Category Archives: Press article

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

Continue reading National Security Threats

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.

False flag confession

Good stories are like London buses. You can wait ages for one to come along, and then you get two or three all at once. Yesterday, we had the result of the inquest into the death of Alexander Perepilichny. Today, among others, we have a stunner of a story out of Alabama. The former undermined conspiracy theories about a supposed campaign of international murder led by Vladimir Putin. The latter reveals a conspiracy nobody so far had even theorized about. But it turns out that it’s not Russians doing the conspiring. Instead, it’s Americans pretending to be Russians in order to create the impression that there’s a Russian conspiracy where in fact there isn’t. Confused? Don’t worry, it will soon become clear.

In general, when I see the words ‘false flag operation’, I tend to roll my eyes and wonder what crazy nonsense is about to follow. In my opinion, false flag operations are quite rare. What’s even rarer is for somebody to admit to one. But, according to the New York Times, that’s exactly what the American cyber security firm New Knowledge has done in an internal report. The name New Knowledge may not mean much to you all, but if you follow Russia-related news you are no doubt aware of two reports released by the US Senate this week which purport to show the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election via social media. New Knowledge wrote one of these. What the organization did not say in its report to the Senate, however, was that New Knowledge itself had been engaged in electoral ‘interference’ of a thoroughly dodgy kind.

In 2017, there was a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in Alabama. The main contenders were Republic candidate Roy Moore and Democratic candidate Doug Jones, the latter of whom won by a margin of just under 22,000 votes. It now turns out that New Knowledge played a part in Jones’s victory. According to the report revealed by the New York Times, New Knowledge admits that:

We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.

The New York Times states that this plan ‘involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.’ These ‘Russian accounts’ were, however, nothing of the sort; they were false flags, designed to make it look as though the Russians were backing Mr Moore, thereby discrediting him and energizing his Democratic opponents. The ruse worked. American media picked up on the story that Russian social media bots were campaigning on behalf of Roy Moore, and spread the lie further. The New York Post, for instance, published an article entitled ‘Roy Moore flooded with fake Russian Twitter followers’. As it turns out, this headline was inadvertently true – the Russian Twitter followers were indeed ‘fake’, just not in the way that the Post understood it.

According to the New York Times, the false flag operation in Alabama cost about $100,000 dollars. It cites one Democratic operative as saying that it was ‘impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact on the race’. The Alabama campaign cost about $51 million. By contrast, the 2016 presidential campaign cost around $6.4 billion. That’s 127 times as much, meaning that the equivalent to the $100,000 spent by New Knowledge in Alabama would be $12.7 million. I’ve seen various estimates as to the amount spent by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) prior to the 2016 presidential election, but none come close to $12.7 million. For instance, the IRA is said to have spent $47,000 on Facebook advertisements (compared to $81 million spent by the Clinton and Trump campaign). Add in some more money spent on Twitter and other platforms, and it’s still not a massive expenditure. Yet somehow, it’s regarded as decisive in the way that the proportionally much larger $100,000 spent on the Senate campaign was not. One may be excused a little scepticism.

To summarise, what we have here are some Americans pretending to be Russians pretending to be Americans, with the aim of smearing a political candidate with what they knew to be a false accusation. And yet we are meant to trust these same people as neutral reporters on the matter of Russian ‘meddling’ in American democracy. It strikes me that they have something of a credibility problem.

There is, of course, a lot of nonsense on social media, some of it just the outpourings of deluded individuals, and some of it the automated products of so-called ‘troll factories’. Unfortunately, the lead in combatting this (in my mind, much exaggerated) problem has been taken by highly partisan actors who are themselves less than trustworthy. New Knowledge is one example. The Integrity Initiative in the UK is another. So too are the numerous reports about Russian information warfare produced by organizations such as the Institute of Modern Russia and the Centre for European Policy Analysis, as well as the books churned out by Luke Harding, Timothy Snyder, and others, all of whom spread fear of Russian disinformation while presenting a very odd version of reality themselves. In the case of New Knowledge, they even admit to deliberately deceiving American voters. As so often, those claiming to protect us against external enemies in fact threaten us more than the alleged enemies themselves.

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.