Category Archives: Report

The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses

Headlines often don’t reflect the content of stories. Editors know that it’s the headlines that gather readers, and so they do their best to jazz them up so as to make the stories sound far more important or controversial than they really are. In the current frenzy of Russia-related fearmongering, this has meant that followers of the media have been subjected to a deluge of scary-sounding headlines making it seem as if Russians and their agents are spreading chaos everywhere, only to find on reading the stories that it’s a massive fuss about nothing and that substantive evidence supporting the headlines is almost entirely lacking.

So it is with the Atlantic Council latest report, The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 3, which is the third in a series purporting to expose high-profile Europeans who are subverting democracy from within as witting or unwitting agents of the Russian government. The title implies that the report is going to be full of hard-hitting revelations of politicians and journalists taking the Kremlin’s money, acting on its orders, and saying or doing things which genuinely threaten the European way of life. And indeed, on its website, the Atlantic Council tempts you to read the report by saying that, ‘the Kremlin’s tentacles do not stop in Ukraine, Georgia, or East Central Europe. They reach far and deep in the core of western societies.’ But the result is a disappointment. For what the report actually tells you is that in Northern Europe there is next to nobody questioning the prevailing narrative about Russia. A better title might be something like The Almost Absolute Conformity of Northern European Elites and the Total Absence of Russian Tentacles. No doubt, however, nobody would read such a thing, and so we get a big scary title instead.

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Poking the bear

What sort of guy thinks that it is a good idea to deliberately provoke a nuclear-armed power? Answer: the sort of guy who writes for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a think-tank which claims that its purpose is to ‘bring about positive change in Central-East Europe and Russia by strengthening NATO’s frontline, better understanding the Kremlin’s strategic aims, promoting greater solidarity within the EU, and bolstering Atlanticism.’ CEPA ‘experts’ include the Economist’s Edward Lucas and the Power Vertical podcast’s Brian Whitmore. In short, it’s the kind of institution you go to if you think that Western politicians and journalists are being far too soft on the Russians. In line with its mission, every now and again CEPA brings out a report about the evils of Russian aggression and disinformation. Its latest, entitled Chaos as a Strategy: Putin’s ‘Promethean’ Gamble is a doozy.

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The authors of Chaos as a Strategy are CEPA president and CEO Peter Doran, and Senior Fellow and former diplomat Donald Jensen. Their report is a classic example of what I call ‘conceptual flipping’ – i.e. taking a concept created by one’s opponent and then flipping it around. As Ofer Fridman shows in his recent book, Russian thinkers such as Aleksandr Dugin and Igor Panarin were accusing the West of waging information warfare against Russia for years before Westerners took the idea, flipped it around (on the basis of the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’) and began to accuse Russia of the same. Similarly, for some time now, Russians (most notably Sergei Glazyev) have been accusing the West of deliberately sowing chaos around the world in order to weaken potential rivals and secure American hegemony. Glazyev calls this ‘world chaotic warfare’. Doran and Jensen now flip this over: Russia, they say, is using a ‘strategy of chaos’ against the West. Specifically,

In recent years, Russian leaders and strategists have developed a set of methods aimed at spreading disorder beyond their borders for strategic effect. Their goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems.

Doran and Jensen call this strategy of chaos ‘Promethean’, a term used by Polish leader Josef Pilsudski to describe the policy adopted by Poland toward Russia in the inter-war period. Whereas Glazyev’s ‘world chaotic war’ is primarily economic in nature, Doran and Jensen’s ‘Prometheanism’ is centered around disinformation and propaganda, these being seen as the primary tools used by the Kremlin to sow chaos in the West. Despite its claims to be revealing something novel, Chaos as a Strategy therefore rapidly disintegrates into a simple repetition of all the normal claims about Russian disinformation, hybrid warfare, the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, and the like. Consequently, I found its analysis of Russian behaviour very unoriginal and not in the slightest interesting. It’s just one more example of analysts leaping on the information warfare bandwagon without adding anything new.

What is somewhat interesting, and perhaps a little bit scary, is the report’s recommendations. Doran and Jensen are of the view that the West has been far too reactive in the face of Russian information warfare, and believe that it ought to be taking the initiative. They recommend that the West should:

Prioritize the sequencing of the ‘carrots and sticks’ offered to the Kremlin. Sticks first. This means initially increasing the penalties imposed on Russia for continued revisionist behavior and the sowing of chaos. We can start with tougher sanctions, wider travel bans, greater restrictions on access to the global financial system, and financial snap exercises. Presently, some of these tools are used – but they are underused in most cases. This needs to change. Particularly, in the domain of information warfare, the West must hit back harder. … Our responses for now should serve the shorter-term goal of forcing Russia to place more defense and less offense. For this purpose, we should lessen our preoccupation with ‘provoking’ the Kremlin. It is hardly a basis of sound policy to prioritize Putin’s peace of mind.

Back in my youth, we used to talk about the importance of ‘confidence building measures’. The idea was that potential enemies could reduce the chance of conflict by reassuring each other that they did not have hostile intent and thereby giving one another ‘peace of mind’. But now, supposedly sane foreign policy ‘experts’ think that it’s a good idea to provoke nuclear-armed powers and that peace of mind is dangerous. What these experts seem to want is the very opposite of confidence building – the creation of paranoid foreign leaders who are continued worried about their security. This is most foolish. Fear is not a good basis for decision-making. Inciting fear in others, therefore, is not a good idea, and especially not a good idea when those others have some powerful resources at their disposal.

The whole point of provocation is that incites the provoked party to do something stupid. Doran and Jensen seem to think that this will help the West. The logic is that of a zero-sum game – if the Russians harm themselves by reacting to our provocations, the West gains. But the world doesn’t work like that. When provoked, people don’t generally back down and surrender – they strike out even harder than before. In the process the person doing the provoking finds that the problem he was trying to eliminate has become worse rather than better. Perhaps your enemy goes down, but he takes you down with him.

The problem we face at the moment is that rather than framing issues in terms of disagreements and seeking to come up with mutually acceptable ways of resolving those disagreements, too many people on both sides of the current East-West divide are framing issues in terms of threat and thus of ‘enemies’. Consequently, they devise ‘solutions’ designed to weaken the ‘enemy’ rather than resolve the underlying problems. Such solutions are not solutions at all, but risk accelerating the cycle of escalation. This report is a striking case in point.

I’ve come across some fairly irresponsible policy proposals in the past few years, but ‘let’s worry less about provoking the Kremlin’ takes irresponsibility to a new level. It reveals that for some in the West, escalating the confrontation with Russia is a deliberate choice. Russians will of course notice this, consider their fears justified, and respond accordingly. That response may not help them, but they have sharp claws, and it certainly won’t help us either. Poking the bear has become a popular pastime of late. We shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end well.

 

Putin sees and hears it all

I’m not a fan of the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank that has the reputation of consisting of uber-hawkish neo-conservatives. Henry Jackson members come across as the kind of guys who even now think that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. You can judge their credibility by the fact that their guest speaker today is Timothy Snyder, who’s giving a talk about his truly awful book The Road to Unfreedom – you know, the one which says that Putin’s a fascist because he quotes Ivan Ilyin. In short, the Henry Jackson Society isn’t the sort of place you should visit if you want to be well informed about Russia. Unfortunately, however, you have to pay a bit of attention to what it’s saying. For it represents the viewpoint of an extreme, but not unimportant, segment of Britain’s ruling elite.

The Society’s Russia & Eurasia Studies Centre has just come out with a new report. Its title Putin Sees and Hears it All: How Russia’s Intelligence Agencies Menace the UK gives the gist – Putin’s espionage network is massive and growing, and Russia’s evil dictator ‘sees and hears it all’. He truly is all knowing!

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Assumptions

Assumptions are extremely important. If they’re wrong, everything which follows is probably wrong too. So when analysts don’t make their assumptions clear to policy makers, but instead try to pass them off as facts, there’s a great danger that poor decisions will result.

What brings this to mind is a new report by Duncan Allan, published by Chatham House and entitled Managed Confrontation: UK Policy Towards Russia After the Salisbury Attack. The report claims that,

The nerve agent attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury … was a UK policy failure. Following the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006, the UK government failed to deter another life threatening attack … Russian decision makers saw the UK as lacking purpose and resolve because its firm rhetoric was not matched by its actions.

Although the British government has acted more robustly after the attempted murder of the Skripals, Mr Duncan thinks that the response is still not tough enough and ‘there is a danger that the UK’s actions are again perceived to be out of line with its rhetoric and will thus prove ineffective as a deterrent.’ Duncan urges the government to resort to ‘deterrence by punishment’ by making it clear to Russia that in the face of future attacks it will use the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia to ‘exact a direct cost by sanctioning members of Russia’s elite and their interests’ According to Duncan there is a ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. By pressuring the latter, Britain can dissuade the former from misbehaving. This will inevitably harm the British financial sector, which does considerable business with rich Russians, but ‘the state’s duty to ensure the security of its citizens surely comes before the interests of a branch of the economy.’ For too long, Duncan claims, Britain has tried to have the best of both worlds – speaking out against Russia while continuing to do business with it. Consequently, Britain has signalled weakness, and so encouraged Russian attacks. ’ Up to now, says Duncan, Britain has ‘lacked credibility’. This needs to change.

What are the assumptions here? First, that Russia considers Britain weak. And second, that this perception encouraged the Russian state to poison Sergey Skripal. Allan Duncan portrays these as facts. They are not. He provides no evidence for either the one or the other. They are assumptions. So too is the idea which lies behind this report that there is such a thing as ‘credibility’ – one’s reputation for being willing to take robust action – and that the possession of ‘credibility’ deters hostile acts. Finally, Mr Duncan’s argument rests on an assumption that ‘deterrence by punishment’ actually works, which in turn rests on assumptions that a) Russians will correctly interpret the signals that Britain is trying to send, and b) Russian elites will respond to British pressure by successfully pressuring their own government, and c) the Russian government will respond to that pressure in the manner desired by the British. All these assumptions may, of course, be true. But as no evidence is produced to say whether they are indeed correct, one must conclude that they might equally be wrong. Consequently, the policy recommendations are without value.

Let’s take a closer look. Was the attack on Sergey Skripal a product of Russian perceptions of British lack of credibility? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. To say one way or the other, one would have to know what was going on in the brain of whoever ordered the operation. Since we don’t actually have any information about that, Mr Duncan’s claim cannot be treated as a serious basis for a major policy decision. Furthermore, as I have pointed out before in this blog, historical and political science research suggests that ‘credibility’ is a greatly overestimated virtue. Such evidence as we have about the way politicians come to their decisions suggests that considerations of whether a foreign state is likely to respond to a given action are rarely based on perceptions of how that state and its leaders have responded in the past, and whether they are credible, strong, determined actors, but rather on considerations of whether they are capable of responding and of whether the matter in question is of sufficient interest for them to be likely to want to respond. In short, when people worry about their credibility, they do so for no good reason. This undermines the entire logic of Mr Duncan’s report.

As I have also often said, misperceptions play an extremely important role in international conflicts. A lot of international relations is about sending signals to other states. The problem is that the message received is very often not at all what the person sending the signal assumed would be received. Mr Duncan assumes that punishment will be understood by Russian leaders as being punishment. That’s a very unwise assumption in my opinion. In the current political climate, in which Russians see themselves as the aggrieved party, I doubt that they will interpret being sanctioned by Britain as being punished for their own misdeeds and therefore feel deterred from further such misdeeds in the future. It’s just as possible that they will see this as further proof that the Brits are out to get them come what may and that there is absolutely no point in modifying their behaviour in the way the Brits desire, because they won’t get anything in return. Whether they’re right or wrong to feel that way is neither here nor there. If that’s how they feel then Mr Duncan’s proposal isn’t going to have the desired effect. It might even backfire and encourage even more hostile behaviour.

And then there’s the matter of the ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. Is this actually a thing? Duncan assumes a) that the business sector has a powerful influence over the Russian state and b) that business will pressure the state into changing its behaviour if financial interests overseas are threatened. Yet, the business sector in Russia is rather separate from the security organs whom the British consider responsible for the Skripal poisoning. Do rich Russians with accounts in the UK really have a say in what the GRU does? I have my doubts. Meanwhile, the example of anti-Russian sanctions to date provides no evidence in support of assumption b) above. On the contrary, as Richard Connolly has shown, the way the state-business relationship works in Russia is that when the business elite is hurt by sanctions, the state comes to its rescue and redirects resources so that business’s losses are covered. This might harm the economy as a whole, but it protects the targeted sectors. At the same time, it increases those sectors’ dependence on the state, making them less and less capable of pressuring the state to alter its political direction. The idea that ‘punishment’ of Russian businessmen results in changes in the behaviour of the Russian state is most definitely unproven, and may in fact be entirely false.

Obviously, if another attack on British soil were to be attributed to the Russian state, it would be politically impossible for the British government not to react, and I’m certainly not saying that it would be wrong to do so. But one shouldn’t imagine that punishing Russian businessmen for the alleged sins of their state will somehow prevent such an attack by enhancing British ‘credibility’. Allan Duncan calls for ‘managed confrontation’ with Russia. But by focusing on confrontation rather than on finding ways to eliminate conflict, there is a danger that his proposals will simply drive an ever bigger wedge between East and West. In this way, rather than enhancing British security, Duncan’s approach may serve merely to undermine it.

No history, no culture, please

Western governments should ‘re-focus financial support for Russia-related academic programs from culture and history to in-depth analysis of Russia’s authoritarianism, kleptocracy and corrupt practices’. So says a new report issued this week by the Institute for Modern Russia, a think-tank funded by former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. For God forbid that students should learn about Russian culture and history before expressing any opinions about that country. Knowing some culture and history might lead to understanding, which might lead to sympathy or at least empathy, and thus to a desire to engage in dialogue, find mutual solutions to international problems, and all the rest of it. And that, of course, would be dangerous. Ignorance is much to be preferred.

There’s a lot about this report which is rather disturbing, but as someone who studies Russian history for a living this particular recommendation stood out for me. History and culture are the foundations of study of any society. If you want to know a foreign country, you have for a start to learn its language, which means reading its literature. You then need to know its history to be able to put things in the right context. But there are some, it seems, who don’t want people to understand context. They know the truth, and anything which might challenge it needs to be censored.

In any case, according to the argument put forward by report’s author, Kateryna Smagliy, those who don’t agree with her deserved to be silenced. Why? Because they are agents of the Kremlin. She urges Western governments to ‘step up efforts to expose Russia’s network of agents within Western academia’. ‘The Russian government pursues a coherent and well-coordinated “knowledge weaponization” strategy,’ she says. This strategy

led to the rise of the new phenomenon of ‘hybrid analytica’, which we define here as the process of design, development and promotion of various  pseudo-academic narratives by duped or manipulated bona-fide intellectuals, academics and think-tank experts of political ‘lobbyists in disguise’, whose vested interests have been recruited through the global network of the Kremlin-linked operatives.

This network is extraordinarily widespread, as you can see by the following graphic:

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Among the members of the Kremlin’s academic network, it appears, are the notoriously Russophobic Legatum Institute (ha, ha!), Oxford University, Durham University, King’s College London, and two score other European universities. In the United States it includes such institutions as The National Interest magazine, the Kennan Institute, The Wilson Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a network like that, it’s amazing that public opinion in the West is still so hostile to Russia.

What exactly are these institutions doing which is so dangerous? Well, they’re doing things like establishing ‘an interdisciplinary research center “to communicate the riches of Russian civilization to the general public”’; running a conference ‘devoted to the discussion of Russian influences on California’s history’; hosting ‘Russian folklore choirs and the Saint Petersburg Horn Orchestra’, and fostering ‘lasting connections between Russian and American youth through music and theatre performances, film screenings, conferences, and student exchanges.’ This is scary stuff. People should be studying ‘Russia’s authoritarianism, kleptocracy and corrupt practices’ instead. All that history and culture will turn their heads. It must be resisted.

Western ‘experts’ suborned by Russia peddle dangerous theories, we learn. This includes the obviously preposterous, and politically dangerous, theory put forward by the Carnegie Endowment’s Eugene Rumer, who ‘published an article arguing that anti-Russian sanctions produce no desired results and that sometimes they even backfire.’ Such publications suggest that Carnegie’s work feels ‘like an analytical screen to cover a suspicious political project.’ The idea that scholars might come to conclusions like this independently, on the simple grounds that their research points them that way, seems not to occur to Smagliy. If they say these things, it must be because they’ve been bought by the Kremlin. To stop such things from happening, Western academic institutions and think tanks should cut off all contact with their Russian counterparts forthwith.

It would be easy to ignore all this as idiotic and unimportant. After all, the insinuation that those who study Russian history and culture, and who engage in cultural exchanges, are somehow witting or unwitting agents of the Kremlin, and assisting Russia in its acts of external and internal aggression, is quite preposterous. And it’s not as if this kind of report gets a mass audience. But still, it’s a little creepy. It’s not likely that some spook will read this and be so convinced that he’ll decide to start bugging professors’ phones. But then again, look at Carter Page, who was investigated by the FBI after he had the audacity to deliver a lecture at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. In the current McCarthyite atmosphere, you just don’t know any more. And I have to wonder what effect this will have on young researchers. Tenured full professors like me can shrug it off and carry on doing what we’re doing. But if I was advising young PhD students I’d have to tell them to be careful about what they write if they want to maximize their career prospects. It’s not a healthy situation.

In short, we are facing a concerted attack on academic freedom. The front of Ms Smagliy’s report contains a little logo saying ‘Free Speech’. Somehow I doubt that she appreciates the irony.

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Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

If I had to recommend a single article for foreign policy decision makers to read, it would be Robert Jervis’s 1968 essay ‘Hypotheses on Misperception.’ As I’ve written before, many of the tensions between states derive from misperceptions. People misperceive others; misperceive themselves; and misperceive how they are seen by others. In his article, Jervis hypothesizes 14 misperceptions which are commonly encountered in international politics. Hypothesis number 9 is the following: ‘actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.’ Jervis adds that, ‘Further, actors see others as more internally united than they in fact are and generally overestimate the degree to which others are following a coherent policy.’ In my opinion, this is absolutely correct, and we can see a lot of this going on in contemporary analyses of Russia.

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Dirty money, dirty politics

A week ago, the British House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs issued a report entitled ‘Moscow’s Gold: Russian Corruption in the UK.’  Given the title, one might imagine that this was all about corruption and the role played by Russian ‘dirty money’ in the British economy. In reality, the report conflates legal and illegal activity, and contains one statement which, in my opinion, verges on the libellous and constitutes an attempt to intimidate British companies from engaging in legitimate business. In this way, it goes beyond the usual criticism of Russia and into altogether more dangerous territory.

The fact that Russians have invested billions of pounds in the British economy is well known. The probability that some of this money comes from corrupt activities within the Russian Federation is also widely accepted. To the extent that the latter is true, this is a matter of proper concern to the British authorities, and it is right that something be done to clamp down on money laundering. The report ‘Moscow’s Gold’ makes much broader claims, however. It says that ‘There is a direct relationship between the oligarchs’ wealth and the ability of President Putin to executive his aggressive foreign policy.’ Supposedly, the ‘dirty’ money invested by ‘oligarchs’ with ties to the Kremlin can be used to undermine British democracy and for other aggressive activities. The report claims that ‘These assets, on which the Kremlin can call at any time, both directly and indirectly support President Putin’s campaign to subvert the international rules-based system.’

The committee fails to support this claim with firm evidence. The best that it can come up with is a statement by Mark Galeotti about what Galeotti calls ‘small-scale stuff’ in the Balkans, such as funding for websites. No evidence of any ‘large-scale stuff’ is produced, and absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Kremlin is in fact using dirty money invested in the UK for the ends claimed by the report. In any case, even if Russian oligarchs are indeed using their money to such ends, no evidence is provided to show that it is actually dirty money rather than legally invested money. In other words, the issue of corruption is conflated with something entire distinct.

The report likewise conflates corruption with perfectly legal business and financial deals, such as the flotation of Russian companies on the London stock exchange (in particular the Russian company EN+ in 2017) and the selling of Russian sovereign bonds in the British financial market. It may be the case, as the report says, that it makes no sense for the UK to permit such actions at a time when it is simultaneously imposing sanctions on Russia, but that is an entirely separate matter from that of corruption and money laundering.

And that leads me onto the thing which really struck me about this document. This was a statement about the British law firm Linklaters, which managed the flotation of EN+. Shortly before this, the report says ‘Both the EN+ IPO [Initial Public Offering] and the sale of Russian debt in London appear to have been carried out in accordance with the relevant rules and regulatory systems, and there is no obvious evidence of impropriety in a legal sense.’ Yet, it then goes on to say the following:

We asked Linklaters to appear before the committee to explain their involvement in the flotation of EN+ … They refused. We regret their unwillingness to engage with our inquiry and must leave others to judge whether their work at ‘the forefront of financial, corporate and commercial developments in Russia’ has left them so entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin and its supporters that they are no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm.

This is quite outrageous, and also cowardly. The committee in effect accuses Linklaters of corruption, while avoiding complaints of libel by use of the weasel words ‘we leave to others to judge’ – a way of making an accusation while claiming that one hasn’t. What’s so outrageous about the statement is that comes straight after a confession that the EN+ flotation was completely above board. Linklaters didn’t do anything wrong, and the House of Commons committee knows it. Nevertheless, it sees fit to suggest that the company is ‘no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm.’

The implication here is that any company which has extensive dealings with Russian enterprises is ‘entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin’ and so unfit to do business. I cannot interpret this as anything other than an attempt by the committee to threaten British companies and intimidate them into dropping their lawful activities. I consider this disgraceful.

The committee’s attitude can be seen again towards the end of the report, when it writes that ‘instead of participating in the rules-based system, President Putin’s regime uses asymmetric methods to achieve its goals, and others – so-called useful idiots – magnify that effect by supporting its propaganda. So, there you have it. People who do with business with Russia are to be publicly shamed as unworthy of the standards expected of the British people, while those who would dare to point this sort of thing out are to be denounced as ‘useful idiots’. Having any dealings with Russia makes one a Kremlin stooge.

What the British House of Commons ignores is that lots of British citizens have perfectly legitimate reasons to do business with Russia, and do so in an entire legal and proper way. And others also have very good reasons to question public policy regarding Russia. None of them deserved to be insulted in this way by their elected representatives. The authors of this report should be ashamed of themselves.