On Weaponizing cats and vaccines

It’s Christmas time, so it must be silly season.

Several years ago, the Moon in Alabama blog produced a long list of things that Russia and Vladimir Putin have been said to have ‘weaponized’. There are too many to mention them all, but they include such things as immigrants, robotic cockroaches, the weather, Photoshop, and language. A later updated list added items such as humour, incompetence, and giant squids. Today, we can now introduce a new member to the weaponized family: cats.

Yes, it wouldn’t be the internet without cats. Russian president Vladimir Putin no doubt likes them ‘white and fluffy‘.

‘White and fluffy’

Anyway, it turns out that cats are Russia’s latest weapon in the war for international hearts and minds. According to Michael Cole, author of an article entitled ‘December in Russia: A Special Breed of Disinformation’, the Russians have discovered that it’s ‘important to craft a likeable, if not loveable, image of yourself that people who find all that political talk rather mundane can get on board with.’ And so they’ve turned to cats.

Cole’s evidence: Russians building the bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia adopted a cat they called ‘Mostik’ as their mascot. As Cole says:

Whether it’s meeting up with the Crimean baseball team, celebrating the New Year or hanging out with his old friends on the building site, Mostik is certainly a much cuter and cuddlier face of illegal annexation than the one we’re used to reading about on Western news sites. These days he’s rarely photographed without a trusty press pass around his neck, helping him to get all the latest inside scoops on the kind of feel-good stories that distract from some of the harsher realities of life on the occupied peninsula. No wonder Vladimir Putin was happy to let Mostik cross the completed bridge ahead of him on the day of the official opening ceremony back in May 2018.


Cats as a ‘distraction’ from the ‘harsher realities’ of life in Crimea?? Those Russians are fiends! If only Ukraine had thought of that, we’d have been saved a lot of trouble.

Beyond Mostik, Cole can only produce one other example of the Kremlin’s supposed cat obsession – references to the unfortunate fate of Sergei Skripal’s cat, whom the British police left to die of dehydration and starvation after its owner was poisoned. Despite that, though, he concludes that, ‘cats are fast becoming Vladimir Putin’s political animals of choice.’

I’m assuming that Cole’s piece is meant to be slightly tongue in cheek. The problem is that one never knows nowadays. But definitely not joking is British journalist Sara Hurst, who drops the following bombshell in her latest article this week.

When I heard the news that AstraZeneca was going to work with Russia’s Gamaleya Centre to test combinations of the Oxford coronavirus vaccine and the Sputnik V vaccine, I was devastated. I felt betrayed by a prestigious scientific team that was supposed to be winning over the vaccine skeptics. … I have been in the Oxford trial, a joint project with AstraZeneca to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, since early June. I’ve had two doses of either the vaccine or the placebo. I was very enthusiastic to help develop a safe and effective vaccine. … But in response to the collaboration with the Russians, I have withdrawn from the trial. 

Come again, Sara. You what?? You quit the trial because the British researchers involved want to work with the Russians to produce a better vaccine? How does that make sense? Isn’t making a better vaccine something we should all want?

Not if it involves Russia, apparently. You see, Sara says that when it comes to vaccines, she ‘wanted to help create a genuine one’, and Russia’s Sputnik-V isn’t. It’s an ‘informational painkiller for the soul’, which she suspects doesn’t work. In any case, it’s wrong to take anything from Russia. There are ‘ethical issues of collaborating in any way with Putin’s murderous regime.’ ‘I am furious that instead of working to bring more of Putin’s killers to justice, some in the West apparently want to reward him,’ says Ms Hurst.

So she doesn’t like the Russian government. I’m fine with that. Many of the criticisms directed against it are entirely fair. But we’re talking about a major international health crisis here. The United Kingdom has just gone into full scale lockdown, and much of the rest of the world has blocked travellers from the UK from entering their countries. The UK needs an effective vaccine. Trying to block it is absurd.

Ms Hurst says that she doesn’t understand AstraZeneca’s decision to team up with the Russians. ‘I think they just see an opportunity to save money by perhaps giving people the Oxford vaccine after a dose of Sputnik. But I don’t really know what they’re up to,’ she says.

But she’s a journalist. It’s her job to check these things, and it’s not hard to find out the logic behind the British decision. Both the Oxford and Sputnik-V vaccines involve two injections, but the British found that if both doses were of equal strength, the vaccine was less effective. This could be because the first was in some way creating some sort of immunity to the second. And from this, researchers drew the conclusion that it might be better to use two different vectors for the two injections, i.e. first Oxford then Sputnik, or vice versa.

Will that work? I don’t know. Nor does AstraZeneca. But it’s worth a shot. Why not do some trials and see what happens? If it doesn’t help, there’s nothing lost. But if it has some positive results, then lives will be saved, and we can all return to normality a little earlier. What could possible be wrong with that?

AstraZeneca’s decision has nothing to do with ‘rewarding’ Putin. It’s a medical decision, pure and simple. And it makes a lot of sense. But no, we must not, says Sara Hurst, make the ‘mistake time and time again to trust Putin.’

I can’t remember how many times I’ve read that Russia is promoting anti-vaccination disinformation. But here we see how anti-vax propaganda is quite all right if it’s directed against Russia. As I said, it’s silly season indeed.

Navalny’s Underpants

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I poke fun at the latest allegations concerning the poisoning of Alexei Navalny which appeared in this weekend’s copy of The Sunday Times.

I think that I should make it clear, if it isn’t from reading my article, that I am not making fun of Navalny, nor mocking the idea that he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Rather, I’m mocking some particularly bad journalism, and my point is that articles like that in The Sunday Times actually help the Russian government and its supporters deny that anything untoward happened in the Navalny case. Moreover, this is part of a more general phenomenon in which exaggerated and sometime quite bizarre reporting about Russia by the Western press has the effect of persuading people that everything they read is made-up nonsense, and so makes them prone to conspiracy theories.

The problems with the Sunday Times article go far beyond the few things I pointed out in my piece for RT. I consider it a very poor piece of work. And that’s a shame, as there are serious questions which the Russian government needs to answer about the Navalny case. Today, for instance, Bellingcat has published an investigation purporting to show that various agents of the Russian security service, the FSB, have been following Navalny for years, and that some of these agents have medical and chemical warfare training and have been in contact with a scientist with an interest in organophosphate chemicals.

I’m not in a position to verify Bellingcat’s claims, nor the various assumptions which lie behind them. But I don’t think that you can dismiss them out of hand. They are certainly a much more serious attempt to point the finger of blame at the Kremlin than what The Sunday Times produced. The thing is, though, that you can just imagine Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mariia Zakharova, confronted by a question about the Bellingcat report, cracking a joke about Navalny’s underpants and the ever growing number of supposed attempts on his life, saying that the West’s story keeps changing, and using that to undermine any attempts to claim that there is indeed something worth investigating.

In short, bad journalism has consequences. It needs to be called out. At the same time, though, I would urge readers not to imagine that because some of the claims in the press are ridiculous, everything is. Something smells super fishy in the Navalny case, and it’s not just his underpants.

End of Year Books

As the year is about to end, and I have several book reviews to do, I thought I would bundle them all together.

Personal reflections: Americans in Russia

First off are a couple of books of a non-academic variety which were sent to me, one being a memoir, and the other a self-published collection of essays. Both to some degree touch upon the issue of Americans in Russia.

Behind the Red Veil is American teacher Frank Thoms’s memoir of his time teaching in Soviet schools during the Gorbachev era. Thoms taught for a few months at several English-immersion schools in Leningrad, Moscow, and Yekaterinburg, and also at Pioneer camp in Kazakhstan. His decision to work there reflected his desire to penetrate behind what he calls the ‘red veil’ of the Soviet Union, and to unpeel the ‘deeper layers’ of the Soviets’ matrioshkas, as he puts it. It was also perhaps a response to a personal crisis, following on from his divorce. Thoms’s trips to the Soviet Union were thus maybe as much a voyage of personal discovery as an exploration of Soviet life. As he himself concludes, ‘Upon reflection, I was the primary beneficiary of my sojourns. … I was befriending me. … My effort to probe Churchill’s “Russia is riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” became a process of self-deciphering.’

Perhaps for that reason, Thoms’s memoir is rather self-absorbed and spends surprisingly little time reflecting on Soviet life, and pretty much nothing outside the school system. On that, though, he does offer some thoughts. As described by Thoms, the Soviet school system had an overly rigid curriculum which placed a huge emphasis on grades, to which both teachers and pupils paid overt homage while quietly subverting it with each others’ knowledge. He’s fond of using the word pokazukha (window-dressing, roughly speaking) to describe the Soviets’ attitude of pretending to go along with the rules which doing their best to undermine them. He describes the prevalence of crib-sheets and cheating, and of students lying, and prompting one another in class, to all of which teachers turned a blind eye. The Soviet Union, Thoms concludes, was ‘not only authoritarian but pretended.’

Americans in Russia also pop up in veteran journalist Deena Stryker’s self-published collection of essay, Russia’s Americans, although the title is rather deceiving as the Americans in question are just a small part of the whole.

Stryker is an Franco-American journalist of, I think it’s fair to say, well-left-of-centre political opinions. In the past she hobnobbed with the likes of Fidel Castro and Federico Fellini, before spending some time writing speeches in the US State Department under Jimmy Carter. The Americans in the title of her book are various US (and one Canadian) expats she met on a trip to Russia in 2017. As a whole, they seem a happy bunch, who don’t particularly miss America, and express no special desire to go back, though they are no without their criticism of modern Russia (the food is ‘gross’ says one; chaos ‘reigns’, says another, while adding that he actually likes the anarchy; and another echoes Frank Thomas and complains that the rote learning of the Russian school system ‘encourages cheating.)

I thought rather more could be made of all this, and it made me think that there would be value in a detailed study of expat experiences of life in Russia. As it is, though, they constitute only a small part of Stryker’s book, most of which consists of essays denouncing US foreign policy and defending Russia against a variety of common charges. She stresses the ‘Wolfowitz Doctrine’ which proclaimed that the US should act to prevent any other nation from challenging US hegemony, and interprets US policy towards Russia in light of that doctrine and the desire to control what the founder of geopolitical theory Halford Mackinder called ‘the heartland’.

The USA is indeed in large part to blame for the current poor state of Russian-American relations, but there’s blame on the Russian side too. Take Ukraine: while the US undoubtedly backed the Maidan coup, it had domestic roots, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebellion in Donbass can’t be ignored. So, to be honest, I somewhat part with Stryker, as with other what you might call ‘pro-Russian’ analysts. I think that she pushes things further than is warranted. In recognizing American’s sins, it’s important that one doesn’t end up blaming America for everything.

Academic books

Next in this line of reviews are a couple of academic books, which I’ve selected as being among the best works produced about contemporary Russia this year.

First up is Elena Chebankova’s Political Ideologies in Contemporary Russia which is pretty much what it says on the tin – a description of the various currents in modern Russian political thought, such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism, nationalism, and feminism.

As a summary of the various modes of Russian thought, I think that the book does a pretty good job. It’s also, I think, well-balanced and thankfully free of the extreme interpretations of Russia’s ideological twists and turns that characterize so many Western analyses.

This can be seen in the way Chebankova describes ‘Putinism’ as a system of ‘paradigmatic pluralism’, in which liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, multipolar world order ideas, and multiculturalism exist side by side. According to Chebankova, ‘representatives of each paradigm operate within Russia’s main political parties, at the high echelons of power, in large and medium-sized business structures, and in the main social movements.’ As for Vladimir Putin, he ‘prefers to balance these socio-political forces without taking sides, and he navigates between the traditionalists and the liberals situationally.’

Chebankova, in other words, paints a picture  of Russia as far more diverse than one would expect if one accepted the general view of the country as an authoritarian dictatorship in the grip of a new conservative ideology. Overall, people wanting an introduction to contemporary Russian liberalism, conservatism, and so on, will find this book invaluable.

Issues of ideology also pop up in another new book, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova’s The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity. In this the author argues that Vladimir Putin owes his success to the fact that he has adopted a form of identity politics which has ‘worked to consolidate the Russian nation in the sense of infusing Russian citizens with a sense of belonging and a sense of pride, patriotism, and faith in their country.’ In the process, he ‘has articulated the shared collective perspective and has built a social consensus by tapping into powerful group emotions of shame and humiliation, derived from the painful experiences of the 1990s.’ Consequently Russians feel that Putin is ‘one of us’, is ‘doing it for us’, is ‘crafting a sense of us’, and is ‘making us matter’.

Sharafutdinova spends a lot of time demonstrating how the Russian media has helped Putin in this regard by propagating the ‘frame’ of the 1990s as a period of national humiliation, a frame which provides vital support for the current government by allowing it to present itself as a comparative bringer of stability. She argues that, while this frame isn’t one invented by the Kremlin, its widespread acceptance is a product of a top-down decision to promote it. I found her deconstruction of the workings of the TV talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ rather good. That said, I have some issues with the idea that the prevalence of this frame owes so much to top-down support. I rather suspect that if Putin had decided to push another frame, such as arguing that the 1990s were a time of successful transformation, it would not have got very far. Propaganda works bests when it resonates with what people feel. You can’t propagate any old thing. And this, I think, is a case in point.

Nevertheless, Sharafutdinova thinks that the framing of the 1990s in purely negative terms is a serious mistake from the point of view of Russia’s democratic development, and that Russia can never move forward unless it accepts the positive elements of the post-Soviet reform period. Good luck with that, I have to say. Sharafutdinova herself admits that it’s not likely to happen.

So, I have some issues with this book. At the same time, though, it’s useful as a corrective to the widely-held view that Putin’s power is founded purely on repression or media manipulation. There’s a degree of the latter in Sharafutdinova’s account, but only in the sense that the Russian media plays on, and amplifies, existing viewpoints, with Putin successfully allying himself with the Russian people’s sense of identity. Isn’t that democracy, part of me wonders?

Book I never finished

Finally, there’s a book I never finished, Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton’s monstrously huge door-stopper Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West. I made a big mistake in failing to check how long this book was before I ordered a copy. It’s 624 pages. I gave up at page 136. Some editor at publisher Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux really ought to have taken Belton aside and ordered her to cut her work in half.

If the book had been say 250 pages long, I might have struggled through to the end. As it was, 136 pages were more than sufficient to give me enough of a sense of it not to feel any need to continue. Basically, you know what’s in it by the title: Putin, KGB, evil; Putin, KGB, evil. You don’t need to read 600 pages to get the point.

My issues with the book, however, go beyond the simplistic thesis and the excessive length. They are also a matter of methodology, and the amount I read was sufficient to convince me that methodologically-speaking Putin’s People has serious some difficulties: reliance on a dubious exiled one-time billionaire whose credibility has been found wanting by the British courts; regular use of anonymous sources; repetition of rumour; unsupported assertions and speculation; and a tendency to interpret everything in the most sinister way possible. It’ s problematic, to say the least.

Some people like this book. Luke Harding and Anne Applebaum wrote glowing reviews. Say no more!

Farewell Chubais

Vladimir Putin has been at the top of the Russian system of government for 20 years. Until this week, there was somebody else who’d been around even longer – former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais. On Wednesday, however, Chubais was dismissed from his job as head of the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation (Rosnano). Only a handful of Yeltsin-era liberals still remain on the scene (former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin being the main examples). Chubais’ departure provides an opportunity to look back and reflect on what Russian liberalism wrought and why it enjoys so little support today.

Chubais rose to prominence in the late 1980s as one of group of radical, free-market economists in Leningrad (later renamed St Petersburg), and like Vladimir Putin, in the early 1990s attached himself to St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. An advocate of rapid privatization, he became Deputy Prime Minister and then chief of the presidential administration, until he was fired in 1997. Subsequently, he ran the Russian electricity company UES with some success before taking up his post at Rosnano in 2008. Despite his later work, it is his role in the privatization of Russian industry in the early and mid-1990s for which he is best known.

The fact that Russian privatization resulted in a massive and unequal redistribution of wealth, concentrating ownership of industry in the hands of a few so-called oligarchs, while leaving millions of ordinary Russians in poverty, has forever tarnished Chubais’s reputation. In particular, he is blamed for the infamous loans-for-shares scheme in which valuable state corporations were handed over to a handful of private owners for a mere fraction of their true value.

To be fair to Chubais and his fellow reformers, the task they had was extremely difficult. In the late 1980s, the Soviet economy faced a severe crisis. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, while well intentioned, had exacerbated the country’s economic problems, producing severe shortages. Chubais and others like him were not wrong in determining that further tinkering of the socialist system would not work, and that something far more radical was required, to transform the socialist economy into a capitalist one.

Chubais was well aware that change of this sort was bound to have some negative effects. There was a certain logic, therefore, to moving as rapidly as possible, both to minimize contradictions in the process, and to make the changes irreversible before opposition could harden. Later, when it came to the loans for share scheme, the dire financial position of the Russian government meant that the temptation to resort to financial short cuts was perhaps understandable, even if the exact method chosen was decidedly untransparent and arguably even corrupt.

An economic experiment on such a large scale had never been attempted. It is hardly surprising that major errors were made. At the end of the day, though, a new system was created, which while far from perfect has provided Russians as a whole with an unprecedented degree of prosperity, albeit after a long period of suffering.

In this sense, the Yeltsin-era liberals don’t deserve all the mud that has been flung at them. That said, there are aspects of Chubais’s career which explain why so much of the mud has stuck.

For in some respects Chubais was a prime example of what one might call ‘liberal authoritarianism’. Russia’s failure to turn into a Western-style democracy is normally blamed on Putin. But in reality, Russian liberals of the reform era were themselves far from democratic in inclination.

This became clear as far back as 1989, when Chubais and fellow members of the Leningrad-based Association of Social-Economic Science published an article calling for a ‘hard course’. Criticising the proposals of Gorbachev’s government as insufficiently radical, Chubais and his fellow authors called for a ‘big leap’ forward, but warned that this would have some ‘extremely negative consequences’, including ‘mass unemployment … social-economic differentiation, illegal speculation on a gigantic scale and also the “unjustified enrichment” of some individuals’. In the face of the inevitable opposition this would provoke, the article demanded that the government take ‘tough measures … such as the dissolution of official trade unions in the event that they spoke out against government measures.’ The main political task, said Chubais, was for the government to keep all power in its hands. The difficulty was that the population as a whole lacked a democratic mentality, meaning that democracy would in practice give power to populists who would stop economic reform. For this reason, ‘The most critical problem for democrats … is the need to express their support for anti-democratic measures which are necessary for reform, such as a ban on strikes, control over information, and so on.’ To this end, it was essential that ‘control of the main element of the mass media remain in government hands.’

What is remarkable about this article is how accurately it predicted the negative consequences of reform. Nobody can say that the reformers didn’t know what they were doing. At the same time they displayed an extremely utilitarian morality – the ends justified the means, with huge inequalities, mass unemployment, and undemocratic methods all being justified by the supposed benefits to be obtained at some later date.

Interestingly, Chubais has never really backed off from his opposition to democracy in the name of democracy. Much more recently, for instance, he declared, ‘Imagine that we organized in the country genuine, fully democratic elections, based on the will of the workers, giving equal access to the mass media, and to money … the result of such elections would be of an order worse, and possibly simply catastrophic for the country.’

None of this would perhaps matter too much if the reformers had been willing to share the suffering they knew that their policies would create. But instead, they exploited the opportunity to grow rich themselves. Chubais is a case in point, being said to be ‘himself worth several million dollars’. In 2009, he caused something of a scandal when he told an academic audience, ‘If you are an assistant professor and you do not have a business, then why the hell do I even need you!’. Failure to get rich is depicted as almost a moral failure. It speaks volumes of the lack of empathy for the real difficulties many Russians had to endure as a result of the economic collapse of the 1990s.

And here perhaps the Chubais case reveals the real failing of modern Russian liberalism. It’s not the basic direction of the policies that liberals pursued in the 1990s. By 1991, Gorbachev had driven the Russian economy into the ground. A radical and rapid move towards a market economy was pretty much the only option left. Nor is the problem necessarily the actual form that the policies took – given that they were in uncharted territory, it’s understandable that the reformers made some bad mistakes along the way. Rather, the liberals’ problem is related to their utilitarian mind-frame and apparent hypocrisy. For it’s very hard to complain that Putin’s Russia is undemocratic when you’ve hardly been democratic yourself; it’s difficult to complain of corruption, when you yourselves appear to be major beneficiaries of it; and finally it’s almost impossible to appeal to what are often deemed the ‘masses’ when you seem to be rather indifferent towards their sufferings.

Between Russian liberalism and the Russian people there appears to be what one might call an ‘empathy gap’. The career of Anatoly Chubais, a man widely despised in his own country but once crowned ‘European Finance Minister of the Year’, is perhaps as clear an example as one could find.

The civilizational turn that wasn’t

I like to debunk. In my last big post I tackled the Brexit plot that wasn’t. Today, I debunk the ‘civilizational turn’ that wasn’t.

‘What’s this civilizational turn?’, you ask. It’s the idea that since 2012, the Russian state and its leaders have increasingly turned towards a civilizational discourse in their foreign policy rhetoric, describing Russia as a distinct civilization, separate from the West, with its own unique values and institutions.

This form of rhetoric is often seen as originating in the work of late nineteenth century philosophers Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontyev, who generated the thesis that the world does not consist of different nations all converging towards some common future, but rather of separate civilizations all progressing along entirely distinct paths. It is no coincidence that in the past few years Danilevsky and Leontyev are among the most cited authors in the works of Russian international relations scholars. The language of civilizations is now pretty much mainstream in the Russian foreign policy community.

 In the twentieth century, civilizational theory became strongly associated with Eurasianism, which maintains that the lands of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union constitute a distinct civilization, bound together by a common history, culture, and so on. The civilizational/Eurasianist discourse favours the idea that Russia/Eurasia is separate from the West, and that the most natural form of world order is polycultural and multipolar in nature. In the eyes of many critics, it is associated with a preference for a new international order, and thus with an aggressive, revisionist, foreign policy agenda.

In the past, I have cast some serious doubt on the thesis that Russian leaders, and especially President Vladimir Putin, view the world in these terms. For instance, in an academic article about Putin’s speeches, my co-author and I noted that while Putin occasionally made use of the word ‘civilization’, he has also consistently referred to Russia as culturally European. And although Putin sometimes makes reference to Eurasia, these references have not increased over time.

As for Putin’s views of the international order, we said, they have been equally ‘consistent over time’, are quite conservative in nature, and place a lot of emphasis on the United Nations as the central body in the international system. And while it is true that the idea of Russia’s distinct values often appears, so to do references to universal values. In short, the civilizational turn isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Having said all this stuff, it’s nice to find some support from another source. This comes in a brand new article in the academic journal Europe-Asia Studies by Matthew Frear and Honorata Mazepus of Leiden University.

Entitled ‘Security, Civilisation and Modernisation: Continuity and Change in the Russian Foreign Policy Discourse’, the article looks at the official Foreign Policy Concepts produced by the Russian government from 2008 to 2018, and also at President Putin’s speeches to the Federal Assembly. The authors cluster the words used in these documents and speeches into groups: those relating to the world order, including concepts such as security, power, and sovereignty; those relating to identity issues and civilizations; and finally those relating to economics. They then assess how much attention each cluster received, and how that changed over time.

What they find is interesting, though in my mind not surprising: there has been no civilizational turn in Russian rhetoric since 2012. World order issues dominate Russian discourse, compromising around 50% of the content of the Foreign Policy Concepts in 2008, 2013, and 2016. Civilizational issues comprised only 6-7% in all three documents, and issues of identity included references both to distinct Russian values and to universal standards. There is no specific mention of Russia having a Eurasian identity.

Issues of world order, sovereignty, and security similarly dominate Putin’s speeches. Civilizational/identity issues got a big mention in his 2012 speech to the Federal Assembly but since then have pretty much disappeared. Eurasianism as such is never mentioned. Putin does make much greater reference than do the Foreign Policy Concepts to ‘spiritual issues and moral standards’. But Frear and Mazepus conclude that ‘This suggests that the so-called “conservative turn” in the Russian official discourse is aimed more at the domestic than the international audience.’

Overall, the authors conclude that their analysis shows ‘a great deal of continuity in the amount of space dedicated to the discourses under investigation’. Issues of sovereignty and security dominate, and despite a brief blip in Putin’s 2012 speech, identity and civilizational matters remain secondary and have not increased in prominence.

In my recent article in Russia in Global Affairs, I noted that in Russia ‘civilizational discourse has now become mainstream’, but at the same time I cautioned that, ‘the connection between conservative ideology and state practice is weaker than is often assumed’. I concluded:

As with the statements on ‘traditional values’ one should be careful about reading too much into official references to civilizations. Civilizational discourse provides a means of justifying Russian state leaders’ preference for a multipolar order founded on the principle of state sovereignty. But that preference existed well before the civilizational discourse became common. … Although much has changed since 2001, the preference for a stable, multipolar international order, founded on the UN Charter and the principle of state sovereignty, has not. In broad terms, over the past twenty years Russian foreign policy has remained remarkably consistent. This suggests that the driving force of Russian actions on the international scene remains a pragmatic understanding of Russian interests rather than any passing ideological considerations.

I think that this latest research backs me up.