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Unprecedented destruction

In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:

The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.

It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a

level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.

That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:

With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.

I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo.  Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria.  ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.

Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.

Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.

In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.

Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.

So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?

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Expelled for Tweeting

For some reason, I have never quite grasped the concept that Russia is trying to ‘undermine our democracy’. Democracy is a system in which, theoretically speaking, governments are elected, and decisions made, by popular consent. Attempting to influence the public, or the government, to get them to support this policy or that, doesn’t constitute ‘undermining’ because at the end of the day it is still the people who decide through their elected representatives. Within a democratic system, it is normal for interests groups of all types to lobby parliamentarians and bureaucrats and attempt to sway public opinion. Those groups include foreign diplomats: indeed, one might say that influencing other governments’ policies is pretty much the purpose of diplomacy. There’s nothing odd about it.

Despite this, there appears to be widespread agreement that what once might simply have been called ‘public diplomacy’ actually constitutes ‘interference’ in our internal politics and as such a serious threat to national security. At least that is what one feels obliged to conclude based on recent statements and actions by the Canadian government.

A week or so ago Canada announced that it was expelling four Russian diplomats as part of the general Western purge of Russians in the wake of the Skripal affair. I suspected something was amiss the moment that I read Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s explanation of why those four particular Russians had been chosen. Freeland said that they had been identified as ‘intelligence officers or individuals who have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.’ The first part of this statement was pretty standard – throughout the Western world, governments justified the expulsions by saying that they were targeting Russian spies. Indeed British Prime Minister Theresa May called on allies to take the opportunity to smash Russian spy networks. What struck me was the final bit of Freeland’s statement – that about ‘undermining our democracy’ – and it immediately made me think that something else was going on here.

Confirmation that this was not chiefly about espionage came a few days later when the Globe and Mail published an article saying that:

Three of the four Russian intelligence operatives expelled from Canada on Monday were conducting cyberactivities out of the Montreal consulate aimed at discrediting the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] and spreading disinformation about Canada and its closest allies, a source has told The Globe and Mail.

WADA has made some very serious accusations against Russia. It’s natural that Russian diplomats should be responding. Their job includes defending their country’s reputation. In this instance, that means trying to discredit (whether rightly or wrongly) what WADA is trying to say. If these diplomats were using social media to try to influence public opinion, they were only doing their job. Moreover, WADA isn’t Canada. Attempting to discredit it in no ways constitutes ‘undermining Canadian security and democracy’ as claimed by Ms Freeland. Rather, what the diplomats are guilty of is telling the Canadian public things which the Canadian government doesn’t want its citizens to hear.

Two days ago, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked how the expelled Russians threatened national security. He responded:

I think we can all remember the efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our Minister of Foreign Affairs, through social media and sharing stories about her.

This provides a clue as to the reason for the expulsion of the fourth Russian diplomat, identified in today’s National Post as Embassy Press Secretary Kirill Kalinin. Back in February this year, Kalinin was described as ‘maybe one of the more influential media-relations operators in Canada’ due to the impact he was having as the man responsible for the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. In particular, Kalinin managed to annoy the Canadian government by retweeting a link to a story which had already broken about Freeland’s grandfather and his alleged collaboration with the Nazis during World War Two. It’s worth noting that in this case, he didn’t invent the story, which was already circulating widely on the internet; he merely passed on the link. This was enough to have Freeland accuse the Russian Embassy of spreading ‘disinformation’ (which was itself disinformation given that the story about her grandfather is true).

Kalinin then caused an additional scandal by noting on Twitter that Canada hosts a couple of monuments to Ukrainians who served alongside the Germans in World War Two, including the Galicia SS Division. Reporter David Pugliese notes in today’s National Post that these Tweets not only led to a number of large stories in national newspapers on the subject, but also sparked a flurry of concerned emails among Canadian government officials who tried to figure out how to respond publicly, according to documents obtained by Postmedia under the Access to Information law.’ Pugliese writes:

The officials, who indicated they were ‘under pressure’ from the senior levels of government to come up with something, wrote a response that the Canadian government remained concerned about what it called inappropriate Russian efforts to ‘spread disinformation.’ The response also included highlighting Russia’s attempts to undermine democracy.

But that sentence sparked debate about whether a tweeted photo of monuments to Ukrainian SS members fell into such a category. ‘Framing them as “destabilizing western democracies” seems a step too far,’ one public servant noted in an email.

I’m with the public servant on this one. The story about the monuments is true. I can’t see how providing the Canadian public with true information of which they might be unaware constitutes either spreading ‘disinformation’ or ‘undermining democracy’. Indeed, I would argue that trying to deprive the Canadian public of such information more accurately fits those categories.

This story suggests that the expulsion of the four Russians had nothing, as originally claimed, to do with intelligence gathering or threats to Canadian national security, and everything to do with the four diplomats’ activities on social media. Of course, that doesn’t prove that those expelled weren’t also doing something nefarious, but the publicly available evidence doesn’t suggest that that was the reason they were selected. What Ms Freeland should have said was that the four were chosen ‘because they’ve been saying stuff on social media which we’d rather that the Canadian public didn’t know about.’ That wouldn’t sound as good as citing threats to national security and democracy, but it would at least be the truth.

Moving forward

‘Стоим на краю пропасти. Надо идти вперед.’ (Apocryphal statement attributed to Leonid Brezhnev)

Russian-Western relations appeared to plummet even further into the abyss yesterday with the coordinated decision of around 20 Western countries to expel Russian diplomats as a response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in England. Leading the way was the United States, which is expelling 60 Russians. The next largest contingent of expelled Russians is in Ukraine, which announced that 13 Russians must leave the country. (I find it odd that Ukraine should take this act in response to something which happened in the UK, but not to what it regularly calls ‘Russian aggression’ on its own territory, but so be it.) Third on the list was Canada which is chucking out 4 Russians and refusing to accredit another 3 who had been due to arrive. Germany, meanwhile, is expelling 4 diplomats. Overall, about 100 Russians are getting their marching orders.

This is quite unprecedented. Diplomatic expulsions are normally a response to something which directly affects one’s own country. I can’t think of a precedent for a country throwing out diplomats for something unconnected to it. Perhaps such a precedent exists, but I doubt that there has ever been a mass expulsion across so many countries as this. It is a quite extraordinary act of diplomatic disapproval.

That said, it is largely symbolic. It will make it harder for Russian embassies to do what they were previously doing (which in some cases undoubtedly involves espionage), but in due course new personnel will arrive and get to work, and things will get back to the way they were before. Western diplomats will be expelled from Russia in response, temporarily messing up the work of the embassies in question, but likewise things will eventually get back to normal. People will be irritated. Mutual distrust will be stronger than ever. Attitudes will harden. It will have a decidedly negative effect. But real, concrete interests won’t suffer too much.

In this way, the refusal of the United Kingdom (and also of its allies) to take more radical measures against Russia is quite striking. It appears that the West isn’t too interested in hurting its own bottom line. And in that regard, Russia got some very good news today. Germany has granted all the permits required for the construction of the German segment of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline. A spokesman for the pipeline project stated that he was confident that the other countries involved – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – would similarly grant the required permits in ‘the coming month’.

Yesterday Germany expelled four Russian diplomats. But today it gave the go-ahead for North Stream 2 – a symbolic slap on Russia’s wrist, followed by a extremely valuable decision in Russia’s favour. If I was Russian, I’d be far more pleased by the latter than annoyed by the former. Perhaps, when it comes to what really matters, things aren’t quite as bad as they seem. The West is willing to stamp its foot and shake its fist, but it isn’t willing to put its money where its mouth is. Real progress on real issues may be possible after all, and we can move back from the abyss and forward in another direction.

Young Russians for Putin

Remember all the articles a few months back, following one of Aleksei Navalny’s rallies, about how young Russians were turning against Vladimir Putin? At the time I pointed out how wrong this is – numerous surveys have shown that Russian youth are the most pro-Putin element of the Russian population, as well as the most patriotic and the most optimistic about their country’s future. It seems that the English-speaking media have finally woken up to this reality. This week, we have not just one , not just two , and not just three, but four articles pointing this out.  Let’s take a look.

First, the Washington Post’s Anton Troianovski notes that, ‘81 percent of adults approve of Putin as president – including 86 percent of Russians 18 to 24 years old. Among the age group, 67 percent told Levada they believed the country was going in the right direction, compared to 56 percent of the general public.’ Troianovski speaks to three young Russians in the city of Kurgan near the border with Kazakhstan. The prevailing mood is that their lives are better than those of their parents. They profess awareness of restrictions on their freedoms, but at the same time consider themselves freer than any previous generation. As one says, ‘There are jobs. You can do whatever you want. You can travel wherever you want. The borders are all open before you – and this truly makes me happy.’ They credit Putin for the improvements in the quality of life and fear that any attempt to overturn the existing system would result in a return to the chaos of the 1990s.

Similar themes come up in the second article, in which Wall Street Journal writers James Marson and Thomas Grove interview young Russians in the towns of Chelyabinsk and Tyumen. The tone is set by the introductory paragraph which says,

Nikita Ivlev doesn’t really follow politics. But the high-school student says he is sure that only President Vladimir Putin can manage a country as big as Russia. Anastasia Kuklina, who is studying law, values the “peace and stability” of Mr. Putin’s rule and is thrilled with new shopping malls in her hometown. Darya Yershova says Russian life is better and freer than in the past. “When we talk with our parents, they are sometimes shocked by the numerous opportunities we have today,” she says.

Marson and Grove note that, ‘Many say their lives are better than their parents.’ Material conditions have improved:

Chelyabinsk’s supermarkets and shopping malls are packed. … The young generation has broader horizons: They can travel abroad on cheap package tours to Turkey or Egypt and around one-third speak a foreign language. … A coffee-lover who wears a Vincent van Gogh pin, Ms. Yershova says her generation has much more freedom to develop and express itself than her forebears, who had more run-of-the-mill concerns amid the hardship of the 1990s.

In the third article, the Associated Press takes a slightly different line, with the headline ‘Breaking mold, some Russian youth speak out against Putin’. Author Francesca Ebel quotes a Moscow student as saying that, ‘I don’t think I have a single friend who thinks that Putin is good.’ But as Ebel then admits, ‘polls show Moscow’s metropolitan, middle-class youth are far from representative of Russia as a whole.’ Like the other authors she cites polling data showing Putin’s high level of support among youth, and adds, ‘Many young Putin supporters feel they have more opportunities in Putin’s Russia compared with their parents. “Our generation is really lucky because we can do absolutely everything that we want,” said Anna Lichaeva, 19.’

Finally, the Economist publishes a series of interviews with young Russians which provide a revealing insight into the way they think.

The first interviewee is aspiring actress Valeria Zinchenko from Moscow, who thinks that life is easier in the West, but declares that, ‘I wouldn’t want to move away from here. I’m used to the mentality. I’m proud because we have a glorious history—we have so many great people, great writers, politicians and artists. If you look at world history, we’ve had so many victories. We’re a great power.’ She notes also: ‘I wouldn’t want to see two men kissing on the street. I think it’s a violation of physics or nature. I understand that such people exist, but it’s not natural.’

Next in the Economist article is army conscript Vyacheslav Volkov, who declares his desire to become a priest once his army service ends. Volkov says:

We have a lot of people in the country these days who criticise instead of doing something. They like to shout loudly about how bad everything is here. I don’t agree. I like living here. I have everything I need. Some people say that we live poorly. I say: guys, every second person, even in villages, has an iPhone. Every other family has three cars. And you say that our lives suck?

I’m going to vote this year. I’ll lose my electoral virginity. I believe that Vladimir Putin is a great leader. Knowing the history of this country, he really pulled us out of the shitter.

‘From a biblical point of view, a wife exists for her husband,’ claims Volkov, ‘The husband is the one the whole family hangs on, and the wife is there to help him.’

Third in the Economist is Abubakr Azaev, a Muslim from Dagestan. Azaev comments that ‘Religion plays the central role in my life.’ ‘Having multiple wives is permitted in Islam–to some extent it’s Sunnah, so it’s even a desirable thing,’ he continues.

Thereafter, the article provides us with a variety of different perspectives. There’s a trainee veterinarian from Barnaul in Siberia, who’s a Navalny supporter, but rejects revolution; a student chef from Novosibirsk, who has a much positive attitude towards same-sex relationships than previous interviewees and who says he isn’t religious, but is rather at a loss when it comes to Russian history. ‘I’m not sure who Lenin was and what he did,’ he says, ‘And Stalin, was he president? I don’t know, I heard he was a really harsh guy.’ There’s a gay chemistry student from Moscow who dislikes Putin; an economics student from Murmansk who favours greater sexual equality; a girl from Dagestan who wants to leave Russia and live abroad; a student from Khimki who is thinking of voting Communist but declares that, ‘Our generation already has more opportunities than our parents. It’s obvious.’; and a law student from Murmansk who thinks that domestically things are getting worse in Russia but that ‘Putin is a strong leader. As long as he’s in power, there won’t be any attacks on us.’

The Economist article ends with Mikhail, a telecoms student in Novosibirsk, who says ‘I hope to serve in the army as a signals operator, to make a contribution to the Fatherland.’ ‘Putin is a good president,’ says Mikhail, ‘There’s nothing I don’t like about him.’

But not quite as bad as I feared

It could have been worse. The Skripal affair will continue to undermine Russian-Western relations for years to come, accentuating the already deep distrust of Russia in Western states. In terms of the long term effect on attitudes, it’s decidedly bad. In the short term, though, it’s not quite as bad as I feared, as the British government has so far refrained from taking really serious action against the Russian Federation. British Prime Minister Theresa May today announced the UK’s response to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, and it consists of the following measures:

  • The expulsion of 23 diplomats – who have one week to leave
  • Increased checks on private flights, customs and freight
  • The freezing of Russian state assets where there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents
  • Ministers and Royal Family to boycott the Fifa World Cup in Russia later this year
  • The suspension of all planned high level bi-lateral contacts between the UK and Russia

Diplomatically, this is tough stuff, but in practical terms it’s more or less meaningless. Russia will simply replace its diplomats with other ones, as will the UK when Russia expels British diplomats in response. Increased checks on freight etc falls far short of new economic sanctions and certainly short of the demands some people were making to force Russian oligarchs to take their money out of Britain. I very much doubt Russia will be too bothered if Prince William doesn’t turn up to the World Cup, and this is a very minor step compared with withdrawing England from the competition. And the suspension of high-level bilateral contacts will be damaging, but something Russia can live with and not feel that it has suffered.

Certainly, the British government has avoided taken drastic action which would adversely affect British interests and prompt a severe Russian reaction – so, no sweeping sanctions, no World Cup boycott, no banning of RT, etc. In short, it all adds up to a slap on the wrist but nothing much more. There’s not much to be happy about, but let’s at least take some consolation in that.

It’s bad

I had been putting off writing anything about the poisoning of former GRU colonel Sergei Skripal in England until such time as more evidence became available, and because, to be quite honest, the whole affair is deeply depressing. The announcement that the substance used to poison Skripal was the nerve agent Novichok points the finger of blame firmly at the Russian state. After all, where else would those responsible have gotten such a substance? It isn’t unreasonable to consider agents of the Russian state to be prime suspects in this case, although clearly a lot more research needs to be done to identify who exactly poisoned Skripal and then trace their movements. Regardless, the United Kingdom will no doubt respond in a fairly forceful manner, while what little remains of Russia’s international reputation has been torn to shreds.

If indeed the attack on Skripal was ordered by somebody in authority in Russia, then it’s indicative of quite stunning stupidity on that person’s behalf, which has done enormous harm to Russian interests. It’s also indicative of gross incompetence, given not only that the attack failed to kill Skripal and was delivered in such a manner as to endanger innocent bystanders, but also that the chosen weapon was one which so clearly points to Russian guilt (and also, not unimportantly, constitutes a serious breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention). If those responsible wanted to be found out and wanted to do maximum harm to their country, they couldn’t have done a better job.

All this will, of course, provide lots of grounds for doubters to claim that the Russians couldn’t possibly be so stupid, and that the affair must therefore be some sort of false flag operation. I doubt it. Given a choice between the cock-up and the conspiracy theory, I nearly always go for the former. Alas, experience shows that people in government sometimes really are that stupid, and I don’t see why Russians should be any exception.

Whatever the truth, this isn’t going to end well. For those of us who have been trying to persuade people to work to improve Russian-Western relations, this is like a kick in the teeth. We can point out all the distortions in reporting about Russia till we’re blue in the face, but in the aftermath of something like this nobody is going to pay the slightest bit of attention. It’s bad.

As crazy as a fox

As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University? (Blackadder)

There are things I get wrong and things I get right. What’s sad is that the latter are often things I would prefer to have gotten wrong – for instance some gloomy prediction. In my last post, I remarked that Western commentators would most likely not hear the message Vladimir Putin felt he was sending in his comments about Russian weapon developments, but would instead interpret them as signs of aggressive intent. This was one of those predictions I would have preferred to have got wrong. Instead, just a day later, it’s looking like I was right.

As I sat down to my bowl of Cap’n Crunch at breakfast this morning, I found myself staring at the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, which was emblazoned with the headline ‘Putin’s War Games’ and a picture of a portrait of Putin by Ukrainian artist Dasha Marchenko made out of bullet cases.

PUTINBULLETS
Portrait of Putin by Masha Darchenko

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