Category Archives: Report

How Russia Views the UK, Supposedly

I have a pretty poor opinion of think tanks. Perhaps it’s academic snobbery, but then again, maybe not. In the past few years, I’ve read too many really bad reports published by think tanks to regard them very highly. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, their output kind of stinks. Or at least, so it seems to me.

The United Kingdom has a new think tank, pompously entitled the Council on Geostrategy. The name alone gives you a hint that there’s more than a bit of imperial nostalgia involved – dreams of GREAT Britain, and all that. The advisory council is full of retired military folks and regimental-tie wearing Conservative MPs who sit on the parliamentary defence committee. Meanwhile, the staff is replete with cast-offs from the Henry Jackson Society, an institution widely perceived as decidedly neo-conservative in nature (the kind of place that still thinks that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, if you get my drift). In short, ideologically speaking, not my kind of people at all.

The Council on Geostrategy defines its mission as being “to strengthen Britain and re-assert our leadership in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. We promote robust new ideas [“robust” – I like that word!!] to enhance our country’s unity and resilience, bolster our industrial and technological base, and boost our discursive, diplomatic and military power – especially our naval reach.” So, you get what these guys are up to: Hurrah Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too!

Despite only being founded this year, the Council has got off to a running start, and today published a report, written by another Henry Jackson cast-off, Andrew Foxall, with the title “How Russia ‘Positions’ the United Kingdom.” In case you’ve forgotten, Foxall’s the guy who claimed that perhaps half of the 150,000 Russians living in the UK were “informants” for the Russian intelligence services (that’s 75,000 informants, if you can’t do the math – those guys in the SVR must be real busy!). Suffice to say, he’s not no. 1 on my to-go list for reliable analysis of things Russian, but let’s give him a chance and see what he has to say in this report.

Continue reading How Russia Views the UK, Supposedly

Garbage in, Garbage out, again

I’ve complained before about the habit of the intelligence community of inviting evidence from a very narrow group of experts, occupying what can only be called an extreme position. Well, here we go again.

The long awaited report on the Russian ‘threat’ by the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has finally come out. Having downloaded it, I immediately turned to the back page to see where the committee had got its information, on the principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out’. Having done so, I am afraid that I let out an expletive so loud that people from the other side of the house ran over to see what was wrong. For this is what I saw:

Oh, FFS. Applebaum, Browder, Donnelly, Lucas, and Steele. Really??? I’m assuming that most readers know these names, but just in case you don’t, it’s like they’ve pulled in all the most discredited, Russophobic ‘experts’ they can find, and ignored everybody else who has any sort of knowledge of the subject. This is not a representative sample of expert opinion about Russia.

I have no objection to one or two such people being summoned as witnesses, but when all you have is representatives of the most extreme wing of the Russia-watching community, some of whom, most notably Christopher Steele, have been thoroughly discredited, then what you are not getting is a balanced, all-round picture of what you are studying.

The report thanks these witnesses for the fact that ‘they provided us with an invaluable foundation for the classified evidence sessions’. In short, the five external witnesses mattered. The picture of Russia provided by these people is the ideological rock on which the rest of the report is built.

Such an extreme, one-sided set of external witnesses not only casts doubt on the value of the information provided to the committee, but also on the impartiality of the committee itself. It speaks to extreme lack of an open mind, as if experts were chosen because they conformed to a strong predisposition which the committee was not interested in challenging.

Intelligence work requires a willingness to consider multiple competing hypotheses. Looking at the list of ‘experts’ makes it clear that this committee has only been exposed to variations of one – ‘Russia is evil’, ‘Russia is out to get us’, ‘Russia is inherently aggressive and dictatorial’. This is no way to do intelligence work.

I’ll write something about the content of the report in my next post. But as I said, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

Russia’s not so radical youth

One of the regular themes of the ‘Putin is doomed’ crowd is the idea that while older Russians are deeply conservative, undemocratically-minded, and deeply traumatized by their Soviet upbringing, Russian youth, brought up entirely in the post-Soviet era, are of a much more liberal inclination, deeply dissatisfied with their lot and the governing system, and thus likely to sweep away the current order as soon as they grow a little older. This isn’t based on very much other than the fact that those who attend anti-government protests in Moscow contain a large number of young people. But, as I’ve pointed out before, sociological surveys don’t provide much ammunition to support the idea of Russian youth as revolutionaries in waiting – quite the opposite, in fact. So, it’s interesting to see the results of a new survey of young Russians by the German research foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with help from the Moscow-based Levada Centre.

The research polled 1,500 people aged 14 to 29 across Russia, and also involved focus groups. These were some of the points which emerged that I found interesting:

When asked which values were most important to them, 76% said human rights, as shown below. Similarly, another chart later in the report shows 80% of respondents saying that ‘securing rights and freedoms’ should be a priority for the national government, with lower numbers for improving the economy, reducing unemployment, providing social security, and so on (with bottom place going to ‘development of private entrepreneurship’, suggesting a lack of economic liberalism). This somewhat surprised me as previous polls that I had seen suggest that Russians of all ages are more concerned with social and economic issues than with human rights.

survey1

Much, though, depends on how rights are understood, and once you dig a bit deeper things become a bit more complicated, as shown by the next diagram:

Continue reading Russia’s not so radical youth

Exposing the disinformation industry

In my last post I mentioned the growth of an industry of disinformation ‘experts’ who themselves spread disinformation. If anybody has any doubts about it, evidence of how this industry operates came out this week in the form of a couple of short reports from the University of Manchester, which is the home of a research project known as ‘Reframing Russia’.

Led by Professor Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz, both well respected researchers, the project primarily studies the Russian media network RT, saying that ‘ we test hypotheses … that challenge conventional thinking and presumptions about RT and really get to grips with RT’s recalibration of Russia’s public image for international audience.’ Beyond RT, however, the Reframing Russia team also comment occasionally on issues relating to the Russian media and disinformation more generally, and this is where this week’s news comes into play.

First off, we had a frenzy of complaints that the Russian news agency RIA had published an article claiming that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been ventilated while in hospital suffering from coronavirus. This resulted in a series of denunciations of Russia in the press and on social media, followed by a public statement by Johnson’s office that the story was Russian ‘disinformation’. Rather embarrassingly, however, news soon came out that Johnson had been taken into intensive care and was being provided with oxygen, apparently indicating that the RIA story had been true.

The Reframing Russia team therefore decided to investigate. Apparently, the accusations of Russian disinformation were due to ‘mistranslation’ of what RIA had said, which was not that Johnson was being intubated, but that he ‘will’ (future) be receiving artificial ventilation, a phrase that in Russian includes ‘non-invasive use of an oxygen mask’. In other words, RIA didn’t report that something had already happened, but made a prediction which turned out to be true. ‘In sum’, concludes Reframing Russia, ‘there is no evidence of any attempts by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health’. The whole story, in other words, was sloppy journalism. As Reframing Russia puts it, this case indicates how

rudimentary journalistic standards relating to the careful verification of source materials are … sidestepped. … the inaccuracy with which Russian coverage of the COVID-19 crisis is represented in the EU and the UK is concerning. Countering disinformation with mis/disinformation is counterproductive.

That brings us neatly onto the research project’s second report, which deals more generally with claims that the Russian state has been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. The report involves an analysis of the output of the European Union’s counter-disinformation service EUvsDisinfo, which has been the source for a large number of media stories claiming that the Russian Federation is actively spreading false stories about COVID-19 for nefarious political purposes.

To check whether EUvsDisinfo’s claims were correct, Reframing Russia examined the specific stories the EU organization had flagged as disinformation, but also went beyond that by taking a wider look at what Russian TV has been saying about the COVID pandemic. Observing the output of Russian TV’s Channel 1, the team concluded that, ‘there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin “conspiracy theory propaganda’ flagged by EUvsDisinfo.’ On the contrary, ‘The extent of EUvsDisinfo’s misrepresentation of Russian COVID-19 media coverage in the material we then analyzed is troubling.’

The research team identified two ways in which EUvsDisinfo misrepresented the truth. The first is ‘omission’: ‘in some cases individual sentences are extracted from the context of the source materials and rephrased in the form of summaries and headlines which make them sound particularly outrageous. Failure to supply contextual information encourages misreading of the significance of the relevant media.’

The second form of misrepresentation is ‘blatant distortion’. For instance, EUvsDisinfo issued a report claiming that Sputnik Latvia had said that ‘COVID-19 had been designed specifically to kill elderly people’. In fact, ‘the article in question … was clearly ridiculing a whole series of international conspiracy theories … the article highlights their idiocy.’

Beyond this, Reframing Russia attacks EUvsDisinfo’s methodology for assuming that ‘random websites without any traceable links to Russia state structures’ are similar to state-funded media outlets, and that all are part of a coordinated Kremlin-led campaign. This is true even in the case of ‘conspirological, far-right websites which are actually critical of Putin.’

Overall, the Reframing Russia report concludes with characteristically British understatement, that

Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation … The source material cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting countries with an organised around the current public health crisis.

The research team suggests two reasons for this: first, ‘a profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work’ (everything is not, in reality, dictated by the Kremlin), and; second, ‘The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to do the required work’. In EUvsDisinfo’s case, the work is outsourced to some 400 volunteers, who are ‘operating in a post-Soviet space saturated … by anti-Russian attitudes.’

In short, the disinformation experts don’t understand how Russia operates, and they are also unprofessional, and driven by anti-Russian biases.

I’d go farther than this. The output of the disinformation industry doesn’t ‘border on disinformation’, it is to a large degree disinformation. Furthermore, the industry’s output is a product of more than just lack of understanding and lack of professionalism. I’d argue that it’s inherent in the industry itself. Institutions have purposes, and the methods they use reflect those purposes. The purpose for which the disinformation industry was set up is to be a tool in the current East-West geopolitical conflict. The method is to make Russia look bad by presenting Russia as a source of disinformation, which in some way is said to undermine Western unity, democracy, and all the rest of it. In short, disinformation ‘experts’ exist to find Russian disinformation. It’s what they do. If they can’t find it, their reason for existence disappears. So, they find it. And if they can’t, they fabricate it. The ‘blatant distortion’ identified by Reframing Russia is part and parcel of what this industry is.

Sadly, EUvsDisinfo is hardly unique. Other examples, such as the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, abound. The problem is that our media and politicians take them seriously. As Reframing Russia notes, ‘Since it [EUvsDisinfo] bears the EU stamp of credibility, it is unsurprising that the material provided [by it] provided the basis for a series of national international press articles’. This applies more generally. The output of the disinformation industry is widely treated as truth. But as the Reframing Russia team have so ably demonstrated, in reality much of it is not.

Pot, kettle, black

I’ve theorized before that there may be something of a correlation between how loudly someone shouts about misinformation and how much misinformation comes out of that person’s own mouth. Recent years have led to a large-scale, and seemingly well-funded, industry of misinformation ‘experts’, who make a healthy living from exposing alleged foreign attempts to undermine our fragile democratic order, while simultaneously having a rather tenuous hold on the truth themselves. A recent publication from the University of Calgary is a case in point.

Entitled ‘COVID-19 as a tool of information confrontation: Russia’s approach’, the piece comes under the banner of the university’s School of Public Policy, giving it the air of academic respectability. In reality, it’s an under-referenced, poorly produced rant, which doesn’t deserve wide publicity. Still, I think it’s worth referencing as an example of how the misinformation industry operates.

Author Sergey Sukhankin, whose work I have discussed before, argues the following:

As the rest of the world struggles to cope with COVID-9, Russia is churning out propaganda that blames the West for creating the virus. … Russia is using social media accounts, fake news outlets, state-controlled global satellite media, bloggers, pseudo-scientists and supposed scholars, experts and Russians living in the West to spread its lies and distortions. … Putin’s larger goal in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories is to subvert the West … COVID-19 is seen as an ideal way for Russia to deal a powerful blow not only to the EU, but to inflict damage on the ties between Europe and its North American allies.

It’s sounds terrible. The problem is that after two and half pages of introduction and historical filling, the core of the publication, which itself consists of just two pages, contains no evidence to back the assertions above. Note the claim that Russia is ‘churning’ out propaganda, suggesting a huge flood of the stuff. But Sukhankin fails to provide examples, let alone evidence of a process of ‘churning’. Note also the use of the word ‘Russia’, which seems to imply that everything any Russian says is somehow part of some centralized state plan. Again, no evidence is produced. It’s remarkably thin gruel.

What we do get is a complaint of crude disinformation being spread on Russian TV to the ‘least informed of the Russian masses’ by ‘Russia’s most notorious TV anchor, Yevgeny Kisilev’ (a rather embarrassing error, as Sukhankin surely means Dmitry Kisilev – Yevgeny moved to Ukraine in 2008). I have to admit that I don’t watch either Kiselev, so I have no idea what they’ve been saying about coronavirus. But what I do know is that Dmitry broadcasts in Russia, to Russians, not in foreign languages to foreign audiences. How then could he be part of some Russian plan to spread disinformation in the West? It doesn’t make sense. As for what this disinformation is, the only example Sukhankin provides is Russian TV showing pictures from the social media account of hockey star Alexander Ovechkin’s wife, showing empty shelves in American stores. Well, where’s the disinformation in that? (Besides which, most of us have probably seen similar pictures online from the USA and elsewhere from any other number of people – it’s hardly something extraordinary for them to appear on Russian TV).

I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much credence to this stuff. I’ll just provide one more example of Sukhankin’s weird form of argumentation. Apparently, ‘Russian intellectuals have concluded that the virus is a precursor of the coming end of the “liberal world order, and giving way to a new configuration in which old powers, such as the US … are giving way to the new leaders, including China and Russia.’ Well, yes, some have. But the idea that the balance of power in the world is shifting is hardly a uniquely Russian one (let alone disinformation, since it is obviously true), and the potential impact of the current crisis on the international order is a topic exercising intellectuals in the West just as much as in Russia. How is all this proof that Russia is ‘churning out propaganda’ to ‘subvert the West’ and deal a ‘powerful blow’ to the Western alliance? It isn’t. Not in the slightest.

‘Russian military-political elites consider COVID-19 as something that could and should be used to deal a powerful blow to the EU’, concludes Sukhankin, providing not a single reference to anything any Russian military-political leader has said to this effect. But don’t let the lack of evidence get in our way. Something must be done! ‘The Canadian government must take a tougher stance on platforms/agencies operating in Canadian information space and deliberately sowing panic or discord among the population’, says the final words of the report. And so we end up where we so often do, with a call for censorship.

Of itself, this publication doesn’t matter a jot. It’s just the ramblings of one guy in Calgary – a true scholar, I guess, not one of the ‘supposed scholars’ he denounces. But this stuff spreads. For instance, Canadian military historian David Bercuson, a Calgary U professor emeritus, took the opportunity of Sukhankin’s publication to pen a piece in the National Post, spreading fear of Russian and Chinese disinformation. On almost a daily basis, stories and op-eds appear claiming that the Russians are using COVID-19 for geopolitical purposes. The aid Russia has recently provided to Italy and the United States is a case in point. Take a look at these recent headlines:

‘The influence operation behind Russia’s coronavirus aid to Italy: how the Kremlin is using Covid-19 crisis to undermine NATO and the EU.’ (Coda Story, 2 April 2020)

‘Coronavirus: what does “from Russia with love” really mean?’(BBC, 3 April 2020)

‘Beware of Bad Samaritans: China and Russia are sending medical aid to Italy and other coronavirus-stricken countries, but their motives aren’t so altruistic’. (Foreign Policy, 30 March 2020)

‘Russian aid to Italy leaves EU exposed’. (New York Times, 26 March 2020)

‘Russian mercy mission to Italy is a front for intelligence gathering, British expert warns.’ (Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2020)

Having read these, now ask yourself a couple of questions: who exactly is using COVID-19 to spread propaganda? who exactly is exploiting the current situation to raise tensions and stoke conflict? To me, the answer is pretty clear. It’s very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Beware Russians on campus

My university has pretty much shut down this week due to coronavirus, which gives me an opportunity to talk about some non-virus-related stuff to provide readers with a bit of a distraction. Among these is a newly issued report by the Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose contents make me think that closing down our universities may be a good thing as it will safeguard national security against the rampant ‘ foreign interference’ apparently prevalent on campus. Every cloud, and all that!

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Sick trash

I’d never heard of the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group (EASLG) until today, even though it turns out that one of its members has the office next door to mine. Its website says that it seeks to respond to the challenge of East-West tensions by convening ‘former and current officials and experts from a group of Euro-Atlantic states and the European union to test ideas and develop proposals for improving security in areas of existential common interest’. It hopes thereby to ‘generate trust through dialogue.’

It’s hard to object to any of this, but its latest statement, entitled ‘Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region’, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The ‘twelve steps’ the EASLG proposes to improve security in Eastern Ukraine are generally pretty uninspiring, being largely of the ‘set up a working group to explore’ variety, or of such a vaguely aspirational nature as to be almost worthless (e.g. ‘Advance reconstruction of Donbas … An essential first step is to conduct a credible needs assessment for the Donbas region to inform a strategy for its social-economic recovery.’ Sounds nice, but in reality doesn’t amount to a hill of beans).

For the most part, these proposals attempt to treat the symptoms of the war in Ukraine without addressing the root causes. In a sense, that’s fine, as symptoms need treating, but it’s sticking plaster when the patient needs some invasive surgery. At the end of its statement, though, the EASLG does go one step further with ‘Step 12: Launch a new national dialogue about identity’, saying:

A new, inclusive national dialogue across Ukraine is desirable and could be launched as soon as possible. … Efforts should be made to engage with perspectives from Ukraine’s neighbors, especially Poland, Hungary, and Russia. This dialogue should address themes of history and national memory, language, identity, and minority experience. It should include tolerance and respect for ethnic and religious minorities … in order to increase engagement, inclusiveness, and social cohesion.

This is admirably trendy and woke, but in the Ukrainian context somewhat explosive, as it implicitly challenges the identity politics of the post-Maidan regime. Unsurprisingly, it’s gone down like a lead balloon in Kiev. The notorious website Mirotvorets even went so far as to add former German ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger to its blacklist of enemies of Ukraine for having had the temerity to sign the EASLG statement and thus ‘taking part in Russia’s propaganda events aimed against Ukraine.’ Katherine Quinn-Judge of the International Crisis Group commented on Twitter,  ‘As the idea of dialogue becomes more mainstream, backlash to the concept grows fiercer.’ ‘In Ukraine, prominent pro-Western politicians, civic activists, and media, have called Step 12 “a provocation” and “dangerous”,’ she added

Quinn-Judge comes across as generally sympathetic to the Ukrainian narrative about the war in Donbass, endorsing the idea that it’s largely a product of ‘Russian aggression’. But she also recognizes that the war has an internal, social dimension which the Ukrainian government and its elite-level supporters refuse to acknowledge. Consequently, they also reject any sort of dialogue, either with Russia or with the rebels in Donbass. As Quinn-Judge notes in another Tweet:

An advisor to one of Ukraine’s most powerful pol[itician]s told us recently of his concern about talk of dialogue in international and domestic circles. ‘We have all long ago agreed among ourselves. We need to return our territory, and then work with that sick – sick –  population.’

This isn’t an isolated example. Quinn-Judge follows up with a couple more similar statements:

Social resentments underpin some opposition to disengagement, for example. An activist in [government-controlled] Shchastye told me recently that she feared disengagement and the reopening of the bridge linking the isolated town to [rebel-held] Luhansk: ‘I don’t want all that trash coming over here.’

In 2017, a woman working with frontline families told me why she didn’t want reintegration. ‘These [the population of rebel-held Donbass] are people with a minimum level of human development, people raised by their TVs. Okay, so we live together, then what? We’re trying to build a completely new society.’

And there once again you have it – one of the primary causes of the war in Ukraine: the contempt with which the post-Maidan government and its activist supporters regard a significant portion of their fellow citizens, the ‘sick trash’ of Donbass with their ‘minimum level of human development’. You can fiddle with treating Donbass’ symptoms as much as you like, à la EASLG, but unless you tackle this fundamental problem, the disease will keep on ravaging the subject for a long time to come. In due course, I suggest, the only realistic cure will be to remove the patient entirely from the cause of infection.

Meddling schmeddling

You may have missed it in the all the excitement around the world, but Canada has a general election coming up in October. As you know, elections equal Russian meddling. They’re when our Eastern friends pull out all their computer bots, fire up their trolls, and start spreading shedloads of disinformation in order to confuse and disorientate us, so that we lose our faith in democracy  and then we … we … well I’m not sure what we’re meant to do then; the ultimate aim of it all rather defeats me. We vote for one party which is 100% anti-Russian rather than for another party which is 100% anti-Russian? Is that the point? Because here in Canada, that’s basically the choice on offer. Those pesky Russkies can confuse us all they like with their dezinformatziia, active measures, and maskirovka, but at the end of the day we’re still going to end up electing somebody determined to prove that he or she is more anti-Russian that the next guy or girl. Meddling, schmeddling – it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference to the result.

None of this stops the fearmongers, however, and so it was that yesterday the Canadian press was happily quoting a new report from the University of Calgary, saying that, ‘Russia could meddle in Canada’s election due to “growing interest” in Arctic’. Now, I’ve been saying for a while now that these worries are exaggerated, but for some reason ‘Professor at University of Ottawa says it’s a load of nonsense’ doesn’t generate any headlines, whereas ‘part-time lecturer in Calgary says it’s so’ is national news. Well, so be it. We all know that the press has its biases. So rather than rely on the media, I thought I’d better check out what the report in question actually has to say, and it turns out that it’s not quite what you’d imagine, at least not entirely.

The report is written by one Sergey Sukhankin who is said to be ‘a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation’ in Washington DC, and to be currently ‘teaching at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University (Edmonton)’. According to his Linkedin page, he has a 3 month contract to teach a single course at the former, and a 9 month contract as a lecturer in the latter. He’s also listed as an ‘Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies (Kyiv).’ Anyway, he starts off his report encouragingly enough by declaring that he aims ‘to give a more balanced and nuanced picture of the situation, particularly with regard to Canada’, and it is a ‘tactical error … to label as disinformation or propaganda every news item emanating from Russia. This creates the perception of a Russian disinformation machine that is much more powerful than it really is.’ Personally, I would say that it’s not a ‘tactical error’, it’s just plain wrong, but at least Sukhankin isn’t trying to overdo things. But this praiseworthy restraint doesn’t mean that he wants us to let down our guard. No, he says, ‘the peril is real’, ‘the West … must stick to confronting the Kremlin’, and (and this is the bit which got the headlines):

The Kremlin has a growing interest in dominating the Arctic, where it sees Russia as in competition with Canada. This means Canada can anticipate escalations in information warfare … Perceived as one of Russia’s chief adversaries in the Arctic region, Canada is a prime target in the information wars, with Russia potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election.

There’s a leap of logic here which I must admit I failed to understand. Why does ‘competition’ in the Arctic ‘mean’ that Canada ‘can anticipate escalations in information warfare’, let alone ‘meddling’ in the election? Why does the one necessarily lead to the other? I don’t see it.  It would only make sense if the second part (the meddling) helped achieve some objectives in the first part (competition in the Arctic) but Sukhankin doesn’t show how they would. He just connects two unconnected things. But we’ll get back to the Arctic a little later. For now, let’s return to the report.

This essentially has two parts. The first is a fairly standard summary of the general argument that Russia is engaged in some sort of information war designed to undermine the West from within. It makes reference to the normal vocabulary of Soviet active measures and the like, as well as to the conventional list of sources, such as Peter Pomerantseve, Michael Weiss, and Edward Lucas (not the most reliable types in my opinion). In short, it doesn’t add anything new. By contrast, the second part, which specifically focuses on alleged Russian information operations against Canada, is much more interesting.

Russian disinformation about Canada, says Sukhankin, is centred on four themes:

  1. ‘Canada as a safe haven of russophobia and (neo)fascism.
  2. ‘Canada as part of the colonial forces in the Baltic Sea region’.
  3. ‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’.
  4. ‘Canada as a testing ground for the practical implementation of immoral Western values.’

The extent to which these could all be called ‘disinformation’ is debatable (‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’ doesn’t seem entirely inaccurate to me). But the key point Sukhankin makes is that these themes reflect the Russian government’s own internal, domestic political priorities – i.e. its desire to convince its own citizens that its policies are right, by means of discrediting others. In general, says Sukhankin, Russian propaganda targets ‘the following audiences, prioritized from the greatest to the smallest’.

  • The Russian domestic audience
  • The post-Soviet area (including the russophones in the three Baltic States)
  • The Balkans and east-central Europe
  • Western and southern Europe
  • The U.S.
  • The rest of the world

Canada, therefore, falls into the lowest priority of targets. This reflects the fact that, as Sukhankin says, ‘Russians don’t see Canada as a fully independent political actor’. To be frank, we’re not high on Russia’s information war hitlist. The Russian government doesn’t care that much about us, and it cares even less about our internal politics. Consequently, says Sukhankin, while the Russian media and social media do publish anti-Canadian stories, the point of them isn’t to ‘meddle’ in Canadian internal affairs. Rather, he says, in what to me is the most crucial statement in his report:

Russia’s anti-Canadian propaganda, which still plays a marginal part compared to other theatres, is primarily tailored for domestic Russian consumption – it is not designed for a Canadian audience. [my underlining]

Here, therefore, we run into a huge problem. We’re told to fear the genuine ‘peril’ of Russian disinformation, and Russian ‘meddling’ in Canada’s election, but we’re also told that Russia doesn’t actually care very much about Canadian internal affairs and that in any case Russian disinformation isn’t targeted at Canadians. It seems to me that you can’t have it both ways. If it’s not targeted at Canadians, then it doesn’t constitute meddling, interference, or anything else of the sort. The logical conclusion of Sukhankin’s analysis is that we should calm down a little and stop worrying so much.

That, however, would not fit with the current zeitgeist. Although his logic points him in one direction, Sukhankin apparently feels a desperate need to nonetheless throw in something about the dangers of Russian interference in Canadian internal affairs. So all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, and unconnected with anything else, in his final paragraph he suddenly throws in a quotation from the head of that most neutral of trustworthy academic sources, the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Alexandra Chiczij, saying that, ‘The Kramlin’s propaganda machine will increasingly target our country with anti-Canadian fabrications in an attempt to sow discord, conflict, and to undermine our democratic institutions.’ Sukhankin then adds that this might happen ‘during the 2019 Canadian federal election.’ No evidence to support this claim – which is entirely at odds which everything which preceded it – is produced. Why would Russia suddenly become so interested in Canadian internal affairs? Sukhankin thinks he has an answer, ‘from this author’s point of view, Moscow’s next theme could be the Arctic’, he says. But since this is his last paragraph, he doesn’t have time to develop this thought. As I said, it just comes out of the blue.

It’s also rather odd. As I said earlier, it’s not at all clear why interfering in Canada’s election (exactly how, Sukhankin never makes clear) would promote Russia’s interests in the Arctic. But more than that it ignores the nature of Russian-Canadian Arctic politics. In my conversations with both Canadian and Russian officials, the Arctic is always mentioned as a zone of cooperation rather than competition. In an era when Canadian and Russian diplomats barely talk to each other, the Arctic is the one subject they both think it’s actually possible to discuss in a constructive manner. Conversations about how to improve Canada-Russia relations generally take the form of something like, ‘Let’s not aim too high. Let’s just take little steps, and focus on areas where agreement is possible, especially the Arctic’. To pick on the Arctic as the subject likely to provoke Russia (for purposes unknown) to ‘meddle’ in Canada’s oncoming election (by means and to effect unknown) seems to me to completely misread the situation.

In short, what we have here is a report which tells us that Canada doesn’t matter much to Russians, and that to date Russians have shown little or no interest in targeting Canadian public opinion, let alone interfering in Canadian politics, and yet which nonetheless concludes that we face the ‘peril’ of Moscow ‘potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election’. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make any sense to me.

Rebels without a cause

I’ve long said that if you want to bring peace to Ukraine, you need to develop a proper understanding of how the war in Donbass began and of the exact dynamics between the various players, including the government in Kiev, the Russian Federation, and the rebel movement. Attempts to view the conflict purely in terms of ‘Russian aggression’, ignoring its internal dimensions, are bound to point towards policies which see the solution as lying solely in pressuring Moscow. Such policies will fail because they ignore the local nature of the rebel movement and the genuine fears and grievances of the people of Donbass. At a minimum a peace settlement will require autonomy for Donbass, an amnesty, and a change in various Ukrainian policies such as those connected with language.

To make this argument, I have provided evidence in this blog and in various academic and other publications that the initial uprising in Donbass was local in nature; that the overwhelming majority of rebels have always been Ukrainian citizens; that the Russian government only slowly and reluctantly became involved (in large part to gain control of a process over which it originally had little control); that Moscow’s preference has always been for Donbass to be reintegrated within Ukraine with some sort of autonomy, a preference which has put it at odds with the rebel leadership; and finally that patron-client relations are complicated and do not give patrons complete ability to manipulate their clients (indeed the patron may even become something of a captive of the client). All this means that the wishes of the people of Donbass and of the leadership of the rebel republics cannot be ignored. Instead of blindly supporting Kiev as it does its best to alienate eastern Ukraine, Western states should be pressuring it to live up to its commitments in the Minsk accords.

This argument is, of course, entirely at odds with the prevalent narrative coming out of Kiev and Western capitals. It is satisfying, therefore, to read a report which pretty much confirms everything I’ve been saying these past five years. Entitled Rebels without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine, the report was published yesterday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG gets a lot of its funding from governments, notably Qatar, Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Norway and Sweden, as well as from foundations such as Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘Kremlin proxy’. That makes its conclusions all the more striking.

Continue reading Rebels without a cause

Censors for democracy

On 17 January, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a report written by Marcus Kolga, Stemming the Virus: Understanding and responding to the threat of Russian disinformation. Kolga claimed that, ‘The information warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in against Canada and its allies is total, and its objective is to tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government and institutions.’

Kolga’s report went on to list a whole series of individuals, organizations and publications which he believes are assisting the Kremlin in its dastardly plan. This blog was featured in a graphic titled ‘Illustration of a disinformation campaign’. Irrussianality was grouped with the likes of InfoWars as a ‘Pro-Kremlin, Conspiracy Theory, Extremist Platform’, and depicted as a conduit through which ‘False narratives’ generated by the Russian government are channelled to the ‘general public/voters’. On the next page of the report Kolga then alleged that such ‘platforms’ aimed ‘to generate support for Kremlin positions, discredit critics and opponents by all means available, and sow confusion and turn societies against each other in the West.’

Continue reading Censors for democracy