Category Archives: Press article

The Russians done it!

The latest news made me think that it’s probably about time for a new regular feature on this blog, recounting the latest dastardly deeds for which Russia has been deemed responsible, and titled ‘The Russians Done It’ . I suspect that if I keep doing this over a while and then tally up the results, it will create a picture of an all-powerful, omnipresent Russia which poses a deadly threat to Western civilization. I suppose that I could counterpoise this with another regular feature – one which recounts all the stories about Russia’s decline and imminent collapse – but the contrast between the two Russias (one astonishingly powerful and efficient, and the other decaying and incompetent) might cause too much cognitive dissonance, so for now I’ll stick with ‘The Russians Done It!’

What sparked this new venture was a couple of stories I read in the British press, one in The Guardian and the other in The Daily Mail. I realise that finding ‘fake news’ in the Mail is very much a case of picking low hanging fruit, but it purports to be a genuine newspaper, so I think it’s fair game. Anyway, these are the stories which sparked my interest.

The first concerns the weekend’s referendum in Macedonia concerning the country’s official name. I have no personal stake in this particular issue – if it’s Macedonia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia [FYROM], Northern Macedonia, or whatever, it’s all the same to me. It’s for [Northern] Macedonians to decide, which was kind of the point of the referendum. But as I’m sure all well-informed readers are aware, Greece doesn’t agree with me on that and thinks that it isn’t entirely up to [Northern] Macedonians to decide, and that Greece should have a veto over the name. Which is why the Greeks have been pressing their neighbours to drop the name Macedonia, and have been blocking their entry into NATO and the EU as long as they don’t.

It seemed as if the issue had finally been resolved, with an agreement that FYROM would be renamed Northern Macedonia, in return for which the doors to NATO and the EU would open. The problem is that only 34% of FYROM’s citizens turned out to vote in this weekend’s referendum, rendering the whole thing legally invalid. FYROM’s prime minister has promised to press ahead with the name change regardless, but it’s not clear that he’ll able to do this, so for now the Macedonians’ efforts to join the Western world’s favourite clubs seems in jeopardy.

How did this happen? You know the answer – ‘The Russians done it!’ That, at any rate, is the view of The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, who reacted to the referendum result with an article entitled ‘Result of Macedonia’s victory is another victory for Russia.’ It couldn’t be that Macedonia’s didn’t like being pressured to change their name and independently boycotted the referendum en masse out of genuine indignation. No, that would be too simple. They must have been manipulated into it by an outside power intent on sabotaging their entry into NATO and the EU. Tisdall notes:

For students of the 2016 US presidential election, Russia’s methods in Macedonia look highly familiar. Disinformation campaigns and “fake news”, cyberwarfare and hacking, phoney Facebook and Twitter accounts and secret cash payments – the modern equivalent of communist-era “red gold” – are all alleged to have been used.

Russia denies interfering. But western diplomats claimed last month that 40 new posts a day were appearing on Facebook encouraging a referendum boycott. Postings asked “are you going to let Albanians change your name?” – a blatant attempt to stoke tensions with majority-Slav Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority.

Tisdall cites US defence secretary James Mattis as saying on a recent trip to Skopje that there ‘was no doubt they [the Russians] have transferred money and conducting broader influence campaigns.’ Then, without a trace of irony, Tisdall continues:

Mattis’s attempt to bolster the yes vote, backed by $8m in US congressional funding, were complemented by visits by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief. Britain’s Foreign Office reportedly provided referendum funds. All sought to assure Macedonians their future security and prosperity were best served by closer integration with the west.

‘Who’s carrying out the ‘influence operation’ here?’, one might ask. Tisdall comments that Western states ‘were out-thought, outspent, and outmanoeuvred by Moscow’. This is odd, as his article mentions $8m of American money, but no Russian funds, only $21,000 allegedly paid to nationalist groups by ‘Greek businessmen sympathetic to the Russian cause.’ I don’t know how Tisdall comes up with ‘outspent’. As with so many other stories I’ve discussed on this blog, the author appears to be making it all up.

As also does veteran BBC journalist John Simpson in the Daily Mail article I mentioned. Some of you may recall the salacious case of British MP Stephen Milligan, who killed himself in a bungled case of erotic auto-asphyxiation back in 1995. Now Simpson, who was Mulligan’s friend, is having doubts about the official verdict of ‘misadventure’. As the Mail reports:

He [Simpson] said he thought little about it until much later when he spoke to another close friend of Mr Milligan’s. Simpson added: ‘He said “I’m thinking of writing a book about it because it was so obvious that he was murdered by the KGB. What better way to kill somebody without there being any form of investigation than this?” Many people just thought it was funny or savage or were too embarrassed to have anything to do with it. Then he came up with the fact that at least two people, critics of the Yeltsin government, had died in the same way in Russia.’

Putting aside the fact that the KGB no longer existed in 1995, what is the evidence to support this theory? Simpson produces none, other that the fact that in his previous career as a journalist Milligan ‘had successfully reported on the new Yeltsin government in Moscow for The Sunday Times and the BBC.’ I guess that’s all the proof you need.

Things happen for all sorts of reasons. Someday British journalists are going to have to learn that Russia isn’t usually one of them. Until then, expect more headlines telling us that ‘The Russians done it!’ Apparently it sells newspapers.

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Living in wacko-land

A chance encounter with a Twitter post got me following links on the internet today as I filled in time between classes. I know that there’s a lot of truly rotten stuff out there, and every now and again I write some piece denouncing some example or other. But on the whole, I try and stay clear of it. Still, immersing myself in all this was rather interesting, so I thought that I would share the results.

The Tweet which got me started was this one from Toronto-based Ukrainian-Canadian ‘political analyst’ Ariana Gic, who writes occasional columns for outlets like the Atlantic Council. I’m always rather sceptical of ‘independent analysts’ who seem to lack an institutional base, and am frankly amazed that one can making a living that way, but apparently one can. Anyway, this is what Ms Gic had to tell us yesterday.

gic

I don’t think that I need to discuss this, as I’m sure you can all see the point without further commentary, but it’s perhaps useful to add the fact that the officer commanding Soviet forces in Kiev until his death in combat on 20 September 1941 wasn’t an evil ‘Moskal’ but a Ukrainian, General Mikhail Kirponos. But that’s by the by. Not knowing anything about Ms Gic, I decided to see what else she has written. And then, following the links from what I found, I ended up discovering what a bunch of others have written recently too. Here’s some of the results:

1) The World Cup ‘revealed Russian chauvinism.’ According to a piece by Ariana Gic in the EUObserver, the World Cup displayed the nasty nationalism prevalent in the Russian population. This is a favourite theme of Ms Gic, who is keen that we should all know that Ukraine’s (and the West’s) real enemy is not Putin or his ‘regime’ but the Russian people. ‘Kremlin propaganda tapped into existing Russian exceptionalism, imperialism, chauvinism, & hatred of Ukrainians,’ she tells us on Twitter, adding that we must fight the ‘lie of the good Russians’.

2) Ms Gic’s Twitter account connected me to that of another Canadian activist, Marcus Kolga. A man of, I think, Latvian descent, Kolga played a prominent role in the lobbying which produced the Canadian Magnitsky Act. According one of his latest Tweets:

Interference in Canada’s 2015 election confirmed & there are constant attempts by Kremlin to undermine Canadian democracy, alliances + policy. Not simply a 2019 election interference problem but attack on democracy.

I read the Canadian newspapers every day and have yet to see any indication of Russian interference in our 2015 election. But never mind. Kolga tells us it’s ‘confirmed’! Pursuing him a bit further, I discovered a bunch of articles he’s written for publications like the Toronto Sun. In one of these he informs us that the Russian annexation of Crimea was just like the Soviet annexations of the Baltic States in 1940 and that Vladimir Putin is involved in ‘relentless attempts to deny the Soviet occupation and repression of these nations.’ This is odd, as I’ve never seen any such attempt. But I’m just an academic who’s written a couple of peer-reviewed articles about Putin’s speeches. What do I know?

Kolga will be one of the panelists at a seminar held by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute here on Ottawa on Thursday. The blurb for the seminar tells us:

Russia uses hybrid or asymmetric tactics to advance its goals in Eastern Europe and beyond. … An important element is its use of disinformation and offensive cyber activities. Russian websites have already tried to spread vicious rumours about NATO troops in the Baltics. Closer to home they have spread rumours about the family history of Canada’s foreign minister and have worked to manipulate aspects of Baltic history in an effort to marginalize their security concerns. Kremlin meddling was clearly a factor in the US, French and German elections and Canada can expect the same in future elections. … To shed light on this issue, MLI is hosting a panel event that will bring together some of the leading thinkers on the strategic threat posed by Russia.

It’s nice to see that this well-balanced seminar hasn’t predetermined the issue of the Russian ‘threat’. I have better things to do than spend a couple of hours listening to how terrible it is to ‘spread rumours [sic] about the family history of Canada’s foreign minister.’ I won’t be attending.

3) After a diversion into the territory of Mr Kolga, Ms Gic next directed me to something by Paul Goble, whose work I generally avoid. In a recent article for Euromaidan Press, Goble claims that in Donbass, ‘Moscow is replacing local people with Russians.’ Citing ‘US-based Russian journalist Ksenia Kirillova,’ Goble tells us that locals are being arrested and ‘replaced by new arrivals’ from Russia. ‘Most of them are coming from Vorkuta and Irkutsk’, says Goble, adding that

Kirillova does not say, but it is clear from her interviews that the “DNR” officials backed by Moscow are interested in promoting the departure of the older residents and their replacement with more malleable and thus reliable Russians from distant regions of the Russian Federation. 

Ariana Gic comments that Goble’s story tells us that Russia is trying to ‘forcibly change the demographics of the local population in occupied Ukraine’. This amounts to ‘ethnic cleansing, and a war crime under Art 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention,’ she says. Think about this for a moment. Just how many Russians would you have to import from Vorkuta and Irkutsk in order to reconfigure the demographics of Donbass? And just how how many Russians do you imagine are going to want to move to a war zone with an almost non-existent economy? To quote John McEnroe, ‘You cannot be serious.’

4) After pursuing these links a bit more, I finally, and I know not how, ended up on a page full of Twitter postings by Andreas Umland, which in turn directed me to a gem of an article by Paul Knott in the New European, entitled ‘Meet the Most Dangerous Man in the World.’ And who is the ‘most dangerous man in the world’? Alexander Dugin, of course. Knott notes that those who have studied Dugin, like Marlene Laruelle of The George Washington University, consider his influence exaggerated. But facts and scholarly analysis be damned! Knott knows better. ‘Dugin is heavily promoted by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media and has strong ties to the military,’ he tells us, adding that Vladimir Putin ‘is in thrall to him.’ ‘The substantial influence Dugin exerts over ultra-powerful people like Putin and, indirectly, Trump, makes him a frightening figure,’ says Knott. Dugin as the puppet master of Donald Trump? Is that what we’ve come to now? Knott was a British diplomat for 20 years. It makes you wonder about how they do their recruiting in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Reading all this, one feels like one is living in wacko-land. And it’s just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. One of the organizations Ms Gic writes for is ‘Stop Fake’. If only!

The Russia Hands

If you have time, I suggest that you all take a few moments to read an article in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine by Keith Gessen entitled ‘The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio’. Keith is the brother of Masha Gessen, who has acquired some fame as a result of various books she has written denouncing Vladimir Putin and the ‘totalitarian’ Putin ‘regime’. Keith is a very different kettle of fish. Seeking to explain why Russian-American relations seem to stay bad no matter who is in power in Washington, he is willing to consider the possibility that the answer might lie not just in Russian misbehaviour but also in the nature of the American state and the people who advise it about Russia. To this end, in his article he describes his conversations with the so-called ‘Russia hands’ (the Russian ‘experts’ within the American public service), and he seeks to determine how they view Russia, what policies they recommend, and how this affects politicians’ decisions.

The result is an excellent article which I thoroughly recommend to you all. Two points in particular struck me as I read it: the first relates to the structural incapacity of the American state to take Russian interests seriously; the second relates to the relative ideological unity among the ‘Russia hands.’ Let’s look at these in turn.

Continue reading The Russia Hands

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.

Three doses of drivel

[Trigger warning: Clicking on the links below and reading the articles revealed thereby is likely to induce severe nausea. Readers are advised to have a dose of Gravol nearby to suppress any unwanted symptoms.]

 

Maclean’s is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, that’s to say it’s a glossy magazine with lots of photographs mingled together with analysis of domestic and international events. In recent times, it’s been a reliable source of foaming-in-the mouth Russophobic commentary, but this week’s it’s outdone even itself by printing no fewer than three articles involving Russia, each one every bit as bad as the other.

The first comes from columnist Terry Glavin, who’s one of those strange left-wing human rights activists who give the impression that they truly believe that the world can be divided up into simple categories of good and evil and that the problem is that the good people aren’t doing enough to physically exterminate the evil ones by every means possible. The fact that the actual consequences of toppling dictators wherever you think you find them often end up being tragic doesn’t seem to register in their thought processes. Glavin’s latest piece in Maclean’s is a case in point. Its content is pretty clear from its headline: ‘Putin is the new Stalin. Here’s why his poisonous gangland oligarchy will prevail,’ Coming across a title like that generally induces something approaching a state of nausea. You know that it’s going to be really hard to read what follows, and your natural tendency is to turn away and have nothing more to do with it. It takes a strong stomach to digest stuff like this, but sadly it’s my job, so I do. It’s not pleasant.

The article is essentially one Putin cliché after another. Glavin tells us that the reason that Putin will win Sunday’s presidential election is that his ‘primary challenger was conveniently disqualified from running for office’; that ‘Journalists are frequently found among Putin’s domestic critics who end up dead’; and that, ‘Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008.’ The facts that the ‘challenger’ in question (Alexei Navalny) has yet to register above 2 percent in any opinion poll; that there’s little to no evidence linking Putin to murders of journalists and that the rate of such murders is far below what it was under Boris Yeltsin; and that Dmitri Medvedev was President of Russia at the time of the Georgian war and that in any case Georgia started it, are ignored. Glavin says also that in Syria ‘6,600 civilians have been killed by Russian bombers.’ I can’t say whether that is true or not; maybe it is. Urban warfare is bloody. But I wonder how many civilians have been killed in Syria and Iraq by NATO countries (particular the USA, UK, and Turkey). Why does Glavin pick out Russia as particularly guilty in this regard? He doesn’t say, but rounds off his article with the following gem:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the new Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.

Stalin, as I’m sure you all know, led a revolutionary movement which completely transformed Soviet society, including massive industrialization and forced collectivization. The latter so disrupted agriculture as to cause a famine in which perhaps 6 million people died. Meanwhile, Stalin oversaw the Great Terror in which some 700,000 people were executed. And somehow Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the same. What utter drivel! Why on earth is this stuff published?

More clichés come in the second article, written by Scott Gilmore and entitled ‘Russia is a mess but it’s still playing the West.’ Gilmore tells us that, ‘Russia is a mess … It has one of the worst incidences of alcoholism in the world and one of the highest suicide rates. … the fertility rate has crashed. … The population size peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining ever since.’ What Gilmore fails to mention is that the rates of alcoholism and suicide have declined dramatically in Russia in the past 20 years. The fertility rate did indeed ‘crash’ in the 1990s, but it has since somewhat recovered, and currently stands at about 1.75 children per couple. That’s not sufficient to maintain the current population, and Russia faces some definite demographic issues, but its fertility rate is actually considerably higher than that of most other European countries (the European average is about 1.6). Moreover, because of immigration and rising life expectancy (currently the highest ever in Russian history) the Russian population has actually increased slightly in recent years. Gilmore’s claims are simply untrue.

Oddly, Gilmore thinks that although Russia is in terminal decline, it is beating the West hands down in the international arena. He writes:

The Russian state is falling apart. Putin, in an effort to regain some control over his country’s failing fortunes, is attempting to destabilize the West. And he is beginning to succeed, by ignoring the new rules of internationalism. … We need to step up our game. … We need a more determined and aggressive strategy.

Again, what utter drivel! The Russian state is not ‘falling apart’, not in the slightest. Moreover, the idea that Putin is trying to ‘destabilize the West’ is a fiction (Russians, including Putin, generally stress stability and believe that it’s the West which is doing the destabilizing). So too is the concept that Putin is doing so in order to prop up his failing country (which isn’t, after all, ‘failing’ in quite the way imagined). As for the ‘new rules of internationalism’, I admit that I don’t know what Gimore is talking about. What I do understand is the call for a more ‘aggressive strategy’. It sends a chill through my bones. Have we not been aggressive enough already?

The drivel continues in the third Maclean’s article, this one written by Stephen Maher and entitled ‘Donald Trump failed a simple test on his Russian ties.’ Maher begins by saying:

Donald Trump’s sudden Twitter firing of Rex Tillerson on Tuesday is the moment that it became impossible to maintain the fiction that Trump is not in some way in league with Vladimir Putin … if there was any real doubt about the relationship, Tillerson’s firing removed it.

Why is this? According to Maher, it’s because ‘Tillerson … was fired the day after he denounced Russia for the attempted assassination of a former double agent in Britain.’

One wonders where Maclean’s finds such authors capable of writing such extraordinary nonsense. I realize memories are short, so I remind readers that just a few months ago Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State was being touted as proof that Trump was in the pay of Putin – Tillerson, after all, had business connections with Russia and had even been granted a medal by Putin. But now the fact that he’s been fired is proof that Trump is a Russian agent. It’s Putin Derangement Syndrome taken to a whole new level of insanity.

Maher is clearly not up to date with the latest developments in studies of Russian military strategy, for he entertains his readers with an explanation of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.’ Had he been on the ball, he would have known that Mark Galeotti, the inventor of the term ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, has recently admitted that there is in fact no such thing. But, as in all the other articles, mere facts are not important. We are fighting Russian ‘disinformation’ after all.

Like Gilmore, Maher thinks that the West is losing its struggle against Russia. ‘The EU, NATO, and the United States have all been dramatically weakened,’ he says. Really? I can’t say that I see it. Where’s the evidence for this fantastic claim? If there’s a sunny side for NATO, continues Maher, it’s Canada. As he explains, ‘In Canada, likely because of the political clout of our Ukrainian diaspora, there has been no opening for the Russians.’ Thank goodness for the members of the Ukrainian diaspora, bravely fighting to protect the world from the terror of Putin, just as their grandfathers bravely fought to protect the world from the evils of Putin’s hero, Joseph Stalin, 70 years ago.

Slava Ukraini!!

Putin takes Italy

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody has yet accused Vladimir Putin of being behind the rise to power of the newly elected head of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Doug Ford.  Ford is perhaps the closest thing Canada can produce to Donald Trump – i.e. somebody generally dismissed by the media as a populist, blowhard, know-nothing. The fact that such people somehow manage to win elections baffles much of our commentariat (and with Ontario’s governing Liberal Party well behind in the polls, it seems likely that Ford will soon be our new Premier). After the shambolic, drug-filled performance of Doug’s brother Rob as Mayor of Toronto, it defies the normal liberal observer’s sense of reason that anybody would vote for yet another member of the Ford dynasty, let alone that he could become leader of Canada’s largest province. In the same way, it defied reason that Britons could vote for Brexit, Americans for Trump, Germans for the AfD, and the like. It follows that there must be some external force which is to blame.

In the current climate, that means Russia. And so it is that the successful performance of the Five Stars Movement in this week’s Italian general election is being put down to the malign influence of Russia, and being debated more in terms of what it means for the allegedly relentless rise of Russian power than in terms of Italian domestic politics.

Hot off the mark was former American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who tweeted on Monday that, ‘In the past 2 years, Putin has won elections in the United States, Austria, Czechia & now Italy. He’s also delivered Brexit & performed well in France & Germany.’ And today, the Sunday edition of the New York Times contains an op-ed by regular columnist Frank Bruni entitled ‘Italy has dumped America. For Russia’.  Five Stars’ performance,  writes Bruni,

was characterized as the triumph of populism. But it was a triumph for Putin, too: proof that many Italians have jilted and replaced us — with Russia.

When they cast their votes, Italians were, of course, not thinking of their country’s own internal problems, issues relating to large-scale immigration from North Africa, or anything like that; they were thinking of the United States and Russia, and casting a vote for or against Vladimir Putin. Or so it seems in the strange world of Bruni-land. Mr Bruni quotes the editor of the Italian newspaper La Stampa as telling him, ‘Nobody ever took this poll but I believe that if you were asking all Italians today who is the most popular foreign leader in all of Italy, Putin would win.’ I have often complained in this blog of the lack of evidence being produced for claims about Russia, and here we have it in spades – a poll which nobody has ever taken! Obviously true, then.

Bruni, to be fair, is aware that he’s on weak ground. He admits:

To be clear, neither the Five Star Movement’s nor the League’s appeal to Italian voters hinged on its stance toward Russia. “How many Italians are really positive about Russia?” asked Roberto D’Alimonte, a prominent Italian political scientist. “I haven’t seen any data, and I have my doubts.” What’s more, there’s a strictly practical reason for Italian politicians to take a gentle, friendly tone toward Russia: The sanctions have cut off the Russian market from Italian manufacturers and farmers who could profit mightily from it.

So here we have it – Italians don’t care too much about Russia, and Russia didn’t actually have anything to do with how they voted. How then does this translate into ‘Italians have abandoned America for Russia’? Well, this is the New York Times, so you can probably guess the answer – it’s Trump’s fault. The problem is that, ‘Trump has certainly sent the message that he cares a whole lot less than his predecessors did about what longtime European allies like Italy want.’ As a result, Italians dislike him. Bruni continues:

And when they look toward Trump, what do they see? An American president who praises and sometimes seems intent on emulating the autocrats of the world, starting with Putin. Trump isn’t promoting the values — free markets, open borders, humanitarian aid — that bound the United States and Western Europe. He’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game, albeit with less practice, less polish and his shirt on.

Faced with this, Italians are looking for an alternative, Bruni claims. And who is that? Putin, obviously.

This makes no sense. In the first place, Bruni has already admitted that Russia wasn’t on Italian voters’ minds. And in the second place, if what Italians don’t like about Trump is that ‘he’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game’, why would they consider Putin to be an ‘alternative’ to Trump? Either Trump is the same as Putin, or he’s different – he can’t be both.

I’m sure that there’s some technical term for intellectual constructs of this sort, in which two unrelated items are placed side by side in order to create a false impression in readers’ minds that the two are connected. If so, I don’t know what the term is, but it’s clearly what’s going on here. Add in a short caveat to make it clear like you’re a reasonable person, and then say ‘Italy, Putin’, ‘Italy, Putin’, ‘Italy, Putin’ enough times, and people will think they’re somehow connected.

In reality, they’re not. Americans, Canadians, Brits, Italians, and others, who vote for unexpected people or causes, do so for their own reasons which have nothing to do with Russia. Meanwhile, once the dust settles and Italy gets a new government, it will still be a member of NATO, still be a member of the EU, and still sanctioning Russia. It will no more be a Russian client, and no less an American ally, than it was a week ago. Has Italy ‘dumped America for Russia’? No. Of course not.

Evidence be damned!

Amy Knight missed a trick. In her book Orders to Kill, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, she recounts the stories of a whole series of people in whose deaths Vladimir Putin was allegedly involved. But she missed one – the former mayor of St Petersburg, and Putin’s one-time mentor, Anatoly Sobchak. It’s a strange error, for if the BBC is to be believed, Putin may have had a hand in Sobchak’s death too. It explains why he’s allowing Sobchak’s daughter, Ksenia, to run for president this March – he feels guilty.

‘What?’ I hear you ask. ‘Sobchak was murdered?’ If you’re old enough to remember such things, you probably thought that his death in 2000 was of natural causes. BBC reporter Gabriel Gatehouse has his doubts about this. He writes:

Some have suggested Putin may have had a hand in his death. Did Sobchak have something on him? [Sobchak’s widow Lyudmila] Narusova dismissed that idea out of hand.

I went back and looked at the footage of the funeral.

Putin really is distraught. His eyes are red, he seems to struggle to swallow as he embraces Lyudmila Narusova. Putin is not an actor. Nor is he prone to public displays of emotion. So it’s reasonable to assume that he is struggling with some genuine grief. Or is it something else. Guilt?

“There were people who were manoeuvring Putin into power,” Narusova told me.

She’s right. Back then, Putin was a vehicle to power for various factions inside the Kremlin. To some extent he still is.

If Sobchak was murdered, was it by one of those factions who feared his mentor’s hold over him? Maybe. And if so, did the old KGB officer realise his old friend died in the furtherance of Project Putin. It’s only a suspicion, but I’m beginning to think so.

Gatehouse doesn’t actually produce any facts linking Putin to Sobchak’s death. In fact, he points out that Putin was truly distraught, and elsewhere in his piece Gatehouse remarks that this is about the only time that Putin has been seen to cry in public. So, why does he think that Putin in some way felt guilty about Sobchak’s death? He doesn’t explain.

As in so many of these cases, what we have here is pure speculation and argument by means of insinuation, devoid of any actual evidence. Gatehouse admits that, ‘It’s only a suspicion’. Why then does the BBC publish it? All sorts of people suspect all sorts of things for no good reason. That doesn’t mean that premier media agencies give them space to print their crazy theories. If this was the Daily Beast, one might excuse that sort of thing. But this is the BBC. It’s meant to uphold certain standards of journalism, and as such not make wild accusations on the basis of absolutely nothing.

At least, one might imagine that that was the case. But what this piece indicates is that when it comes to Russia and Putin all the normal rules seem to go out the window and any sort of unwarranted ‘suspicion’ is permitted to be aired. What on earth is the point of this article? There can be only one – to taint Putin with some sort of responsibility for Sobchak’s death and so blacken his name further. It seems that that is reason enough to publish it. Evidence be damned!