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.

When writing an intelligence analysis, it is always advisable to first list one’s assumptions, so that the reader can take these into account. Unfortunately, the Senate committee doesn’t tell us what its assumptions are, but a couple become very obvious over the course of 1,000 pages.

First, Russians don’t have individual agendas, or even very much, individual personas. They are, by and large, mere extensions of the state. We are thus repeatedly told that this or that Russian has ‘ties to Putin’, ‘links to the intelligence community’, ‘ties to the Kremlin’, and so on. Every Russian is a tool of the Russian government, and as such suspect.

Second, Russian and American interests are incompatible. Anything which might in some way influence Americans to be more pro-Russian undermines American security. ‘Influence’ theoretically can be good as well as bad. But Russian influence is purely negative.

Assumption no. 1

Let’s now give some examples to illustrate the first of these assumptions, starting with the role played by one-time campaign manager for Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, and his connections with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and various players in Ukraine. The report tells us that:

Deripaska introduced Manafort to pro-Russia oligarchs in Ukraine, including Rinat Akhmetov. These Ukrainian oligarchs had deep economic ties to Russia and were aligned with a pro-Russia political party which was backed by the Russian government. Over the next decade, these oligarchs paid Manafort tens of millions of dollars and formed strong ties with Manafort … Connections between Manafort’s program in Ukraine and Russia’s own influence efforts there suggest that they were effectively part of the same campaign to undermine the Ukrainian government and support pro-Russia candidates.

Note here how a) Deripaska, Akhmetov, and other Ukrainans are portrayed not as an independent actors with their own agendas but as ‘pro-Russian’ and part and parcel of ‘Russia’s own influence efforts’. In reality, it has been said that when working in Ukraine Manafort encouraged his client Viktor Yanukovich to pursue an association agreement with the European Union – in other words to pursue an agenda contrary to that of Russia. But such nuances are lacking in the report – everything and everybody is somehow connected to the mysterious body known as ‘the Kremlin’.

We see this again and again in the report. In Moscow for the Miss University pageant, Donald Trump met some more rich Russians (strictly speaking, Azeri-Russians) Aras Agalerov and his son Emin. Discussing a meeting between Donald Trump Jr and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, the report says this:

Agalarov likely did this on behalf of individuals affiliated with the Russian government, judging from his ties with Russian officials who have pursued a repeal of the U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. … The Committee assesses that some of the same information used by Veselnitskaya at the June 9, 2016 meeting was also used in an influence operation earlier in 2016 by individuals in Moscow who have ties to Russian intelligence and to Putin. … The Committee assesses that at least two participants in the June 9, 2016 meeting, Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, have significant connections to the Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services.

Note how all involved are ‘affiliated with the Russian government’, ‘have ties to Russian intelligence and to Putin’, and have ‘significant connections to the Russian government’. The very fact that someone is alleged to have such connections is grounds enough for concluding that everything they do is coordinated with that government and its agencies.

Such ‘ties’, though, don’t necessarily mean very much. We are told the following, for instance, regarding Trump’s dealings with a Moscow real estate agent during his efforts to build a tower in Moscow:

A body of information suggests [Moscow Realtor Andrei] Rozov’s personal and professional network likely has at least some ties to individuals associated with Russian influence operations. For example, Rozov’s associate Stalbek Mishakov has significant ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who the Committee assesses undertakes a wide variety of Russian government influence operations.

Such ‘ties’ abound. Trump advisor Carter Page visited Moscow. The report notes that, ‘During these visits, Page met briefly with a figure about whom the Intelligence Community has counterintelligence concerns.’ The report continues:

There are indications that news of Page’s visit reached senior levels of the Kremlin. Denis Klimentov became the press secretary of the NES in the fall of 2016. Page had repeated direct contact with Klimentov starting as early as his July 2016 trip to Moscow, … Klimentov’s brother and business partner, Dmitry Klimentov, is a US-based public relations consultant consultant who is a former acting New York bureau chief for, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. Dmitriy Klimentov maintains regular contact with Dmitry Peskov, who is the Press Secretary for the President Putin.

Similarly, the report says of gun-rights activist Maria Butina

Butina had support from, and contact with, numerous Kremlin-linked oligarchs … These individuals included Konstantin Nikolaev, a major financial backer of Butina’s gun-rights organization with reported ties to the Russian Presidential Administration and Russian security services

And then there is ‘an individual named David Geovanis [who] alleged that he had information about Trump’s relationships with women in Moscow.’ According to the committee, ‘Geovanis has ties to Kremlin-linked oligarchs, several of whom are sanctioned by the United States. Some of Geovanis’s contacts are also associated with Russia’s intelligence and security services, and some are involved in Kremlin foreign influence operations.’

And so on and so forth. You get the point. Every Russian you meet is ‘connected’ to the Kremlin or Russian intelligence in some way, however remote.

Assumption no. 2

Then there’s assumption number two – the incompatibility of Russian and American interests. Take, for instance, part of the report which details Manafort’s relationship with his associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who of course ‘is a Russian intelligence officer’. According to the report, ‘Manafort discussed with Kilimnik a peace plan for eastern Ukraine that benefited the Kremlin’.

Given that a key element of this plan involved the return to Ukraine of former president Viktor Yanukovich, I doubt that this plan originated in the Kremlin. Moscow has its own peace plan – the Minsk agreement. It seems unlikely that it needs another.

But putting that aside, what’s interesting here is how a peace plan which benefits Russia is portrayed as something threatening to US security. The idea that peace could benefit Russia and simultaneously benefit the United States seems to be beyond the committee’s grasp. The underlying assumption appears to be that what is good for Russia is bad for America.

Such an assumption makes any attempt to engage in diplomacy, either directly or via backdoors, distinctly suspect. And so we are told the following, as if it is proof of the Trump campaign’s lack of respect of American interests:

Russia took advantage of members of the Transition Team’s relative inexperience in government, opposition to Obama Administration policies, arid Trump’s desire to deepen ties with Russia to pursue unofficial channels through which Russia could conduct diplomacy.

Oh no! The Russians sought to ‘deepen ties’ and ‘conduct diplomacy’. How terrible!

This isn’t an isolated incident in the report. It reflects an underlying concern that anything done to improve relations with Russia suits Russia’s interests, and therefore by implication harms America. Thus Carter Page again comes under scrutiny in a passage which says, ‘Page also advocated for better relations with Russia, a position in concert with Moscow’s official perspective and consistent with candidate Trump’s minimalist posture that sought better relations with Moscow’. Arguing that the USA might benefit from better relations with Russia is thus condemned as ‘a position in concert with Moscow’s official position.’

Likewise, Ms Butina and her sponsor Alexander Torshin ‘engaged in a multiyear influence campaign … Their goal was to develop and use backchannel communications to influence U.S. policy outside of the formal diplomatic process to Russia’s advantage and to the detriment of the United States.’ In this passage, ‘Russia’s advantage’ is clearly contrasted with ‘the detriment of the United States’, although the committee fails to produce a single example of how Butina’s lobbying in any way worked to America’s ‘detriment’. It appears that the fact that it was in favour of Russia is alone proof enough.

‘Beginning in 2015,’ the report says, ‘Torshin and Butina developed and operationalized a plan, which she called the “Diplomacy Project,” to create channels· for informal communication between the Russian and U.S. governments,’. ‘Diplomacy’, ‘informal communication’ – one might imagine that these are normal things. Apparently not.

Wrapping up

Putting it all together, it’s clear that a distinct mindset lies behind this report – one which regards Russians per se as suspicious; and also views Russia as innately hostile, pursuing interests which are utterly incompatible with those of the United States of America. This means that a) dealing with Russians, b) allowing them to influence you in any way, and c) seeking any sort of agreement with them, are all thoroughly undesirable.

In these circumstances, I can’t see how any major progress in Russian-American relations is possible, at least in the short term. When you can’t have dealings with Russians without coming under suspicion of being ‘influenced’ by the Kremlin or Russian intelligence; when you can’t discuss possible solutions to mutual problems because these might ‘benefit’ Russia’; and when Russian ‘influence’ is always bad influence, it strikes me that all avenues to progress are blocked.

If this report merely reflected this negative mindset it would be bad enough. Unfortunately, however, I think that its effect will be to magnify it. American-Russian relations are in the deep freeze. It looks like they will remain there for some time to come.

13 thoughts on “Negative Assumptions”

    1. According to this Carla Robbins propped segment, the State Dept. report was quite detailed:

      No surprise to see Carla prop The NYTs’ Julian Barnes, as both of them have suggestively spun Evelyn Farkas as a comparative innocent towards my reasoned objection to her core views relating to Russia.

      Quite a racket to get a reported near $90K salary to spin BS on MSDNC, while posting lies on Twitter, which don’t get penalized by Jack Dorsey’s stated goal of being accurate.

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  1. Same or very similar manner the US uses against China. They cannot get the name right on their media. The US and allies say Communist China when it is People’s Republic of China. Maybe the US wants to believe there are other forms of a republic or blends of Democracy as in Russia. Thank you for your thoughts I can share with others.

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  2. All politics is domestic: I think it does signal the general problem of role of money in US politics (Koch, Adelson, Mercer and so on), even if that is not why it was written.
    Manafort refused to take any money in becoming Trump’s campaign manager; besides the fact that that may have appealed to cash-strapped Trump, why did he offer his services gratis? Was he so much ideologically convinced of the righteousness of Trump’s cause and a true Trumpist zealot? Or does he just love campaigning? I think something there does not quite pass the smell test.
    Clearly, Deripaska has been lobbying (if that is the correct word) with McConnell and Paul in Kentucky to get his hands on part of the US aluminium industry…
    Having said that, I do fully agree with your point that most of the US political class wholly simplifies Russia as a monolith, in which everyone does Putin’s bidding (or is in Putin’s camp), in a caricature of totalitarianism. So many still call it inadvertently “Soviet,” “Soviet Union,” “communist,” or “red” etc.
    Still, we should be careful to suggest that all in the US buy into this idea of Russia as the evil other, as this then makes US Americans in the same simplistic way a caricature as many US politicians and journalists make out of Russia and the Russians.
    It is, though, problematic that those who have a more nuanced or even slightly pro-Russian viewpoint have their voice entirely drowned out in US public discourse. I think that because the pro-Russian position has been monopolized by the Trumpist Republicans (this may no longer be the case, but did seem to be the case a couple of years ago), anyone who breaks rank will be demonised (this may have happened to Stephen Cohen, although his age may have played a role in his disappearance as a talking head). Few dare to suggest that Russian government actors, at most, do in the US what all countries do to each other in terms of influence peddling in the name of the national interest and that their government’s influence on US affairs is vastly exaggerated. That does not mean that the Russian authorities, mainly on the cheap, do not succeed in exerting some influence, which seems perhaps more obvious from Western Europe (see Le Pen, Wilders/Baudet, or Farage). But that more obvious influence peddling or success is in part, too, because the agenda of the European extreme nationalist aligns with Russia’s, which is to weaken European unity and NATO strength.
    I cannot blame Russia in following this strategy, given the fact that Vilnius, Riga, Tartu and Tallin are now under NATO control, and NATO’s forces are no longer stationed all that far from Moscow.
    And thus, too, the Trumpist agenda did (does?) align with that of the Russian Federation.
    It would all look different nowadays if NATO had died a quiet death in the 1990s. Alas, it did not.

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  3. What can I say, racism sells. You just need an acceptable target.

    And Russians + Chinese are those acceptable targets now. Of course it’s not about the people, is about their government!.. But it just so happens that every Russian/Chinese has “ties” to their government.

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  4. Much like the recent British (52 page) effort it’s really an embarrassing piece of nonsense. At least the British know how to play to their brain dead audience (not giving them too much to tackle) the Americans as usual think that size matters (sadly we all know that with the US, in reality, it doesn’t matter how big it is, it simply doesn’t really function) It would all be truly hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous and of course it being fed to a tame, lame bought and paid for press doesn’t help. I’d be happy to read it, I have the time, but I already knew what it said before it was published! Is it just me or are the Americans really completely delusional, along with Western ‘elites’ they really haven’t a clue what it’s like living in the 21st Century. Bring on the Biden/Harris neocon Russophobic band wagon. I don’t know how the Russians find the patience to deal with these infantile, moronic 20th Century throw backs. Good luck with that Paul, I fear you have your work well and truly cut out for you.

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  5. “Every Russian is a tool of the Russian government, and as such suspect.”

    TrueЪ sory, can confirm:

    “For example, Rozov’s associate Stalbek Mishakov has significant ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who the Committee assesses undertakes a wide variety of Russian government influence operations.”

    Never-Trump progressive adorables: “Don’t fall for conspiracy theories”. Also Never-Trump progressive adorables:

    “Such an assumption makes any attempt to engage in diplomacy, either directly or via backdoors, distinctly suspect”

    Double-plus true. Such people as Anders As(s)lund, Ian Brzezinski, Evelyn Farkas, John Herbst, herr Kurt Volker and Molly “Madness” McKew totally agree. From their open letter nonsense:

    “The authors urge the United States to engage with Russia through “a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries.” They also argue in favor of the restoration of normal diplomatic contacts between the two countries to minimize “misperceptions and miscalculations.” But there has been no shortage of U.S.-Russian dialogue, including about nuclear capabilities. And U.S. representatives have regularly engaged their Russian counterparts on Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, Syria, nuclear issues and more. We have full diplomatic relations, even if both sides have engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions reducing the size of each other’s embassy staffing.

    The lack of results is not for lack of trying. It’s hard to negotiate with the other side when Moscow refuses to admit that its forces invaded Crimea and Donbas and still are present there; is complicit in shooting down a civilian airliner resulting in the deaths of 298 passengers and crew; lies about interfering in America’s 2016 elections; commits human rights abuses in Syria and props up the murderous Assad regime there; and kills Russian critics in Western countries with highly dangerous radioactive and chemical agents. Until Putin is ready to address his complicity in these actions, further dialogue won’t go very far. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to do “normal” diplomacy when the Russians use their diplomatic posts for troublemaking, not for clearing up misperceptions.”

    “C” for chutzpah.

    “Likewise, Ms Butina and her sponsor Alexander Torshin ‘engaged in a multiyear influence campaign … Their goal was to develop and use backchannel communications to influence U.S. policy outside of the formal diplomatic process to Russia’s advantage and to the detriment of the United States.’”

    Now, compare and contrast with that the above-linked puerile neo-con un-thought piece suggests:

    “Differentiate the Russian regime from the Russian people writ large, and prioritize support for civil society and those who, at great risk to themselves, are advocating for their fundamental rights”

    “America should signal our readiness to work with a Russian government only when it is clear that Moscow doesn’t view the United States as the enemy and is interested in doing its part to change its policies and behavior to advance relations. Until that time, we must avoid pointless, endless dialogue that never resolves problems and instead push back firmly and consistently against Putin’s threatening actions. This entails closer cooperation with our allies in containing Putin, tougher sanctions, greater support for Russia’s neighbors, clear backing for Russian civil society and stronger measures against Russian corruption”

    Or, to quote the great Lev Nathanovich Scharansky: “Даёшь чад кутежа! Грантам – быть!”

    “This means that a) dealing with Russians, b) allowing them to influence you in any way, and c) seeking any sort of agreement with them, are all thoroughly undesirable.”

    Tl;dr – Cancel policy comes after Russia. Wow – what a “novel” approach!

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    1. Regarding the illustration, I can understand all the stereotypes being depicted save for the hedgehog being eaten. That one is not something I have heard of before.

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      1. Re: hedgehogs

        Early in conflict, on November 23, 2014 free and independent media in the once again “democratic” post-Maidan Ukraine ran 100000% accurate story, that gosh-damned Moskals are suffering from the sanctions so much, that now have to eat hedgehogs.

        No, there was no retraction. The irony lies in the fact, that hedgehogs fried in clay is a traditional dish in the Western Ukraine (Volhynia):

        So, do Russians eat hedgehogs? Of course we do! Provided, you are meaning this rice, carrots and meat dish:

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