Category Archives: Press article

The Russians are coming!

Macleans magazine, which, roughly speaking, is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, has published a couple of articles this week on the topic of the day – Russia.

The longer of the two, entitled ‘The Return of the Tsar’ is fairly innocuous. I have to confess that I’m not quite sure what it’s trying to achieve, apart from expounding some vague cliché about Russians wanting a strong ruler. It’s a fairly typical piece of impressionistic journalism, in which the author wanders around a Russian town, speaks to a few people, and based on a handful of anecdotes infers some broad-sweeping conclusions about the eternal ‘Russian soul’ and the like. By all means read it if you’ve got nothing better to do, but to be frank I don’t think you’ll get much from it.

The other article, by contrast, deserves a long reply, as it exemplifies fairly well what’s wrong with so much commentary on things Russian nowadays. You can get a sense of the thing just from the title: ‘Russia’s Coming Attack on Canada’. Watch out, Canadians, the Russians are coming, author Scott Gilmore warns, starting out by saying:

Moscow has been waging an increasingly daring clandestine war against western democracies. Under the direction of President Vladmir Putin, Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned of Russian attempts at cyber attacks. In France, Moscow has funded right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and is alleged to be spreading false propaganda about her opponents. There are now reports from British parliamentarians that Russia may have meddled with the Brexit campaign. And, of course, Putin’s interference in the U.S. Presidential election has lit a tire fire in Washington that may bring down the Trump administration.

Let’s take a look at this. Gilmore takes a bunch of allegations (Merkel has ‘warned’; Moscow is ‘alleged’ to be targeting Le Pen’s opponents; a single British MP (Ben Bradshaw to be precise) claimed that Brexit was the result of Kremlin interference’, etc), and without producing any evidence to substantiate these allegations uses them to claim that it is a definite fact that ‘Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance.’ But accusations aren’t by themselves evidence. So what proof is there?

Well, according to Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German state security service, the BND, has found that ‘there is no evidence for Putin’s disinformation campaign’.  In France similarly, no evidence of Russian involvement of leaks targeting Francois Fillon has been forthcoming, and it would be odd if it were given that Fillon is considered ‘pro-Russian’. In Britain, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson declared a couple of days ago that ‘We have no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment. We don’t actually have that evidence.’ All the British have, according to Johnson, is ‘evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that,’ which is not at all the same thing. And finally, in the USA, according to a recent report, ‘Even some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee now quietly admit, after several briefings and preliminary inquiries, they don’t expect to find evidence of active, informed collusion between the Trump campaign and known Russian intelligence operatives’.

So much for all that.

Undeterred by the lack of facts to support his thesis, Mr Gilmore nonetheless ploughs on, as follows:

Moscow is being forced to play these aggressive and risky games out of desperation. The country is in bad shape is getting worse. The once great superpower now has an economy smaller than Canada’s and it continues to shrink. … Even the ragtag Ukrainians have fought them to a standstill. Diplomatically, Moscow has never been so isolated and powerless. You can count its friends on one hand, and it’s not an impressive list: Syria, Iran, Belarus.

How true is all this?

To be sure, the Russian economy isn’t in great shape. It has pretty much stagnated over the past 10 years. But it isn’t ‘getting worse’ and it doesn’t ‘continue to shrink’, as Gilmore claims. In fact, the economy has begun to grow again (not by much, to be sure, but growth isn’t shrinking), consumer demand is rising, and inflation is the lowest in post-Soviet history. As for ‘ragtag’ Ukrainians fighting Russia ‘to a standstill’, that is a very odd description of events in Donbass – a more accurate description would be that it was a ‘ragtag’ bunch of rebels (with some help from Moscow) who fought the Ukrainian army to a standstill. And finally, as for Russia’s friends, they go beyond Syria, Iran, and Belarus. What about China, for instance? For sure, Russia has fewer friends than it did a decade ago, but it’s hardly ‘isolated’.

And here we reach a serious contradiction in Gilmore’s thesis – Russia is supposedly at one and the same time ‘powerless’ and a deadly danger. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, the article claims that Canada is likely to be the next target in Russia’s sights. Gilmore writes:

Russia has three objectives as it goes after Canada. The first is to undermine any policies or politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests. For example, the Russian Embassy has already been trying to discredit Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, an outspoken advocate for continued sanctions, with a smear job about her grandparents. Russia also wants to discredit the broader political system, to undermine Canadians’ faith in “the system”, be it our own election process, our system of government, or parliamentary affairs. Finally, it wants to undermine Canada’s support for our allies, and for the international system including NATO and the United Nations.

All countries try to undermine policies which go against their interests. There isn’t anything odd about that. But the idea that the Kremlin wishes to undermine any ‘politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests’ is rather problematic in the Canadian context, because that would be just about every politician. Say the Russians were somehow able to discredit the ruling Liberals. What then? They’d just get the Conservatives, who are every bit as Russophobic. Why would that help? Moreover, it’s rather strange to blame the Russian Embassy for the ‘smear job’ about Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather, as the story began not with the Embassy but with independent journalist John Helmer and spread thereafter, without the need for any outside help, via social media. As for whether Russia wants ‘to undermine Canadians’ “faith in the system”,’ that is pure conjecture. And while Russia might indeed wish to undermine NATO, it has repeatedly stressed its desire for an international system resting on the United Nations (UN), blaming Western states for discrediting the UN via actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya.

Gilmore’s accusations are unsubstantiated, and frankly more than a little bizarre. What possible good would it do Russia to launch an underground war against Canada? And how on earth could such a weak and ‘powerless’ country actually hope to succeed in a war against such a prosperous and stable proponent? And where is the evidence that it is doing any of this, anyway? It is perhaps more than a little appropriate, therefore, that Gilmore concludes by saying that:

To achieve these goals, Moscow will likely rely on the same methods it has used relatively successfully in the United States and elsewhere. It will spread disinformation—false stories that create confusion around a controversial and heated issue.

‘Disinformation’ and ‘false stories’ – like this one, maybe?

Self-contradiction

From a report in The Globe and Mail, 26 February 2017:

… in Sartana … Three residents who spoke to The Globe and Mail, including two whose homes were damaged by separatist rockets, said they heard sustained artillery and tank fire from the Ukrainian side before the separatists returned fire. … There have been similar reports from Avdiivka … several media reports suggested it was the Ukrainian side that first moved troops into the no-man’s land between the two front lines, drawing the ferocious response from the separatists.

Editorial in The Globe and Mail, 28 February 2017:

Less than a week after a supposedly friendly phone call between the two [Putin and Trump] at the end of January, the pro-Russian forces in the southeast of Ukraine – the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic – tripled their warfare against Ukrainian government forces. … the pro-Russian rebels of the Donbass region – or their masters in Moscow – seem to have calculated well. The rebels have now increased their pressure on a Ukrainian port, Mariupol, on the Black Sea, which is vitally important to Ukraine. … Mr Trump needs to respond in a sensible and forceful manner.

Explain that if you can.

Today’s fear-mongering

Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail newspaper writes some good op-eds. But like a lot of commentators he seems to go completely off the rails when the subject of Russia comes up. His latest piece entitled ‘Is Putin scoring political goals on an empty net?’ had me spluttering over my breakfast cereal this morning, and merits a detailed response.

Saunders writes that during the past week,

After his U.S. success, the Russian President appeared to launch a two-pronged assault on the stability of Europe. On its eastern front, it took a violent form. Starting Sunday, after Mr Putin’s very cordial phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian forces began attacking Eastern Ukraine … This, military observers said, was Mr Putin’s new push to destabilize and gain influence over Europe’s eastern flank. … On Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer, when asked about this apparent Russian invasion, declined to mention Russia.

Although I cannot prove it, I’m pretty sure that the Russian Federation has supplied most of the shells that the armed forces of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic are using in current battles. I don’t see where else they could have come from, it being a long time since the rebels overran any Ukrainian supplies. But Saunders talks about ‘Russian forces … attacking Ukraine’, and an ‘apparent Russian invasion’. That implies that troops of the Russian Army have entered Ukraine in recent days and are leading the fighting around Donetsk. Not even the Ukrainian government has claimed that! Saunders is making this up.

Moreover, his claim that it was ‘Russian forces’ who ‘began’ the recent combat doesn’t fit the facts. As I pointed out in a recent post, even some very pro-Ukrainian sources admit that the Ukrainian army has been consistently breaking the ceasefire in order to conduct a ‘creeping offensive’ against the rebels in Donbass. Meanwhile, Ukrainska Pravda, which can be taken as reliably reflecting the official Ukrainian position, depicts a rather more nuanced story than that described by Saunders – namely that a minor clash between Ukrainian troops and a rebel reconnaissance unit escalated out of control.  If that is the case, the current fighting isn’t the product of any grand strategic design at all. Saunders quotes a former deputy secretary-general of NATO as saying that Russia started the combat in order ‘to test’ the Trump administration. But he fails to point out this is mere speculation without any factual basis.

Next, Saunders continues:

On the Western front, the Moscow incursion took a now-familiar political form. France’s presidential election campaign was tripped up by the sudden leak of thousands of candidates’ private emails, the largest pile of them from conservative candidate Francois Fillon.

Saunders blames Russia for this leak. But why would Russia try to harm Francois Fillon? The international press repeatedly refers to him as ‘pro-Russian’. The main beneficiary of the leaks appears to be independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, the one serious contender for the French presidency who is not considered ‘pro-Russian’. Why on earth would the Kremlin manipulate the French election to help Macron? It doesn’t make any sense. But Saunders fails to mention this. Rather, alluding to potential Russian interference in other European elections, he says:

The chaos serves the interests of those political parties … that regularly express support for Mr Putin and his agendas. … Their leaders all model their political agendas on Mr Putin’s combination of ultranationalist militancy, racial intolerance directed at religious minorities and opposition to the liberal democratic institutions of international cooperation.

Putting aside the obvious objection that far-right political parties in Europe developed their own agendas by themselves and not by copying Putin, this statement reveals a stunning ignorance of what Putin has actually said about nationalism, racial tolerance, and international institutions. Far from preaching ‘ultranationalist militancy’ and ‘racial intolerance’, Putin has often denounced these things, stressing Russia’s multinational and multi-confessional nature. Take, for instance, a speech Putin once gave in Kazan, in which he said:

Without exaggeration the principle of toleration, both national and religious, was central to the formation of Russian statehood. … Thanks to its multiethnic unity our country withstood many trials … the preservation of social, interethnic, and inter-religious peace is the basic, fundamental condition of Russia’s successful development. … In opposing nationalism and extremism the state must rely on all the Federation’s subjects.

This is fairly typical of Putin’s rhetoric. Has Saunders ever read Putin’s speeches? Has he studied Russian nationality and immigration policy under Putin? If he had, he couldn’t possibly make these claims.

Of course, we all have our biases; we all weigh some evidence more heavily than others; we all interpret evidence in a subjective manner. But at the same time, we have an obligation to check the facts, and not to make them up. We also have an obligation not to stoke fears based on ignorance. Journalists writing for a prestigious newspaper ought to do a better job than this.

Farage, Bannon, Dugin, & Trumputinism.

Unfortunately, since the BBC doesn’t let people outside the UK access its programs online, I wasn’t able to watch Monday evening’s episode of Panorama entitled ‘Trump: The Kremlin Candidate?’ I have therefore had to limit myself to an article on the BBC website by what appears to be the main journalist behind the episode, John Sweeney. Captioned ‘Who are the figures pushing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin together?’ the article makes me realise that I didn’t miss very much by not seeing the show, except perhaps to have an opportunity to excoriate another piece of dismal reporting.

Sweeney says of Trump and Putin that, ‘the two men think alike’. He adds:

Mr Trump’s belief in American traditionalism and dislike of scrutiny echo the Kremlin’s tune: nation, power and aversion to criticism are the new (and very Russian) world order. You could call this mindset Trumputinism.

Three men have egged along Trumputinism: Nigel Farage, who is clear that the European Union is a far bigger danger to world peace than Russia; his friend, Steve Bannon, who is now Mr Trump’s chief strategist; and a Russian “penseur”, Alexander Dugin.

With his long hair and iconic Slavic looks, Mr Dugin is variously described as “Putin’s Brain” or “Putin’s Rasputin”. …Mr Dugin is widely believed to have the ear of the Kremlin….

Messrs Farage, Bannon and Dugin are all united that the greatest danger for Western civilisation lies in Islamist extremism. …

The danger is that in allying yourself with the Kremlin in the way they fight “Islamist fascism” in say, Aleppo, you end up siding with what some have called “Russian fascism” or, at least, abandoning democratic values and the rules of war and, in so doing, become a recruiting sergeant for ISIS.

Yikes! So Farage, Bannon, and Dugin are not only the architects of the new international order, but they’re also recruiting sergeants for ISIS (whereas, of course, Anglo-American military interventions in the Middle East haven’t helped ISIS recruit people at all!). It’s quite a claim.

Now, I can’t say that I know much about Steve Bannon, but the idea that either Trump or Putin has been strongly influenced by Nigel Farage strikes me  as quite preposterous. Even more so is the idea that he is somehow responsible for bringing the two together. Farage as the creator of the new Russo-American alliance? Give me a break!

As for Dugin, I have to ask Sweeney, ‘Are you serious?’ ‘Widely believed to have the ear of the Kremlin’, Sweeney says. Widely believed by whom, I wonder. Not any scholars of Russian affairs that I know. Most people dropped the ‘Dugin as Putin’s brain’ meme several years ago once it became clear that it was obvious nonsense. I typed the word ‘Dugin’ into the search engine on the website Kremlin.ru, which contains all of Putin’s speeches. ‘Your search returned no results’ it told me. Putin has never mentioned the man, not even once. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that he’s one of the major forces ‘egging on Trumputinism’.

Panorama has been running since 1953. It averages a little over 2 million viewers an episode. It pains me that so many Britons would be subjected to analysis like this without having the chance to hear anybody tell them what utter rot it is. After walking out of an interview with Sweeney and his team, Dugin tweeted that the BBC reporters were ‘Utter cretins. … Pure Soviet style propagandists.’ I have to say that I sympathize.

The Russian soul and the toxic West

I’ve spent the last week ploughing through the 1,400 pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary. (Boy, that guy knew how to churn out the words!!) The experience has left me pretty well acquainted with the writer’s views on the Russian People (with a capital ‘P’), Europe, the Eastern Question, and Russia’s universal mission. I’ve also just finished writing an academic article which discusses, among other things, references to Dostoevsky in Vladimir Putin’s speeches. And now by some quirk of fate, the international press has produced not one, but two, articles saying that Dostoevsky provides the key to understanding Putin’s politics.

A year or so ago, the press was all over Ivan Ilyin, saying that he was the man you had to read to understand Putin. Before that they said it was Aleksandr Dugin. No doubt a year from now it will be somebody else. But there is a bit of truth in the Dostoevsky meme since Putin has quoted and mentioned Dostoevsky in his speeches on numerous occasions.

So what is being said of the Putin-Dostoevsky connection?

Continue reading The Russian soul and the toxic West

Fake sex news

Former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky went on trial last week in Britain for allegedly illegally downloading ‘thousands of indecent images of children over a 15-year period’. According to prosecutor William Carter, when confronted by police:

[Bukovsky] responded immediately by saying he did download images and that they would be on the computer in his study. … In an interview, Bukovsky told detectives he had become interested in child abuse images in the 1990s in the context of a debate on the control and censorship of the internet. … ‘Bukovsky said his initial curiosity turned into a hobby, rather like stamp collecting,’ Carter said. The dissident continued to download images between 1999 and 2014, and estimated that he had accumulated a collection of ‘1,500 movies’. His interest varied year by year. The last downloads took place days before his arrest.

Since then, Bukovsky has changed his tune, and he is now claiming that the images on his computer were planted by the Russian secret services in order to discredit him. Despite his earlier confession, and without any supporting evidence, Sunday’s New York Times ran a long story repeating this claim. According to the story:

This blurring of all boundaries between truth and falsehood in the service of operational needs has created a climate in Russia in which even the most serious and grotesque accusations, like those involving pedophilia, are simply a currency for settling scores. Mr. Bukovsky is far from the only one fending off such allegations.

Without a trace of irony, the New York Times alleged that the case illustrated a pattern of behaviour involving ‘the discrediting of foes and the shaping of public opinion through the spread of false information.’

Meanwhile, in a separate story, the Daily Mail reported that ‘Russian and Syrian secret services may be encouraging refugees in Germany to carry out orchestrated sex attacks, in a bid to oust Angela Merkel from office.’ According to the Mail:

The extraordinary assertion was made by an expert from the European Council on Foreign Relations, who said that foreign powers could collude to destabilise Germany ahead of next year’s election. Gustav Gressel, a Russian expert at the think-tank, said small numbers of refugees with links to the Kremlin and Syrian security services could be mobilised to sway public opinion against the Chancellor.

And in a final story, The Guardian published the following headline:

Russian reality TV show to ‘allow’ rape and murder in Siberian wilderness.

The Guardian reports that ‘A new Russian reality show where crimes are “allowed” will begin next year.’ The show in question, entitled ‘Game 2: Winter’ will ‘strand 30 contestants in the -40F (-40C) Siberian wilderness for nine months with the surviving winner receiving a $1.6m prize. “Each contestant gives consent that they could be maimed, even killed,” reads an advert.’

But as the report then admits, ‘the rules also state that police are free to arrest anyone who commits a crime on the show. “You must understand that the police will come and take you away,” the rules state. “We are on the territory of Russia, and obey the laws of the Russian Federation.”’ So, despite the headline, it turns out that rape and murder aren’t ‘allowed’ after all.

Guilt by association

‘Extremists turn to a leader to protect Western values: Vladimir Putin’. So screams the headline of an article in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. The article takes up an entire page, an indication that the newspaper’s editors consider its message to be of great importance. It says:

Throughout the collection of white ethnocentrists,  nationalists, populists and neo-Nazis that has taken root on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Putin is widely revered as a kind of white knight: a symbol of strength, racial purity and traditional Christian values in a world under threat from Islam, immigrants and rootless cosmopolitan elites. Fascination with and, in many cases, adoration of Mr. Putin – or at least a distorted image of him – first took hold among far-right politicians in Europe, many of whom have since developed close relations with their brethren in the United States. Such ties across the Atlantic have helped spread the view of Mr. Putin’s Russia as an ideal model. … Russia also shares with far-right groups across the world a deeply held belief that, regardless of their party, traditional elites should be deposed because of their support for globalism and transnational institutions like NATO and the European Union.

Building on this, the article paints Russia as a threat to national and international security, because of its ‘efforts … to organize and inspire extreme right-wing groups in the United States and Europe.’

And yet, buried in the middle of the article are a number of interesting titbits which undermine this thesis. After claiming that Russia has provided financial and logistical support to far-right forces in the West, the article admits that ‘the only proven case so far involves the National Front in France’. Moreover, Russia ‘has jailed some of its own white supremacist agitators’, and, as the New York Times confesses,

Mr. Putin has never personally promoted white supremacist ideas, and has repeatedly insisted that Russia, while predominantly white and Christian, is a vast territory of diverse religions and ethnic groups stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Nor has he displayed any sign of hostility toward Jews, a fact that has infuriated some of Russia’s more extremist nationalist groups.

One might imagine that at this point the article’s authors would change tack and take the opportunity to argue that Putin had been wrongly tarred with the extremist brush. This, however, would undermine the apparent purpose of the piece, so instead the authors plough on ahead with the tarring, while making an increasing mess of themselves in the process.

For instance, after discussing alt-right activist Richard Spencer, who recently caused a scandal by making a Nazi salute and shouting ‘Hail Trump’, the article says ‘Mr. Spencer acknowledged that Mr. Putin did not share his ideology.’ Next, the authors mention a conference of European and American nationalists organized in Russia by the Rodina party (which got about 1% of the vote in the recent Duma elections), but cite organizer Fyodor Biryukov as saying that ‘the Kremlin had not supported the event.’ Despite this, the article concludes that ‘Mr. Putin’s Russia [is] now the home of a new global alliance of far-right groups.’

The New York Times never says as much, but with a sort of ‘wink, wink’ it implies guilt by association: ‘White ethnocentrists and neo-Nazis’ like Putin, ergo Putin must be a neo-Nazi. This is a classic example of what is sometimes called the ‘association fallacy’ or ‘bad company fallacy’. And yet, the evidence in the article doesn’t actually support the message implied in the headline. It isn’t ‘fake news’, but it’s misleading nonetheless.