russian-backed militant who fought in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk Oblast. … social media users have long complained of facing harassment from porokhobots — i. e. Poroshenko bots — who vocally defend the president. Some, they allege, are not just ordinary citizens expressing their honest opinions, but paid ‘trolls.’ … In late March, the 1+1 television channel broadcast a program which accused Poroshenko of corruption and implied he had killed his own brother. … On April 10, an organization associated with Poroshenko sent subscribers to its messenger app accounts a video which showed Zelenskiy being hit by a garbage truck and strongly implied he was a drug addict. … In the last week, at least two entities have published information suggesting that the Zelenskiy campaign is tied to or receiving financing from Russia.

In short, it seems that both sides in the Ukrainian election are using both the mainstream media and social media to spread false stories about their opponents, and that these are getting a wide distribution. The thing to notice, though, is that this is something that Ukrainians are doing to one another. As the Kyiv Post comments:

So far, however, domestic disinformation has largely overshadowed foreign. ‘I think most of the disinformation that we can confirm was actually distributed by the campaigns themselves and by domestic Ukrainian actors for political purposes,’ Jankowicz says.

Perhaps, then, Axworthy and McFaul are correct after all. Ukraine does have something to teach us about the role of disinformation in democratic elections, namely that it’s widespread, and that for the most part it is produced domestically, and not abroad. The Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) produced a report a few days ago highlighting the threat from ‘foreign interference’ in Canadian elections. I will comment separately on this in a few days’ time but, dare I say it, if CSE and others are really concerned about the integrity of our electoral processes, they’re looking in the wrong direction.

Mutual lack of critical introspection

Every so often, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow publishes a forecast of where Russia and the world are headed in the near future.  At the end of last year, the Institute of International Relations in Prague published an English-language version of the latest IMEMO forecast in its journal New Perspectives. Now the journal has issued a set of responses to the forecast by several Western scholars and a member of IMEMO. They’re worth a brief look.

A common theme runs through all the responses. The authors all agree that when analyzing current East-West tensions, Russians have a tendency to see their own country as essentially reactive – that is to say that they portray Russia as simply responding to Western provocations. In doing so they deprive Russia of agency, and so deny that it may be in part responsible for the current crisis in Russian-Western relations. Instead, the West is held to be entirely at fault.

Thus Mark Galeotti, in the first response to the IMEMO forecast, remarks that, ‘What is most striking is that Russia is presented throughout this report as object, not actor. It may be a victim or a beneficiary, but the initiative is always elsewhere.’ This, he continues, ‘demonstrates a determination to paint Russia as the geopolitical victim, which is in itself a form of passivity, a sense of a country as lacking the capacity to influence, let alone master its fate.’

Likewise, Tuomas Forsberg of the University of Helsinki accuses the Russians of ‘attribution bias’, which ‘conveys the image that the criticism of Russia in Europe is mainly an outcome of malevolent intentions and not related to Russia’s own behavior.’ And Ruth Deyermond of King’s College London speaks of a ‘strengthened perception amongst Russian analysts and politicians that the US political establishment is irredeemably Russophobic’ and notes that Russian elites view foreign affairs through a ‘prism of grievance’.

I have some sympathy with these complaints. As IMEMO’s Irina Kobrinskaya writes in the final article in the journal, ‘While external factors certainly act on Russia, Russia also acts.’ Portraying oneself always as responding to the actions of others is a useful way of declining responsibility for one’s own behaviour, but also self-deceptive and liable to prevent one from a proper analysis of why one has ended up where one has. If Russians persist in viewing themselves solely as victims, then they’re unlikely to come up with constructive solutions to their problems.

But, as the saying goes, ‘it takes two to tango’. In another article in the journal, Minda Holm of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs speaks of a ‘mutual lack of introspection’. Holm complains that according to IMEMO,

the Russian state merely reacts to an antagonistic partner defined by ‘anti-Russian hysteria’, and nothing is said of where that sentiment, however exaggerated or unfair, emanates from. Whilst the roots of the ‘Russia factor’ lie in both past stereotypes and strategic needs, Russia’s own actions are also clearly part of the cause.

‘This form of one-sidedness is an impediment to any hope for an improved relationship’ says Holm. At the same time, however, she notes that Western analysts are equally guilty of the same intellectual failing. As she writes,

The current desire, and/or reflex, to cast Russia as an external enemy is strong in liberalWestern epistemic circles. Unwanted domestic political developments are often connected to Russia based on circumstantial evidence, and/or a reduction of the agency of others.

Thus, Holm concludes, ‘I am sympathetic to their [Russians’] critique of the tendency in self-defined liberal states to cast Russia as the enemy with little critical introspection.’ Russia-West relations’, she says, ‘seem locked in a mutual negative dynamic where nuances are increasingly left out of representations of the Other.’ Each side views themselves as purely reacting to the malign activity of the other. Each side therefore fails to understand its own responsibility for the breakdown in relations. What can done about this? ‘For a start,’ says Holm, ‘academics working on these questions have a particular responsibility not to fall into the traps of unproblematically reproducing simplified enemy images.’

Regular readers of this blog will hardly be surprised to learn that I completely agree. I would say also that it’s not enough just to understand that one has committed mistakes. Returning to the attribution error, it’s all too easy to designate one’s own misdeeds as ‘mistakes’ while attributing the misdeeds of one’s adversaries to their malignant character. Critical introspection has to go beyond admitting error and also involve admitting wrongdoing. The only caveat I would add is that in engaging in this critical introspection one shouldn’t overdo things. It’s one thing to understand that one’s own side has behaved badly; it’s another to then conclude that one’s own side is always wrong and the other side always right, and end up going full-blown Noam Chomsky or Gary Kasparov (a comparison which is probably a bit unfair on the former).

That caveat notwithstanding, let me finish by quoting the Gospel of St Matthew:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Every now and again I come across something I wish I’d written myself. ‘Mutual lack of critical introspection’ is a case in point. It hits the nail firmly on the head.


Book Review: Russia’s Futures

I’ve been accused of being an extreme centrist. Or was it a centrist extremist? I can’t exactly remember. But as far as I could make out, the point of the accusation was that this blog is just too balanced, that I bend over so far backwards in my attempts to be even that all I ever say is ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’, relentlessly occupying the middle ground, and refusing to take a firm stand on anything. Russia isn’t the evil dictatorship it’s made out to be, but it’s not all warm hugs and cuddles either. The war in Ukraine isn’t just Russian aggression, it’s a civil war, but the Russians are in it up to their necks regardless. That sort of thing.

The same accusation might plausibly also be laid against Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent in the UK. Sakwa is one of the most prominent Russia experts in the English-speaking world, being the author of numerous books on Russian politics, including astandard undergraduate textbook on the subject. I suspect that in general Sakwa’s politics are a little to the left of mine, but when it comes to things Russian I find that I agree with him 99% of the time. I was rather pleased, therefore, when his latest book Russia’s Futures arrived unprompted in my mailbox recently. I immediately buckled down to reading it, and I wasn’t disappointed.


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Abusing human rights

I came across the following while reading the Globe and Mail newspaper over breakfast this morning. Referring to former Canadian foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, who has been leading the Canadian mission observing the presidential election in Ukraine, the Globe informed readers that:

Russia is abusing the human rights of people living in Crimea and other Kremlin-backed parts of eastern Ukraine by using landmines, border delays and online propaganda to discourage them from voting in the Ukrainian election, the head of Canada’s election monitoring mission says.

Axworthy is particularly exercised by the fact that, ‘There were no voting stations for Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and the Russian-controlled parts of the eastern Donbass region.’ The Globe continues:

‘I think the Russians really are abusing the human rights of these people,’ Mr. Axworthy said. ‘They have an important right to vote, and I think they are doing everything in their power to try to undermine it.’

He said some of the election observers in eastern Ukraine heard about voters being deliberately held up at the Russian-controlled border, while others couldn’t even get to the border.

‘We had discussions with some of the observers who were talking about how in the areas around some of the checkpoints there were land-mine fields that people see as a real risk,’ Mr. Axworthy said.

Obviously, it’s not good news if people living outside their country can’t get to vote. But whose fault is that? It’s not Russia’s responsibility to set up polling stations for the Ukrainian election. That’s the responsibility of the Ukrainian government. But back in January, the Ukrainian Central Election Commission announced that it would not open any polling stations in the Russian Federation, thereby depriving 3-4 million Ukrainians living in Russia of the right to vote. Why doesn’t Mr Axworthy mention that?? Do Ukrainians in Russia not ‘have an important right to vote’? And why is it Russia which is ‘doing everything in their power to try to undermine it’ when it is the Ukrainian government which took the decision to deprive its citizens of the ability to exercise this right?

As for delays on the borders between rebel-held Donbass and government-controlled Ukraine, these are real, but as has long been reported, the Ukrainian government is in large part to blame. Let me here cite a headline from the New York Times: ‘Ukraine Clamps Down on Travel to and from Rebel Areas’. As the report which follows says, ‘the Ukrainian authorities are now doing all they can to halt cross-border movement, deploying the full force of a Byzantine bureaucracy on the more than three million people living in rebel-held areas.’ But somehow, according to Lloyd Axworthy, the fact that people in Donbass find it hard to get into government-controlled Ukraine is Moscow’s fault! Go figure.

Land mines are another issue which is much more complicated than presented in this article. It’s natural that Mr Axworthy should be concerned about them as he was one of the architects of the 1999 Ottawa Land Mines Treaty. Tens of thousands of landmines have been laid in Donbass. Alexander Hug of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has complained, ‘Not only are the sides not de-mining, they are in fact laying more mines.’ Note the use of the word ‘sides’ – both the rebels and the Ukrainian army are guilty of using these weapons. Ukraine denies this, but both the OSCE and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accuse the Ukrainian army of laying anti-personnel mines in Donbass. The Russian Federation, incidentally, has not signed the Land Mines Treaty. Ukraine, however, has both signed and ratified it. Ukraine is thus in clear breach of its treaty obligations. Why then does Mr Axworthy paint the mine problem as a Russian one and not condemn the Ukrainian army for its actions?

Returning to my earlier point, the Russian government isn’t depriving Ukrainians of their right to vote: the Ukrainian government is. But that’s not all. The Ukrainians previously also deprived Russians of that right too. For when the Russian presidential election was held last year, the Ukrainian government posted policemen outside the Russian embassy in Kiev and the Russian consulates in Kharkov, Odessa, and Lvov to physically prevent Russians from entering the buildings in order to cast their votes. Lloyd Axworthy says that voting is an ‘important right’ and that it is an ‘abuse of human rights’ to stop people from voting. But we never heard so much as a peep from him when the authorities in Kiev did just that.

Unfortunately, Canada’s political elites, like those in many other Western countries, seem to have absolutely no discernment when it comes to matters concerning Russia and Ukraine. They lap up and regurgitate Ukrainian propaganda without the slightest bit of critical thinking; they seek to turn every story about Ukraine into an opportunity to bash Russia, even when Ukraine is actually the one responsible for the problems being discussed; and they display the most shameless double standards. Today’s article in the Globe and Mail is a case in point. It gets absolutely everything wrong. Sadly, that’s pretty much par for the course.

My subscription to the Globe expires on 12 April. I’m not renewing.