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Shenanigans in Lugansk

The political shenanigans in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) in Eastern Ukraine took a new turn today when LPR President Igor Plotnitsky fled the republic and turned up in Moscow. Power in Lugansk now rests firmly in the hands of LPR Interior Minister Igor Kornet, who continues to insist that he doesn’t intend to overthrow Plotnitsky, merely rid the republic of traitors in the President’s entourage. Kornet’s forces have arrested a number of senior LPR officials, accusing them of working secretly for the Ukrainian government in Kiev and of preparing to betray the LPR to the Ukrainian Army. I don’t believe it. My impression is that in the LPR treason is what you accuse your opponents of when you want an excuse to get rid of them. Be that as it may, the events in the LPR put the Russian government in something of a pickle.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Moscow isn’t in full control of events in Donbass. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any say in what goes on, nor does it mean that it can just ignore what happens there. It seems to me that it has the following options:

  • Recognize that Plotnitsky is a busted flush, discard him, and back Kornet. So far, the Russian government is insisting that what happens in Lugansk is an internal matter for the LPR. Maintaining this line would in effect amount to endorsing Kornet’s coup. The question would then arise of how to find a new President and who it should be.
  • Try and work out some solution which returns Plotnitsky to Lugansk as President, but which in effect makes him little more than a figurehead while real power remains with Kornet.
  • Find some way of restoring Plotnitsky to his previous position of authority.
  • Get around the whole problem by abolishing the LPR and merging it with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and forming a joint ‘Novorossiia’.

The third option – restoring Plotnitsky – seems rather impractical. The Russians aren’t going to want to start a civil war within a civil war, so military action against Kornet is probably out of the question. Perhaps some diplomatic way could be found to pressure him to give up, by for instance making it very clear to him that if he continues on his current path, Moscow will cut all support to the LPR. But such a threat isn’t very credible. This is one of those situations where the patron pretty much has to cave into the client. Reversing the coup would probably be a bad option for Moscow even if it were what it actually wanted.

In some respects, the fourth option – merger of the LPR and DPR – appears optimal. The DPR has always given me the impression of being much better governed than the LPR, and its leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, has a charisma which Plotnitsky lacks. The DPR no doubt looks pretty attractive from a LPR point of view. A merger would in practice probably be a DPR takeover, and might well strengthen both republics. It is, after all, somewhat ridiculous that such a small geographic area as rebel-controlled Donbass should have two separate governments and two separate armies.

dprlnr
The LPR admires the DPR. A meme doing the rounds on Twitter.

But while this option makes some sense, there are some problems with it. The only two ‘democratic’ votes which have taken place in the history of the LPR and DPR are the referenda of May 2014 which established the republics and the presidential elections of November 2014. Of course, one can argue about the quality of these elections and how truly democratic they really were, but the referenda and the elections allow the republics’ leaders to make a claim of legitimacy. Were Plotnitsky to be replaced, it’s hard to see what claim to legitimacy his successor could make. And since the LPR was established by referendum, it can be argued that it can only be dismantled by referendum. In a sense this is just a matter of formalities, but formalities matter, which is why even the Soviet Union went through the motions of elections.

Another problem with getting rid of Plotnitsky is that he signed the Minsk agreements, which provide the supposed road map to a peace settlement in Ukraine. If he goes, then his successor could claim to not be bound by the agreement. Moreover, if the DPR and LPR merge, then Kiev might have grounds to claim that since the quasi-states whose leaders signed the Minsk agreements no longer exist, it also is no longer bound by the agreements. That’s not something which Moscow would want.

So, it might be better to keep Plotnitsky. But it’s obvious that even if he were to return to Lugansk, he wouldn’t have any meaningful authority. One would imagine that Moscow wants to have its own man in the top spot in Lugansk, somebody it can count on to do what Moscow tells it when push comes to shove. But a Plotnitsky who’s more a puppet of Kornet than a puppet of Moscow wouldn’t be able to fulfil that role.

Overall, then, there aren’t any good options for Moscow. At this point, Kiev is probably enjoying the spectacle and thinking that things are going its way. But that might not be true either. A few weeks ago, LPR Foreign Minister Vladislav Deinovo remarked that Lugansk’s future lay back in Ukraine. Given that Kornet is justifying his insurrection on the grounds that LPR officials were conspiring to betray the republic to Kiev, one suspects that nobody in the LPR is going to be publicly repeating what Deinovo said for some time to come. An uncompromising line towards Ukraine is more likely.

In short, it’s a mess. I make no predictions as to what will happen next.

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Patron-client relations

In any patron-client relationship, the client has some degree of independence. On occasion, the client may even be in a position to more or less control the patron. This is the case, for instance, when the client understands that the patron’s prestige is dependent on the client’s survival. In such circumstances, the client has the patron over a barrel; he can do as he pleases because he knows that patron will have to continue supporting him come what may.

Afghanistan provides a good example of how this works. In the 1980s, the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seemed to spend as much of their time squabbling with each other as with the mujahideen who were attempting to overthrow them. They pursued social and economic policies which their Soviet patrons often considered very ill-advised. Attempts by the Soviets to make them behave better never achieved very much. It was only when the Soviets made it clear that they were leaving that the PDPA under Najibullah began to get its act together even slightly. Similarly, we have seen in the last decade that although the current Afghan government is utterly dependent on American aid, the Americans aren’t able to control their Afghan clients, who appear to have a good understanding that they can get away with an awful lot and the supply of the American money will keep flowing. The Americans had the same problem in Vietnam: successive client governments did their own thing, in direct contradiction to American desires.

One can observe this dynamic at play in Ukraine. The Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) is currently undergoing another of its occasional bouts of in-fighting, with forces of the LPR’s interior ministry taking to the streets against the republic’s president, Igor Plotnitsky, following Plotnitsky’s attempt to fire the interior minister, Igor Kornet. It’s hard to determine exactly what’s going on. Kornet claims not to be carrying out a coup, just to be acting against treacherous personnel, supposedly working for Kiev, in Plotnitsky’s entourage. Interior ministry forces are backing Kornet, while the military police and presidential guard are remaining loyal to Plotnitsky. Rumours abound that troops from the neighbouring Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) have arrived, and are preparing to merge the LPR and DPR into one. The LPR army, meanwhile, is sitting the whole thing out.

In the Western press, the DPR and LPR are often portrayed as nothing more than Russian puppet states. But if this is the case, where are the puppet masters? It doesn’t look like the Russians are playing any role in what’s happening in Lugansk, and it would be strange if they were. Undoubtedly, the LPR and DPR are highly dependent on Russian aid. Yet, it stretches credibility a bit to imagine that the Russian government wants the LPR to be the chaotic mess that it is and is pulling all the strings in the current coup, or non-coup, or whatever it is. Like Afghanistan in the 1980s, the LPR is clearly seething with personal rivalries, and local dynamics drive much of what occurs. Local leaders have a lot of firepower at their disposal. The few Russian officials that may be present don’t. The clients have much more independence than one might imagine.

In short, these most recent events should caution us against assuming that Russia determines everything that happens in Donbass. Undoubtedly, Russia’s relationship with the DPR and LPR is one of patron and client. But the patron isn’t and never has been in full control of the client. Given the way that the leaders of the LPR behave, it would probably be better for all concerned if it was, but clearly it isn’t, and we have to accept this reality. This has important ramifications in terms of possible political settlements of the war in Ukraine, namely that if one doesn’t want Moscow to take full control of Donbass, then the interests of its clients there will have to be taken into consideration. Moscow will have to take them into consideration; it can’t just abandon them. And Kiev and the West will have to take them into consideration if they want to strike a deal, for the simple reason that they exist and have some degree of power and agency. It may not be pleasant, but that’s the way it is.

The international order

I’m off to England tonight for a conference at Ditchley Park on the subject ‘Russia’s role in the world today and tomorrow.’ I’ll be slumming it in a grand country mansion with a bunch of ambassadors, retired senior officials, and other people far more distinguished than myself, but as it’s all under the Chatham House rule, I regret that I won’t be able to report on it. Still, it provides an excuse to ponder the state of Anglo-Russian relations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to divert attention from her Brexit troubles the other day with some inflammatory remarks about Russia at the annual banquet of the Lord Mayor of London. May remarked that Russia has

fomented conflict in the Donbass, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag [German parliament], among many others. It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions.

May accused Russia of ‘threatening the international order on which we all depend,’ and concluded by saying that, ‘I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of western nations to the alliances that bind us.’

As if to back May up, Ciaran Martin, the head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, stated yesterday that, ‘I can confirm that Russian interference, seen by the National Cyber Security Centre over the past year, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunication and energy sectors.’ To this Martin added, ‘Russia is seeking to undermine the international system. That much is clear. The PM made the point on Monday night – international order as we know it is in danger of being eroded.’

Along with all this comes alongside allegations that Russian internet trolls attempted to the influence the Brexit referendum. Evidence for this is a little weak since despite the hype, the Guardian reports that, ‘Prof Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian that at least 419 of those [Russian Twitter] accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.’ It would be interesting to know how many tens of thousands, or for all I know, hundreds of thousands of tweets were posted about Brexit by Brits and peoples of other non-Russian nationalities, but the fact that the alleged ‘interference’ mostly took place after the referendum in any case rather weakens the argument for the prosecution.

But let’s put that to one side. And let’s put aside also May’s somewhat contestable claims about fomenting war in Donbass, regularly violating European airspace, and the like. Let’s accept, for simplicity’s sake, that Russia is trying to influence people in Britain and that its intelligence agencies are attempting to hack the computer systems of British institutions. Let’s face it, it would be pretty odd if they weren’t. This is pretty much run of the mill for states which imagine that they have some position on the international stage. The questions which then arise are: a) does this constitute ‘interference’? and b) does this constitute  an attempt ‘to undermine the international order.’

The answer to the first question depends, I guess, on how you define ‘interference.’ But, to my mind, trying to influence people isn’t interference; it’s just a normal part of human relationships. I think that people need to calm down a little bit on this matter. There seems to be a rather odd view that only people within a country can attempt to influence the citizens or the government of that country. That is, of course, not the way Western states operate – Brits, for instance, are continually trying to influence others. And in any case, it’s just impractical. Human interaction is a perpetual attempt to influence one another. The interaction between states and between states and the peoples of other states is just the same. For sure, Russians want to change the way people in Britain think. That’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with it. The whole ‘interference’ narrative is wrong-headed at the philosophical level.

To this, some might reply that the problem is not Russians trying to influence Brits, but that they are doing so by spreading ‘fake news’. Well, perhaps they do sometimes, though I think that the ‘fake news’ meme is greatly exaggerated, and if we’re talking about social media there’s no shortage of utter tripe, including manifestly untrue stories, appearing in the Facebook and Twitter posts of non-Russians. A few hundred Russian tweets really don’t matter very much in the larger scheme of things. But, at a deeper level, we have to ask, ‘who is determine what is ‘fake’ and what is not?’ Are you going to say that we should have some sort of media police which eliminates what we deem to be inaccurate? If so, we have censorship, not a free society.

And then we come to question b) – does this constitute an attempt to ‘undermine the international order?’ The answer to this is fairly simple – No, and two times no! Yes, the Russians engage in espionage. They try to influence people. They always have! And so have Western countries! This isn’t an attempt to undermine the international order. This is the international order!! Let’s not be naïve about this. The international order consists of a whole set of institutions and rules which states for the most part abide by. At the same time, they occasionally break the rules, by for instance carrying out espionage on one another. Yet the order continues on nonetheless. Russia spies on Britain. Britain spies on Russia (remember the British spy rock in Moscow, anyone?) That’s how the order works.

I’m tempted to go off into a bit of ‘whataboutism’ and talk about all the many times that the United Kingdom has egregiously broken the rules of the international system. It’s hardly an innocent in this regard. But instead, I’ll end on a different thought. If Mrs May really thinks that Russia is undermining the international order in general and more specifically British democracy, then shouldn’t she be reconsidering Brexit? Of course, Mrs May won’t do anything of the sort. She recognizes the result of the Brexit referendum as legitimate and binding. Yet Brexit is a huge shock to the international order, one of the biggest in recent years. Who ‘undermined the international order’? The British people, that’s who.

UPDATE:  According to Sky News, Yin Yin Lu of Oxford Internet Research has identified 22.6 million tweets associated with the alleged Russian ‘troll factory’. Of these, 400 were about or related to Brexit. As Ms Lu says: “First of all the number of these tweets is important to highlight. So there’s about 400 tweets here out of 22.6 million. That is a very infinitesimal fraction. So the word interference is perhaps a bit exaggerated.”

Counter-revolution

As we mark the 100th anniversary today of the Great October Socialist Revolution, pundits are laying out what they believe are the lessons of the tragic events which befell Russia and its people in 1917. As my contribution, I would like to draw attention to something a little different: namely, that in Russia revolution means counter-revolution.

The Bolsheviks’ usurpation of power in November 1917 didn’t end the political struggle within Russia. Rather, it intensified it. Counter-revolutionary groups sprung up throughout the country, and before long civil war resulted. The violence which followed inflicted enormous damage on Russia. Bolshevik supporters who imagined that their party’s coup would lead to ‘peace, bread, and land’ proved to be cruelly deceived.

За_единую_Россію
The White Warrior slays the Bolshevik dragon

And so it often is with revolutions. The revolutionaries like to imagine that all they have to do is topple the old order and all will be well. They will establish themselves firmly in authority. They don’t imagine that a significant portion of the population might object to their unconstitutional seizure of power and take up arms against them, and that the revolution, however well-intentioned it may be, will have terrible results. But when a self-appointed elite seizes control in this way, people very often do object, and on occasions do so vehemently enough to do something about it.

We can see this in Ukraine. Those who jumped up and down on Maidan thought that if they toppled the existing regime everybody would just accept what they had done. But, of course, they didn’t. A portion of the Ukrainian population took up arms against the new government, leading to the loss of Crimea and much of Donbass, as well as to thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of physical damage.

Now, I don’t think for one instance that there will be a repetition of Maidan in Russia. I’m one of those who doesn’t believe that the ‘Putin regime’ is about to fall. But let’s just imagine that such a thing could happen, and consider how the Great October Socialist Revolution led to the Civil War, and how Maidan led to anti-Maidan. Mark my words, if there were to be another revolution in Russia, there would be another counter-revolution. There are more than enough modern-day Black Hundreds and lesser opponents of Western liberalism to ensure that any attempt to impose a Western liberal order on Russia by revolutionary means would be met by force. The Russian anti-Maidan would make the Ukrainian version look like a teddy bear’s picnic. It would not be pretty.

Revolutionaries, of course, will say that counter-revolution isn’t their fault; it’s the counter-revolutionaries’ fault. But my point here isn’t to say whether counter-revolution is right or wrong (although regular readers will probably recognize that I tend to be on the counter-revolutionary side). Rather, my point is to say that after revolution, counter-revolution is inevitable, and if it were to happen in Russia, it would be horribly destructive.

It’s something those who call for ‘regime change’, not just in Russia but in a host of other countries, should bear in mind.

Basic scientific method

As, I am sure, all of you know, a proper scientific experiment will have a ‘control group’. Say I have a new cancer drug. I can’t tell if it’s actually any good just by testing it. I need something else to compare it to. It’s only by means of the comparison that my results have any meaning. To see if the ‘independent variable’ is of any significance, you have to consider other possible factors which might be affecting the result. In short, you can’t treat a single phenomenon in isolation from everything else.

Bear this in mind, as we’ll come back to it later. But for now, let’s switch track and turn to the matter of ‘Russian interference’ in US politics. What have we learnt to date?

What we’ve learnt is that some ‘Russia-linked accounts’ posted messages about US politics, and paid for advertisements related to US politics, on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Some of these messages were anti-Clinton and pro-Trump (along the lines of ‘a vote for Hillary is a vote for Satan’), but some were anti-Trump, and some were about completely different things altogether (Black Lives Matter and the like). For a sample, take a look here.

We’ve also learnt that an account is deemed ‘Russia-linked’ if it features even one of the following criteria: it was created in Russia; registered via a Russian phone carrier or email account; uses Cyrillic characters; the user regularly uses the Russian language; and the user has logged in from any  Russian IP address, even once. I’ve logged in to this site in Russia, so according to this definition you are reading a ‘Russia-linked’ blog. That means that if I make any comments about US politics, they will be added to the list of evidence of ‘interference’ by the Russian government.

Clearly, this is all a bit silly. But, let’s not worry about that for the moment. Let’s accept that some of the ‘Russia-linked accounts’ are indeed Russian, though we can’t tell that any of them are actually linked to the Russian government, and let’s accept that Russians are posting things about US politics. Does that amount to ‘interference’? And does it show that Russians are particularly noteworthy interferers, so noteworthy as to justify a vast witch-hunt?

Now, this is where the matter of comparison comes into play. Russians are posting stuff about US politics. But what about everybody else? Let’s face it, Russians are hardly likely to be the only ones. US politics interests people just about everywhere, and some of them no doubt have some strong views on it and may even have generated some commentary or memes or something else which they’ve posted on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re going to say that ‘Russian interference’ is especially prominent and dangerous, you need something to compare it to. For instance, you might compare it to the complete total of all social media users. Are Russians posting substantially more about US politics than social media users as a whole? Alternatively, you could look at individual countries. What about Canada-linked users; Britain-linked users; French-linked users; Mexican-linked users; whatever? Have any of them posted stuff about US politics, bought political advertisements, and the like? And if so, do they do it more or less than Russia-linked users, in proportion to their numbers.

This matters, because if you were to do such a comparison and discover that, say, Canadian users were generating very similar stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and doing just as much compared to their overall numbers, then you’d have to start investigating ‘Canadian interference’. Or if you found the same with Brits, Germans, French, Mexicans, Venezuelans, whatever, you’d have to investigate British, German, French, Mexican, Venezuelan, etc interference too. And then, it would become obvious that Russian interference’ isn’t particularly abnormal.

Maybe it is. Maybe, ‘Russia-linked accounts’ have generated far more of the sort of stuff under investigation than accounts linked to other countries. But then again, maybe not. To date, I haven’t read anything which suggests that anybody has carried out the research to show which is the case. If that is true (and please show me if I’m missing something), then all the findings about Russian interference are utterly meaningless, as they lack any comparison. This is basic scientific method. Am I the only person to have thought of this?

Wall of Grief

Yesterday (30 October), Vladimir Putin attended the unveiling of the ‘Wall of Grief’, a monument erected in Moscow to the victims of communist repression. This is the third major such monument constructed in Moscow this year, the other two being the Sretenskii Monastery (about which I wrote earlier) and a memorial at the former Butovo firing range.

You might imagine that these strong signals of disapproval of communism would have some effect on how the media represents Putin and the state he leads. For instance, you might imagine headlines like ‘Putin condemns Stalinism’, or ‘Russian state turns it back on communist past’, combined with some analysis of how this connects to other similar official condemnations of the Soviet Union. Well, if so you’d be wrong. For the most part, Western media haven’t bothered covering the story at all, but let’s look at those which have.

Reuters sets the tone with the headline, ‘Putin opens monument to Stalin’s victims; dissidents cry foul,’ and with an opening paragraph declaiming that, ‘President Vladimir Putin inaugurated a monument to the victims of Stalinist purges on Monday, but Soviet-era dissidents accused him of cynicism at a time when they say authorities are riding roughshod over civil freedoms.’ At the very end of its article, Reuters takes pains to tell us:

Monuments and memorial plaques honoring Stalin have sprung up in different Russian regions. State-approved textbooks have softened his image, and an opinion poll in June crowned him the country’s most outstanding historical figure. By contrast, those who have helped document Stalin’s crimes, from the Memorial human rights group to individual historians and journalists, have sometimes felt themselves under pressure from the authorities. A group of Soviet-era dissidents published a letter on Monday, accusing Putin of cynicism. ‘We … consider the opening in Moscow of a monument to victims of political repression untimely and cynical,’ they said in the letter, published on the Kasparov.ru news portal. ‘It’s impossible to take part in memorial events organized by the authorities who say they are sorry about victims of the Soviet regime, but in practice continue political repression and crush civil freedoms.’

The BBC takes its cue from Reuters. It gives a factual headline, ‘Wall of Grief. Putin opens first Soviet victims memorial.’  But, after presenting the basic story, the BBC then cites the same group as Reuters, telling us that ‘critics accused him [Putin] of continuing political repression and “crushing civil freedoms.” A group of dissidents from the Soviet era wrote to a news website that they considered the event to be “untimely and cynical”.’ The BBC notes that Putin said that, ‘An unequivocal and clear assessment of the repression will help to prevent it being repeated,’ and that, ‘This terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified by anything.’ But it then qualifies this by finishing with the words, ‘In June, President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia’s enemies were “demonising” Stalin excessively. Under his rule, the Soviet victory over the Nazis has become central to a new ideology of Russian greatness.’ As with Reuters, a story about Putin condemning the crimes of Stalinism thus gets turned around and becomes a story about Putin ‘crushing civil freedoms’ and indirectly promoting the Stalin cult.

Next we have Deutsche Welle, which gives us the headline ‘With new Wall of Grief, Russia grapples with Soviet crimes.’ This starts off with a paragraph saying, ‘As some worry that Josef Stalin is being rehabilitated in Russia’s collective memory, a new monument to his victims has opened in Moscow. Survivors of his reign of terror are not convinced that it’s enough.’ It then recounts the opinion of Tatiana Nikolskaya, whose mother was imprisoned under Stalin, who says that she doesn’t like the Wall of Grief very much and complains that state compensation for Stalin’s victims has been ‘virtually nonexistent.’ Deutsche Welle, like the others, then turns the story around and tells us:

The unveiling of the Wall of Grief comes amid a period of rehabilitation of Stalin’s legacy. A bust of Stalin was erected this year on Moscow’s Alley of Rulers, glorifying the dictator alongside President Putin’s other predecessors. In an interview earlier this year, Putin said foreign enemies had used the ‘excessive demonization of Stalin’ to attack Russia. And that message from the top seems to be having an effect on Russia’s collective memory.

Deutsche Welle also takes care to note that in his speech at the unveiling of the Wall of Grief, Putin ‘stopped short of mentioning Stalin by name.’ The implication is clear – Putin isn’t really anti-Stalin at all. By contrast, the newspaper approvingly cites Ksenia Sobchak as saying that Stalin was ‘unequivocally a bloody hangman and criminal’. In this way, we are left with no doubt as to newspaper’s preferred Russian presidential candidate.

It’s interesting to see how this works. Putin unveils a monument to Stalin’s victims, but Western reporting doesn’t focus on that, nor link it to other memorials which repudiate communism (Butovo, Sretenskii, etc), but instead uses the event as what journalists call a ‘hook’ to write a story about political repression under Putin and the Russian state’s alleged rehabilitation of Stalin. And the sources it cites are the likes of Sobchak and Kasparov.ru, who represent a tiny and extreme fringe of Russian public opinion. Unfortunately, this is all too typical of how Russia is reported. Caveat Emptor, as the saying goes; or to put it another way, let the reader beware.