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Reporting on Russia – A Case of Rigid Orthodoxy

What a week it’s been! 80 days or so since we were told that Russia was about to invade Ukraine, it has yet to march its troops across the border. But the state of tension continues to rise, driven, it must be said, not by Russian officials, who have stated repeatedly that there are no invasion plans, but by those of Western states along with their enablers in the press.

Today, for instance, The Guardian’s Sunday edition, The Observer, was banging the anti-Russian drum as loud as possible with the thoroughly misleading headline “Russian ships, tanks and troops on the move to Ukraine as peace talks stall.”

Note the phrase “to Ukraine,” suggesting that Russian soldiers are actually heading across the frontier. The article itself is a little different from the headline saying merely that “Russia has sent troops more than 4,000 miles to Ukraine’s borders and announced sweeping naval drills,” which is not exactly the same as sending troops “to Ukraine.” But even this more moderate statement turns out to be not really accurate. For as The Observer goes on to tell us, the naval activity involves ships heading to the Mediterranean, while the ground forces “have arrived in Belarus … for joint military exercises set for mid-February.”

Maybe I’m being overly pedantic but the Mediterranean isn’t Ukraine and neither is Belarus. Besides, if the troops are going to be engaged in exercises in mid-February, they’re probably not going to be invading Ukraine in the meantime. The facts don’t back up the scaremongering.

Nevertheless, the Brits are sure that those evil Russkies are up to no good. For they’re not just planning to invade, they’re also plotting a coup in Ukraine – or at least so British intelligence would have us believe. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Moscow may topple the [Ukrainian] government and install Yevhen Murayev, a former MP who controls a pro-Russia television station.”

It’s time people retired this “pro-Russian” label for every Ukrainian politician who happens to disagree with the Ukrainian nationalist agenda. As Murayev told The Guardian, “You’ve made my evening. The British Foreign Office seems confused. It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated.” Murayev is not only not “pro-Russian” and not much liked by the Russian government, but his Opposition Bloc party is so unpopular that it failed to get the 5% of the vote required to get seats in parliament in the last Ukrainian election. A more improbable candidate for coup leader it would be hard to find.

Besides which, one has to wonder how this proposed coup would work. First, the plotters would have to amass sufficient firepower to seize control and then they’d have to defend themselves against the inevitable counter-coup. It beggars belief, given the current state of affairs in Ukraine, that a “pro-Russian” force could do this.

That doesn’t mean that some people in Russia might not be muttering into their beer glasses that a coup in Kiev would be jolly good thing. And it doesn’t mean that Russian intelligence isn’t doing all it can to recruit spies and supporters within Ukraine. But a coup is not a serious prospect. Again, it’s pure scaremongering.

The problem with all this is that the stories of invasion, coups, and so on generate a lot of headlines, raising international tensions along the way, but when they then fail to occur, the headlines are absent. “Russia fails to invade Ukraine again,” isn’t exactly clickbait.

Much the same applies to all the other conspiracy theories concerning Russia – lots of noise when the initial accusations are made, and then more or less silence when it turns out that the theory isn’t true. And certainly, the conspiracy theorists are never held to account for misleading everybody.

Take, for instance, the case of Havana Syndrome, which I cover in an article this weekend for RT (here). For some time now, we’ve been led to believe that the mysterious health problems experienced by scores of American diplomats around the world are the product of Russian microwave weapons that have been frying their brains. But now the US media reports that, according to sources in the CIA, “The idea that widespread brain injury symptoms have been caused by Russia or another foreign power targeting Americans around the world, either to harm them or to collect intelligence, has been deemed unfounded.”

Will all those who spread the story about Russian microwave weapons now repent? I doubt it. Careers rarely suffer from falsely exaggerating the scale of the Russian threat (or indeed any other alleged threat to Western security from actors deemed for some reason to be malign). By contrast, challenging the prevailing narrative that Russia is a deadly and immediate threat to our safety is a career-killer.

If you have any doubts, observe the fate of the head of the German navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, who had to resign (involuntarily, one imagines) after having had the temerity to tell a conference in India the obvious truth that Ukraine had lost Crimea for good. In my opinion, anybody who thinks otherwise is utterly deluded, but God forbid that this truth be said out loud.

Schoenbach dug himself deeper into a hole by saying that Russia sought “respect” and it would be to the West’s benefit to give it what it wanted. One can agree or disagree with this, as one wishes, but the idea is hardly a radical one, and it is surely important that military policy be drawn up in an atmosphere in which different hypotheses are carefully considered and not dismissed without consideration as beyond the pale. Rigid orthodoxy is not conducive to sensible decision-making. Unfortunately, it seems that rigid orthodoxy is now a requirement for senior office.

In fact, this goes far beyond senior officials. As the other stories mentioned in this post illustrate, in much of the West a very narrow orthodoxy has set in regarding all things Russian. Those who challenge it, are dismissed, sidetracked, or blackened as agents of “Russian propaganda.” An example of the last of these comes in a report published last week by the US State Department that seeks to expose “Russian disinformation and propaganda,” and in the process engages in some definite disinformation of its own. But that’s something for another post later this week. It’s a rather disgraceful story, but then again, given everything else, hardly surprising.

Spooks, Russia, and Disinformation

Jeremy Morris has an interesting post on his Postsocialism blog about the malicious role played by Western intelligence services in shaping narratives of Russia. I’m somewhat sceptical about his thesis – or at least the extent of the phenomenon he describes – but as if by chance, today I also came across a story that kind of backs him up.

Morris complains of two “elephants in the room,” who together distort our understanding of Russia. The first is the “clear leveraging of latent public sympathy abroad for the Russian regime by our friends at the English-language offices of RT.” I guess that would be me.

The second is “academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.” Given my former involvement in the intelligence world, and the fact that I’ve taught courses at the University of Ottawa with members of the Canadian security and intelligence services, I guess that would be me too.

Double elephant!

I imagine that Morris thinks that elephant number one distorts things in favour of Russia, and elephant number two distorts them against. That must make me some sort of push-me-pull-you doing both at once. Perhaps that explains why I always end up occupying the middle ground!

Anyway, I digress, because this isn’t meant to be about me. Back to the point.

“If you underestimate the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia – from both elephants, then you are guilty of the ‘fallacy of insufficient cynicism’,” writes Morris. I must confess myself guilty as charged. I can be pretty cynical, but I don’t think that everybody has “hidden motives.” People who write what one might call “pro-Russian” articles for RT aren’t doing it for the money or because the FSB has got some dirt on them any more than people writing Russophobic stuff for think tanks are doing it because they’re taking orders from the FBI, MI5, or CSIS. People tend to believe what they’re doing.

In any case, I worry less about spooks and more about the military industrial complex and its funding of think tanks and the like, all of which work together to inflate threats, keep us in a state of fear, and justify increased defence spending and aggressive foreign policies. But even there, the think tankers etc believe in what they’re doing. The problem is that believers get funded whereas non-believers don’t. I don’t think “hidden motives” are the issue.

That said, Morris has a point, in that security and intelligence services do maintain contacts with chosen favourites and feed them information that they hope will further their chosen narrative. The story I came across today illustrates how this works quite well.

A while back, I mentioned a law case in the UK involving Guardian journalist Carol Cadwalladr and British businessman Arron Banks. Banks is suing Cadwalladr for libel for having claimed that the Russian government offered him money for use in the Brexit referendum campaign, and that he lied about his relationship with the Russians. The case is now before the court, and Cadwalladr’s defence is becoming clear.

The Guardian journalist isn’t claiming that what she said about Banks was true, merely that given the evidence she had at the time she had good reason to believe that it was in the public interest for her to report it. So what was this evidence, and where did she get it from? This is where it becomes interesting. For as the Guardian reports,

In her written evidence statement, she [Cadwalladr] said she had obtained two intelligence files from an organisation contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation in Europe on behalf of a government agency, one file of which raised concerns about Banks’s Russian wife.

In other words, British intelligence fed the information to her via another source.

The accusation that Banks took Russian money to fund Brexit received widespread coverage. It was even repeated in a parliamentary report. Yet no evidence to support the claim has ever been produced, and as we have seen, Cadwalladr isn’t trying to say that it was true. In short, it was disinformation. And yet, what prompted it was in part documents leaked by British intelligence to a third party “contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation” and then in turn given by that organization to Ms Cadwalladr.

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit iffy?

In the first place, the story reinforces what I have said several times before, namely that the “disinformation industry” set up to “counter Russian disinformation” is itself a major source of disinformation. And second, it reveals an excessively cosy relationship between the media – supposedly an independent guardian of the truth that holds the state to account – and state organizations, including secret intelligence.

Personally, I find it more than a little disturbing.

Maybe Mr Morris is right after all!

If the Russians were in Scotland …

George:   The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-building.

Blackadder: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.

George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. [Aside, to Baldrick] Mad as a bicycle!

I’ve mentioned before that two of the major problems in international relations are state leaders’ lack of self-awareness and lack of strategic empathy. Given their imperial history, as well as their awful recent history of invading, destabilizing, and generally messing up foreign countries, you might imagine that the Brits would have learnt to avoid these pitfalls and developed a bit of humility as well as some understanding that others might not view them positively. But it appears not. No matter how they (or should I say ‘we’, since I have a British passport) screw things up, they/we still think that they/we are on the side of the angels whereas others are the devil incarnate, and that all the world needs is a bit more Britain.

If you doubted this, I suggest you take a look at a new article published this week by the British Defence Secretary, who goes by the good Scottish name of Ben Cameron Wallace. The bulk of the article – which appears on the UK government website – is an attack on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s historical essay on Russian-Ukrainian relations, which argued that Russians and Ukrainians were in essence one people, or at least very closely related peoples. Given that Putin wrote his piece some months ago, it might seem a little strange that Wallace would suddenly decide to respond. But his reply coincides with a decision by the British government to send additional weapons to Ukraine. It’s clearly therefore designed to provide some sort of moral justification for that move.

Wallace starts out by saying that Russia’s belief that it is threatened by NATO is a ‘straw man’. Why? Because – and you’ve heard this before – ‘NATO, to its core, is defensive in nature. … It is a truly defensive alliance.’

Really?

How was NATO defending itself in Yugoslavia? Or in Libya? Or even in Afghanistan, for that matter? The idea that NATO is ‘to its core, defensive’ is, of course, ridiculous. At the very least, as I noted in a recent post, even if NATO is in some objective way defensive, others have very good subjective reasons for viewing it differently.

Not only has NATO attacked countries that posed no threat to it, but so too have NATO members acting outside the alliance. The UK itself is a prime example. After invading Iraq in 2003, the cheek of British politicians portraying their country as ‘defensive’ and others as ‘aggressive’ is quite something.

But all that is fairly obvious and has been said time and time again. For whatever reason, the Brits don’t want to acknowledge their own aggressive behaviour or how it might look to others. I guess it would make them feel bad. So let’s put it aside for now, and continue on with what Mr Wallace has to say about Putin’s essay on Ukraine, for that’s what constitutes the bulk of his article.

Now, to be fair to Wallace, I wasn’t a huge fan of Putin’s piece myself. All this ‘brotherly nations’ stuff, based on distant historical ties when modern nations as such didn’t exist, strikes me as rather dubious. Still, there are some things about Wallace’s analysis that are worthy of note.

First, he accuses Putin of ‘ethnonationalism’ saying that in his article the Russian president ‘puts ethnonationalism at the heart of his ambitions’ in order to achieve ‘the subjugation of Ukraine and at worse the forced unification of that sovereign country.’

Obviously, Wallace hasn’t read a lot of Putin. If he had, he’d be aware that the Russian leader has regularly denounced ethnonationalism and called for a Russian state which respects the multiplicity of ethnicities and religious that make up its population. Putin’s nationalism is a state nationalism, i.e. it’s founded on loyalty to the Russian (Rossiiskii not Russkii) state. Wallace is a bit out of his depth, I think.

Second, and this is where I think it gets interesting , the British Defence Secretary comments that ‘Ukraine has been separate from Russia for far longer in its history than it was ever united.’ This is just bad history. For what do you mean by ‘Ukraine’? If you mean the lands that now make up Ukraine, then Wallace is right. But if you mean Ukraine as a nation, then he’s wrong, since Ukraine, like most nations, is a fairly modern construct. There was no ‘Ukraine’ until recently. In fact, there was no independent Ukraine until 1918, and then only for a few months. And there was no Ukraine with its current borders until 1945.

But – and now I’m getting to my point – one would be telling the truth if one noted that ‘Scotland has been separate from England for far longer in its history than it was ever united’. The Kings of Scotland date back to the ninth century, giving the country some 800 years of independent existence compared to 300 years of unity with England.

Why do I say this? Because Wallace is not only a Scot, but a former Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, ‘Unionist’ being the word in point. Wallace views England and Scotland as one. He’s a fierce opponent of Scottish separatism. Speaking in the House of Commons, he once denounced a member of the Scottish National Party by saying, ‘The honourable lady is making a brilliant argument for why we don’t want to put borders between countries.’

Wallace and his fellow Tories should have thought of that before backing Brexit, of course. But that’s not why I bring it up. The point is that Wallace doesn’t think that it’s a good thing to split up peoples that have long lived together – at least where Britain is concerned. You’d think, therefore, that he’d have a bit more empathy towards Russians (and Ukrainians) who feel that efforts to further divide Russia and Ukraine are to be regretted. In short, you’d think he have a bit of understanding of Putin’s position. But it seems that what applies to us doesn’t apply to you.

Let’s take this a bit further. Imagine that Scotland became independent. And imagine that it then asked to join the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and that it invited Russia to deploy military forces on its soil. And imagine that the prospect arose of Scotland becoming a base for Russian missiles capable of reaching London in five minutes. What do you think Wallace’s reaction would be then?

He’d be leaping up and down with fury! He’d be demanding action. He’d be screaming about Russian aggression (as he does already, in fact, even though there are no Russian troops within 1,500 kilometres of London). That’s what he’d be doing. In short, he’d be doing everything that Putin’s doing, and maybe even then some.

As I said, a lack of self-awareness and strategic empathy. Britain needs better than this.

Why Russia Fears NATO

One of the most self-defeating concepts I’ve run into in the past 20 years is the idea that if somebody else is wrong about something, then one doesn’t have to pay any attention to their opinion. “Wrong” could mean either factually or morally/legally incorrect, or both. Regardless, the theory is that if I am right and you are wrong, then what you think shouldn’t affect my behaviour. I should do what I believe it is right to do regardless of your opinion. Wrongness can’t defeat rightness.

An example of this popped up this week in a post on Twitter by former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, a man well-known for his hawkish position vis-à-vis the Russian government. With reference to the current tensions between Russia and NATO , Bildt comments that

“I see that Russia complains that the West has a ‘lack of understanding’ of the Kremlin’s security demands. That’s entirely correct. Virtually everything they’ve said in the last few weeks about NATO or Ukraine suddenly becoming a threat to Russia is pure invention. Factually wrong.”

You get the logic, I’m sure. In Bildt’s eyes, it is a verifiable truth that NATO does not threaten Russia. Any claims to the contrary from Russia are “factually wrong”. Therefore, NATO should not make any concessions to Russia.

I’ve come across this sort of argument many times in different variations. Before the invasion of Iraq, for instance, I was told that one could not oppose the invasion on the grounds that it would incite terrorism, because “We can’t let the terrorists dictate our policy.” Terrorists are wrong, you see, whereas we are right. So their wrongheadedness is irrelevant.

This is, of course, a silly approach. It doesn’t matter whether other people’s beliefs are right or wrong; what matters is that they believe them and that this affects their behaviour. Maybe, just maybe – for the sake of argument – in invading Iraq you are, in some objective sense, liberating people from an evil dictator. But if the locals think that you are there to occupy them and grab their oil, and therefore take up arms against you, it doesn’t matter what the objective truth is. You’d be better off if you had taken the Iraqis’ incorrect opinion into account.

Likewise, maybe Russia is indeed “wrong” in its assessment of NATO, but that incorrect assessment is driving what it does, with serious consequences. Ignoring it because it’s wrong is simply stupid. Instead, you need to be thinking about why others think the way they do, wondering if it’s perhaps because you’ve done something that’s given them the wrong impression, and then doing something about it. Charging forward all guns blazing simply reinforces the incorrect assessment, causing a reaction that in the end hurts you.

In short, ignoring other people’s alleged wrongness harms one’s own interests as much as theirs.

All this assumes that the others actually are “wrong.” What if they’re not? Or what if, though wrong, there are good reasons for them to believe what they believe given the circumstances in which they find themselves? In short, what if the reason they misperceive you is because you’ve done and said things that lend themselves to misperception? In that case, ignoring the misperception is a huge mistake – instead, you need to address your own behaviour.

So is it “wrong” for Russia to believe that NATO threatens it? I can see in some abstract, objective way, you might say yes, in that I don’t believe that NATO has any intention of ever attacking Russia. Minus intention there is no threat.

However, from Russia’s own subjective position, things look differently. NATO’s claims that it is a purely defensive alliance ring hollow after its attacks on Yugoslavia and Libya. NATO has a proven track record of attacking weak states it doesn’t like. Russians might well conclude that maintaining a strong military is the only guarantee they have of not meeting the same fate.

Beyond that, the rhetoric coming out of the West, and particularly the United States, is extremely belligerent. NATO might have no intention of attacking Russia, but if you read the American press, as I’m sure the Russian government does, you might not be so sure.

Take, for instance, a piece published yesterday by Evelyn Farkas, who served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under Barack Obama. Entitled “The US Must Prepare for War Against Russia Over Ukraine,” the article is, to say the least, a little frightening. Its basic logic is that in order to stop a Russia that is hell-bent on destroying the entire international order, America must threaten it with war, and if it doesn’t surrender, launch that war – for war now is better than war later.

Nuts.

But sadly I kid not.

Farkas argues that if America makes concessions to Russia over Ukraine, it “will spell the beginning of the end of the international order. … Any appeasement will only beget future land grabs not only from Putin, but also from China in Taiwan and elsewhere. … the rules-based international order will collapse.” She concludes:

“The only way to reassert the primacy of international law and sanctity of international borders, and contain Russia, may be to issue our own ultimatum. We must not only condemn Russia’s illegal occupations of Ukraine and Georgia, but we must demand a withdrawal from both countries by a certain date and organize coalition forces willing to take action to enforce it. … The horrible possibility exists that Americans, with our European allies, must use our military to roll back Russians – even at the risk of direct combat. But if we don’t now, Putin will force us to fight another day, likely to defend our Baltic or other East European allies.”

So, for the sake of Ukraine and Georgia, the United States should threaten Russia with World War Three, and if it doesn’t concede, should carry through with the threat.

Now imagine that you are sitting in Moscow reading this. What are you going to think? You might dismiss it as the mad rantings of some nobody on the internet, but this is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense – and a Democratic one, to boot. If this is what the supposedly moderate Democrats of the Obama era think like, what’s going on in the minds of the current bunch, let alone the Republicans? Reading this, you’re not necessarily going to assume that this is actual government policy, but you’re certainly going to have some doubts about the sanity of the US security establishment. Claims that you are “wrong” to think that NATO threatens you aren’t going to have much of an impact. Can you take the chance when senior ex-officials are saying this sort of thing?

Regardless of whether the Russian leadership is “wrong” or “right” to think as it does about NATO, its beliefs make sense from where it is standing, and those beliefs don’t come out of nowhere, but are to some degree a product of what the US and its NATO allies have done and said, and continue to do and say. Telling the Russians that they are “wrong” and therefore have to shut up and put up with it will achieve nothing other than convince them that they are indeed right.

Of course, we have the right to decide that annoying the Russians is a price we are willing to pay in order to pursue more valuable objectives. To date, that’s been our policy. In essence, Russia’s problem has been that we simply don’t care enough about it to feel that we need to take its concerns into consideration. Russia is now trying to convince us that we need to do so. I don’t see much sign that they’re succeeding.

The worse the better – How Twitter views Kazakhstan

Various commentators have suggested that I write something about recent events in Kazakhstan. I’ve been loath to do so since my knowledge of the country is very limited, but there are some interesting things to say about what others have been writing on the topic, particularly concerning how it all relates to Russia. Notably, a certain part of the online commentariat has been keen to express indignation that Russia has “invaded” Kazakhstan to suppress a “democratic revolution”.

The rapid spread of violence in Kazakhstan generated hopes in some circles that the mob would topple the “regime” and install a new government that would somehow or other distance the country from Russia. Alternatively, the hope was that “democracy” would arrive in Kazakhstan. With this, another brick in the wall of authoritarianism would collapse, bringing closer the day when it would collapse in Russia too.

All this was somewhat unspoken, but once the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Russia, announced that it would send troops to help restore order in Kazakhstan, and once Kazakh forces took the offensive and began clearing away anti-government protestors, all these hopes were dashed. The Kazakh government isn’t out of the woods yet. Protests continue in several cities, and things could still go horribly wrong. But at the moment it’s looking like the regime will survive. The internet’s keyboard warriors and online regime changers are seriously annoyed and looking for someone to blame. The guilty party is obvious – Russia.

However, despite the headlines in today’s newspapers about Russia sending troops to “quell” the uprising, the Kazakh state’s survial has little to do with the Russians or the CSTO. It seems as if the CSTO contingent in Kazakhstan will amount to no more than about 2,500 troops, which for a country that size is a tiny quantity. The role of the CSTO is largely symbolic – it sends a message to protestors and Kazakh security forces alike that the government isn’t backing down and has powerful external support. That should deter some of the former while putting a bit of steel in the spines of the latter. Perceptions of strength matter in situations like this, and thus the CSTO’s support perhaps makes a slight difference. But the hard work of restoring order belongs largely to the Kazakhs themselves. Whatever the press tells you, “Russia” isn’t “putting down” the uprising.

Nor can it be said that Russia has “invaded” Kazakhstan, as so many have liked to claim this past week on Twitter. Take for instance all these Tweets from the likes of one-time US Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul and former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves:

Continue reading The worse the better – How Twitter views Kazakhstan

Guys and Dolls

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and all that. It’s also the season for silly stories, of which, it must be said, there are always plenty when Russia is the topic. For instance, 50 days or so on from start of the Great Ukrainian Invasion of 2021, the Russian army has yet to storm across its western border and race towards Brezhnev’s old hometown of Dnepropetrovsk (or Dnipro, if you want to be all decommunized). However, fear not, for we all know that the Russians are seeking to revive the USSR. In fact, they’ve as good as admitted this by playing some hockey games in CCCP jerseys. What more proof do you need?

It didn’t help the Russians much, as the Finns defeated the CCCP-clad players 3-2, causing some commentators to wax lyrical about how they also whacked the Russians in the Winter War (though failing to point out that the Soviet commander at the time – Kliment Voroshilov – was a Ukrainian, as was his successor – Semyon Timoshenko).

But that’s not the main thing I want to talk about. For the silliest story this Christmas season is surely Maria Butina’s statement that she wants to regulate the Russia doll market, in order to keep out foreign undesirables, especially those of the wrong skin colour.

Butina, you may recall, was the women locked up by the United States in solitary confinement for several months for the dastardly crime of failing to register as a ‘foreign agent’ when acting as gun lobbyist. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of time for the American gun lobby – all that 2nd amendment stuff strikes as extremely weird and downright dangerous. Foreigners lobbying for gun rights in the USA is even odder. Butina, in my opinion, was treated unnecessarily harshly, and for obviously political reasons, as a sort of bystander victim in the Russiagate hysteria. But her politics are most definitely not my own.

Anyway, once ‘Back in the USSR’, Butina became a TV chat show regular, and in September got herself elected to the Russian parliament, the State Duma. This week, she has made a splash with a bizarre denunciation of dark-skinned Barbie dolls. As the Moscow Times reports:

‘Russian lawmaker Maria Butina said she is working on legislation to regulate dolls, pointing to growing diversity and representation in the children’s toys … In a Telegram post Tuesday, Butina contrasted a white-skinned Russian doll to a dark-skinned, pink-haired Barbie with a caption saying, “Maybe it’s time to think?” … “While the Education Ministry closely monitors school textbooks, there are no standards for educational toys for kindergartens, which is a shame,” she said. … “I hope that it doesn’t turn out in a couple of years that our children are being raised on [foreign] dolls and emulating them,” Butina added.  … “This is a national issue and there can be no opponents here,” Butina was quoted as saying.’

There has undoubtedly been a nationalist turn in Russian political discourse of late. Paranoia over ‘foreign influence campaigns’ is just as strong there as it is over here. And it’s equally silly. Add in a bit of racist rhetoric and it’s more than a little disturbing. ‘Emulating’ foreign dolls as a threat to national security, and as an issue in which ‘there can be no opponents’ – is that really the depths to which people have sunk? Apparently so.

I think, though, that Butina’s campaign highlights more than just xenophobia. It also illustrates a more fundamental problem with the Russian political system. For the State Duma is a very weak institution. By and large, the political initiative belongs to the executive branch of government. Given that all the big issues are the prerogative of the executive, if Duma members want to make a name for themselves, they have to find some fifth-tier topic to be their cause, ideally one that will be sufficiently provocative as to grab headlines. The result is a lot of silliness, such as this. One suspects that if being a Duma member was a more responsible job, this sort of thing wouldn’t occur. Butina, in other words, is just acting in accordance with the incentives that the system provides.

Since dolls and hockey are in the news, I therefore wrap up by suggesting that someone send Butina this Canadian special for Christmas, which you can get at Walmart for a mere $19.94 Canadian. For good measure, I propose also adding in a dozen Timbits and a reminder of who won the 1972 Summit Series (and in case you’ve forgotten, it wasn’t the CCCP). I’m sure Ms Butina will appreciate the gift!

Merry Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!

Brean, Braun, and Putin’s Brain

Occasionally, I wonder why I got into the blogging business. Fortunately, whenever these doubts arise, my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen (for which I once used to write), helps me out by publishing some outrageous nonsense, reminding me of the need for someone, somewhere to take the initiative in debunking it all. And since nobody else round here seems to be doing the job, the task falls upon me.

Today the Citizen obliged me by producing not one, but two such pieces, which was kind of generous of it because one would have been quite enough. The theme of both was the impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. As any sensible person knows, this isn’t going to happen (unless the Ukrainians are stupid enough to try to recapture the rebel provinces of Donbass by force). But that hasn’t stopped Western politicians and the media from screaming wolf on an almost daily basis for the past couple of months. Every day that Russia fails to invade Ukraine brings more articles saying that it’s just around the corner. Just wait. ‘The Russians are coming!’

Anyway, article no. 1, on which I won’t spend much time, is a relatively straightforward piece of reporting entitled ‘Russia warns of response if Ukraine joins NATO.’ This uncritically repeats a statement by Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis saying that, ‘We are convinced that Russia is actually preparing for an all-out war against Ukraine. It’s an unprecedented event probably since the Second World War.’

To this my response is that, A) Landsbergis being ‘convinced’ doesn’t make it so, and B) even if true it’s hardly ‘unprecedented’ – there’s been no shortage of wars since 1945, quite a few of them fought by Western powers (The invasion of Iraq anyone? The bombing of Yugoslavia?). So wouldn’t it make some sense to tell readers so?

Next, the article tells us that ‘In response to Moscow’s provocation, EU foreign ministers agreed to hit targets linked to the Wagner group, a Russian private military firm, with punitive sanctions, accusing it of destabilizing Ukraine and parts of Africa.’ So what is the ‘provocation’ here? It’s stated as a given, but no evidence of any ‘provocation’ is given.

And then, the Citizen finishes with this gem:

‘Russia’s domestic intelligence service was accused by its Ukrainian counterpart Monday of waging information warfare after it said it had arrested 106 supporters of a Ukrainian neo-Nazi youth group for planning attacks and mass murders. The Federal Security Service said that two of those held had planned attacks on educational institutions.’

Damn those Russians, arresting Neo-Nazis who planned to attack schools! ‘Waging information warfare indeed!’

The problem with this article is not that it’s factually false, as it mostly just repeats claims by Western and Ukrainian officials, but that it treats those claims as given and makes no effort to either challenge or contextualize them. That said, it’s a relatively mild piece of propaganda compared to what appears on the op-ed page of the same edition. This is an article by one Joseph Brean, entitled ‘Putin’s Taxi Driving Disclosure Part of Plan, Expert Says.’ It’s a real doozy.

Basically, the article is a four column story based entirely on the opinions of a single ‘expert’ – Aurel Braun, a professor at the University of Toronto, who, I think it’s fair to say, sits on the hawkish wing of the Canadian foreign policy community. No other ‘expert’ is cited. Nor is any effort made to analyze whether Braun is right. His mere opinion is considered sufficient to justify half a page of full-sized newspaper.

Let’s take a look at the Braun told Brean. (Their names have a certain ring to them, don’t you think?) The starting point is once again Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine, and the ‘hook’, as journalists say, is a recent revelation by Vladimir Putin that in the 1990s he drove a taxi in order to raise money. ‘One can assume that Putin did not just make these remarks off the cuff,’ says Braun. Putin must have had a reason for raising the taxi driving story.

Fair enough, I say. Putin obviously felt that the anecdote would serve some purpose. Braun and Brean tell us what that might have been:

‘The effect is subtle but by reflecting on the indignity of the collapse of Soviet society, Putin is whipping up support for his campaign against Ukraine, to deny it has a legitimate national identity separate from Russia’s, but rather is a construct of the West, destined to be reclaimed, just like Russia’s imperial influence.’

You can see it, right? Putin says, ‘I drove a taxi’. But what he really means is, ‘let’s invade Ukraine!’ Makes sense, huh?

Braun explains the logic to Brean, who laps it all up uncritically. Putin’s story gives him a link of ‘shared suffering’ with other Russians, says Braun. Putin is thereby indicating to everyone that the ‘loss of superpower status was not just abstract but personal.’ Brean adds: ‘This is typical of the modern Russian geopolitical victim as both aggressor and victim, Braun said, simultaneously projecting confidence and complaining about being treated unfairly.’

Just to make sure we get the point, Brean then proceeds to inform readers that Putin is rewriting history, and wraps up his piece with the following piece of tosh:

‘He [Putin] indulges a rosy view of Joseph Stalin as a firm hand who organized and industrialized Russia. … A recurring theme is that Russia’s future should look like its past, as an imperial Third Rome. His 2014 invasion of Ukraine and Georgia before that, for example, were always described as reclaiming Slavic land and people.’

In a previous post, I mentioned various principles for writing a bad article about Russia. This includes ‘making stuff up’, quoting what others have claimed without mentioning that their claims are dubious or even wrong, and citing only sources that fit your chosen narrative. Here we have them all.

Making stuff up: Putin doesn’t ‘indulge a rosy view of Joseph Stalin’ (as I’ve detailed on various occasions), wasn’t even president during the 2008 war with Georgia, and, as far as I know, has never justified that war in terms of ‘reclaiming Slavic land and people’ (the South Ossetians, after all aren’t Slavs). (One could allow this in the case of Ukraine if one calls the 2014 annexation of Crimea an ‘invasion’, but Putin has never admitted to supporting the rebellion in Donbass, so can’t be said to be justifying that in any terms, let alone those of reclaiming Slavic lands and people).

Quoting claims without pointing out that they may not be true: pretty much the whole article fits that criterion.

Citing only experts who fit your narrative: Brean cites only one expert – Braun – so we have that one too!

In short, we’ve got pretty much the personification of the bad article. Its thesis – that an anecdote about taxi driving reveals some aggressive imperial intent – is amazingly far fetched. One can’t prove it wrong, given that one would have to have access to Putin’s brain to do so. But there’s nothing to connect taxi driving with Ukraine. Putin’s popularity has long rested on his ability to restore stability at home after the chaos of the 1990s. His latest anecdote fits firmly in that narrative. There’s absolutely no reason to see anything else in it.

The taxi driver story is ‘a “calculated” act of propaganda,” says Brean. For sure, there’s propaganda here. But it’s coming from the Ottawa Citizen, not from anyone else. Brean, Braun and Putin’s Brain – quite the combination!