And They Complain About Russian Disinformation!

In a couple of articles this week, for the CIPS blog and RT, I examined a new report produced by the US State Department’s anti-disinformation outfit, the Global Engagement Center. Entitled RT and Sputnik’s Role in Russia Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem, the report is, as the title suggests, a long denunciation of RT and Sputnik for being source of “fake news.” But as I point out in my articles, the report itself includes a number of false statements. These include a claim that the OSCE stated that a boy in Donbass was not killed by a Ukrainian drone (it said no such thing), and the assertion that RT was spreading the “false narrative” that Ukraine was a fascist state, an assertion backed by a link to an article I had written which specifically said that “Ukraine remains a relatively free and open society. It’s not remotely fascist.” (See my articles for CIPS blog and RT for full details.)  

In short, once again, we see an organization ostensibly devoted to fighting disinformation engaging in it itself. As I have said on multiple occasions, this is a regular problem with the “disinformation industry” – that network of institutions and individuals set up to “counter” alleged foreign “influence operations.”

The problem goes beyond that, though. As noted in my RT article, “RT is a news outlet, and sometimes it makes mistakes – they are unavoidable. The problem is that the disinformation racket is trying to present this as – uniquely among major media outlets – a form of organised deception.” And so it is that the information warriors make absolutely no effort to expose “fake news” emanating from domestic mainstream Western media, and certainly fails to label deceptive stories as deliberated “disinformation.”

But yet, such deceptive stories are all around us.

As an example, I bring to your attention this extraordinary interview conducted on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) regarding the truckers’ convoy that has arrived here in Ottawa and is said to be blocking off parts of downtown (I haven’t actually wandered over to check but can hear the honking of horns).

The convoy, consisting of several hundred trucks, has driven across Canada to protest vaccine mandates imposed on the trucking industry by the Canadian government. Personally, I can’t say that I have any sympathy for their cause. Apparently, 90% of Canadian truck drivers are double vaccinated, and even the truck drivers’ own professional association is against the protest. But be that as it may. The convoy has mightily annoyed a section of our governing elite, who are going beyond saying that the truckers’ are being silly and alleging that there are possible links with “extremist” groups.

And where you have “extremist” groups, inevitably you have “Russians.”

Or at least, that’s what CBC host Nik Koksal thinks. Interviewing Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino, she put on her conspiracy theorist hat. “We’ve heard references to potential outside actors. Who could these outside actors be? Where might they be from?” she asked the minister. Not satisfied with Mendicino’s answer, she then pointed him firmly in the desired direction, saying:

“I do ask that because given Canada’s support of Ukraine, in this current crisis with Russia, I don’t know if it’s far fetched to ask [YES IT IS!!] but there is concern that Russian actors could be continuing to fuel things, as this, as this protest grows, but perhaps even instigating it from, from the outset.”

Mendicino ducked the question. “I’m going to defer to our partners in the public safety the of trained officials and experts in that area,” he replied. Koksal wasn’t too happy with this. Clearly, Russians were to blame. So she pressed the point further. “I certainly understand the need, or the interest in deferring the question to others who are involved, but I have to assume that you are being briefed on these concerns and on these issues, so what kind of conversations are happening on the kind of things that I’ve just asked about?” she asked.

Again, Mendicino avoided a direct answer. “Yes, we’re being briefed and we’re obviously looking very closely at the underlying motivations that we’ve seen from some of the organizers,” was all he was prepared to say.

So let me ask the question I always ask when such allegations of Russian involvement are made: “What’s the evidence?” And as always, the answer is “There is none.” One imagines that if Mendicino had any, he’d have seized upon the opportunity to provide it. Indeed, before Koksal brought up the possibility of a Russian link, nothing of the sort had ever been publicly suggested (or if it had, I can’t find it on the internet). In short, it’s misinformation.

Koksal’s line of questioning reveals the extent to which a deeply paranoid understanding of the world has seized control of much of the Western media. Underlying this is a view of Russia as a master puppeteer whose strings extend into every nook and cranny of our society, manipulating every act of political protest. But if you stop and think about it for a while, it’s an absurd idea, which exaggerates Russia’s potential to an extraordinary degree. It also reveals another negative consequence of the disinformation industry, which is that all the talk of ‘foreign influence operations’ ends up creating a conspiratorial mindset that in turns makes it much more difficult to undertake a serious analysis of our domestic problems.

But as they say, mud sticks. Although Mendicino failed to confirm the Russian connection, he didn’t tell Koksal that her question was nonsense either. Consequently, the allegation was left hanging in the air, and no doubt some viewers will have gone away thinking that a Russian link to the truckers’ convoy was a real possibility.

Apart from me, will anybody call the CBC to account for this shockingly poor piece of journalism? Will the well-funded disinformation industry produce reports about the fake Russia news coming out of mainstream media? Of course not. Such things are allowed to pass without comment, let alone condemnation.

And yet they complain about Russian disinformation and wonder why people tune into RT. If they really want to know the answer, I suggest that they just take a good long look in the mirror.

TV and the Failure of Russian Soft Power

Ever heard of R-Pop or R-Drama? Of course not. And therein lies Russia’s problem.

Squid Game – a dystopian South Korean TV show in which indebted characters risk their lives in a game – was the surprise 2021 hit of the year on Netflix. The show’s popularity had a knock on effect – a huge surge in the number of foreigners wanting to learn the Korean language. Language tutoring services in the UK reported a 76% increase in students learning Korean, and 40% in the United States. Furthermore, the language learning app Duolingo says it now has “more than 7.9 million active users learning Korean.”

Interest in all things Korean has been growing for some years, largely due to the immense popularity of the products of the country’s cultural industry. Back in 2018, for instance, the BBC reported that K-Pop was driving a “boom in Korean language lessons,” and that the South Korean government was “capitalizing on its cultural assets by setting up 130 language institutes in 50 countries.” “This type of centre may attract people who are interested in Korea because of pop culture at first, but they can also expose those students to other parts of Korean studies, including politics, trade, history, and more,” said Jenna Gibson of the US-based think tank the Korea Economic Institute.

K-culture is a model of soft power at work. Attractive popular products pull in the public, who then acquire a deeper understanding of the country in question, going away at the end of the process enamoured with the object of study.

Soft power of this sort is big business and immensely profitable. It also translates into a favourable international image, which theoretically should provide political benefits. Arguably it was crucial to American success in the Cold War. Hollywood as much, if not more, than the American army ensured that the United States came out on top.

It’s also something that modern Russia is not very good at. Speaking this week to the State Duma, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lamented that, “If you compare us with other countries who enthusiastically promote their national languages, the amount of money [we devote to the issue] is far from in our favour. We need to correct this. I hope for your support in this regard.”

Lavrov drew deputies’ attention to organizations funded by foreign countries to promote their culture, such as the British Council, the Goethe Institute, and Alliance Francaise. These receive far greater funding than analogical Russian organizations such as Rossotrudnichestvo and the Pushkin Institute for the Russian Language. Russia needed to do more, he said.

To my mind, Lavrov has a point, but I’m not at all convinced that the solution is to pump more into what you might call “official” or “semi-official” organizations dedicated to promoting Russian culture. To see why, let’s return to the case of South Korea.

The rapid advance of K-culture is the product of deliberate state policy following the 2008 financial crisis, when the South Korean government decided to invest heavily in the business of popular culture. The enactment of this policy fell upon private industry, and the aim was not soft power, but export-generated financial profit. This, as far as I can tell, is typical of how South Korea has grown: a close relationship between the state and business, in which the former points the way and provides backing, and the latter then generates goods for foreign markets in accordance with the general plan.

The thing is is that in order for the plan to work, this cultural business had to be able to sell its products, which meant that they had to be attractive and entertaining. And so the Koreans made sure that they were. K-Pop is hip and bouncy, with loads of beautiful people singing catchy songs. One might accuse it of being very low brow, but it does the job. It sells in truckloads.

The same could be said of K-drama. It’s formulaic, but addictive. The Korea of the K-drama world, whether it be today or ancient Joseon, is full of beautiful people in beautiful clothes in beautiful settings, and even if they’re being attacked by Joseon-era zombies, somehow the loving camera work makes it all look strikingly pretty. I imagine that I would horribly disappointed if I actually went to South Korea, as it would be a huge shock to realize that the average person doesn’t actually look like a supermodel.

So, yes, you can criticize the work of K-culture for being less than high art. If you like, you can call it pulp. But it’s addictive, attractive pulp. And along the way, you get to pick up a lot of Korean culture – you learn some words, you discover lots of foods, you get to know the country’s history, you pick up cultural quirks, such as Koreans’ obsession with relative age, and so on. As a form of soft power, it’s really good. It makes people like Korea and want to know more about it.

Compare this with what Russia offers the world. No doubt, there’s lots of good stuff on the domestic market, but what gets offered to people outside the country is pretty gloomy. A quick look at the Russian TV shows available on Netflix proves the point. The one item that pops up that could be said to be a successful cultural export is Masha and the Bear. Beyond that, though, the offerings are thin on the ground and also pretty grim: Metod – an anti-social detective hunting serial killers; To the Lake – death from disease; Sparta – ‘A game with no rules and no limits’; Locust ­– just the title is off-putting; and so on.

Depressing stuff. The same could be said of Russian films, at least those that get to the West. The most praised in recent years was Leviathan. I’ll confess I didn’t watch it. The reviews sounded just too gloomy, and I could do without spending lots of time just to feel rotten at the end of it. But judging by the reviews, the whole point of it is that Russia sucks.

You get the point. Watch Korean drama, and you think, “I’d like to go to Korea.” Watch Russian drama, and you think, “What a shithole.” And that, dear readers, is why Russian soft power is less than impressive. It’s also why pumping more money into cultural promotion, as Lavrov suggests, isn’t likely to achieve much. For you have to have something positive to promote. Masha and the Bear aside, Russia doesn’t appear to have a lot to offer, at least not of the sort most people want to spend money on. And that’s a problem.

Reporting on Russia – A Case of Rigid Orthodoxy

What a week it’s been! 80 days or so since we were told that Russia was about to invade Ukraine, it has yet to march its troops across the border. But the state of tension continues to rise, driven, it must be said, not by Russian officials, who have stated repeatedly that there are no invasion plans, but by those of Western states along with their enablers in the press.

Today, for instance, The Guardian’s Sunday edition, The Observer, was banging the anti-Russian drum as loud as possible with the thoroughly misleading headline “Russian ships, tanks and troops on the move to Ukraine as peace talks stall.”

Note the phrase “to Ukraine,” suggesting that Russian soldiers are actually heading across the frontier. The article itself is a little different from the headline saying merely that “Russia has sent troops more than 4,000 miles to Ukraine’s borders and announced sweeping naval drills,” which is not exactly the same as sending troops “to Ukraine.” But even this more moderate statement turns out to be not really accurate. For as The Observer goes on to tell us, the naval activity involves ships heading to the Mediterranean, while the ground forces “have arrived in Belarus … for joint military exercises set for mid-February.”

Maybe I’m being overly pedantic but the Mediterranean isn’t Ukraine and neither is Belarus. Besides, if the troops are going to be engaged in exercises in mid-February, they’re probably not going to be invading Ukraine in the meantime. The facts don’t back up the scaremongering.

Nevertheless, the Brits are sure that those evil Russkies are up to no good. For they’re not just planning to invade, they’re also plotting a coup in Ukraine – or at least so British intelligence would have us believe. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Moscow may topple the [Ukrainian] government and install Yevhen Murayev, a former MP who controls a pro-Russia television station.”

It’s time people retired this “pro-Russian” label for every Ukrainian politician who happens to disagree with the Ukrainian nationalist agenda. As Murayev told The Guardian, “You’ve made my evening. The British Foreign Office seems confused. It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated.” Murayev is not only not “pro-Russian” and not much liked by the Russian government, but his Opposition Bloc party is so unpopular that it failed to get the 5% of the vote required to get seats in parliament in the last Ukrainian election. A more improbable candidate for coup leader it would be hard to find.

Besides which, one has to wonder how this proposed coup would work. First, the plotters would have to amass sufficient firepower to seize control and then they’d have to defend themselves against the inevitable counter-coup. It beggars belief, given the current state of affairs in Ukraine, that a “pro-Russian” force could do this.

That doesn’t mean that some people in Russia might not be muttering into their beer glasses that a coup in Kiev would be jolly good thing. And it doesn’t mean that Russian intelligence isn’t doing all it can to recruit spies and supporters within Ukraine. But a coup is not a serious prospect. Again, it’s pure scaremongering.

The problem with all this is that the stories of invasion, coups, and so on generate a lot of headlines, raising international tensions along the way, but when they then fail to occur, the headlines are absent. “Russia fails to invade Ukraine again,” isn’t exactly clickbait.

Much the same applies to all the other conspiracy theories concerning Russia – lots of noise when the initial accusations are made, and then more or less silence when it turns out that the theory isn’t true. And certainly, the conspiracy theorists are never held to account for misleading everybody.

Take, for instance, the case of Havana Syndrome, which I cover in an article this weekend for RT (here). For some time now, we’ve been led to believe that the mysterious health problems experienced by scores of American diplomats around the world are the product of Russian microwave weapons that have been frying their brains. But now the US media reports that, according to sources in the CIA, “The idea that widespread brain injury symptoms have been caused by Russia or another foreign power targeting Americans around the world, either to harm them or to collect intelligence, has been deemed unfounded.”

Will all those who spread the story about Russian microwave weapons now repent? I doubt it. Careers rarely suffer from falsely exaggerating the scale of the Russian threat (or indeed any other alleged threat to Western security from actors deemed for some reason to be malign). By contrast, challenging the prevailing narrative that Russia is a deadly and immediate threat to our safety is a career-killer.

If you have any doubts, observe the fate of the head of the German navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, who had to resign (involuntarily, one imagines) after having had the temerity to tell a conference in India the obvious truth that Ukraine had lost Crimea for good. In my opinion, anybody who thinks otherwise is utterly deluded, but God forbid that this truth be said out loud.

Schoenbach dug himself deeper into a hole by saying that Russia sought “respect” and it would be to the West’s benefit to give it what it wanted. One can agree or disagree with this, as one wishes, but the idea is hardly a radical one, and it is surely important that military policy be drawn up in an atmosphere in which different hypotheses are carefully considered and not dismissed without consideration as beyond the pale. Rigid orthodoxy is not conducive to sensible decision-making. Unfortunately, it seems that rigid orthodoxy is now a requirement for senior office.

In fact, this goes far beyond senior officials. As the other stories mentioned in this post illustrate, in much of the West a very narrow orthodoxy has set in regarding all things Russian. Those who challenge it, are dismissed, sidetracked, or blackened as agents of “Russian propaganda.” An example of the last of these comes in a report published last week by the US State Department that seeks to expose “Russian disinformation and propaganda,” and in the process engages in some definite disinformation of its own. But that’s something for another post later this week. It’s a rather disgraceful story, but then again, given everything else, hardly surprising.

Spooks, Russia, and Disinformation

Jeremy Morris has an interesting post on his Postsocialism blog about the malicious role played by Western intelligence services in shaping narratives of Russia. I’m somewhat sceptical about his thesis – or at least the extent of the phenomenon he describes – but as if by chance, today I also came across a story that kind of backs him up.

Morris complains of two “elephants in the room,” who together distort our understanding of Russia. The first is the “clear leveraging of latent public sympathy abroad for the Russian regime by our friends at the English-language offices of RT.” I guess that would be me.

The second is “academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.” Given my former involvement in the intelligence world, and the fact that I’ve taught courses at the University of Ottawa with members of the Canadian security and intelligence services, I guess that would be me too.

Double elephant!

I imagine that Morris thinks that elephant number one distorts things in favour of Russia, and elephant number two distorts them against. That must make me some sort of push-me-pull-you doing both at once. Perhaps that explains why I always end up occupying the middle ground!

Anyway, I digress, because this isn’t meant to be about me. Back to the point.

“If you underestimate the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia – from both elephants, then you are guilty of the ‘fallacy of insufficient cynicism’,” writes Morris. I must confess myself guilty as charged. I can be pretty cynical, but I don’t think that everybody has “hidden motives.” People who write what one might call “pro-Russian” articles for RT aren’t doing it for the money or because the FSB has got some dirt on them any more than people writing Russophobic stuff for think tanks are doing it because they’re taking orders from the FBI, MI5, or CSIS. People tend to believe what they’re doing.

In any case, I worry less about spooks and more about the military industrial complex and its funding of think tanks and the like, all of which work together to inflate threats, keep us in a state of fear, and justify increased defence spending and aggressive foreign policies. But even there, the think tankers etc believe in what they’re doing. The problem is that believers get funded whereas non-believers don’t. I don’t think “hidden motives” are the issue.

That said, Morris has a point, in that security and intelligence services do maintain contacts with chosen favourites and feed them information that they hope will further their chosen narrative. The story I came across today illustrates how this works quite well.

A while back, I mentioned a law case in the UK involving Guardian journalist Carol Cadwalladr and British businessman Arron Banks. Banks is suing Cadwalladr for libel for having claimed that the Russian government offered him money for use in the Brexit referendum campaign, and that he lied about his relationship with the Russians. The case is now before the court, and Cadwalladr’s defence is becoming clear.

The Guardian journalist isn’t claiming that what she said about Banks was true, merely that given the evidence she had at the time she had good reason to believe that it was in the public interest for her to report it. So what was this evidence, and where did she get it from? This is where it becomes interesting. For as the Guardian reports,

In her written evidence statement, she [Cadwalladr] said she had obtained two intelligence files from an organisation contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation in Europe on behalf of a government agency, one file of which raised concerns about Banks’s Russian wife.

In other words, British intelligence fed the information to her via another source.

The accusation that Banks took Russian money to fund Brexit received widespread coverage. It was even repeated in a parliamentary report. Yet no evidence to support the claim has ever been produced, and as we have seen, Cadwalladr isn’t trying to say that it was true. In short, it was disinformation. And yet, what prompted it was in part documents leaked by British intelligence to a third party “contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation” and then in turn given by that organization to Ms Cadwalladr.

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit iffy?

In the first place, the story reinforces what I have said several times before, namely that the “disinformation industry” set up to “counter Russian disinformation” is itself a major source of disinformation. And second, it reveals an excessively cosy relationship between the media – supposedly an independent guardian of the truth that holds the state to account – and state organizations, including secret intelligence.

Personally, I find it more than a little disturbing.

Maybe Mr Morris is right after all!

If the Russians were in Scotland …

George:   The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-building.

Blackadder: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.

George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. [Aside, to Baldrick] Mad as a bicycle!

I’ve mentioned before that two of the major problems in international relations are state leaders’ lack of self-awareness and lack of strategic empathy. Given their imperial history, as well as their awful recent history of invading, destabilizing, and generally messing up foreign countries, you might imagine that the Brits would have learnt to avoid these pitfalls and developed a bit of humility as well as some understanding that others might not view them positively. But it appears not. No matter how they (or should I say ‘we’, since I have a British passport) screw things up, they/we still think that they/we are on the side of the angels whereas others are the devil incarnate, and that all the world needs is a bit more Britain.

If you doubted this, I suggest you take a look at a new article published this week by the British Defence Secretary, who goes by the good Scottish name of Ben Cameron Wallace. The bulk of the article – which appears on the UK government website – is an attack on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s historical essay on Russian-Ukrainian relations, which argued that Russians and Ukrainians were in essence one people, or at least very closely related peoples. Given that Putin wrote his piece some months ago, it might seem a little strange that Wallace would suddenly decide to respond. But his reply coincides with a decision by the British government to send additional weapons to Ukraine. It’s clearly therefore designed to provide some sort of moral justification for that move.

Wallace starts out by saying that Russia’s belief that it is threatened by NATO is a ‘straw man’. Why? Because – and you’ve heard this before – ‘NATO, to its core, is defensive in nature. … It is a truly defensive alliance.’


How was NATO defending itself in Yugoslavia? Or in Libya? Or even in Afghanistan, for that matter? The idea that NATO is ‘to its core, defensive’ is, of course, ridiculous. At the very least, as I noted in a recent post, even if NATO is in some objective way defensive, others have very good subjective reasons for viewing it differently.

Not only has NATO attacked countries that posed no threat to it, but so too have NATO members acting outside the alliance. The UK itself is a prime example. After invading Iraq in 2003, the cheek of British politicians portraying their country as ‘defensive’ and others as ‘aggressive’ is quite something.

But all that is fairly obvious and has been said time and time again. For whatever reason, the Brits don’t want to acknowledge their own aggressive behaviour or how it might look to others. I guess it would make them feel bad. So let’s put it aside for now, and continue on with what Mr Wallace has to say about Putin’s essay on Ukraine, for that’s what constitutes the bulk of his article.

Now, to be fair to Wallace, I wasn’t a huge fan of Putin’s piece myself. All this ‘brotherly nations’ stuff, based on distant historical ties when modern nations as such didn’t exist, strikes me as rather dubious. Still, there are some things about Wallace’s analysis that are worthy of note.

First, he accuses Putin of ‘ethnonationalism’ saying that in his article the Russian president ‘puts ethnonationalism at the heart of his ambitions’ in order to achieve ‘the subjugation of Ukraine and at worse the forced unification of that sovereign country.’

Obviously, Wallace hasn’t read a lot of Putin. If he had, he’d be aware that the Russian leader has regularly denounced ethnonationalism and called for a Russian state which respects the multiplicity of ethnicities and religious that make up its population. Putin’s nationalism is a state nationalism, i.e. it’s founded on loyalty to the Russian (Rossiiskii not Russkii) state. Wallace is a bit out of his depth, I think.

Second, and this is where I think it gets interesting , the British Defence Secretary comments that ‘Ukraine has been separate from Russia for far longer in its history than it was ever united.’ This is just bad history. For what do you mean by ‘Ukraine’? If you mean the lands that now make up Ukraine, then Wallace is right. But if you mean Ukraine as a nation, then he’s wrong, since Ukraine, like most nations, is a fairly modern construct. There was no ‘Ukraine’ until recently. In fact, there was no independent Ukraine until 1918, and then only for a few months. And there was no Ukraine with its current borders until 1945.

But – and now I’m getting to my point – one would be telling the truth if one noted that ‘Scotland has been separate from England for far longer in its history than it was ever united’. The Kings of Scotland date back to the ninth century, giving the country some 800 years of independent existence compared to 300 years of unity with England.

Why do I say this? Because Wallace is not only a Scot, but a former Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, ‘Unionist’ being the word in point. Wallace views England and Scotland as one. He’s a fierce opponent of Scottish separatism. Speaking in the House of Commons, he once denounced a member of the Scottish National Party by saying, ‘The honourable lady is making a brilliant argument for why we don’t want to put borders between countries.’

Wallace and his fellow Tories should have thought of that before backing Brexit, of course. But that’s not why I bring it up. The point is that Wallace doesn’t think that it’s a good thing to split up peoples that have long lived together – at least where Britain is concerned. You’d think, therefore, that he’d have a bit more empathy towards Russians (and Ukrainians) who feel that efforts to further divide Russia and Ukraine are to be regretted. In short, you’d think he have a bit of understanding of Putin’s position. But it seems that what applies to us doesn’t apply to you.

Let’s take this a bit further. Imagine that Scotland became independent. And imagine that it then asked to join the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and that it invited Russia to deploy military forces on its soil. And imagine that the prospect arose of Scotland becoming a base for Russian missiles capable of reaching London in five minutes. What do you think Wallace’s reaction would be then?

He’d be leaping up and down with fury! He’d be demanding action. He’d be screaming about Russian aggression (as he does already, in fact, even though there are no Russian troops within 1,500 kilometres of London). That’s what he’d be doing. In short, he’d be doing everything that Putin’s doing, and maybe even then some.

As I said, a lack of self-awareness and strategic empathy. Britain needs better than this.

Why Russia Fears NATO

One of the most self-defeating concepts I’ve run into in the past 20 years is the idea that if somebody else is wrong about something, then one doesn’t have to pay any attention to their opinion. “Wrong” could mean either factually or morally/legally incorrect, or both. Regardless, the theory is that if I am right and you are wrong, then what you think shouldn’t affect my behaviour. I should do what I believe it is right to do regardless of your opinion. Wrongness can’t defeat rightness.

An example of this popped up this week in a post on Twitter by former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, a man well-known for his hawkish position vis-à-vis the Russian government. With reference to the current tensions between Russia and NATO , Bildt comments that

“I see that Russia complains that the West has a ‘lack of understanding’ of the Kremlin’s security demands. That’s entirely correct. Virtually everything they’ve said in the last few weeks about NATO or Ukraine suddenly becoming a threat to Russia is pure invention. Factually wrong.”

You get the logic, I’m sure. In Bildt’s eyes, it is a verifiable truth that NATO does not threaten Russia. Any claims to the contrary from Russia are “factually wrong”. Therefore, NATO should not make any concessions to Russia.

I’ve come across this sort of argument many times in different variations. Before the invasion of Iraq, for instance, I was told that one could not oppose the invasion on the grounds that it would incite terrorism, because “We can’t let the terrorists dictate our policy.” Terrorists are wrong, you see, whereas we are right. So their wrongheadedness is irrelevant.

This is, of course, a silly approach. It doesn’t matter whether other people’s beliefs are right or wrong; what matters is that they believe them and that this affects their behaviour. Maybe, just maybe – for the sake of argument – in invading Iraq you are, in some objective sense, liberating people from an evil dictator. But if the locals think that you are there to occupy them and grab their oil, and therefore take up arms against you, it doesn’t matter what the objective truth is. You’d be better off if you had taken the Iraqis’ incorrect opinion into account.

Likewise, maybe Russia is indeed “wrong” in its assessment of NATO, but that incorrect assessment is driving what it does, with serious consequences. Ignoring it because it’s wrong is simply stupid. Instead, you need to be thinking about why others think the way they do, wondering if it’s perhaps because you’ve done something that’s given them the wrong impression, and then doing something about it. Charging forward all guns blazing simply reinforces the incorrect assessment, causing a reaction that in the end hurts you.

In short, ignoring other people’s alleged wrongness harms one’s own interests as much as theirs.

All this assumes that the others actually are “wrong.” What if they’re not? Or what if, though wrong, there are good reasons for them to believe what they believe given the circumstances in which they find themselves? In short, what if the reason they misperceive you is because you’ve done and said things that lend themselves to misperception? In that case, ignoring the misperception is a huge mistake – instead, you need to address your own behaviour.

So is it “wrong” for Russia to believe that NATO threatens it? I can see in some abstract, objective way, you might say yes, in that I don’t believe that NATO has any intention of ever attacking Russia. Minus intention there is no threat.

However, from Russia’s own subjective position, things look differently. NATO’s claims that it is a purely defensive alliance ring hollow after its attacks on Yugoslavia and Libya. NATO has a proven track record of attacking weak states it doesn’t like. Russians might well conclude that maintaining a strong military is the only guarantee they have of not meeting the same fate.

Beyond that, the rhetoric coming out of the West, and particularly the United States, is extremely belligerent. NATO might have no intention of attacking Russia, but if you read the American press, as I’m sure the Russian government does, you might not be so sure.

Take, for instance, a piece published yesterday by Evelyn Farkas, who served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under Barack Obama. Entitled “The US Must Prepare for War Against Russia Over Ukraine,” the article is, to say the least, a little frightening. Its basic logic is that in order to stop a Russia that is hell-bent on destroying the entire international order, America must threaten it with war, and if it doesn’t surrender, launch that war – for war now is better than war later.


But sadly I kid not.

Farkas argues that if America makes concessions to Russia over Ukraine, it “will spell the beginning of the end of the international order. … Any appeasement will only beget future land grabs not only from Putin, but also from China in Taiwan and elsewhere. … the rules-based international order will collapse.” She concludes:

“The only way to reassert the primacy of international law and sanctity of international borders, and contain Russia, may be to issue our own ultimatum. We must not only condemn Russia’s illegal occupations of Ukraine and Georgia, but we must demand a withdrawal from both countries by a certain date and organize coalition forces willing to take action to enforce it. … The horrible possibility exists that Americans, with our European allies, must use our military to roll back Russians – even at the risk of direct combat. But if we don’t now, Putin will force us to fight another day, likely to defend our Baltic or other East European allies.”

So, for the sake of Ukraine and Georgia, the United States should threaten Russia with World War Three, and if it doesn’t concede, should carry through with the threat.

Now imagine that you are sitting in Moscow reading this. What are you going to think? You might dismiss it as the mad rantings of some nobody on the internet, but this is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense – and a Democratic one, to boot. If this is what the supposedly moderate Democrats of the Obama era think like, what’s going on in the minds of the current bunch, let alone the Republicans? Reading this, you’re not necessarily going to assume that this is actual government policy, but you’re certainly going to have some doubts about the sanity of the US security establishment. Claims that you are “wrong” to think that NATO threatens you aren’t going to have much of an impact. Can you take the chance when senior ex-officials are saying this sort of thing?

Regardless of whether the Russian leadership is “wrong” or “right” to think as it does about NATO, its beliefs make sense from where it is standing, and those beliefs don’t come out of nowhere, but are to some degree a product of what the US and its NATO allies have done and said, and continue to do and say. Telling the Russians that they are “wrong” and therefore have to shut up and put up with it will achieve nothing other than convince them that they are indeed right.

Of course, we have the right to decide that annoying the Russians is a price we are willing to pay in order to pursue more valuable objectives. To date, that’s been our policy. In essence, Russia’s problem has been that we simply don’t care enough about it to feel that we need to take its concerns into consideration. Russia is now trying to convince us that we need to do so. I don’t see much sign that they’re succeeding.

The worse the better – How Twitter views Kazakhstan

Various commentators have suggested that I write something about recent events in Kazakhstan. I’ve been loath to do so since my knowledge of the country is very limited, but there are some interesting things to say about what others have been writing on the topic, particularly concerning how it all relates to Russia. Notably, a certain part of the online commentariat has been keen to express indignation that Russia has “invaded” Kazakhstan to suppress a “democratic revolution”.

The rapid spread of violence in Kazakhstan generated hopes in some circles that the mob would topple the “regime” and install a new government that would somehow or other distance the country from Russia. Alternatively, the hope was that “democracy” would arrive in Kazakhstan. With this, another brick in the wall of authoritarianism would collapse, bringing closer the day when it would collapse in Russia too.

All this was somewhat unspoken, but once the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Russia, announced that it would send troops to help restore order in Kazakhstan, and once Kazakh forces took the offensive and began clearing away anti-government protestors, all these hopes were dashed. The Kazakh government isn’t out of the woods yet. Protests continue in several cities, and things could still go horribly wrong. But at the moment it’s looking like the regime will survive. The internet’s keyboard warriors and online regime changers are seriously annoyed and looking for someone to blame. The guilty party is obvious – Russia.

However, despite the headlines in today’s newspapers about Russia sending troops to “quell” the uprising, the Kazakh state’s survial has little to do with the Russians or the CSTO. It seems as if the CSTO contingent in Kazakhstan will amount to no more than about 2,500 troops, which for a country that size is a tiny quantity. The role of the CSTO is largely symbolic – it sends a message to protestors and Kazakh security forces alike that the government isn’t backing down and has powerful external support. That should deter some of the former while putting a bit of steel in the spines of the latter. Perceptions of strength matter in situations like this, and thus the CSTO’s support perhaps makes a slight difference. But the hard work of restoring order belongs largely to the Kazakhs themselves. Whatever the press tells you, “Russia” isn’t “putting down” the uprising.

Nor can it be said that Russia has “invaded” Kazakhstan, as so many have liked to claim this past week on Twitter. Take for instance all these Tweets from the likes of one-time US Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul and former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves:

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