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Foreign meddling in elections uncovered

‘New report alleges outside influence in Canada’s 2015 election’ screams a headline in today’s Calgary Herald. The article quotes former Conservative MP Joan Crockatt, who lost her Calgary Central seat in 2015, as saying that, ‘Foreign money meddled in a big way in our election and that’s not right. Foreign money … arguably changed the outcome of our Canadian election. It needs to be taken very seriously and investigated.’

Damn those Russians! Can’t they just leave us alone, rather than trying to destroy democracy throughout the Western world?

Except, it wasn’t Russians, after all. It was (breathless pause) … Americans.

That’s correct, you heard it right. Americans.

Allegedly.

According to the story, a group called Canada Decides, whose directors include Crockatt, have submitted a 36-page complaint to Elections Canada alleging foreign influence in the 2015 vote. The complaint centres around an organization called Leadnow which in 2015 targeted 29 Conservatives MPs, and ‘flew around the country … to distribute flyers and put up signs’, and also commissioned polls ‘urging citizens to strategically vote for the most winnable, left-of-centre candidate in order to defeat the Conservative candidate’.

As Leadnow is not a political party and wasn’t running candidates of its own, it was not subject to the limit of $8,788 which parties are allowed to spend campaigning in each riding. Because of their freedom from financial restrictions, non-party groups such as this are playing an increasing role in Canadian elections. In 2015, 114 such groups spent $6 million trying to influence the campaign. It turns out, however, that many of them, including Leadnow, receive much of their funding from the United States. The most significant contributor is an American organization known as the Tides Foundation, which is ‘known in Canada for holding numerous campaigns against the Canadian oil industry.’

The Calgary Herald claims that ‘In 2015, Tides Foundation donated $1.5 million to Canadian third parties’, including Leadnow. What effect this had it is hard to tell, but ‘Crockatt lost her Calgary Centre seat by 750 votes. Conservative MP Lawrence Toet lost his Manitoba seat … by 61 votes.’ Yves Cote, Commissioner of Elections Canada, is looking into the matter. ‘Issues of significance have been raised’, Cote told the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘which in my view deserves Parliament taking the time to look at the situation, trying to understand what has happened.’

The collusion of our ruling party with agents of a foreign power needs the most thorough investigation! I demand that the matter be the subject of thousands of lines of newspaper coverage, and that Louise Mensch be put on the case! And I insist at the very least on the appointment of a Special Counsel! What did Trudeau know? Did he, or any of his team, meet with Americans? It’s time we found out.

 

Zaphod Trumplebrox and the Deep State

Douglas Adams nailed it [The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy (Pan Books, 1979)]:

But it was not in any way a coincidence that today, the day of culmination of the project, the great day of unveiling, the day that the Heart of Gold was finally to be introduced to a marvelling Galaxy, was also a great day of culmination for Zaphod Beeblebrox. It was for the sake of this day that he had first decided to run for the Presidency, a decision which had sent shock waves of astonishment throughout the Imperial Galaxy – Zaphod Beeblebrox? President? Not the Zaphod Beeblebrox? Not the President? Many had seen it as clinching proof that the whole of known creation had finally gone bananas.

… It might have made much difference to them if they’d known exactly how much power the President of the Galaxy actually wielded: none. Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it.

If he wants a peaceful life, Donald Trump (Not the Donald Trump? Not the President?) should take heed and learn his rightful place.

Dimwitted and dangerous

At some point during last year’s American presidential campaign, the Democratic Party decided that it would play the Russia card and accuse Donald Trump of being at best a Kremlin stooge, at worst a Russian agent. The Democrats then turned this card almost into the centrepiece of their campaign, repeating the charges against Trump again and again. Quite why they they though this strategy was a good one, I cannot imagine, as it merely reinforced their lack of connection with ordinary American voters, but I am guessing that after a while they had said it so often that they came to believe it.

We now know that following Hillary Clinton’s defeat, her advisors met to discuss how to react to their electoral disaster, and that they decided that the best option was to blame it on the Russians. Again, I can’t fathom why, except perhaps that it a) had now became a matter of faith, and b) it excused them from having to examine their own failings.

Since then the Democratic Party has been waging non-stop war against President Trump, focusing on his, and his close associates’, allegedly dubious connections with Russia. Abetting them have been members of the security and intelligence services who have been leaking information to the press at every appropriate opportunity in an effort to derail any attempted rapprochement between the USA and the Russian Federation. The ‘deep state’ (if you believe in such a thing) has been hard at work.

You might say that ‘all is well in love and war’, and that it’s quite fair to use whatever weapon one can in order to attack your political opponents. But in this case, I think, the attacks have not only long since became entirely divorced from reality but have also descended into gross irresponsibility.

Take, for instance, the latest allegations about Trump divulging secrets to the Russians. Horrified by this supposed abuse of power, unknown intelligence officials with the help of the Washington Post have divulged these secrets not merely to the Russians but to THE ENTIRE BLOODY WORLD. Personally, I’m not too bothered by this; my own short career in the world of intelligence persuaded me that it’s far less important than people think it is. Nonetheless, it is extraordinarily hypocritical of Trump’s critics to complain about breaches of secrecy while breaching secrecy themselves on a far grander scale. Trump’s enemies accuse him of being irresponsible, but who’s being irresponsible here?

Next – and I will go out on a limb here and make my biases very clear – I am firmly of the opinion that it is a positive thing if states have good relations with one another. And it’s especially important that powerful states do so. Which is better? A world in which the major powers are in conflict with one another, or a world in which they get on with each other? Obviously, the latter. Thus, IMPROVING US-RUSSIA RELATIONS IS A GOOD IDEA. When Trump said that during the election campaign, he was entirely right. However, his enemies are working flat out to achieve the opposite result. In an effort to undermine their president, they are doing all they can to sabotage US-Russia relations. In other words, they are jeapordizing their own country’s interests, and more broadly the security of the entire world, because they think it is a good way of gaining domestic political advantage. Again, I ask, who’s being irresponsible here?

Finally, in seeking to destroy Trump in this way, his opponents are threatening the internal order of their own country. Perhaps one other explanation for the obsession with Russia is that the ‘Never Trumpists’ aren’t seeking electoral advantage so much as some form of ‘soft coup’ or palace revolution. The hope isn’t to harm Trump’s electoral prospects in 2020, but to force him to resign or to get him impeached. They are, in essence, trying to get around the electoral process.

What makes this dangerous is that many Trump supporters are already convinced that the elites who govern the United States don’t care about their interests and have rigged the system to do them down. Now that they’ve finally got their man elected, they aren’t going to take too kindly to seeing him booted out in such a way. Were this tactic to succeed, it would alienate a large section of the population even more thoroughly than it is already, and could even, in the worst scenarios, have violent consequences (right-wing militias are already responsible for much more violence in the USA than any other type of political group). The Democrats and their allies in the security and intelligence services are playing with fire. Once again, who’s being irresponsible here?

Speaking in Sochi today, Vladimir Putin summed it up well, saying:

They are shaking up the political situation in the USA using anti-Russian slogans. Either they don’t understand what harm they are doing to their own country, in which case they’re simply dimwitted, or they understand fully, and then they’re simply dangerous and unscrupulous.

Personally, I think they’re both.

Aliens in Donetsk

Where did the Donbass rebels get their weapons in 2014? Many say that they got them from Russia. Many others say that they stole them from the Ukrainian army and security services. Others still maintain that it was a combination of the two. Now, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, has revealed the truth.

Speaking in Gorlovka a couple of days ago, Zakharchenko said the following:

You know – in 2014, we met people from another planet. They gave us their technology. And we use this technology to work on the “Ukrops”.

Well, that’s settled then. I’m glad that we finally learnt the truth. No ‘fake news’ on this blog!

Pathetic

There is a foreign land so threatened by its neighbour that it requires Canadian troops to defend it, and so dangerous within its borders, so full of traps and snares, that it isn’t safe for those Canadian troops to leave their bases other than in large, organized groups. The country? No, not Afghanistan (we’ve given up on that), and not Iraq (out troops there aren’t confined to base); not Mali (talk of a Canadian military peacekeeping there has vanished of late); and not Yemen (besides, we support the people bombing that country into smithereens and are selling them armoured vehicles); no – Latvia. Yes, that’s right, Latvia, a country so teeming with danger that Canadian soldiers are forbidden to leave their barracks.

According to the National Post

As Canada prepares to stand up a multi-national NATO battle group here this summer, army commanders have come up with a plan to prevent their soldiers being exploited by the Kremlin via ‘honey pots,’ ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ and other such temptations…

The plan is for the 450 Canadian troops bound for Latvia as part of a tripwire against Russian aggression to be confined to their base, about a half-hour drive northeast of Riga, for the first few months after they arrive. This is partly because there will be much work to be done before the unit can be declared combat-ready. But there are also grave concerns that Russia will try to undermine the Canadian mission by attacking it with ‘kompromat’ and ‘dezinformatsiya,’ as it has already done with a similar NATO enhanced forward-presence battle group from Germany which is up and running in neighbouring Lithuania.

Even after the newcomers, mostly drawn from 1 Battalion, Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry, are certified sometime in August as operationally effective, they will be allowed off base only on ‘supervised cultural days,’ the commander, Lt.-Col. Wade Rutland, said. … ‘There will be no 48-hour weekend passes,’ the colonel said referring to the good old days during the Cold War when Canadians stood watch against the Red Army in Germany.

Riga
Riga. Here be Russians!

Continue reading Pathetic

Discourse analysis

What people say does not necessarily indicate what they really think. Nor does it necessarily give a clue to their future actions. That said, if somebody says the same thing consistently over a long period of time, one has reasonable grounds for concluding that his or her statements reflect a genuine belief and that they reflect more than just immediate advantage. For this reason, there is value in analyzing politicians’ discourse. In different ways, a couple of recent pieces of Russia-related scholarship prove this point.

Last week, in my capacity as co-supervisor, I attended the successful defence of a doctoral thesis in Montreal. The student analyzed how leading members of Russian political parties represented in the State Duma had discussed Russian relations with Georgia and Ukraine from 2000 to 2014. The findings were quite revealing. Consistently, Vladimir Putin and other leading Kremlin officials were much more moderate in their foreign policy discourse than the rest of Russia’s political elite. In an extreme case, back in 2001, when Putin elected to support George Bush in his Global War on Terror, even Yabloko denounced him for being too friendly to the Americans.

The dissertation laid out in great detail how members of the so-called ‘systemic opposition’ have repeatedly criticized the Kremlin for its ‘soft’, ‘pro-Western’ foreign policy. Eventually, in the face of the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin changed its line and adopted the opposition’s positions. While one cannot say for sure that opposition pressure, rather than external events, were responsible for the change in the Kremlin’s discourse, the findings seriously undermine the commonly-held view of Russian politics as lacking opposition and an independent public opinion. It also undermines the view that so-called ‘Russian aggression’ is all the fault of the ‘maudit Poutine’, as one might say in Montreal. In fact, Putin comes across as decidedly moderate on foreign policy issues, but subject to considerable pressure from a much more radical elite public opinion, to which he has had to respond. All this indicates at least some form of ‘democratic’ process.

The second work of discourse analysis was published this month by the academic journal Intelligence and National Security. Written by Stephen Benedict Dyson and Matthew J. Parent, and entitled ‘The Operational Code Approach to Profiling Political Leaders: Understanding Vladimir Putin’, the article subjects Vladimir Putin’s speeches on foreign policy to a form of quantitative analysis to answer three questions:  a) is Putin a rogue leader? b) what motivates him? C) is he a strategist or an opportunist?

I will confess that I am not a huge fan of quantitative analyses of this sort, which I think are far more subjective than they like to pretend (both in how the data is coded and how it is interpreted), lending a gloss of scientific objectivity to what are actually subjective opinions. I also think that question a) above is indicative of an inherent bias (why not phrase it in terms such as ‘do Putin’s views on foreign policy fit or diverge from the mainstream among international politicians?’, or something similar, rather than put in loaded terms like ‘rogue’?). I am also not at all sure that the methodology used can really answer question c), which needs a more detailed qualitative approach. That said, the results are not entirely without value.

In answer to question a), Dyson and Parent conclude that ‘Putin … speaks more like a mainstream than a rogue leader when his comments on all foreign policy topics are aggregated.’ Dyson and Parent fail to define ‘mainstream leaders’, but I assume that they mean by this Western politicians. In other words, Putin isn’t very different from Western leaders in his view of the world .

As to question b) (what motivates Putin), the authors note a strong desire for control, driven by a dislike of disorder.  Dyson and Parent conclude, ‘Our profile … supports the interpretation that Putin’s military interventions in particular toward Chechnya, Ukraine, and Syria, are fundamentally about his perception that chaos and state weakness are existential threats’. This fits with my own analysis.

Finally, in answer to question c), the authors determine that Putin is more of an opportunist than a strategist, based on changes in his attitude towards NATO/US pre- and post-Ukraine. I find this the weakest part of the analysis. The authors admit that ‘there is no direct measure of “strategist” vs. “opportunist” in the operational code construct’, so they are going beyond what their methodology really permits. Moreover, the change in Putin’s rhetoric towards NATO and the USA post-Maidan may not just be an opportunistic justification of his chosen policy but reflect genuine irritation with Western policy as well as other factors (such as those discussed in the doctoral dissertation above). That said, it does somewhat undermine the idea that Putin has been following an unchanging strategic plan from day 1 of his first presidency.

Dyson and Parent rather weaken their aricle, in my opinion, by bringing in some unnecessary discussion of Putin’s alleged ‘thuggishness’. Putin’s rhetoric about terrorism, they note, is extremely harsh, and he is willing to be quite violent in his response to the terrorist threat. This, they say, justifies the label of Putin as a ‘thug’. But Putin is hardly alone in his attitude to terrorism. Name me the Western president or prime minister who doesn’t condemn terrorism in harsh terms, Many of them are also quite willing to use violence. In fact, Western states have used force much more often than Russia over the past 15 years. So, why aren’t they ‘thuggish’? Bringing in value-laden words like this distorts what is meant to be a quantitative analysis and suggests a hidden bias. This has a strong effect on the policy suggestions at the end of the article, which lack validity as a result.

Having said all that, the two works described above do have something in common. Together, they paint a picture of the Russian president as holding views of the world and of foreign policy which are quite moderate and not very different from those of his Western counterparts. This is certainly not the Putin we normally see described in the press.

Electrical separation

On Monday, the Lugansk Electricity Union, which provides electricity in Lugansk province in Ukraine, announced that it would no longer supply rebel-held areas of the province with power. According to the Union’s director, Vladimir Gritsai, this follows the receipt of instructions from Ukraine’s Fuel and Energy Minister Igor Nasalik.

The decision is just the latest step in the Ukrainian government’s efforts to blockade the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR & LPR). In March this year, the government confirmed that it would no longer purchase coal from the DPR and LPR. And last week, sources suggested that Ukraine might also stop buying coal from Russia, to prevent the Russians from exporting to Ukraine supplies which they had purchased from the DPR and LPR.

The strategy, in so far as there is one, appears to be to try to impoverish the rebel republics and undermine their leaderships’ legitimacy in the eyes of their people, hopefully thereby at some point persuading the people to abandon their rebellion. At the same time, the blockade imposes costs upon the Russian Federation, which might serve to persuade it to stop supporting the DPR and LPR.

If this is a conscious strategy rather than merely the product of domestic political pressures, most notably from the far right and the volunteer battalions, it isn’t very well thought out. For sure, the blockade is imposing costs on Russia, but it seems that those are costs which Russia is quite willing to bear. The Russian government announced today that if Ukraine did stop supplying electricity to Lugansk, it would step in to provide it instead.  The effect of Ukraine’s action will thus not be to assist the re-integration of the DPR and LPR into Ukraine, but rather to accelerate the process of their separation from Ukraine and their integration with Russia. As Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it, Ukraine’s action ‘is one more step on Ukraine’s path of tearing the territories away from itself.’

From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian government has shown a consistent preference for a solution which sees Donbass remain within Ukraine but with some form of autonomy. Russian leaders have repeatedly made it clear that this is only possible if the Ukrainian government negotiates a settlement directly with the rebels. Russian policy has in part been oriented towards coercing Ukraine into accepting this reality. This policy has, however, failed. Ukraine still refuses absolutely to speak to the DPR and LPR. This has placed Russia in an awkward position. It cannot abandon the rebels, both because that would be unacceptable to domestic public opinion and because it would mean losing whatever strategic leverage it still has over Ukraine. But supporting the DPR and LPR is expensive. The optimal policy thus involves supporting the republics, but keeping the costs low.

Because of this, it initially suited Russia to keep the rebels integrated as much as possible with Ukraine – if Ukraine could pay for pensions etc, and support the rebel economies by trading with them, Russia’s costs would be lower. The Ukrainian blockade has rendered this policy impractical. Russia has to step in to provide what the Ukrainians won’t. At the same time, it has become necessary to maximize the rebels’ own sources of income. This in turn has meant that it has become necessary to further sever economic ties with Ukraine by placing major industrial enterprises under so-called ‘external management’, stripping the Ukrainian owners’ of their management rights and forcing the enterprises to pay taxes to the DPR and LPR.

In this way, bit by bit, as a result of the Ukrainian blockade and the Russian and rebel responses to it, the DPR and LPR are turning into de-facto independent states without any substantial economic ties to Ukraine. The longer this goes on and the deeper the process the goes, the harder it will be to reverse it. As the process continues, a side effect will be that the state institutions of the DPR and LPR will become stronger. In an interview yesterday with Izvestiia, DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko commented that,

There are natural problems in constructing a new state. In first place is the problem of personnel. And it’s not just a matter of many specialists having left the republic when combat operations were going on. Turning a region of a unitary state into an independent country requires a large number of new specialists. We are doing everything we can to prepare new personnel. We are opening educational institutions, and new faculties within existing institutions in those subjects which are needed in the management of the state and the national economy. And so we are resolving this problem, albeit not quickly.

As time goes on, Ukraine and everybody else will find that they are no longer dealing with a rebellion but with fully fledged state formations. This will inevitably change the political dynamic as the new states will demand recognition as such, if not de jure then at least de facto. As Zakharchenko told Izvestiia, when asked if he would accept reintegration in Ukraine on the basis of federalization:

That train has already left the station. We were willing to speak to Kiev about federalization in spring 2014 until Kiev began to shoot us from tanks, guns, and combat aircraft. Now we are willing to engage in dialogue with Ukraine only on the basis of equal rights, as an independent state. … Perhaps, as an independent state we will be willing to negotiate with Ukraine about co-existence on a confederal basis. But this will only be possible once not only those in power in Kiev, but the entire ruling elite, is changed.

In January 2015, I remarked that:

Kiev is now pinning its hopes on turning its own territory into a zone of good government and prosperity while blockading the DPR and LPR so that they face economic and social collapse, thereby in the long term convincing the population of Eastern Ukraine to rejoin the rest of the country. Should the leaders of the DPR and LPR succeed in consolidating their republics, this strategy will fail.

Two years later, we can conclude that this strategy has indeed failed. Indeed, it has been thoroughly counterproductive, as the policy of blockade has actually encouraged and enabled the process of state consolidation. It has also given the rebels’ Russian backers no option other than to promote total independence. Things are now so far gone that there is almost certainly no way back. The DPR and LPR will complete the process of state formation and their economies will become fully integrated with that of the Russian Federation, while both entities will remain officially unrecognized. This isn’t what anybody wants, and it is a thoroughly unsatisfactory outcome. But I no longer see how it can be avoided. Rather than pursuing futile dreams of re-integration with Ukraine via the Minsk process, it would make more sense, therefore, for all concerned to recognize this reality (even if only in private) and to focus instead on how to bring about a lasting ceasefire, so that both Ukraine and its lost territories can go their separate ways in peace.