Media bias can be rather annoying. But on occasion, it can also be inadvertently amusing. And so it was that I had a little chuckle at an article in yesterday’s Independent, which described a clash between American and Russian troops in Syria. For this is what the Indy had to say:

A series of videos posted to Twitter on Wednesday appears to show several Russian patrol vehicles harassing US vehicles that had attempted to block their path.

Ho, ho, ho.  The Independent’s reporter Griffin Connolly is obviously so wrapped up in the narrative that the Russians are the bad guys that he can’t see the irony in what he wrote – the Russian harassed the Americans, when the latter ‘attempted to block their path’. Can’t you see the problem here, Griffin, old boy? The Americans started this by trying to block the Russians. So, who really was harassing who here?

Obviously, Connolly doesn’t get it. For a little later on, he adds the following:

The drawdown by roughly half of the US peace-keeping forces in the region created a vacuum that Russia and Turkey have sought to fill, observers have said. This week’s harassment of US vehicles by Russian troops is one of a handful of recent escalations by Moscow to try to strong-arm the US out of the Syria — and the Middle East more broadly.

Note not merely the repetition of the term ‘harassment’ as if it were a given fact, but also the casual reference to the allegedly terrible consequences of a US withdrawal from Syria, justified in turn by the citing of ‘observers’, whose identities are not revealed. As for what these ‘recent escalations’ are, and what evidence there is that Russia is trying ‘to strong  arm the US out of the Syria [sic]’, we are not told. It is taken for granted that Russia is a malign actor that it is to blame for any clashes with the Americans, and that the American presence in Syria is a good thing whose  ending could only bring negative results. As a propaganda piece for US imperialism it does a very good job.

Of course, what it doesn’t tell us is what these American troops are doing in Syria now that ISIS has been largely defeated. (‘We left troops behind only for the oil’, said Donald Trump.) Nor does the article tell us that the American troops are occupying another country’s territory without the consent of that country’s government, unlike the Russians who at least have the pretext of an official invitation. But it does wrap up with this little gem of information:

Earlier this summer, reports emerged that Donald Trump had received a written intelligence briefing containing allegations that Russia was paying bounties to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. The White House denied Mr Trump had ever been briefed on that intelligence report, even though the New York Times reported it was included in his daily written brief of national security intelligence matters in February. The last time he was asked about it by reporters, the president said he had not brought up the alleged bounty programme in his calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For whatever reason, Mr Connolly makes no effort to inform readers of the disputed, and decidedly dubious, nature of the claim about Afghanistan. Likewise, he doesn’t bother to explain why the hell he has included this completely irrelevant material about Afghanistan in a story about Russian and American troops playing bumper cars in Syria. I can only imagine it’s because it meant to discredit a) the Russians, and b) Donald Trump. Whatever this article is, straightforward objective news reporting it ain’t.

The funny thing is that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s connections with The Independent’s owner Evgeny Lebedev is often used as a reason to claim that Boris is somehow in the pocket of the Russian state. Obviously, anyone making such a claim has never bothered reading Lebedev’s newspaper.

No Good Options for Russia in Navalny Case

‘Troubles come in threes’, goes the saying. Still struggling with the coronavirus, Russia’s leaders have this past week also been troubled by the protests in Belarus and the potential loss of a key ally. And now they face a third, and in some ways politically far more troublesome, problem – the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny.

From the moment that Navalny fell ill on a plane travelling from the Siberian city of Tomsk, his supporters have accused the Kremlin of poisoning him and then endeavoring to cover up its crime by falsifying his medical diagnosis and delaying his transfer to Germany for treatment.

Western leaders are demanding that the Russian government institute a full and independent investigation into the apparent attempt on Navalny’s life. For instance, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said that, ‘It is imperative that the Russian authorities initiate an independent and transparent investigation into the poisoning of Navalny without delay.’

On Monday, the Kremlin rejected this demand. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that accusations that President Putin had personally ordered Navalny’s poisoning were ‘idle talk’. He quibbled that Navalny’s German doctors had not identified a poison in his body, merely an ‘effect’ – ‘lowered cholinesterase’ – which the Russian doctors had themselves discovered ‘in the first hours.’ If the Germans succeed in identifying a poison, said Peskov, ‘then, of course, this will be cause for an investigation’. Otherwise, no investigation was called for.

The Kremlin’s problem here is that in the eyes of the Western media, Western politicians, and no doubt the vast bulk of the population of most Western countries, it has no credibility on such matters at all. Previous cases, especially the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England, have strongly entrenched the idea that Moscow is in the habit of murdering its political opponents. The attempts by the Kremlin and Russian media to deflect blame for the Skripal poisoning (as also with the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine) have also reinforced the impression that nothing the Russians say can be trusted. Faced with two diagnoses – one by Russian doctors saying that there was no poisoning, and one by German doctors saying that there was – the overwhelming majority of people in the Western world are going to favour the latter.

This has important geopolitical consequences. Perceptions of how regimes and individual leaders behave on the domestic scene impact perceptions of how they are likely to behave internationally. A state which habitually murders its own citizens, and then lies about it, is a state which cannot be trusted. Commenting on the Navalny case, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul commented that, ‘Putin is evil’. In the face of the announcement by the German doctors, this type of rhetoric is likely to find an ever more receptive audience.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that what has happened to Aleksei Navalny is very bad news indeed for Russia’s international reputation, and is yet another nail in the coffin of East-West relations. The question then arises of whether there is anything that Moscow can do to mitigate the damage.

Unfortunately for the Kremlin, it has few good options. Even if poisoning isn’t proven, doubts will remain. And if poisoning were to be established, and the Russian authorities were to carry out a thorough investigation which identified some culprits, and arrested and convicted them, it’s unlikely that critics would be satisfied. As with previous cases, such as the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, sceptics would probably claim that those convicted were fall guys set up to hide the true guilty parties lurking deep in the corridors of power.

That said, failure to act would be even worse. Efforts to dismiss allegations against the Russian government by pointing out that that it has nothing to gain by killing Navalny, or by claiming that others were responsible, will simply lead to charges that Russia is engaging in propaganda and disinformation.

In these circumstances, the most sensible thing that those in power in Russia can do is treat the Navalny incident as a case of suspected attempted murder and do what foreign leaders are demanding – i.e. carry out a thorough and transparent investigation, ideally with the participation of an outside party. Only in this way can they hope to deflect the huge wave of criticism that is coming their way. Anything less will be treated as an admission of guilt.


According to an article in The Guardian on Friday, in the United Kingdom, ‘A cross-party group of MPs is threatening to sue [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson unless he orders an independent investigation into Russian interference in recent UK elections and the 2016 Brexit vote.’ This follows accusations by a recent parliamentary report which claimed that the British government had not taken the threat of Russian disinformation and electoral interference properly. The Guardian notes:

The MPs say the government’s refusal to investigate Kremlin meddling is a breach of the European convention on human rights, which enshrines the right to free elections in protocol 1.

The group says it will take the prime minister to court if he fails to implement what it describes as essential steps to protect future elections. It has sent him a pre-action letter, to which Downing Street has two weeks to respond.

Claims that the UK has been the target of a ruthless campaign of Russian disinformation designed to sway the opinions of British voters have been a staple of political discourse ever since the Brexit referendum, but have become increasingly hysterical in the past 12 months or so. In the runup to last autumn’s general election, for instance, Politico ran an article with the ominous headline ‘Suspected Russian Disinformation Campaign ahead of UK Election’. Among members of what I call the ‘disinformation industry’, the idea that Russia was bound to try to fiddle with the election was widespread.

When no signs of such meddling could be found, the industry turned on the government, accusing it of failing to find the signs which everybody knew had to be there, if only the government bothered to look. ‘How Hostile Disinformation by Russia has Harmed the UK’, shouted a headline in the New Statesman, reflecting the general view of the British commentariat.

Well, it turns out that somebody now has taken a look at the election, and has found copious evidence of disinformation. But unfortunately, it turns out that it wasn’t the Russians who were responsible. It was Britain’s very own Conservative Party. As The Independent reports:

The Conservative Party used disinformation tactics with a ‘new level of impunity’ during last year’s general election, a report has found.

Researchers from King’s College London warned that the campaign had risked undermining public trust during the coronavirus pandemic.

Their report said Tories had ‘employed overt disinformation’ to secure votes, such as by altering a video of [Labour MP and now leader] Sir Keir Starmer and posing as a fact-checker on Twitter during a leader’s debate.

The King’s College team aren’t the only ones to have looked into the matter. The Independent tells us also that:

In separate research, the fact-checking organisation First Draft found that Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats all published misleading advertising during the campaign.

But the Tories were ‘by far the most frequent’, with 88 per cent of their most shared online adverts between 1 and 4 December containing misleading information, compared to 6.7 per cent for Labour.

‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ one is tempted to shout the next time one sees Boris Johnson on TV. Of course, we all know that politicians tell porkies, but 88% seems to be taking economy with the truth a little far. It turns out that Conservative politicians (who now make up the British government) really can’t be trusted. The article in The Independent concludes,

The report called for more research to be done across multiple platforms to examine how false information spreads and takes root, calling claims that ‘Facebook, or bots, or the Russians are the core threat’ a ‘misdiagnosis’ of the problem.

So what is the problem? Where does disinformation come from? The article leaves little room for doubt:

The King’s College research said that while government policy had focused on social media as a source for disinformation, much of it was being ‘spread by domestic political actors’ and news outlets.

You don’t say? Who’d have thought it? There is a problem with disinformation in political life, but overwhelmingly the source of that disinformation is not Russia but domestic politicians and their helpers in the media. Unless, of course, this report itself is disinformation. Its allegations were ‘wild assertions’, said a Conservative Party spokesman. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Negative Assumptions

Oh boy, oh boy! The United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has come out with a new report on ‘Russian active measures campaign and interference in the 2016 US election’, and it’s a whopper – 1,000 pages. Being a glutton for punishment, I whizzed through it last night, but unless you are truly obsessed with the topic, I don’t recommend that you follow suit.

The reason is that it is unlikely to change your mind. If you already believe in a vast Russian conspiracy to undermine American democracy, you will read the report as confirmation that you are right. And if you don’t, you’ll find nothing in it to make you think differently. I’m not going to waste your time, therefore, discussing whether I consider the report’s conclusions credible. Instead I will use the report in a different way, as a lens through which we can examine the basic assumptions which drive analyses of anything Russia-related in the United States.

Continue reading Negative Assumptions


As perceptive readers will have realised, I’m hedging my bets about the outcome of the crisis in Belarus. A few days ago, I mentioned that if one must make predictions they should be probabilities not absolutes. Back then, if I’d been forced to make a judgement I’d probably have said that there was around an 80% chance of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko staying in power. Now, as a general strike movement gathers pace, I reckon the odds rather worse for him – 50-60%. In other words, I have no idea how this will end up, and I’m back in my favourite position – sitting on the fence.  

Given this, I’m not a huge fan of the idea of imposing sweeping new sanctions on Belarus. They are unlikely to have any impact on the final result. Arguments that sanctions will give moral encouragement to the opposition, whereas a failure to do so will demoralize them, and in this way affect the outcome of the current crisis, seem to me to exaggerate their influence on ordinary people. And since there is a good chance that Lukashenko will survive, we run a risk of ending up in a position in which the sanctions remain for a long time, harming not Lukashenko but the Belarusian population. The only point of sanctions appears to be virtue signalling, and as such they’re not good policy. 

On the other hand, we also need to consider the possibility that Lukashenko will fall from power. This forces us to think about what should be done at that point. In this regard, a comment on Facebook by conservative Russian philosopher Boris Mezhuev got me thinking. Noting that the current government of Belarus had tried hard to avoid taking sides between Russia and the West, Mezhuev continued: 

The question is actually only one question, whether the overthrow of the dictatorship will lead to a civilizational collision similar to [the] Ukrainian [one] or even more large-scale. The question of civilizational self-determination of the country will arise immediately after Lukashenko’s departure. If it is unambiguously pro-European, Russia will hardly feel indifferent to it and it is unlikely to look [positively] at the drift of Minsk towards NATO and the EU. If it is unambiguously pro-Russia, most likely, the excitement will continue in Minsk and Western regions of the country. To be honest, I don’t even logically see an option that could save us from the new civil war. 

This strikes me as rather pessimistic, but it does raise an important point, of considerable relevance to the issue of what to do if Lukashenko is toppled. The civil war in Ukraine resulted in large part because a section of the Ukrainian elite (most of its intellectual class) chose to present its internal political disagreements with the ruling party in terms of a civilizational choice between Russia and the West, and because the European Union encouraged this framing of the problem.  

Personally, I doubt that a similar framing will have the same traction in Belarus as in Ukraine, for a variety of reasons – historical, linguistic, and economic. An article on the Meduza website today noted the sudden prevalence among protestors of the initial post-Soviet white and red Belarusian flag (instead of the current (and previously Soviet) red and green version). De-Sovietization tends to go along with de-Russianization, and the use of this symbol makes one wonder if the anti-Lukashenko protests could at some point get an anti-Russian texture. But there’s not any clear indication of it at present. The same Meduza article notes that EU flags are noticeable by their absence in the Belarusian protests. It doesn’t seem that the protestors are demanding a civilizational choice. 

That’s good news. What matters now is whether outsiders force such a choice on them. In Ukraine’s case, once the EU had offered a partnership agreement (and NATO had promised eventual membership), Ukraine was left with little option but to choose its vector – Europe or Russia. The EU and NATO need to avoid putting Belarus in the same position, as too must Russia.  

Unlike Mezhuev, I don’t hold to the view that civilizational choices are inevitable, in part because I’m not a fan of the whole civilizational discourse. The idea that there is a single monolithic bloc, which is Europe, and then there is something completely distinct, which is Russia, doesn’t, in my view, correspond to reality. Try to make reality fit that model is what causes problems. One thing Lukashenko probably got right was trying to avoid commitment to one side or another. We should allow any future leader of Belarus to do the same. 

dead man walking

One thing a life in the world of intelligence and political punditry has taught me is not to make overly bold assessments. It’s always best to throw in words like ‘possibly’ or ‘probably’. Above all, one should avoid predictions. If you must predict, do so only in terms of probabilities. Don’t say ‘this will happen’, or ‘this won’t happen’; say ‘there’s an X% possibility of this happening’. Philip Tetlock’s research into social scientists’ ability to predict suggests that they are on average as accurate as a monkey rolling dice. I’ve been wrong enough times to know one thing about the future – it’s unknowable.

Consequently, I’m not going to tell you what the outcome of the current political crisis in Belarus will be. I was a student there for several months back in 1987, when it was still the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, but I haven’t been back there since. I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in the mind of the average Belarusian, let alone the balance of political forces. Others, though, seem far more confident about what the days ahead have in store for us.

One example is Mark Galeotti, writing in the online US version of that once fine, but now long declining, magazine, The Spectator (fire Boris as Prime Minister and bring him back as editor would be my solution to both Britain’s woes and those of The Spectator). Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is a ‘dead man walking’ says Galeotti. Lukashenko’s ‘days are over’, he confidently adds.

Are they? Well, maybe. But maybe not. Galeotti thinks that Lukashenko may ‘hold on for now’, but that even if he does his legitimacy will be so undermined that ‘this is just delaying the inevitable’. I’m not so sure.

In the first place, many of the conditions for a successful revolution appear to be lacking in Belarus. In this regard, it’s worth comparing it with 2014 Ukraine. The Maidan revolution succeeded for many reasons, which included: wealthy financial backers; a cause capable of attracting the intellectual elites (EU membership – however unrealistic); a hardcore of well-organized muscle; and a weak president, who in contrast to the manner in which he was depicted, was very unwilling to take tough measures to defend himself. The Belarusian opposition lacks similar financial backers, the European cause, and the hardcore nationalist muscle. It also faces a president who gives every impression of being quite prepared to do whatever is required to stay in power.

In the second place, I’ve seen far too many examples of ‘dictatorial’ presidents who have been declared ‘dead men walking’, only to defy all predictions and not merely stay notionally in power, but remain very much in control of their countries. Predictions of Vladimir Putin’s demise appear almost monthly. The Bolotnaya protests of 2012 were meant to be his undoing. So were American and US sanctions. So was the collapse in the oil price. So too was COVID-19. And so on, and so forth. And yet, there he is, still in the Krenlin today, unchallenged and unchallengeable in terms of power.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro is another example. He’s withstood economic collapse, coup attempts, and massive economic pressure from the some of the most powerful nations in the world. Compared with what he’s had to face, the protests in Belarus are chicken feed. If Maduro can hold on, Lukashenko surely can too.

That’s not to say that he will. Anything can happen, and I’m not going to predict. But confident assertions that his days are numbered strike me as misplaced. It would be very wrong to base any policies on the assumption either that Lukashenka will be driven out of power or that if he does retain power he will be seriously weakened. After all, people said the same about Putin in 2012.

At the end of his article, Galeotti makes the following remark:

Meanwhile, the European Union will condemn the violence and the fraud, but how far will it impose serious sanctions and otherwise try to bring Lukashenko down? Already this morning I’ve received an email from a contact at the EU’s External Action Service suspecting that his colleagues, while loudly condemning the repression, are crossing their fingers that Lukashenko will be able to regain control, so that they are not forced to address this dilemma.

It strikes me that Galeotti’s friends in the EU have their heads screwed on right. Again and again in recent years, we’ve seen Western states impose sanctions on disliked regimes in the belief that they will succeed in toppling governments, only to fail and achieve nothing other than the impoverishment of ordinary people. We shouldn’t commit the same mistake in the case of Belarus. If the regime falls, it will be because of the efforts of those ordinary people, not because of anything we do. And if it doesn’t, there will be nothing we can do about it. Assuming that Lukashenko is doomed, and acting on that assumption, is high stakes gambling. You might get lucky, but personally I’m not going to bet on it.

The myth of central control

My mother once gave a talk on BBC Radio 3 entitled ‘The Myth of Central Control’, explaining how the British government had no effective control over its expenditure. The phenomenon is hardly unique to the United Kingdom. Governments everywhere struggle to control even the institutions notionally subordinate to them, let alone their countries as a whole. For some odd reason, however, many people think that Russia is an exception, and that everything that happens there is centrally coordinated in the most sophisticated and successful manner. Such are the Russians’ power of control, in fact, that even citizens of other countries (‘Kremlin proxies’) follow Moscow’s bidding in what might be compared to a perfect display of political synchronized swimming.

Of course, as anyone with any experience of Russia knows, this isn’t how things work in reality. But still the myth persists, and pervades the way in Russia is understood by governments in the West.

An example is a new report entitled ‘Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem’, published this week by the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, which is, as the report says, ‘the U.S. Government’s dedicated center for countering foreign disinformation and propaganda.’ If you are so inclined, you can read the report in full here. However, I don’t recommend it, for the reasons that follow.

Continue reading The myth of central control