All posts by PaulR

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, and the author of numerous books on Russia and Soviet history, including 'Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich: Supreme Commander of the Russian Army'

Well, duh!

There are times when you read something so obvious that all you can say in response is ‘Well, duh!’ The sad thing, however, is that the blindingly obvious often isn’t so blindingly obvious to those who dispense our hard earned tax dollars. We need somebody to gather the evidence and prove the point so that people can’t ignore what they really ought to know anyway. So, thank goodness for John Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), whose reports I have often featured on this blog. SIGAR’s latest report, entitled ‘Private Sector Development and Economic Growth: Lessons from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan’,  is now out, and below are some of the highlights:

— U.S. financial aid practices, at times, encouraged corruption, complicated the challenges of coordination within and between U.S. agencies, and kept non-viable Afghan enterprises afloat.

— The U.S. government and stakeholders failed to understand the relationships between corrupt strongmen and powerholders, and the speed at which Afghanistan could transition to a Western-style market economy.

— Senior technical experts often lack expertise in Afghanistan or even in post-conflict or developing economies, and were unable to provide effective guidance and support.

— The simple existence of laws and regulations is insufficient; it is how they are implemented by courts, government officials, and police that matters. Many laws introduced to promote economic activity were not accompanied by plans to build or modify the institutions needed to apply them, and Afghanistan’s weak judicial system left even the best-crafted laws vulnerable to manipulation.

— The U.S. government’s provision of direct financial support to enterprises sometimes created dependent, commercially nonviable entities, as well as disincentives for businesses to use local financial and technical services.

— Assistance provided to Afghan institutions and firms relied mainly on Western technocratic models that often failed to consider how powerful Afghan social groups and institutions influenced public policy and the functioning of markets.

— Due to a lack of understanding and uneven enforcement of market principles, the market economy was conflated with unfair competition, monopolization of markets by politically well-connected firms, unfair trade practices by regional neighbors, and administrative corruption.

— Rapid opening up to trade allowed Afghan consumers access to cheaper imported goods, but the opening of the country’s borders before Afghan goods were competitive with imports hurt domestic producers.

— Fear of government regulatory and tax-collecting institutions reinforced Afghan firms’ historical inclination to stay informal and small rather than risk expanding, hampering both government revenues and private investment.

Well, duh!  What amazes me is that anybody thought it might turn out any differently. Stripped down to its essence, the lessons here are:

  • Massive foreign aid produces corruption in the recipient country.
  • Aid encourages inefficient economic practices.
  • Formal institutions, such as laws, depend upon informal institutions, such as local customs and social structures.
  • Informal institutions in foreign countries like Afghanistan aren’t the same as in the West
  • Foreign advisors don’t understand these specificities.
  • Consequently, trying to turn those countries into copies of the West by slapping down Western institutions there and flooding them with Western advisors and money doesn’t work.

Well, duh!

None of this is particularly novel. SIGAR is to be thanked for drawing it once again to our attention. Sadly, I don’t get the impression that anybody in power is listening.


Garbage in, garbage out

Every now and again the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) holds a seminar to which it invites outside ‘experts’. It then publishes a report on what was said, minus any names so you don’t know who was involved. I never get invited to these (I’m either insufficiently expert or prone to saying the wrong things), but I do get sent the reports. The latest volume arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and I have finally gotten around to reading it. Its title is ‘Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation’, and it summarizes the results of a seminar held in Ottawa last November.

Those of you who have been following discussions of this subject over the past few years will probably need to read no further than the title. You’ll already know what’s in the report: Western democracy is under threat from ‘Russian disinformation’, as the Russian Federation uses RT, internet trolls, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to subvert our populations’ faith in their own media and governments and to support Russia’s nefarious international policies. ‘Who Said What?’ does spend a little bit of time talking about other countries, specifically China and the Philippines, but the majority of the report is clearly focused on Russia since, as the Executive Summary claims, ‘The most skilled national purveyor of falsehoods is Russia.’ According to the report, Russia:

directs an extensive network of Internet trolls and bot networks which generate and spread material across the web. Their activities are intensified by the support of diplomats, state-controlled media outlets such as RT and Sputnik … Working together, these agents of the Russian state can create a false story and ensure it reaches the segment population most likely to be influenced by it through Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. They also appear to corroborate the story through news agency interviews featuring phoney experts, forged documents, and doctored photos and videos. … Russia stands out for its highly organised strategy of using disinformation to interfere with the political systems of other countries. … Operations against Western populations aim to weaken resistance to Russian state objectives. In supporting Syria, Russia has used disinformation to cover the brutality of its attacks on civilian populations. … Russian disinformation machinery is explicitly weaponised as a resource for future wars, weakening a target country’s sense of danger and diminishing the will to resist.

This is all fairly boilerplate stuff which has been said many times. What marks this report out, though, is some of the more extreme statements which accompany it, which give an indication of the type of experts CSIS has seen fit to invite. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

No good interest is served by representing the Kremlin’s activities as Russia versus the West. In fact, the Kremlin’s main adversary has always been, and still is, Russia itself. Virtually every type of action it has undertaken against the West was first implemented in Russia, against the Russian people, and against Russia’s many ethnic, national, and religious minorities.

Hmm. I’d be interested to see the evidence backing this claim, particularly the idea that the Kremlin views Russia’s minorities as ‘adversaries’. Certainly, one doesn’t get the impression that this particular ‘expert’ is a neutral academic researcher. The same could be said of the author of the next set of comments who remarks first that ‘Russia’s current disinformation campaign against the West is more dangerous and sophisticated than ever before’, and second that ‘Every Russian citizen … is now part of a centralized vertical responsible for the state’s information security.’ The second statement is a particularly bold claim, conjuring up a picture of Russia as a totalitarian state in which every citizen is participating as a robotic arm of the Kremlin’s information machine, a quite bizarre image for which no evidence is produced.

Other extreme claims include one that, ‘Coupled with breath-taking militarism … Russia’s measures in the domain of information security have transformed Kaliningrad into a laboratory for testing future warfare’. Another states that it is a ‘myth’ that Russia is fighting terrorism (including ISIS) in Syria, and also says that Russia’s military campaign in Syria was carried out with ‘great brutality and immense suffering. Far from shortening the war, it exacerbated it’. The report then goes on to say that ‘the verified proof … suggests that the Assad government and its allies, including Russia, did indeed have a policy of targeting Syria’s hospitals’. And so on.

Of course, one may wonder how it can be that ‘the verified proof … suggests’. Proof proves. It doesn’t ‘suggest’. And one may wonder also who is doing the disinformation here. Is it the Russians, or is it CSIS’s experts?

At the end of the chapter about Russia and Syria, the report says that ‘What is required is an approach that empowers individuals not only to discover information about Putin’s war in Syria, but also to verify the information themselves.’ I’m all for allowing people to verify information. But that requires them to have access to a large variety of different sources, including those which challenge one another. Yet in a later chapter about Ukraine, somebody who is clearly a member of the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake relates with some satisfaction that, ‘An important step in disconnecting Ukrainians from Russia’s propaganda pipeline was the removal from air of 75 Russian TV channels’ as well as ‘a decree blocking Russian social networks from operating in Ukraine.’ It appears that allowing people ‘to verify the information themselves’ does not include allowing them to verify the claims of those who are hostile to Russia; in fact people must be prevented from doing so.

Interestingly, the only attempt to define disinformation in this report is a sentence which says, ‘Disinformation … is aggressive marketing of information in support of political objectives.’ This is a very odd definition. ‘Marketing of information in support of political objectives’ is what all politicians and political actors do all the time. By this definition, all politics, all diplomacy, everything, is disinformation. It doesn’t even matter if what the Russians are saying is true. They are marketing information for political purposes, and that cannot be tolerated.

The reason it can’t be tolerated is because the West is good and Russia is bad. This is an objective truth which cannot be contested. The report notes that, ‘Certain truths need to be inculcated in each generation, first among them that there is such a thing as truth – that there is an objective reality that cannot be wished away.’ I agree that there is an objective reality. The Syrian Arab Army dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine on Douma. Or it didn’t. Both statements can’t be true. But it’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. We don’t know the truth until we observe it. And in a lot of cases, especially those concerning international politics, we don’t ever get to observe it, or at least any more than a small part of it, and we have to draw conclusions based on limited, often unreliable, information. And then, we have to decide which information is important, and which isn’t, and decide how to fit it all together into a coherent narrative. At that point biases inevitably come into play and ‘truth’ starts becoming a lot more subjective. In such circumstances, what’s dangerous is not a multiplicity of competing narratives, but rather people who set themselves up as holders of the absolute truth and seek to control information in order to stop others getting hold of ‘untruth’. That is the path to totalitarianism.

Alas, there’s more than a whiff of that in this report. About the only restrained element in the document is a chapter on Brexit which concludes that, ‘Analyses of the Brexit botnet did not find strong evidence of widespread “fake news” dispersion.’ Otherwise, the experts consulted by CSIS adopt extreme positions and are so certain of the truth of their own narratives, despite (or perhaps because of) their extreme nature, that they are intolerant of alternatives.

For sure, there’s an awful lot of garbage on the internet, as well as on television, and in our newspapers. But I’m not inclined to trust those who would appoint themselves guardians of what I should and should not read, especially since my own research indicates to me that a lot of what they say is garbage too.

Playing at war

So, the Americans, British, and French have done their bit, and fired off 100 or so missiles at Syria. After all the fears expressed by pundits that this could be the start of World War III, it’s turned out to be a bit of a nothing-burger. That’s not to downplay the symbolic significance of the Western states’ assault on Syria, in which they acted as judge, juror, and executioner while the investigation into the alleged misdemeanour was still ongoing and chemical weapons inspectors were on their way to the site of the supposed incident. But, if early reports are to be believed, nobody was killed in the attack and the physical damage is fairly minimal. The Brits fired a mere 8 missiles; the French only 12. Those are hardly significant numbers. Given that the Brits and Americans have been meddling in the war in Syria for several years now, arming and training various groups, and bombing targets on their behalf (including occasionally bombing the Syrian Arab Army), this doesn’t really constitute much by way of escalation. Tomorrow, the Syrians will brush off the dust, and things will go back to the way they were. Russia (along with Iran) will continue to back the Syrian government, and the latter’s forces will continue to advance and regain more and more territory. It is most unlikely that this assault will have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the struggle in Syria.

What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’

This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would  have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.

Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process

These endless wars allow politicians to claim that they are being ‘strong’, or more precisely fend off complaints that they are ‘weak’. But they don’t make Britain, America, or France any safer, while those at the receiving end of Western militarism suffer greatly because of it. As far as Syria and Russia are concerned, I suspect that the net result of the latest assault will be to reinforce Russian perceptions that the West is hell-bent on a policy of military and political aggression in which Syria is the front line. They will conclude that Russia must see the war in Syria through to a successful conclusion, and also that the Western states, despite all their bluster, don’t possess the will to stop it. One can therefore expect Russia to press on, and because it has the superior will, it will most likely succeed.

Unprecedented destruction

In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:

The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.

It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a

level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.

That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:

With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.

I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo.  Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria.  ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.

Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.

Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.

In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.

Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.

So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?

The loneliness of the half-breed

Vladislav Surkov, long considered an important ideological figure within the ‘Putin regime’, has previously been described as a ‘relative Westernizer’ among Vladimir Putin’s advisors. But even he is apparently now fed up with the West. In an article published yesterday in Russia in Global Affairs, Surkov declares that Russia is neither of the West nor of the East. Instead it stands alone.

The events of 2014 (the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine) marked a turning point, Surkov argues,

the completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilization, to join the “good family” of European peoples. From 2014 onwards, a new long era, the epoch of 14+, stretches into a future in which we will experience a hundred (two  hundred? three hundred?) years of geopolitical loneliness.

Surkov states that for the past 400 years, the Russian elite have tried to Westernize their country, following whatever trend seemed to be most in fashion in the rest of Europe, be it socialism a hundred years ago or the ideology of the free market in the 1990s. None of this has led the West to accept Russia as one of its own. The problem, says Surkov, is that

Despite the external similarities of the Russian and European cultural models, their softwares are incompatible and their connectors dissimilar. You can’t make a common system out of them.

That does not mean that Russia should turn east, Surkov says. Russia has done that in the past, during the era of the Mongol ‘yoke’. That left its mark on Russia, but in the end Russia moved on. Thus, Surkov writes:

Russia moved East for 400 years, and then moved West for another 400. Neither the one nor the other took root. We have gone down both paths. Now we need the ideology of a third path, a third type of civilization, a third world, a third Rome … And yet, we can hardly be called a third civilization. Rather, we are dual one, a mixture of both East and West. Both European and Asian at the same time, and thus neither completely Asian or European. Our cultural and geopolitical identity resembles that of somebody born of a mixed marriage. He’s a relative everywhere, but nowhere is he a native. He’s one of his own among strangers, but a stranger among his own. … Russia is a western-eastern half-breed country.

It’s time to recognize this reality, Surkov argues. This doesn’t mean total isolation. Russia will continue to trade, to exchange scientific knowledge, to participate in multilateral organizations, and the like. But it should do so ‘without denying its own self.’

Surkov’s article will no doubt get a negative reception among Western commentators, and be spun to argue that Russia is bent on confrontation with the West. After all, if you’re not with us, you must be against us. But it’s worth noting that Surkov at no point condemns the West nor argues that Russia should be trying to undermine Western hegemony. He simply argues that Russia and the West are doomed to go their separate ways. This is far removed from the ambitious Eurasianist designs of the likes of Alexander Dugin, who argue that Russia should lead a grand international coalition to overturn the existing international order. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that Surkov avoids using the term ‘Eurasia’ to describe Russia and also directly denies that Russia is a ‘third civilization’, thus failing to endorse a key Eurasianist concept.

Rather than Eurasianism, with its often expansionist, anti-Western ambitions, Surkov’s view of Russia’s place in the world seems closer to that of the late Vadim Tsymbursky and his idea of ‘Island Russia’ into which Russia should retreat. That is keeping with the editorial line of Russia in Global Affairs, which in recent times has published a number of Tsymbursky-inspired pieces, such as articles by Boris Mezhuev on the idea of ‘civilizational realism’ and an essay by Nikolai Spassky, entitled ‘Island of Russia’.  These bear witness to a growing isolationist trend in Russian geopolitical thought. ‘Isolationist’ isn’t actually a very good word, because as Surkov points out, separation from the West doesn’t mean that Russia won’t still be connected with the wider world. Perhaps the word he chooses to use – ‘loneliness’ (odinochestvo) – might be better. But whatever word one uses, the point is the same. If Surkov’s article, and others in Russia in Global Affairs, are anything to go by, Russia’s elite aren’t looking for a conflict with the West, but are increasingly convinced that partnership is impossible and that Russia will have to learn to live on its own. People in the West should not find that threatening, but personally I do find it more than a little bit regrettable.

Book review: Everyday law in Russia

A while ago I met a businessman working for a large multinational corporation in Russia. Apparently, Russian tax officials are paid according to how many tax violations they report, creating an incentive to accuse companies of violating the tax code even when they haven’t. As a result, the Russian tax authorities regularly accuse this businessman’s company of breaking the law. According to him, every time that this happens his company takes the case to the Russian courts, and so far they have not lost a single case. Or to put it another way, on every single occasion the Russian courts have judged against the Russian state.

The businessman and I agreed that this wasn’t how the Russian legal system was generally portrayed. As Kathryn Hendley says at the start of her recent book Everyday Law in Russia, ‘Russia consistently languishes near the bottom of indexes that aim to measure the rule of law.’ In her book, Hendley examines whether theses indexes are justified and whether the common perception of Russia as essentially lawless is correct. To do this, she looks beyond highly publicized cases of allegedly politicized justice to see what ordinary Russians think about the courts and their experiences of them. The result is an extremely important book which challenges common stereotypes and should be read by anyone interested in Russia.

In previous book reviews, I have occasionally complained about the lack of evidence produced by authors to justify their claims. This is not a problem here. Hendley, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, backs her conclusion with prodigious research. She has analyzed surveys, carried out scores of focus groups and interviews, and spent 20 years observing Russian courts in action. What she says deserves attention.

After a brief historical and theoretical introduction, Hendley starts her analysis by examining survey data about Russians’ attitudes towards law and the courts. From this she concludes that, ‘The assumption that Russians have little respect for the law … is simply erroneous.’ The data suggests that the level of general trust in courts expressed in surveys doesn’t reflect Russians’ actual willingness to go to court. In general, Russians prefer to avoid litigating their disputes, but this is not due to fear that the courts are corrupt. One ‘surprising finding’, says Hendley, ‘is the unimportance of bribery.’ Rather, the reason that Russians prefer to avoid court proceedings is the ‘time, expense, and emotional energy required for litigation.’ In this sense, Russians are no different from people anywhere else.

To further make this case, Hendley first examines cases in which Russians have suffered damage from water leaking through their roofs from the apartments above them. This is apparently quite a common problem. As a rule, Hendley says, Russians prefer to settle such disputes without recourse to the law. Within the small-knit community of an apartment building, suing a neighbour is considered un-neighbourly and frowned upon. Generally, therefore, those who suffer damage in this way will speak to the person responsible and endeavour to get him or her to pay compensation without threatening court proceedings. Most of the time, this works. On the rare occasions when it doesn’t, those who have suffered damage often drop the matter as not worth the hassle. They go to court only when they feel that there is no alternative left to them. They are also more likely to sue people they don’t know well than those they are close to. The stronger the sense of community, the less likely they are to resort to formal law. That said, Hendley notes that the ‘informal norms’ which govern such matters are perhaps becoming somewhat weaker. The population of apartment blocks changes more rapidly nowadays than in the past, meaning that the sense of community is weaker. Also, as Russians become richer, they are finding legal proceedings more affordable. Consequently, resort to law to settle disputes is rising. Interesting also, Hendley writes that, ‘Prior experience with the courts seemed to embolden my respondents to go down that route again,’ suggesting that Russians are not too unhappy with their actual experiences with the law.

Second, Hendley looks at how Russians deal with the aftermath of motor accidents. Once again, she finds that they prefer to settle matters through informal mechanisms, especially because they distrust insurance companies, which are felt to try to minimize claims and drag their feet in paying out. Issues of power and corruption affect the way Russians deal with motor accidents much more than in the instance of apartment leaks. When there is a clear difference in the wealth and power of those involved, the weaker party is very likely to choose to do nothing. Nevertheless, Hendley says that the ‘ most commonly cited obstacle to going to court’ was not fear of corrupt judges but the difficulty of proving one’s case. In reality, concludes Hendley, ‘ordinary citizens get a better shake in courts. It is in their cases where judges are able to apply the law without fear of political repercussions.’

Third, Hendley describes how Justices of the Peace (JPs) in Russia approach their task. JPs act as judges in the lowest rung courts and deal with three quarters of all civil cases. As described by Hendley, they are overwhelmed by an enormous workload which causes them to deal with cases with great rapidity. She concludes, ‘What I found in the JPs was a judicial corps that was characterized by patience and efficiency, but where political courage was nowhere to be found.’ In the very small minority of cases where the last point matters, this is a severe weakness, but overall Hendley says, the political unimportance of most of their cases means that ‘what marks JP courts as unique is their relative independence.’

Fourth, and finally, Hendley describes litigants’ experience of JP courts. Too often, she says, they lack knowledge of what is required. Few Russians hire a lawyer, largely because they don’t think that they need one. Litigants, Hendley says, ‘go into the process with an undeserved bravado that, according to my observation, quickly crumbles when subjected to questioning from JPs.’ Nevertheless, the data suggests that ‘litigants are generally satisfied with their experiences of the JP courts’, even when they don’t get the result they want. According to Hendley, ‘Over 80 percent believe that JPs are well trained and competent. Only 10 percent said that their judge had been biased.’

Hendley concludes that it is wrong to consider the rule of law to be something that a country either has or doesn’t have. In Russia’s case, it is better to recognize the existence of a ‘duality’. On the one hand, the vast majority of cases are mundane and do not interest those with wealth and power. In such cases, ‘the parties can reasonably expect the case to be decided according to the written law.’ On the other hand, there are a small number of cases which attract unwanted attention. In such instances, power rather than law determines the outcome. But, Hendley notes, cases of the second type ‘actually amount to a drop in the bucket.’ Most people most of the time will have their cases dealt with fairly. This is true even when they are suing, or are being sued, by the Russian state. Less than one percent of defendants in criminal trials are acquitted, but in other cases the state does much less well. As Hendley writes,

State agencies are frequent litigants in civil cases, both as plaintiffs and defendants. Both in JP and other courts, they are more likely to lose these cases than are private actors. Their victory in administrative cases involving private citizens, such as traffic violations and fines for noncompliance with various laws, is far from automatic. The same is true in the business setting. Economic actors’ challenges to their treatment by the tax and other regulatory authorities are frequently successful.

It turns out, therefore, that the positive experience that my businessman acquaintance has had with the Russian courts is far from unusual. Kathryn Hendley remarks that this doesn’t mean that Russian courts are perfect. But for the most part, they’re not nearly as awful as people imagine them to be. Hendley is to be congratulated for making this clear, and one must hope that her findings become much more widely known.

Expelled for Tweeting

For some reason, I have never quite grasped the concept that Russia is trying to ‘undermine our democracy’. Democracy is a system in which, theoretically speaking, governments are elected, and decisions made, by popular consent. Attempting to influence the public, or the government, to get them to support this policy or that, doesn’t constitute ‘undermining’ because at the end of the day it is still the people who decide through their elected representatives. Within a democratic system, it is normal for interests groups of all types to lobby parliamentarians and bureaucrats and attempt to sway public opinion. Those groups include foreign diplomats: indeed, one might say that influencing other governments’ policies is pretty much the purpose of diplomacy. There’s nothing odd about it.

Despite this, there appears to be widespread agreement that what once might simply have been called ‘public diplomacy’ actually constitutes ‘interference’ in our internal politics and as such a serious threat to national security. At least that is what one feels obliged to conclude based on recent statements and actions by the Canadian government.

A week or so ago Canada announced that it was expelling four Russian diplomats as part of the general Western purge of Russians in the wake of the Skripal affair. I suspected something was amiss the moment that I read Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s explanation of why those four particular Russians had been chosen. Freeland said that they had been identified as ‘intelligence officers or individuals who have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.’ The first part of this statement was pretty standard – throughout the Western world, governments justified the expulsions by saying that they were targeting Russian spies. Indeed British Prime Minister Theresa May called on allies to take the opportunity to smash Russian spy networks. What struck me was the final bit of Freeland’s statement – that about ‘undermining our democracy’ – and it immediately made me think that something else was going on here.

Confirmation that this was not chiefly about espionage came a few days later when the Globe and Mail published an article saying that:

Three of the four Russian intelligence operatives expelled from Canada on Monday were conducting cyberactivities out of the Montreal consulate aimed at discrediting the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] and spreading disinformation about Canada and its closest allies, a source has told The Globe and Mail.

WADA has made some very serious accusations against Russia. It’s natural that Russian diplomats should be responding. Their job includes defending their country’s reputation. In this instance, that means trying to discredit (whether rightly or wrongly) what WADA is trying to say. If these diplomats were using social media to try to influence public opinion, they were only doing their job. Moreover, WADA isn’t Canada. Attempting to discredit it in no ways constitutes ‘undermining Canadian security and democracy’ as claimed by Ms Freeland. Rather, what the diplomats are guilty of is telling the Canadian public things which the Canadian government doesn’t want its citizens to hear.

Two days ago, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked how the expelled Russians threatened national security. He responded:

I think we can all remember the efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our Minister of Foreign Affairs, through social media and sharing stories about her.

This provides a clue as to the reason for the expulsion of the fourth Russian diplomat, identified in today’s National Post as Embassy Press Secretary Kirill Kalinin. Back in February this year, Kalinin was described as ‘maybe one of the more influential media-relations operators in Canada’ due to the impact he was having as the man responsible for the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. In particular, Kalinin managed to annoy the Canadian government by retweeting a link to a story which had already broken about Freeland’s grandfather and his alleged collaboration with the Nazis during World War Two. It’s worth noting that in this case, he didn’t invent the story, which was already circulating widely on the internet; he merely passed on the link. This was enough to have Freeland accuse the Russian Embassy of spreading ‘disinformation’ (which was itself disinformation given that the story about her grandfather is true).

Kalinin then caused an additional scandal by noting on Twitter that Canada hosts a couple of monuments to Ukrainians who served alongside the Germans in World War Two, including the Galicia SS Division. Reporter David Pugliese notes in today’s National Post that these Tweets not only led to a number of large stories in national newspapers on the subject, but also sparked a flurry of concerned emails among Canadian government officials who tried to figure out how to respond publicly, according to documents obtained by Postmedia under the Access to Information law.’ Pugliese writes:

The officials, who indicated they were ‘under pressure’ from the senior levels of government to come up with something, wrote a response that the Canadian government remained concerned about what it called inappropriate Russian efforts to ‘spread disinformation.’ The response also included highlighting Russia’s attempts to undermine democracy.

But that sentence sparked debate about whether a tweeted photo of monuments to Ukrainian SS members fell into such a category. ‘Framing them as “destabilizing western democracies” seems a step too far,’ one public servant noted in an email.

I’m with the public servant on this one. The story about the monuments is true. I can’t see how providing the Canadian public with true information of which they might be unaware constitutes either spreading ‘disinformation’ or ‘undermining democracy’. Indeed, I would argue that trying to deprive the Canadian public of such information more accurately fits those categories.

This story suggests that the expulsion of the four Russians had nothing, as originally claimed, to do with intelligence gathering or threats to Canadian national security, and everything to do with the four diplomats’ activities on social media. Of course, that doesn’t prove that those expelled weren’t also doing something nefarious, but the publicly available evidence doesn’t suggest that that was the reason they were selected. What Ms Freeland should have said was that the four were chosen ‘because they’ve been saying stuff on social media which we’d rather that the Canadian public didn’t know about.’ That wouldn’t sound as good as citing threats to national security and democracy, but it would at least be the truth.