Category Archives: Report

Undermining democracy

Knowing what somebody else has done, is doing, or is capable of doing can be hard enough. Knowing why they are doing it, or what they intend to do in the future is an even more difficult task. Understanding intentions requires a deep and sympathetic knowledge of other actors’ motivations, interests, and mentality, of the constraints under which they operate, and of the manner in which they view the world. That requires one to drop all one’s own preconceptions and adopt fully those of another, which can only be done by studying them, their surroundings, and their history intimately. And even then one can never truly ‘know’ somebody else, as it is impossible to get inside their head. All statements about intentions are at best assessments. They can never be considered fact.

None of this, of course, stops people from proclaiming confidently that ‘Putin wants this’ or ‘Russia wants that’ as if their claims were proven. Rarely are these assertions backed by solid evidence; hardly ever do they refer to what Putin or other Russian officials have actually said that they want; they are simply guesses disguised as facts.

An example is a new report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), entitled Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions. This is the product of two meetings of an ‘expert group’ organized by CSIS. The report makes bold claims about Russian intentions. But going through the list of ‘experts’, I could find only one with any expertise specifically on Russia rather than security and intelligence more broadly. How the experts came to their judgements on Russian intentions is never made clear.

The report begins with a foreword which states in startling terms that:

American democracy is under attack from Russia. … Putin’s objective is to weaken us by sowing chaos and discord, and to undermine the appeal of democracy itself. If he can show that American-style democracy … is incompetent, illegitimate, and hypocritical, he can use that to undermine its potential appeal among Russia’s population and in other countries around the world where we compete for influence.

This is an assertion concerning Vladimir Putin’s intentions, not his actions. Nevertheless, underpinning it is an assumption about actions – namely that Russia has indeed been waging some sort of ‘information war’ against the United States. It is indicative of the current state of affairs that this assumption is simply taken for granted, even though some people might consider it unproven (and if it is indeed unproven then everything else which follows falls apart). However, let us put that aside for the moment, and return to the issue of intentions. If it is true that Russia has done any, or all, of things of which it is accused, what does it have in mind?

The CSIS experts are confident that they know the answer: the aim is to ‘sow chaos and undermine trust in the liberal democratic order,’ ‘to erode trust in Western governments and sow confusion and discord,’ and ‘to exacerbate existing divisions in society … to weaken democracy.’ The report concludes that:

The Russian government is engaged in a covert and overt campaign to weaken Western democracies, with the express intent of promoting an illiberal order dominated by Moscow and like-minded states.

I have to wonder where this idea of an ‘express intent’ comes from, because I have never read anything by any Russian official expressing such an intent – never. Take, for instance, Vladimir Putin, whose speeches I have read in detail and on which I have published a couple of academic articles. You will read his speeches in vain for any criticisms of democracy as a form of government, any expressions of a desire to weaken democracy in the West (or in Russia for that matter), or any desire to ‘sow chaos’ around the world. On the contrary, you will find multiple expressions of support for democracy, of support of order and stability, and of support for better relations with the West. Of course, you could argue that his actions tell you something different, but the fact remains that he and other Russian officials have never stated the intention being assigned to them.

The CSIS report doesn’t say how it came to the conclusion that Putin wants to undermine democracy. It doesn’t produce any actual evidence to support its claim. It just asserts it. Moreover, it asserts it as a proven fact, failing to make clear that this is just what a bunch of security experts who don’t know too much about Russia happen to think is the case. Any suggestion of uncertainty is entirely absent. That does not necessarily mean that the claim is false, but it does mean that the confidence with which it is asserted is entirely unjustified and that the report therefore misleads by failing to make the degree of uncertainty clear.

Furthermore, there are points in the report where the ‘expert group’s’ lack of  knowledge of Russia becomes clear and makes one seriously doubt their right to be able to claim to understand what’s in Vladimir Putin’s head. In particular, the report says:

The Experts Group discussed the perception of Russia as the ‘3rd Rome’ among an increasingly broad constellation of groups and individuals. Russian nationalists, with the encouragement of the Russian government, have promoted the idea of Russia as the heir to the Byzantine and Roman empires. … Russia is the sole protector of ‘legitimate’ conservative values: homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.

But what is the evidence that the Russian government encourages ‘3rd Rome-ism’ and Russian nationalists, let alone ‘homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism’? In reality, nationalists and the government don’t get on very well, and most of the former regard the latter with undisguised hostility. The issue of homophobia is somewhat contentious, but on the other matters I am completely unaware of any actions or statements by the Russian government promoting xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Indeed, if you read Putin’s speeches, you will find numerous condemnations of such things along with a repeated emphasis on the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian nation (which is one of the reasons Russian nationalists don’t like him).

Underlying all this is a rather odd idea that Putin is bent on spreading an illiberal authoritarian model of government around the world, rather like the Soviet Union tried to spread communism. But this is an idea which is entirely unsubstantiated, and in my view entirely fictitious. Likewise, the claim that he wishes to spread chaos rather ignores the damage that such chaos would do to Russian interests, which rest largely on having a stable international order. It seems to me that the CSIS ‘experts’ are locked into a Cold War mode of thinking which they have failed to adapt to contemporary realities.

There’s another segment in the report which also struck me as very odd. This says the following:

The Russian government has advanced its strategic influence in Eastern and Central European countries by gaining influence, and in some instance, control over specific sectors: energy, banking and finance, real estate, transportation infrastructure, and media … First, Russia state-owned enterprises purchase assets … The purchased entity then gains influence with local officials … Simultaneously, the Russian government creates or sponsors local nongovernmental organizations … Finally, supportive local officials are placed in national governments … Collectively, these activities in some countries result in state capture.

It strikes me that there is a certain amount of projection going on here, as what is described could very easily be said, with rather more justification I suspect, about the United States. But in any case, what is the evidence for this claim? What country in Eastern and Central Europe has Russia ‘captured’? Which one? I can’t think of a single example. The claim concerning ‘state capture’ is is pure fiction.

The CSIS report ends with a series of proposals for what the United States should do to protect itself against the Russian threat. Some of these are uncontroversial. The report, for instance, calls for better cybersecurity measures. One can hardly argue with that. But Russia doesn’t have much to do with it. Better cybersecurity is required regardless of whether Russia is waging some sort of information war. Other proposals, though, are more problematic. For instance, we are told that:

Internet platforms and democratic governments must work together on technological and policy measures to increase barriers to entry for disinformation campaigns and make it easier for citizens to differentiate between legitimate and false information.

‘Legitimate’ information? What is that? And who is to determine what it is, and tell us that we shouldn’t have it? I find this sort of thing a little creepy, and don’t really think that it is for the state or private corporations to tell us what we should be allowed to read or what we should think.

At the end of the report, the authors note that ‘increasing public resilience against the kind of techniques used by Russia may ultimately be the most effective countermeasure.’ In particular, ‘participants emphasized that a sense of shared narrative is perhaps the strongest defence against Russian threats to our democratic institutions.’ This is possibly the most sensible thing that the report says. Russian ‘propaganda’, if there is such a thing, can only succeed in dividing people who are already prone to being divided. If the divisions in American society were reduced, then it would be harder for outside actors to ‘sow chaos’. If American government, state institutions, and the media were more trustworthy, Americans might be less inclined to turn to alternatives for information and political analysis. In such an event, Russian ‘disinformation’ would have no effect whatsoever.

In other words, the real threat to American democracy lies within America, not without.

UPDATE:

The latest indictments in the ‘Russiagate’ affair certainly lend credence to the claim that some Russians went to some considerable effort to set up social media accounts that would look like they were genuine American ones, but their intentions in so doing remain a matter of speculation. It is probably the rather haphazard internet trolling allegedly carried out by ‘Russia-linked accounts’ that induces people to conclude that it was a matter of ‘causing chaos’, but it can’t be stated as fact. In any case, there is a difference between haphazard trolling and a deliberate effort to ‘undermine democracy’ in order to create an ‘illiberal international order’, which is a far more dramatic claim. I have yet to see any evidence supporting this.

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sanctions: the evidence

In my recent post about the Canadian House of Commons defence committee’s report on Ukraine, I complained that the committee had recommended strengthening sanctions against Russia without producing any evidence that sanctions were an effective tool in changing Russian behaviour. As luck would have it, I have acquired a copy of a recent report which analyzes the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy. I thought, therefore, that I should share the report’s conclusions with you.

Before doing so, it’s first necessary to point out that damaging the Russian economy isn’t the ultimate point of sanctions. If sanctions are to have any meaningful purpose, then that purpose has to be to change Russian behaviour, specifically vis-à-vis Ukraine, given that Ukraine was the pretext for the sanctions. That said, sanctions aren’t going to make Russia change its behaviour if they don’t damage the Russian economy. Coercion has to hurt if it is to coerce. No pain, no gain, as it were. So are they hurting?

The report I have in hand is entitled ‘What difference have sanctions made and is that about to change?’ It was published in September by Macro Advisory Eurasia-Russia Consulting which describes itself as ‘the leading independent macroeconomic and political strategy firm specialising in the Eurasia region, including Russia and the CIS states.’ The report concludes that, ‘it is impossible to say categorically that sanctions have either significantly contributed to the economic decline [in Russia since 2014] or that they have helped the economy survive what would otherwise have been a more severe recession.’ However, the report’s authors tend more towards the latter option, saying that ‘sanctions helped in many respects.’

According to the report, the Russian economy was slowing down even before 2014. The major cause of the subsequent recession was the collapse in the oil price. The impact of sanctions was very small. However, sanctions did affect the way that the Russian government responded to the oil-price-driven recession. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, the government reacted by spending large amounts of its reserves on propping up the ruble, and also by increasing government spending more generally in a type of Keynseian counter-cyclical strategy. In 2014, it abandoned this policy. Instead it allowed the ruble to become a free-floating currency, while it also exercised a tight monetary policy designed to drive down inflation.

The report’s authors credit this latter strategy with preventing the post-2014 recession from becoming as deep as many feared it would be. They write:

Sanctions removed, or made more difficult, the soft options of borrowing and spending … The combination forced the state to be much more fiscally disciplined and more flexible with monetary policy. The ruble free float would not have happened without sanctions. … the decision to stop supporting the currency was the single most important action taken by the government and one of the key reasons why sectors, such as agriculture, have become more competitive and started to grow. … [Therefore] it can be argued that the 2014 sanctions actually helped Russia avoid a steeper recession and a more severe financial crisis.

The report says also that the sanctions forced the oil and gas sector to become more efficient, resulting in an increase, not a decrease, in production after 2014. In general, says the report,

Russia is in good financial shape. … Russia is the sixth-lowest indebted nation and has the sixth-largest financial reserves. … As a result of the sanctions, Russia was forced to repay $250 bn of external debt between 2014 and 2016. That represented 12.5% of pre-devaluation GDP and 25% of post-devaluation GDP. Not many countries in the world could have done that and still avoid a catastrophic crisis. It shows the resilience in the macro-economic and social-political system.

What then of the future?

On this Macro Advisory is a little more cautious. It claims that a lot depends upon the effects of the latest sanctions legislation passed by the US Congress. With this legislation, Congress has effectively seized control of sanctions from the president. Given past experience (e.g. with Cuba, Iran, and the Jackson-Vanik amendment which imposed sanctions against the USSR), the likelihood is that the existing sanctions against Russia will remain for a very long time, regardless of what happens with US-Russia relations more broadly. The new legislation is disturbing, moreover, because it contains stipulations which could be used to dramatically increase sanctions against Russia in the future. This possibility creates a degree of uncertainty which deters foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia. Currently FDI in Russia is rising again, but that could easily change. A much harsher sanctions regime is possible, and that, says the report, could have a negative effect on the Russian economy.

The report lays out three possibilities. The first involves a relaxation of sanctions by European powers. The second sees sanctions remaining as they are. The third envisages much tighter US sanctions. The report assesses that in the first scenario, growth in Russian GDP will pick up to 3.0% by 2020, accelerating to 4.5% by the end of Putin’s final term in office in 2024. In the second scenario, growth will gradually rise to 3.0% by 2022 and remain roughly constant at that level thereafter. In the third scenario, growth will drop to 0.8% by 2020 before increasing to 2.3% by 2024.

Personally, I suspect that scenario two is the most likely – things will continue on much as they are. If the authors are correct, therefore, we should expect that, barring some external shock such as another global recession, during Putin’s final term in office the Russian economy will experience steady if not extremely rapid growth, ending up with three years of 3.0% growth per annum. That’s not enough to catch up with the West, but it’s not bad either, and certainly sufficient to put a noticeable amount of extra money in Russians’ pockets. If that’s really true, then economically speaking Putin’s last years will be a moderate success from an economic point of view.

Of course, these are all just projections and, as we know, economists often get their projections wrong. Nevertheless, none of this is good news for those who think that sanctions are an effective tool against ‘Russian aggression’ or who imagine that the collapse of the ‘Putin regime’ is just around the corner.

What’s the objective, and how does this help achieve it?

Today the Canadian government announced that it had added Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which is a list of countries deemed to be permitted destinations for the export of firearms. This does not necessarily mean that Canadian companies will immediately start exporting weapons to Ukraine, but it does mean that they are now allowed to do so.

Ukraine, of course, is hardly short of firearms. It’s hard to see what difference a few from Canada will make. Nevertheless, one can see this as another victory for Canada’s Ukrainian lobby, coming just a day after the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence issued a report on Ukraine which included a recommendation to add Ukraine to this list. The report drew heavily on statements by Ukrainian officials, the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, and some other Canadian-Ukrainian activitists such as Taras Kuzio and Lubomyr Luciuk. The fact that the government acted on one of its recommendations within a day must be something of a record for speed.

There’s a lot wrong with the standing committee’s report, which you can read here. I won’t bother listing all its problems, but they include a poor understanding of the origins and nature of the war in Donbass, and an extremely one-sided perspective on all issues relating to Ukraine and Russia. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. What concerns me is the detachment of the policy recommendations from any clear objective, and the lack of evidence to support the recommendations.

When presenting any policy proposals, what one needs to do is first explain one’s objective, and second explain how the recommended policies will help one to achieve the objective. If the objective isn’t credible, and if the policies won’t help one achieve it, then the recommendations are worthless. In this case, the defence committee report recommends, among other things, that:

  • Canada expand its training and support of the Ukrainian army.
  • Increase its commitment to the OCSE monitoring mission in Donbass.
  • Advocate for a ‘peacekeeping mission in Ukraine that respects its territorial integrity’.
  • ‘Provide lethal weapons to Ukraine … provided that Ukraine demonstrate that it is actively working to eliminate corruption.’
  • Add Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List.
  • Encourage cooperation between Ukrainian and Canadian defence industries.
  • Assign members of the Canadian Armed Forces to Ukraine’s cyber-security operations.
  • Expand sanctions against Russia.

My question to the committee is this: ‘What is this all meant to achieve?’ The report doesn’t actually lay out any objectives, so we can’t tell whether these recommendations are relevant or how one could measure their success. This is a pretty serious failing.

About the only place where there is a hint of the committee’s idea of what it hopes for is a section entitled ‘Conflict Resolution and Prevention in Ukraine’. In that section, we are told that , ‘Canada and the international community are trying to find peaceful solutions to the conflict in Ukraine’ So, the committee wants to promote peace in Ukraine. But what does the committee think a peaceful solution would look like? That’s not clear, as the report doesn’t say. But it does cite Paul Grod as follows:

Mr. Grod noted that, as long as Russia is not prepared to ‘have a resolution and stop the ongoing conflict and military aggression,’ Minsk II will never be implemented. In his opinion, Minsk II is ‘stale-dated’ and the ‘simple way’ to ‘bring peace and stability’ to Ukraine is ‘to force Russia’s hand to remove their military, their equipment, and their financing of the separatists’ in the Donbas region; Russia must agree ‘to stop the war in Ukraine.’

In other words, the objective is the total surrender of rebel Donbass, and the chosen means of achieving this end is ‘to force Russia’s hand’ – i.e. coercion.

This is dumb. It’s dumb because it is totally unachievable. The rebels in Donbass aren’t just going to give up. The report says that the rebels have 35,000 men under arms. I have never heard of an undefeated army of that size simply deciding one day that they’ve had enough and will lay down their arms to their enemies and put themselves at their mercy. It won’t happen. The report seems to think that everything depends on Russia, and that if Russia can simply be coerced sufficiently it will abandon Donbass. It won’t. Russia won’t stop supporting the rebels without receiving something extremely tangible in return. Complete Ukrainian victory of the sort apparently favoured by the defence committee is a fantasy.

The report says that, ‘Witnesses told the Committee that Canada and the international community must stand together in trying to find a peaceful solution to the armed conflict in Ukraine.’ So, if a peaceful solution can’t take the form of the total surrender of Donbass, what could it take the form of? The only two alternatives are: a) a negotiated peace settlement, and b) a complete ceasefire, perhaps enforced by peacekeepers, dividing the sides and in effect freezing the conflict. Will the report’s recommendations help achieve either of those?

The answer is no. A negotiated settlement would have to take the form of something like Minsk II, but unconditional support of Ukraine of the sort proposed by the committee doesn’t provide any incentives to Kiev to change its current policy of refusing to enact the Minsk provisions. The report’s recommendations merely encourage Kiev to carry on its current course. The recommendations therefore undermine peace, not promote it.

As for the frozen conflict option, the Canadian recommendations are equally irrelevant. The report spends a lot of time talking about a potential peacekeeping operation. This is absurd. There is currently no peace to keep. In any event, the committee totally supports the Kiev government’s line on what a peacekeeping operation should consist of – forces deployed throughout the rebel republics, including on the border with Russia. Neither the rebels nor Russia will ever agree to this. It’s pointless proposing it. Insisting on this formula serves only to rule out the possibility of an alternative which could actually stop the killing – a peacekeeping force along the front lines. By rejecting this latter formula, the Canadian committee is once again working against peace, not in favour of it.

What we see here, therefore, is a stubborn refusal to choose achievable objectives combined with recommendations which are in any case detached from any objective, and without the provision of any evidence that the recommendations can help produce successful results. The committee, for instance, favours increased sanctions versus Russia without providing any data which shows that sanctions have in any way altered Russian behaviour in a desired way, justifying the decision solely on the basis of unbacked assertions by certain interested parties. This is not ‘evidence-based policy.’

There was a time when Canada was seen as a peacekeeper and an ‘honest broker’ in international relations. Alas, those days are in the past.

Dolphin hunting in Lugansk

The ‘investigative journalism’ website Bellingcat has caused another stir this week by claiming to have identified a Russian general who operated in the rebel Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) in Ukraine in summer 2014. Several radio intercepts from the period involve a Russian operating under the codename ‘Dolphin’ (‘Delfin’ in Russian). By comparing the intercepts with a recorded telephone conversation, Bellingcat has come to the conclusion that Dolphin is a Russian general, Nikolai Tkachev, who officially retired from the Russian Army in 2010 but who has since held a number of military-related positions, including being an advisor to the Syrian army and for the past few years heading a military school in Yekaterinburg.

Because the Dutch commission investigating the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 has expressed interest in Dolphin’s identity, the Bellingcat report is being widely touted as further evidence of direct Russian involvement in the MH-17 affair. Indeed, Bellingcat titles its report “Russian Colonel General Identified as Key MH-17 Figure.”

I’m not qualified to comment on Bellingcat’s methodology, and so won’t express an opinion on whether Tkachev really is Dolphin, but I have a few things to say about other aspects of the affair:

1) The fact that there was a retired Russian general codenamed Dolphin helping rebels in Lugansk in 2014 is hardly news. It has been known for some time.

2) More broadly, the fact that there were individual Russian servicemen, and ex-servicemen, helping out the rebellion as so-called ‘vacationers’ is also hardly news. It’s necessary here to draw a distinction between individual vacationers and entire Russian military units. While we don’t have evidence for the latter in Donbass until August 2014, the presence of the former is not seriously disputed. Whether Dolphin was Tkachev or somebody else isn’t a matter of great importance in terms of our general understanding of what happened in Ukraine in summer 2014.

3) There is nothing in the radio intercepts linking Dolphin to MH-17. The MH-17 headlines are a red-herring. Bellingcat’s revelations, even if true, don’t add anything to our knowledge of Russian involvement, or non-involvement, in the MH-17 affair.

That leaves the question of what Dolphin was doing in Lugansk, and this is what I think is truly revealing. To answer this question, Bellingcat relies heavily on the reporting of Russian blogger Colonel Cassad. I don’t have a problem with that – in summer 2014, I found Cassad extremely well informed about events in the rebel republics, and he had a knack of getting things right when others were well off the mark. Despite his open pro-rebel sympathies, he developed a well-earned reputation for reliability. The fact that even Bellingcat trusts him is telling.

Via Colonel Cassad, Bellingcat quotes one-time rebel leader Igor Strelkov as saying: ‘Delfin’ and ‘Elbrus’ [another ‘vacationer] were involved in the coordination of separatist units in the LNR and partly in the DNR.’ Bellingcat then says,

In a 3 January 2015 blog post, Colonel Cassad described the chaotic situation in the LNR during summer 2014, describing Delfin as a figure sent by Moscow to bring order to the situation in Luhansk: ‘The shooting and murders in the LNR are an entirely logical reflection of the more anarchic nature of the local republic (in comparison with the DNR), where in the summer there were more than twenty different military formation in Luhansk that were not subordinate to anyone. Neither Bolotov [note: now-deceased leader of the LNR from May to August 2014] nor those who were sent from Moscow (this was in fact the reason why ‘Elbrus’ and ‘Delfin’ failed) were able to handle this.’

Let’s break this down. The situation in the LNR in summer 2014 was ‘anarchic’. There were a large number of rebel militias which ‘were not subordinate to anyone’. A Russian general arrived to try to bring some order to the chaos and ‘failed’. Moreover, he failed precisely because he was sent from Moscow (and so, one must assume, was seen as an outsider and lacked authority).

In other words – and this is the crucial point – what all this proves is that Moscow was quite definitely not in control of the rebellion in Lugansk in summer 2014. In fact, it’s obvious that nobody was. Instead, there were a plethora of locally-raised militia who did their own thing regardless of what Moscow wanted.

As I’ve said before, this matters, because if you can’t understand the origins of the conflict correctly, then you have no chance of finding a solution. The narrative which clearly emerges from the Bellingcat report (rather against Bellingcat’s desire, I suspect) fatally undermines the concept that the war in Donbass is entirely the product of ‘Russian aggression’.

Unfortunately, some in Ukraine are now doing their best to suppress this truth. A bill is now being considered by the Ukrainian parliament which would make it a criminal offence to deny ‘Russian aggression’. Rada Deputy Anton Gerashchenko, who is pushing the bill, has made it clear that he sees it as a way of silencing those who would call the war in Donbass ‘a civil war’.  We must hope that the bill never becomes law. If it does, it will become impossible for Ukrainians to address the truth of what has happened to their country.

Not a ‘useful idiot’

I’m disappointed. Crushed even. The European Values think tank has just produced a report entitled The Kremlin’s Platform for Useful Idiots in the West: An Overview of RT’s Editorial Strategy and Evidence of Impact. The report contains a spreadsheet with the names of 2327 ‘useful idiots’, that is to say people who have appeared on RT and, says the report, ‘either due to unawareness of RT’s political agenda, or indeed explicit support of it, lend their names and credibility to a pseudo-news network and proxy agent of the Kremlin.’ And what do you know? I’m not on the list! In fact, I’ve appeared on RT twice, once on their news section, and once on Crosstalk, but for some reason they don’t seem to have bothered analyzing the Crosstalk guest list, so I’ve slipped through the cracks. I’m not a ‘useful idiot’ after all, and have been deprived of the opportunity to express moral outrage at being publicly named and shamed.

So much for the methodology of the European Values think tank, a Czech-based organization which runs something called ‘Kremlin Watch’, described as ‘a strategic program … which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against Western democracies.’ Let’s take a more detailed look at the report on the Kremlin’s useful idiots.

The report begins by saying ‘RT’s raison d’être is to denigrate the West at all costs and undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy. On these grounds, RT categorically qualifies as a Kremlin disinformation outfit.’ This confuses a bunch of separate things. Yes, I think it’s probably fair to say that RT does denigrate the West reasonably often, but that doesn’t mean that denigration is its ‘raison d’être’; rather, it’s a tool for some other objective, namely convincing people that the Western narrative is incorrect, and so making them more amenable to a Russian narrative. Second, denigration of certain aspects of Western life and policy is categorically not the same as trying to ‘undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy.’ Lots of political actors within the West criticize things about their societies. If they didn’t, they would hardly be democracies! Denigration is part of democratic discourse, not a way of destroying it. And third, none of the above means that RT is a ‘disinformation outfit.’ Denigrating the West and attacking liberal democracy, even if true, are again categorically not the same as disinformation, for the very simple reason that one can denigrate pretty well using the truth. Is it the case that RT has on occasion run stories which have turned out to be untrue. Yes. Is that true of Western media too? Yes. Are most RT stories untrue? As far as I am aware, nobody has ever produced any evidence to say that they are. To make the claim that RT is a source of disinformation, you need to do proper quantitative analysis of its output. This hasn’t been done, so the claim is not founded on proper research. Furthermore, while it may be that RT is selecting a certain segment of the truth, and not other segments, that’s bias, it’s not ‘disinformation.’

Next, the report says: ‘RT’s epistemology is rooted in the denial of the very possibility of objective, verifiable truth.’ Here, we’re into an interesting philosophical area. Personally, I think that there is an objective truth. Either I got up this morning and wrote this blog post, or I didn’t. However, our ability to know the truth is very limited. Facts are disputed, and what those facts mean is subject to multiple interpretations. We are also human beings, subject to a vast number of cognitive biases, which means that none of us is entirely objective. We can aspire to be so, but we will never achieve it. I’m a great fan of Richards J. Heuer’s book Psychology of Intelligence Analsysis, published by the CIA and available online. In this Heuer remarks:

Analysts do not achieve objective analysis by avoiding preconceptions; that would be ignorance or self-delusion. Objectivity is achieved by making basic assumptions and reasoning as explicit as possible so that they can be challenged by others and analysts can, themselves, examine their validity.  … [one view is that] objectivity requires the analyst to suppress any personal opinions or preconceptions, so as to be guided only by the “facts” of the case. To think of analysis in this way overlooks the fact that information cannot speak for itself. The significance of information is always a joint function of the nature of the information and the context in which it is interpreted. The context is provided by the analyst in the form of a set of assumptions and expectations concerning human and organizational behavior. These preconceptions are critical determinants of which information is considered relevant and how it is interpreted. … The question is not whether one’s prior assumptions and expectations influence analysis, but only whether this influence is made explicit or remains implicit.

In other words, don’t kid yourself that you can be objective. You can’t. What matters is whether your biases are made explicit or are hidden. So, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in RT saying it isn’t objective. In fact, that’s a good thing, as it makes its biases open. By contrast, media outlets who pretend to be objective are deceiving their readers and viewers. Obviously, as with so many things, this is contestable. One can have a long and detailed debate about the validity of RT’s epistemology; but it’s not necessarily incorrect, and certainly not inherently anti-democratic or designed to disinform.

Next, the report claims that, ‘RT disguises the malicious objectives of this editorial strategy by claiming to uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals like free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought.’ Note how the word ‘malicious’ is thrown in here. This is a value judgement placed in the middle of what claims to be a factual statement. Where is the ‘objectivity’ here? Besides that, there is something a little creepy about denouncing people because they claim to ‘uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals’. If the report’s authors think this is false, then they need to provide a detailed analysis showing that that there is no ‘free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought’ on RT. Have they done this? Have they asked RT’s guests whether they are told what to say, or cut off if they say something wrong (the answer in my experience is no and no). Have they done a thorough analysis of all RT’s reports to see if there is any ‘critical journalism’ (actually, there’s a lot, and that’s what this report doesn’t like – RT’s journalism is too ‘critical’). And have they done a quantitative analysis proving that there’s no independent thought, that people on RT just parrot the identical line all the time? No they haven’t. Perhaps all these claims are true, but there is no solid data in the report to back it up.

In fact, the report reveals quite the opposite. It says that, ‘RT uses guest appearances by Western politicians, journalists and writers, academics, and other influential public personalities to boost its credibility.’ It then provides the name of 2,327 of these guests. But look who they include:

  • Among American politicians, such well known Kremlin stooges as Dick Cheney, Wesley Clark, Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman, Michael Morrell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Ryan, and James Woolsey.
  • Among British politicians, such obvious Putin puppets as Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Martin Bell, Boris Johnson, David Owen, Jack Straw and John Prescott
  • Among European and international politicians, Kofi Anan, Ehud Barak, Helen Clark, Dominique de Villepin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Hamid Karzai, Romano Prodi, Dima Rousseff, and a bunch of others who obvious only ever spout Kremlin talking points.
  • Among journalists, a whole bunch of peoples whose names I don’t mostly recognize, but does include another well-known non-independent American Larry King, who actually hosts a show on RT
  • And among academics/experts, the likes of Richard Dawkins, Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Drezner, Mark Galeotti, Nina Khrushcheva, Michael O’Hanlon, Daniel Pipes, Angela Stent, and Dmitry Trenin, who are well-known for their incapacity for independent thought and their inability to do anything other than read from their Kremlin cue cards.

Perhaps, as I said, all the accusations about RT could be justified if there was a proper, quantitative analysis of what is said on RT and by who, of how much of RT news is true and how much untrue, etc. In the absence of solid, quantitative, data, all the report is able to produce is a handful of anecdotes about allegedly biased reporting. But a handful of examples doesn’t really prove anything. And in the case of this report, its anecdotes aren’t even very good ones. For instance, it denounces RT’s coverage of the annexation of Crimea because, among other things, RT had the audacity to show pictures of Crimeans happily welcoming Russian troops. And it spends half a page defending the Ukrainian government’s language policies. Now it might well be that RT exaggerates the extent to which these threaten the use of the Russian language, but the report is equally biased in whitewashing the policies as if they aren’t discriminatory at all (which, as seen by recent legislation on language in the media and education, is not the case).

And here is a picture the report shows as evidence of RT’s ‘conspiratorial’ nature.

rt1

What precisely is wrong with this? Academic studies of the American media’s coverage of the issue of Iraqi WMD prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq have shown that the media overwhelmingly accepted the government’s claims that Iraq had WMD and posed a serious threat to US security. There was indeed ‘no second opinion’ in any large-scale sense. And look what happened! Wouldn’t it have been better if there had been more questioning?

According to the report, ‘Appearing on RT is not harmless, it enables and legitimates RT’s subversive agenda. … It is therefore impossible to appear on RT without being ultimately complicit in its efforts to undermine Western democracy and pollute the information space.’ So, in the name of democracy and free speech, we must tell people that they shouldn’t accept invitations to express their view, and we must publish lists of their names and call them ‘useful idiots’ in the hope of shaming them into silence. Does anybody else appreciate the irony?

Russian world-views

A couple of years ago I was pretty unkind about a report about Russia published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This report was the product of a workshop CSIS had held on the subject. I wasn’t invited to the workshop, nor was I to another one which CSIS held recently, also on the subject of Russia. But I have been sent a copy of the report, entitled Russian World-Views: Domestic Power Play and Foreign Behaviour. You can read it online here.  It’s better than the last one, but I still have a few issues with it.

The report is a summary of the views expressed at the most recent workshop by four anonymous experts from Europe and North America (though, based on what they wrote, I’m pretty sure who some of them are). Because of this one shouldn’t read this document as representing CSIS’s official opinion, nor as that of the Government of Canada. It’s just what a bunch of people told CSIS. Still, it’s interesting in the sense that it gives one a flavour of the type of analysis that government officials receive.

Continue reading Russian world-views

Homeless in Kitezh

This is too funny:

Every year, the US State Department releases a report on ‘Trafficking in Persons’. The 2017 report is now available. This is what it has to say about Russia:

The government generally did not undertake efforts to protect human trafficking victims and did not publicly report having identified or assisted victims. …  During the reporting period, a homeless shelter run by the Russian Orthodox Church in Kitezh began accepting trafficking victims and offered them food and housing, though not medical or psychological care; the government did not provide financial support for the shelter.

Kitezh, by the way, is a mythical sunken city, the Russian equivalent of Atlantis (and not, as in Return of the Tomb Raider, hidden somewhere in the mountains of Siberia).

HT to that well-known source of ‘fake news’, RT, for bringing the story to my attention. I’ve checked it out. It’s true. You can access the entire State Department report here. The part of the report dealing with Russia is here.

Update: Citing RT, The Moscow Times reports that, ‘It is likely that the U.S. State Department’s report was referring to a shelter run by the Russian Orthodox Church called “Kitezh” in the village of Milyukovo close to Moscow. Perhaps the State Department mistook the shelter’s name for its location, surmised RT.’