False equivalencies

The 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a few days ago had the Canadian press energized into one of its regular frenzies of Russia-bashing. These tend to be rather repetitive and unoriginal, and as such best ignored. But this time round it took a particular form which I think is worth some examination.

First out was former Conservative minister Chris Alexander in an article in the Globe and Mail. In this he told readers that Vladimir Putin’s goal was to ‘discredit democracy … [and] bolster dictatorship as an alternative’, adding that ‘no country has embraced this kind of trespass – warfare, really – with greater abandon than Vladimir Putin’s Russia’. What inspires Putin, claims Alexander, is ‘Stalinist nostalgia’. The Russian president and his acolytes look to a ‘world in which Stalin is a model … today’s Kremlin refuses to accept any criticism of either Stalin or Mr Putin. That’s because their actions have been so similar’.

Alexander continues that ‘Free historical inquiry into the Second World War has been all but shut down in Russia’. He then links this to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, claiming that this provides the model for Russia’s ‘invasions’ of Georgia and Ukraine. Thus,

Far from absorbing the lessons of Stalin’s deadly embrace of Hitler, today’s Kremlin is reprising it by illegally annexing territory, aggressively undermining democracy and vaingloriously touting a toxic cult of personality as a model for the world. The ‘end of history’ … has given way to the ‘end of logic’, with Stalin’s dark role now inspiring a widening tragedy under Mr. Putin.

Following in Chris Alexander’s wake, Canadian-Estonian activist Marcus Kolga had much the same to say in the Toronto Sun. Kolga has a real chip on his shoulder about the way that Russians misrepresent the Second World War, in particular their weird belief that the Soviet Union ‘liberated’ eastern Europe from the Nazis. Kolga wishes to disabuse us of this fiction, and to this end tell us, like Alexander, that ‘Putin has overseen an aggressive rehabilitation of Stalin’s bloody legacy, and the rewriting of history to officially erase dangerously inconvenient historical facts, such as the Nazi-Soviet Pact.’ To Kolga, fascism and communism were really one and the same thing. As he writes:

In a September 1939 editorial, The New York Times reacted to the signing of what’s become known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, suggesting that ideologically, the Nazis and Soviets were not that far apart stating that ‘Hitlerism is brown communism, Stalinism is red fascism.’ Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini shared that view, believing that Stalin had shifted the Soviet Union away from Bolshevism to a form of fascism in October 1939.

It’s not often that one reads someone quoting Mussolini approvingly, but there you have it. The Soviets didn’t liberate eastern Europe. They merely replaced one form of fascism with another. By claiming otherwise, ‘Vladimir Putin’ and others ‘distort history and truth’.

Canadian-Ukrainian professor Lubomyr Luciuk agrees. Writing in the Vancouver Sun, he informs us that not just Putin but also,

Moscow shills and their fellow travellers are more than duplicitous. They are dangerous. For they are trying to rewrite the history of the Second World War, to obfuscate not just the dates on which the war began, and ended, but to confound us about who the villains were. They are spreading fake news here, today, across Canada.

Most of those who died in the Soviet Union during World War Two ‘were not Russian’, says Luciuk. The greatest losses were in Ukraine and Belarus. More importantly, though,

We must not forget that the Soviet Union was not our ally when the Second World War began. On that date, Stalin stood with Hitler … we must never forget that Moscow’s men not only fuelled the Second World War but joined our side only after the holocaust they had stoked began to burn their empire down. Let us not forget that, at least not today.

As I see it, there are two things going on in these articles. The first is an effort to equate contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, in particular the Soviet Union under Stalin, by means of claims that Putin is ‘rehabilitating’ Stalin. The second is an attempt to equate communism and Nazism. Put together, the net effect is to equate contemporary Russia with Nazi Germany, and Putin with Hitler.

The problem with this approach is that it’s based on falsehood. As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, the idea that Putin is rehabilitating Stalin is entirely untrue. (There is more than enough evidence to prove this point, but rather than repeat it all here, I refer you instead to my recent post on the issue). More broadly, equating contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, let alone the Soviet Union under Stalin, is absurd. Attempts to claim otherwise can be the result only of either willful ignorance or deliberate deceit.

What then of the effort to equate communism and Nazism? Superficially, one can see the attraction. After all, both the Soviets and the Nazis engaged in acts of conquest in Eastern Europe, and their conquests were accompanied by widespread repression. But once you start looking at the matter more closely, you see that the comparison is devoid of merit. The Nazis came intending genocide; the Soviets did not. The Nazis sought to eliminate all the signs and institutions of statehood of the conquered peoples; the Soviets did not – while they absorbed the Baltic states and parts of Belarus and Ukraine, they preserved those states as autonomous entities within their Union, and likewise when they overran countries like Poland, Romania, and Hungary they maintained them as independent states. This was far removed from Nazi practice.

Furthermore, the Nazis came as colonizers. Not only did they aim to displace the existing population, but they were interested in their captured territories only in terms of extracting resources. By contrast, the Soviets invested heavily in developing the lands they occupied, creating industry, educating the population, and supporting cultural endeavours. It could well be argued that they didn’t do a very good job of it, but the difference in intent was enormous – the one overtly destructive; the other, at least in theory, constructive.

Alexander, Kolga and Luciuk all make reference to historical truth, which they contrast with Russian ‘disinformation’. In reality, though, they peddle a simplistic, propagandistic, and untrue story designed to inflame international tensions. Those who rewrite the past are ‘dangerous’, Luciuk tells us. On that at least, I have to agree with him.

The Greenland Connection

US President Donald Trump has been rightly mocked in the past week for his alleged desire to buy Greenland from Denmark. What on earth put this crazy idea into Trump’s head, people rightly asked. Fortunately, we now have an answer, courtesy of The Guardian’s US columnist Richard Wolffe – Russia put him up to it! I see that until recently Wolffe was ‘vice president and executive editor of MSNBC.com’, which explains a lot – MSNBC having been the no. 1 cheerleader in the Russiagate scandal in the US. The Trump-Russia story long since jumped the shark, but somehow it keeps finding extra sharks to leap over. Let’s take a look at what Wolffe has to say.

Greenland doesn’t just bubble into Trump’s mind randomly … But it is very much on Russia’s radar. Earlier this year, Russia revamped its arctic circle military base on tiny Kotelny Island, which sits close to the shipping routes that are opening up as the polar region warms catastrophically.

There are unknown quantities of oil, gas and rare earth minerals in the arctic, and the region’s powers – Denmark among them – can either green light a global free-for-all or restrain the usual human plunder of one of the last pristine frontiers on the planet. You can guess where Russia sits on this spectrum of environmental concerns in the middle of our climate crisis.

It is one of the sickest Trump jokes that his half-baked idea of buying Greenland should be seen as American machismo when it is yet another sign of Putin’s puppet American presidency at work.

‘Lazy journalism’ was the response of a distinguished British guest I showed this article to at breakfast today. It was very typical British understatement. There’s no argument here, no flow of logic from facts to conclusion, just an assertion entirely disconnected from everything which has gone before. Why Russia’s Arctic interests should prompt it to persuade Trump to try to buy Greenland isn’t explained. In reality, the last thing Russia would want, in an era of US-Russian tension, is an expanded American presence in an area of great and growing important to the Russian economy. The idea that Trump wanting to buy Greenland is proof that he’s a Russian ‘puppet’ is beyond bizarre.

By now, of course, it’s no surprise that the editors at outlets like The Guardian seem to have lost all sense of responsibility when it comes to the case of Trump-Russia, and are happy to publish any type of drivel. But Wolffe’s article makes the mind boggle at the lack of intellectual competence required to gain top executive positions at MSNBC. Perhaps the only explanation for it lies in the realm of pop psychology. For according to psychological research, debunking conspiracy theories doesn’t stop people believing in them; in fact, believers who are shown that their theories are wrong  end up on average believing in them even more fervently. This article illustrates the point: the Trump-Russia connection has become an article of faith, a religious belief so absolutely true that all facts have to be bended to fit it, while all the evidence to the contrary serves only to reinforce the faith even further. Russiagate may be nonsense, but if this article is anything to go by, it has turned the brains of a large section of the political left into mulch.

Forget the Swedes; blame the Russians

There’s a guy I know who heads out to Sweden once in a while to study immigration policy there. The Swedes have made a real hash of things, he tells me. Above all, they’ve done a very bad job integrating immigrants into society. This has led to something of anti-immigrant backlash. Given this, you might imagine that if you were to undertake an examination of anti-immigrant political groups in Sweden, you would start with a detailed discussion of Swedish immigration policy and what’s gone wrong with it. Then you could understand why Swedes are receptive to anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Of course, you might do that, but then you’re not The New York Times. On Sunday, that most venerable of American newspapers devoted no fewer than two full pages to an analysis of the recent success of the Swedish far right party, the Sweden Democrats. The alleged cause of this success is evident from the article’s title – ‘The Global Machine Behind the Rise of Far-Right Nationalism’. If xenophobia is on the rise in Sweden, it implies, it’s got nothing to do with the Swedes. External forces are to blame.

This framing of the issue reflects the peculiar obsessions of The New York Times. First and foremost amongst these is Donald Trump. You’d think by now that Times readers would be getting bored of being told that Trump is the root of all evil. ‘We’ve got the point’, you’d expect them to tell the editor, ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ But it seems that there’s always something new that you can blame Trump for. And so it is that the Times begins and ends its article on the Swedish far-right with references to the American president. All was quiet in the the Swedish town of Rinkeby, we’re told, until Trump made reference to a story on Fox News about the town’s problems with immigrants. No sooner had Trump spoken than, wham!, ‘several dozen masked men attacked police officers’. Having started the article with Trump, the Times then finishes it with him, referencing the visit of the Sweden Democrat’s leader to a conference in the United States, which served as ‘a measure of how nationalism and conservatism have merged in Mr. Trump’s Washington.’

So there you have it – Swedish xenophobia is Trump’s fault. Or at least partly. For in fact the article doesn’t speak about the president very much. Instead it focuses most of its attention on another of The New York Times’s obsessions, and you don’t have to have prophetic vision to guess what that is – yes, you’re right, the Russians!!

How are the Russians to blame for the rise of the Swedish far right, you might ask? According to the Times, the answer is that ‘foreign state and nonstate actors have helped to give viral momentum to a clutch of Swedish far-right websites.’ For the most part, ‘foreign’ in this context means ‘Russian’. As the article notes,

To dig beneath the surface of what is happening in Sweden, though, is to uncover the workings of an international disinformation machine, devoted to the cultivation, provocation and amplification of far-right, anti-immigrant passions and political forces. Indeed, that machine, most influentially rooted in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and the American far right, underscores a fundamental irony of this political moment: the globalization of nationalism.

What is the evidence for this claim? The article struggles to provide much. As it admits, in the last Swedish general election,

there was no hacking and dumping of internal campaign documents, as in the United States. Nor was there an overt effort to swing the election to the Sweden Democrats, perhaps because the party, in keeping with Swedish popular opinion, has become more critical of the Kremlin than some of its far-right European counterparts.

That’s a bit of a blow to the overall thesis. But the Times is not to be deterred. For apparently, ‘At least six Swedish sites have received financial backing through advertising revenue from a Russian- and Ukrainian-owned auto-parts business based in Berlin.’ Six websites no less! That obviously explains why the Sweden Democrats won 18% of the vote in the last election. But there’s more. For, ‘There were other sites, too, all injecting anti-immigrant and Islamophobic messaging into the Swedish political bloodstream.’ The problem for The New York Times is that, as it admits, ‘Russia’s hand in all of this is largely hidden from view.’ But that doesn’t matter, because ‘fingerprints abound.’

Ah! Fingerprints! And what might these be? Well, one website ‘swaps material with the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik’. Another ‘publishes work by Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist Russian philosopher who has been called “Putin’s Rasputin”.’ (At this point, any even moderately well informed Russia-watcher should be screaming in dismay at the repetition of this misleading trope.) Yet another website has published a far-right German commentator who has appeared on RT. And finally, the founder of another website ‘readily admits to having contributed to an RT subsidiary’ and has a Russian girlfriend. Enough said.

As you can see, it doesn’t really add up to much. (After all this website has cited Sputnik and published an interview with Dugin, and I’ve appeared on RT, but that doesn’t make this blog part of a far right ‘international disinformation machine’ – perhaps I should get a Russian girlfriend!) The worst that the article can come up with is an allegation that a crew from the Russian TV station NTV paid some youths in Rinkeby to pretend to riot so that it could film them. I can believe it, but all it really shows is that some Russian journalists have a really poor sense of professional ethics. Overall, a dodgy broadcast on NTV, some reposting of Alexander Dugin, RT, and Sputnik on far-right websites, and the rather peculiar advertising strategy of a German auto-parts company don’t go very far in explaining the spread of anti-immigrant sentiment. Perhaps they’ve made a very minor difference on the margins, but returning to my friend’s analysis above, one suspects that internal Swedish causes are far, far more significant.

The first step towards fixing any problem is working out what caused it. So, if you consider the rise of ‘populist’ forces a problem, what you have to do is work out why people are discontented with the alternative. And that means that those responsible for the policy agenda of the past must do some serious self-examination in order to determine where they’ve gone wrong. If this New York Times article is anything to go by, they’re not ready to do so. They’d rather blame external actors, maintaining the myth that everything is hunky dory, and that they haven’t made any mistakes; it’s just that there’s some demagogues and foreign powers stirring up trouble. But obviously everything isn’t all hunky dory, or people wouldn’t choose to listen to the demagogues. I understand why people like to blame it all on Trump and the Russians: they thereby absolve themselves from any responsibility for society’s ills. But it’s still a bad idea – for it detracts from a proper understanding of our troubles. And in doing so, it detracts from finding a solution.

More on asymmetric rules

A much extended and revised version of my paper on symmetric and asymmetric rules in the international order has now been published in Russia in Global Affairs. You can read it here.

I am currently on vacation in the exciting urban centre of Kitchener, Ontario (once called Berlin, but patriotically renamed during World War One) – thus the lack of posts this week. Normal business should resume next week.