Category Archives: Press article

Fact checking

The big news from Italy this week is the seizure by Turin police of a massive arsenal of weapons held by a neo-Nazi group. Among the weapons was a stonking-big air-to-air missile. Reporting the story, the BBC links the neo-Nazis to ‘Russian-backed separatist forces’ in Ukraine, saying that:

The raids were part of an investigation into Italian far-right help for Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, local media said. … On 3 July a court in Genoa jailed three men who were found guilty of fighting alongside the Russian-backed separatists who control a large swathe of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

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Abusing human rights

I came across the following while reading the Globe and Mail newspaper over breakfast this morning. Referring to former Canadian foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, who has been leading the Canadian mission observing the presidential election in Ukraine, the Globe informed readers that:

Russia is abusing the human rights of people living in Crimea and other Kremlin-backed parts of eastern Ukraine by using landmines, border delays and online propaganda to discourage them from voting in the Ukrainian election, the head of Canada’s election monitoring mission says.

Axworthy is particularly exercised by the fact that, ‘There were no voting stations for Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and the Russian-controlled parts of the eastern Donbass region.’ The Globe continues:

‘I think the Russians really are abusing the human rights of these people,’ Mr. Axworthy said. ‘They have an important right to vote, and I think they are doing everything in their power to try to undermine it.’

He said some of the election observers in eastern Ukraine heard about voters being deliberately held up at the Russian-controlled border, while others couldn’t even get to the border.

‘We had discussions with some of the observers who were talking about how in the areas around some of the checkpoints there were land-mine fields that people see as a real risk,’ Mr. Axworthy said.

Obviously, it’s not good news if people living outside their country can’t get to vote. But whose fault is that? It’s not Russia’s responsibility to set up polling stations for the Ukrainian election. That’s the responsibility of the Ukrainian government. But back in January, the Ukrainian Central Election Commission announced that it would not open any polling stations in the Russian Federation, thereby depriving 3-4 million Ukrainians living in Russia of the right to vote. Why doesn’t Mr Axworthy mention that?? Do Ukrainians in Russia not ‘have an important right to vote’? And why is it Russia which is ‘doing everything in their power to try to undermine it’ when it is the Ukrainian government which took the decision to deprive its citizens of the ability to exercise this right?

As for delays on the borders between rebel-held Donbass and government-controlled Ukraine, these are real, but as has long been reported, the Ukrainian government is in large part to blame. Let me here cite a headline from the New York Times: ‘Ukraine Clamps Down on Travel to and from Rebel Areas’. As the report which follows says, ‘the Ukrainian authorities are now doing all they can to halt cross-border movement, deploying the full force of a Byzantine bureaucracy on the more than three million people living in rebel-held areas.’ But somehow, according to Lloyd Axworthy, the fact that people in Donbass find it hard to get into government-controlled Ukraine is Moscow’s fault! Go figure.

Land mines are another issue which is much more complicated than presented in this article. It’s natural that Mr Axworthy should be concerned about them as he was one of the architects of the 1999 Ottawa Land Mines Treaty. Tens of thousands of landmines have been laid in Donbass. Alexander Hug of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has complained, ‘Not only are the sides not de-mining, they are in fact laying more mines.’ Note the use of the word ‘sides’ – both the rebels and the Ukrainian army are guilty of using these weapons. Ukraine denies this, but both the OSCE and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accuse the Ukrainian army of laying anti-personnel mines in Donbass. The Russian Federation, incidentally, has not signed the Land Mines Treaty. Ukraine, however, has both signed and ratified it. Ukraine is thus in clear breach of its treaty obligations. Why then does Mr Axworthy paint the mine problem as a Russian one and not condemn the Ukrainian army for its actions?

Returning to my earlier point, the Russian government isn’t depriving Ukrainians of their right to vote: the Ukrainian government is. But that’s not all. The Ukrainians previously also deprived Russians of that right too. For when the Russian presidential election was held last year, the Ukrainian government posted policemen outside the Russian embassy in Kiev and the Russian consulates in Kharkov, Odessa, and Lvov to physically prevent Russians from entering the buildings in order to cast their votes. Lloyd Axworthy says that voting is an ‘important right’ and that it is an ‘abuse of human rights’ to stop people from voting. But we never heard so much as a peep from him when the authorities in Kiev did just that.

Unfortunately, Canada’s political elites, like those in many other Western countries, seem to have absolutely no discernment when it comes to matters concerning Russia and Ukraine. They lap up and regurgitate Ukrainian propaganda without the slightest bit of critical thinking; they seek to turn every story about Ukraine into an opportunity to bash Russia, even when Ukraine is actually the one responsible for the problems being discussed; and they display the most shameless double standards. Today’s article in the Globe and Mail is a case in point. It gets absolutely everything wrong. Sadly, that’s pretty much par for the course.

My subscription to the Globe expires on 12 April. I’m not renewing.

The Strongmen Strike Back

In his book Modern Russian Theology, American scholar Paul Valliere notes that Western liberals have great trouble understanding the great late nineteenth century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. (I’m not sure that many even try, but let’s put that aside, and consider just the few who do.) Solovyov, explains Valliere, was a liberal theocrat, and that’s something your average Westerner just can’t cope with. S/he sees the theocrat and immediately thinks ‘reactionary’. The idea that there could be a ‘liberal’ theocrat is so completely outside their frame of reference that they dismiss it out of hand, and conclude that the guy really was a reactionary after all (which, of course, he wasn’t).

Solovyov was far from exceptional in combining elements of liberal and authoritarian thinking. As readers of my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism will discover, in the history of Russian political philosophy (as also, I’m sure, in the history of other countries), efforts to do so are extremely common. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Liberalism is a political ideology. Authoritarianism, like democracy, is a method of government. At least in theory, liberal authoritarianism and illiberal democracy are both possible. In practice, of course, such absolute constructs are hard to find, but so too are pure ‘liberal democracies’. Liberalism in its many manifestations – economic, social, political – is often imposed from above on unwilling populations in decidedly undemocratic ways. Economic liberalization in developing countries, for instance, is often the product of intense pressure from Western lenders and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, but it’s certainly not democratic.

My point here is that liberalism v. authoritarianism is a false dichotomy. If nothing else, it ignores the vast differences between different regimes which are labelled as ‘authoritarian’ or ‘illiberal’. Most observers would agree that North Korea fits those descriptions. But many nowadays also apply them to Hungary. Yet to categorize the two countries as in any way alike would be clearly absurd. The differences far outweigh any superficial similarities. Liberalism and authoritarianism are sliding scales, not absolutes. They are also not binary opposites, but are often combined in seemingly paradoxical ways.

Robert Kagan is having none of this, however. Kagan’s a big name in the world of American political commentary, a prominent exemplar of neoconservatism (though apparently he himself prefers to be called a ‘liberal interventionist’). For some odd reason, American governments listen to him, so we have to pay some attention to what he says. And in a long essay in The Washington Post, entitled ‘The Strongmen Strike Back’, what he tells us is that ‘Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic order. … We in the liberal world have yet to comprehend the magnitude and coherence of the challenge.’ As he writes:

Authoritarianism has now returned as a geopolitical force, with strong nations such as China and Russia championing anti-liberalism as an alternative to a teetering liberal hegemony. … It has returned armed with new and hitherto unimaginable tools of social control and disruption … reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within.

According to Kagan, authoritarian rulers are no longer content just to sit at home, but are seeking aggressively to export authoritarianism and undermine democracy in the West. Moreover, he says, ‘These authoritarians are succeeding.’ This, he considers, is extremely dangerous.

Why is it dangerous?

Continue reading The Strongmen Strike Back

National Security Threats

A few days ago, I posted a story about Sweden. Although it’s notionally a neutral country, it contains a strong pro-NATO element which is quite vocal in playing up the threat that Russia allegedly poses to its national security. As part of this trend, the liberal newspaper Vestmanlands Lans Tidning was today in full ‘red scare’ mode, warning Swedes of the terrible dangers posed by a new building being constructed in the town of Vasteras. As you can see in the picture below, the building is scary indeed.

sweden church
A threat to national security

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The Russians Done It, #2

A while back I suggested starting a new series entitled ‘The Russians Done It’. Since then, there have been a few items which I could have added to the series, including the story that Russia is responsible for the worldwide measles epidemic. But for episode #2 I’ve instead chosen a piece from Britain’s Daily Mirror, as it provides a good example of how ‘fake news’ is written.

mirror

Continue reading The Russians Done It, #2

The Putin I knew

In my last post I drew attention to a strange schizophrenia in the way many commentators view Russia. On one hand, there’s what I will call model one, in which they blame the country’s problems and its supposed aggression on the authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. On the other hand, there’s model two, in which they consider these problems to be the product of some supposedly innate characteristic of the Russian people – the ‘Russian soul’, as it were. Model one often takes the form of extreme Putinophobia – that is to say a tendency to blame everything one doesn’t like about Russia on the malign character of the country’s president. Model two manifests itself in sweeping statements about Russians, which if made about another people might be considered racist. The two models tend to go hand in hand, but they’re not easily compatible – after all, if it’s all Putin’s fault, then the nature of the Russian character is irrelevant.

This schizophrenia is on full display in a controversial article published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled ‘The Putin I knew: the Putin I know’, it’s written by Franz Sedelmayer, a businessman who worked in the 1990s in St Petersburg, where he became well acquainted with the then deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin. In his article Sedelmayer recounts how Putin helped him set up his business. In 1996, though, Sedelmayer was a victim of ‘reiderstvo’ – raiding, or asset grabbing – when the Russian state illegally seized control of his company. Reiderstvo was pretty common back in the Yeltsin years, and it still happens, though one gets the impression that there’s not quite as much of it as in the 1990s and that Western businesses are safer than they used to be. Anyway, Putin apparently told Sedelmayer that there was nothing he could do to help him, and from that moment on their friendship was over. Putin changed, Sedelmayer writes. Previously, Putin ‘acted rationally and appeared to be sincere in his interest in St. Petersburg. He didn’t take bribes’. Now, though, he:

is in many ways similar to President Trump. Like him, Volodya makes decisions based on snap judgments, rather than long deliberation. He’s vindictive and petty. He holds grudges and deeply hates being made fun of. He is said to dislike long, complicated briefings and to find reading policy papers onerous.

Like Mr. Trump, the Mr. Putin I know reacts to events instead of proactively developing a long-term strategy. But in sophistication, he is very different. A former K.G.B. officer, he understands how to use disinformation (deza), lies (vranyo), and compromise (kompromat) to create chaos in the West and at home …. More than anything, he wants to be taken as an equal or a superior, trying to destroy anything with which he cannot compete.

There are quite a few unsubstantiated assertions here. And it’s all very personal. As so often, Russia is reduced to Putin – when things happen that we don’t like, it’s Putin’s fault. Thus Sedelmayer writes,

President Vladimir Putin of Russia celebrated the New Year by having an American tourist, Paul Whelan, arrested as a spy. Mr. Whelan was in Moscow to attend a wedding. But Mr. Putin needed a hostage as a potential trade for a Russian woman with Kremlin connections — Maria Butina, who had pleaded guilty of conspiring with a Russian official “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” So Mr. Putin grabbed Mr. Whelan, who has not been released.

Perhaps this is accurate, but then again perhaps not. How does Sedelmayer know that Putin personally ordered Whelan’s arrest – ‘Putin grabbed Mr Whelan’ (Really? He did it himself?) – and that he did so as a hostage to exchange for Maria Butina? Butina isn’t even charged with espionage, and given how long she’s already been in prison prior to trial, she’ll likely be out fairly soon anyway. There’s no obvious reason to want to exchange her.

All this falls firmly within model one. But like so many others, Sedelmayer can’t resist explaining matters also by model two. As he writes:

A couple of months ago Volodya tried — luckily, he failed — to insert a crony as head of Interpol, the international police organization, presumably so he could turn it into his personal posse. Of course he did. Corruption is in Russia’s DNA.

Putin’s friends are rumoured to be holding billions of dollars on his behalf. But when he retires, will his friends give him his money, Sedelmayer asks. Probably not, he replies:

Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve lived in Russia. Sharing’s not the Russian way.

‘Oh, those Russians!’ as Boney M said.

I have some sympathy with Sedelmayer. Like a lot of people in Russia in the 1990s, he got robbed. He has reason to feel bitter. But it wasn’t because ‘corruption is in Russia’s DNA’. And it wasn’t Putin that robbed him – it was Boris Yeltsin’s state. Sedelmayer would do better to analyze the causes of the anarchic lawlessness of the Yeltsin era and and to study the specific route that Russia took in the 1990s. That would require an approach closer to that adopted by Tony Wood in his book ‘Russia without Putin’. It would be more complex, but it would also be more helpful.

Instead we get a combination of model one and model two, both of which oversimplify. Mixing them together – by personalizing Russia’s problems while simultaneously blaming them on innate national characteristics – serves only to confuse and to reinforce simplistic prejudices which suggest that whatever differences we may have with the Russians are entirely their fault. But maybe that’s the point.

Russia: both malevolent and super-efficient

In his 1969 book The Hitler State, German historian Martin Broszat described how the supposedly highly centralized Nazi state was in fact decidedly anarchic. The Fuhrer, wishing to concentrate all power in his own hands, operated a system of divide and rule designed to prevent his subordinates from combining in ways which might thwart his own will. Rather than coming together to make collective decisions, each ministry operated separately with each minister reporting directly to the supreme leader. The effect was to give ministers an enormous amount of independence to pursue policies at odds with what other ministers might want, resulting in continuous power struggles which were determined by access to Hitler. The extreme centralization of power in fact diffused it and made it next to impossible to coordinate activities across government.

This problem of government operating in unconnected silos is hardly unique to Nazi Germany. A few years ago when counter-insurgency theory was all the rage in some Western states, there was a lot of talk about the ‘whole of government approach’, and the need to get all parts of government to push in the same direction. The fact that this idea became so popular was an indication that it wasn’t actually happening. Even highly advanced Western states with relatively efficient bureaucratic systems struggle with this problem. But there is some reason to suspect that it is worse in more autocratic states, precisely because autocratic rulers seek to retain their power to have the final word by dividing government up into silos. As historian David Macdonald has pointed out, this was very much the case in Imperial Russia, where Tsars resisted all attempts to produce ‘united government’.

Despite this, there is a tendency to regard Russia as possessing some super-efficient government system in which all the levers of state power can be coordinated as part of a common strategy in a thoroughly integrated fashion. I mentioned this tendency in my last post, which discussed the writing of the Institute of Statecraft’s Chris Donnelly. Today a copy of the magazine Diplomat & International Canada landed on my desk, and in it I find yet another example of this logic, in the form of an article by Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council.

Blank nails home all the same points as Donnelly: Russia is at war with the West; it’s innately aggressive and expansionist; and it’s extraordinarily effective at combining all the elements of statecraft into an integrated strategy. He cites George Kennan as saying that ‘political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its objectives.’ Russia is doing this, we are told. According to Blank, ‘Russia employs all the instruments of state power in an unrelenting, multidimensional, relatively synchronized and global environment to force the West to accept it as equal in status to the Soviet Union.’ He then proceeds to list all the various means which Russia is employing to this end – military, political, economic, informational, cyber, and so on.

I find this approach curious. I’ve never regarded the Russian state as particularly efficient. It strikes me as odd, therefore, that its most vocal opponents seem to consider it to be such a beacon of competent governance, especially since they also like to emphasize the state’s autocratic nature. As I mentioned above, the ‘whole of government’ approach doesn’t fit easily with autocracy. Commentators such as Donnelly and Blank want to describe Russia as both autocratic and remarkably adept at integrated governmental strategy. In my mind, that combination just doesn’t work.

Blank and co. also seem to suffer from a certain schizophrenia regarding the cause of ‘Russian aggression’. On the one hand, they blame the system of government. Thus, Blank says that, ‘the state of siege in Moscow’s relations with the West flows directly from the nature of the regime itself.’ An aggressive foreign policy is seen as necessary to divert public attention from the internal failings of the authoritarian regime, while efforts to discredit Western democracy are required to undermine the idea that Russia should develop in a more democratic direction. On the other hand, the same commentators as say this also often push the story that Russian aggression is an inherent part of the country’s character. Blank therefore writes:

As Catherine the Great stated, ‘I have no way to defend my frontiers other than to expand them.’ As Russian writers deeply believe, if Russia is not this kind of great power – and it can be no other in their view – it will cease to exist.

But here we run into a contradiction – if the problem is in Russia’s DNA, to use James Clapper’s phrase, then the nature of the regime has nothing to do with it at all, and even a liberal democratic Russian government would be just as ‘aggressive’ as that of Vladimir Putin. One gets the impression that the approach is just to throw down every possible idea which could be made to paint Russia as threatening, regardless of its coherence.

For what it’s worth, my own take on the issue is as follows. First, the idea that Russia is innately aggressive and expansionist is false. While Russia has certainly acted aggressively on occasions, its historical record in that regard isn’t obviously any worse than that of other major European states. Second, there’s no clear connection between regime type and aggression, either in Russia’s case or more generally; current East-West tensions owe much to clashing interests and the structure of the European security system, factors which won’t change no matter who rules in the Kremlin. And third, Russia shows no signs of being particularly brilliant in terms of strategic planning and integrated government; rather, it’s thrashing around in an often incoherent fashion, not in accordance to some master plan but in reaction to others and in an often improvised way.  The idea of Russia as both malevolent and super-efficient may be useful as a way of scaring people, but it has very little to do with reality.