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Cause for celebration

General Sir Nick Carter KCB, CBE, DSO, Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom, was born in 1959. He joined the British Army in 1978. Back then, eastern Europe was still under communist control, and the Soviet 3rd Shock Army was poised to charge forward against the British Army of the Rhine in overwhelming force if, God forbid, war was ever to erupt. Outside of Europe, civil wars were tearing Africa and Latin America apart. For instance, in the two years before Carter joined the army, civil wars broke out in Angola and Mozambique. By the time they ended, about a half a million people had died in Angola and a million in Mozambique. When Carter was still the most junior of junior ‘Ruperts’ (as British soldiers call their officers), China invaded Vietnam, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Reagan was elected president and deployed Pershing missiles to Europe, and so on and so forth. Yet, according to a speech Carter gave this week to the Royal United Services Institute, all that was nothing compared to the chaos we face today:

It is hard to remember a time when the strategic and political context was more uncertain, more complex and more dynamic – instability, it seems to me, is the defining condition. The threats to our nation are diversifying, proliferating and intensifying very rapidly. The global playing field is characterised by constant competition and confrontation, with a return to a former era of great power competition – reminiscent, perhaps, of the first decade of the 20th Century.

The General must have a very poor memory (well, he was an infanteer!). Either that, or he was blithely unaware of what was going on in the world when he was young. He adds:

Ambitious states such as Russia, China and Iran are asserting themselves regionally and globally in ways that challenge our security, stability and prosperity. This is overlaid by the threat from non-state actors such as Daesh using terror to undermine our way of life; it is complicated by mass migration- arguably an existential threat to Europe; and compounded by populism and nationalism. The multi-lateral system that has assured our stability since 1945 is threatened.

Aagh! How often do I have to say this? The world post-1945 wasn’t stable, not in the slightest. The post-war period witnessed massive changes in the global order, as the great European empires fell apart with remarkable rapidity, bringing scores of new countries into existence. These new states all too often collapsed into internal conflicts, which were then exacerbated by the two superpowers as they supported one side or the other as part of the global struggle for power. In comparison, the current day is a period of remarkable placidity. There is, it is true, an arc of conflict stretching from Mali and Libya in Africa through Yemen, Syria and Iraq and into Afghanistan, but outside of that area the world is doing pretty well compared with the past. And perhaps even that area would be doing a lot better were it not for the glorious exploits of the British armed forces, which have done such a good job bringing stability to places such as Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The good general should think a bit about that.

General Carter is also wrong to say that the multilateral system is ‘threatened’. For sure, some multilateral institutions are having troubles, as witnessed by Brexit and the European Union. But in reality, more and more states share more and more connections in multilateral institutions than ever before, and the number of such bodies is increasing all the time, with numerous new regional organizations coming into existence in the past 20 years. The countries of the world have never been more intertwined.

So what’s all the fuss about? Carter provides a clue. As he told RUSI:

Countries like Russia and China have studied our strengths and invested carefully in new methods and capabilities that are designed to exploit weaknesses. … Worryingly, many of these systems are now in the hands of proxy states. No longer can we guarantee our freedom of action which we have taken for granted, certainly for at least the last thirty years, from air or sea and on land.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and its allies, especially the USA, have enjoyed seemingly untrammeled military power. They’ve used it to topple regimes, invade foreign countries, and attempt to impose their preferred forms of government and economics. Now, the balance of power is shifting, and this ‘freedom of action’ can no longer be ‘taken for granted’. This seems to be General Carter’s real gripe. If the British military had used its power wisely in the past 30 years, then I might have some sympathy with him. Unfortunately, the British armed forces took advantage of their freedom to act with arrogance, recklessness, and incompetence, creating havoc far more often than they brought peace, justice, and stability. As a former British Army officer, it grieves me greatly to say this, but it is surely true.

The alleged ‘freedom of action’ was always something of a myth – it rested on an assumption that nobody could resist Western military power. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere we’ve seen that that is simply untrue. Freedom of action in practice meant simply a licence to do stupid things, annoy a lot of people, and provoke a hostile response. If that no longer exists, then, contrary to what General Carter says, it’s not a cause for alarm. Rather, it’s a cause for celebration.

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Casting blame, not finding solutions

Psychological studies indicate that the way people react to stories depends in large part on the way that the stories are ‘framed’. For all the talk about ‘fake news’, control of the facts people receive is relatively unimportant; more significant is the battle to control the overall framework within which people interpret the facts. If you will allow me to be all postmodernist for a bit, it’s all about the discourse, not the details.

If we look at current Russian-Western tensions, the problem, it seems to me, is that both sides are trapped within discourses which encourage them to frame events in terms of blame, conflict, and threat and not in terms of mutual misunderstanding. Consequently, they frame solutions in terms like security, deterrence, and containment, and not in terms of negotiation or compromise. Political discussion thus turns into a struggle to determine who is to blame for common problems not into an effort to find mutually acceptable solutions.

This is well illustrated by the responses in both Russia and the West to the recent event in the Black Sea, when the Russian coast guard seized three ships belonging to the Ukrainian navy. The Russian media has framed this entirely in terms of Ukrainian ‘provocation’; the Ukrainian and Western media in terms of Russian ‘aggression’. Almost nowhere will you find anybody discussing ways to improve the situation and prevent future clashes, except in the form of recommendations to increase the level of coercive power being exerted on the other party.

Interested in seeing how the Russian media was addressing the incident in the Black Sea, I spent a lot of last week watching Russian political talk shows. It was rather depressing. Again and again, the shows descended into shouting matches between the Ukrainian participants on one side and the Russian participants (including the talk show hosts) on the other. The incident was framed by all parties in terms of guilt: somebody was guilty of behaving badly; the question was simply who. This framing turned all the discussions into competitive zero-sum games – the more guilty the other party, the less one’s own; and conversely the more guilty one’s own party, the less guilty the other. The framing encouraged all involved to cast the entirety of the blame onto the other side, and to avoid any intimation that their own side might be even in the slightest bit responsible. This tendency goes beyond just recent events, and extends to the entire conflict in Ukraine – it’s either ‘Russian aggression’ or ‘Ukrainian fascists’. Anything in between is impossible.

Not once in all the shows I watched did I hear anybody from either side attempt to reframe the issue in terms other than guilt. Consequently, there was absolutely no talk of what could be done to improve Russian-Ukrainian relations beyond ‘regime change’ in the other country. One can see much the same thing in discourse concerning Russian-Western relations more generally. They are framed exclusively in terms of blame and of threat, leading to policy recommendations couched in terms of combatting the threat, rather than in terms of overcoming differences in mutually acceptable ways. The result is an escalating cycle of political tension.

How do we solve this problem? The answer is that we have to try to reframe the problem. When the issue is framed in terms of the ‘Russian threat’ or the ‘Western threat’, ‘Russian aggression’ or ‘Western aggression’, or any other similar wording, then solutions are inevitably going to be found in new security measures, increased defence spending, sanctions, and the like. Different policies will only become possible once people start framing East-West problems in ways which allow for win-win solutions. That means looking at things in terms of tensions which result from the clash of legitimate but competing interests, and from mistakes on behalf of all parties. Above all, it means framing matters in terms of finding solutions, not casting blame. Unfortunately, at present it’s the other way around – everybody is more interested in establishing the other side’s guilt than in finding a way forward. Until that changes, I don’t see how we are going to make any progress.

A matter of loyalty

Analysis of the recent clash between ships of the Ukrainian navy and the Russian Coast Guard near the Straits of Kerch has focused on the legal arguments of both sides as well as on the political motivations of the actors and the likely political and geostrategic implications. But hidden in it all is an interesting hint about the state of the Ukrainian armed forces which people seem to have missed.

Among those on those Ukrainian vessels who were captured by the Russians were officers from the Ukrainian security service, the SBU. This fact has been used by some as evidence that the Ukrainians were indeed engaged in nefarious activity in Russian waters and so were not entitled to ‘innocent passage’. If the SBU agents were intelligence personnel that might be the case. But in reality they are counter-intelligence officers. In other words, their task was not espionage, but security. As has been reported in the press,

The SBU agency said in a statement on Nov. 27 that the officers were fulfilling counterintelligence operations for the Ukrainian navy, in response to ‘psychological and physical pressure’ by Russian spy services.

So, what might be the ‘psychological and physical pressure’ being exerted on the Ukrainian navy which requires the presence of counter-intelligence on board ships? I can’t give a definite answer to that question, but one possibility is that somebody in authority is worried that Ukrainian sailors are being subjected to Russian ‘propaganda’ and that if left to their own devices, they might defect or might somehow pass messages to the Russians when passing close to the Russian coast. This explains the presence of SBU officers on board the ships – their purpose was to spy on the crew and enforce loyalty among it.

Leaders who trust their subordinates don’t need to do such a thing. And that’s why I think that this incident hints at something which analysts have failed to notice. Supporters of Euromaidan and the government which has ruled Ukraine ever since often like to say that the Ukrainian armed forces have improved dramatically since 2014 and that the war against ‘Russian aggression’ has solidified Ukrainian national identity, uniting the nation as never before. I recognize that my analysis of why the SBU had agents on board these ships is pure speculation, and may be wrong. But it makes sense to me, and if I’m right it suggests that Ukraine’s leaders don’t trust their troops very much. They may talk about the unity of the nation and the military, but deep in their hearts they don’t really believe it.

Lack of integrity

According to an article published by RT on Friday, the hacktivist group Anonymous has unearthed ‘a massive UK-led psyop to create a “large-scale information secret service” in Europe – all under the guise of countering “Russian propaganda.”’ As RT notes, Anonymous has made public documents allegedly originated by a project known as the Integrity Initiative (the ‘psyop’ in question). Despite RT’s breathless claims, I certainly wouldn’t call the uncovered operation ‘massive.’ Nor is it quite as scandalous as RT tries to make out, nor quite as secret, given that the project has a public website. Nevertheless, I do have some concerns about it.

On its website, the Integrity Initiative describes itself as:

a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. … our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous. … We are not a government body but we do work with government departments and agencies who share our aims.

In the leaked documents, the Integrity Initiative makes it clear that the ‘propaganda and disinformation’ which it has in mind is primarily Russian. Furthermore, the initiative not only works with government departments and agencies, but is largely financed by them. According to the documents revealed by Anonymous, the Integrity Initiative’s funding comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), NATO, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, the US State Department, Facebook, and the German business community. If this was a Russian project, we can have little doubt that Western commentators would denounce it as an ‘arm of the Kremlin’.

An Integrity Initiative handbook, which is among the items revealed by Anonymous, states that the project operates by forming ‘a cluster of well-informed people from the political, military, academic, journalistic and think-tank spheres, who will track and analyse examples of disinformation in their country and inform decision-makers and other interested parties about what is happening.’ This setup is unusual. Normally, academics, journalists, and think tankers operate independently from government. Here, they are collaborating. Among the British cluster members are members of Parliament, diplomats, Ministry of Defence staff, think tank personnel (from Chatham House, RUSI, Henry Jackson Society, etc), and journalists (from the BBC, The Times, and the Financial Times). The network also extends to academia, as the project is run in conjunction with the Free University of Brussels. As one of the leaked documents comments, this provides the benefit of ‘enhancing the academic respectability of the project’. As an academic, this makes me uneasy; I can’t help but feel that giving ‘academic respectability’ to secretive political projects isn’t what universities are for.

Beyond that, an application for funding from the FCO explains that the purpose of the initiative is ‘to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence. … Our programme to date has helped the UK to lead this process. Expanding this success will cement UK’s influence in N. America and in Europe post-Brexit.’ This makes it very clear that this is not a research project but a political one. Those joining the network aren’t neutral researchers, but active participants in a political campaign against Russia led by the British state and NATO. I have trouble understanding why either academics or journalists should consider this to be their job.

The project’s politics are made clear by its starting assumptions, as laid out in the funding request mentioned above. This document states:

Russia’s leaders say that Russia is at war with the West. The existence of democracy poses a threat to their dictatorial system. Undermining and ultimately destroying Western democratic institutions is Russia’s way of neutralising this ‘threat’. … … the Western system of democratic values will benefit for being protected against attack by those powers who would seek to overturn our system and all it stands for.

This statement is extreme even by current standards. For a start, I can’t recall any Russian ‘leader’ saying that ‘Russia is at war with the West’. Of course, that depends on how you define ‘leader’, but for all his frustration with the West, Putin avoids such language and continues to refer to Western states as ‘partners’. Furthermore, the idea that the Russian government’s aim is ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’ is patently absurd. I’m not aware of any Russian leader ever expressing any interest in ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’. As far as I can make out, Moscow isn’t in the slightest interested in what political systems other countries have. Likewise, the statement that Russia ‘seek[s] to overturn our system and all it stands for,’ is completely over the top – not merely unsubstantiated, but also entirely false. The Integrity Initiative’s politics amount to fearmongering.

Furthermore, as the leaked documents purport to show, the initiative engages in exactly the sort of ‘meddling’ in foreign affairs of which its members accuse Russia. In one instance, project members disliked the Spanish government’s choice for the post of director of Spain’s Department of Homeland Security. The Spanish ‘cluster’ set about lobbying against the candidate on social media, and eventually the Spanish government appointed somebody else. One can well imagine what the reaction would be if it turned out that a network of influential people who secretly belonged to a group funded by the Russian government had successfully lobbied to prevent the appointment of an official in Spain because Russia objected to him or her.

It’s a common complaint that Russian media are controlled by the state. By contrast, the Western media, and Western opinion formers, such as academics and think tank members, are considered to be independent and impartial. Yet in reality, the relationship between them is often far cozier than people understand, and sometimes far cozier than it ought to be. I’m sure that everybody involved in the Integrity Initiative believes that they are acting for the best. But if they have been secretly working with government officials in pursuit of political objectives, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people don’t trust them. There’s a reason why people turn to sources of information which are accused of peddling ‘fake news’: they don’t believe traditional sources. Projects like the Integrity Initiative help strengthen the impression of secret conspiracies and double standards. Far from solving the problem, therefore, they accentuate it,

Get them while they’re young

It’s said that if you want to win people’s hearts and minds you should ‘get them while they’re young’. It’s a lesson that the Russian state seems to have learnt, at least if the Daily Mail is to be believed. Masha and the Bear is a popular cartoon for young children, produced in Russia, but translated into other languages and shown around the world. It might seem like harmless stuff, but appearances can be deceiving. For in fact, Masha and the Bear is a devious work of Russian propaganda. As the Daily Mail tells us:

A Russian-made children’s cartoon show has been accused of being part of the Putin propaganda machine. Masha and the Bear focuses on the relationship between a slight but imposing young girl and her protector, a huge bear. In one Masha even dons a Soviet border guard’s hat as she repels invaders from the Bear’s carrot patch.

Critics said this was a metaphor for how Russia protects its borders.

Last year, Finland’s top newspaper – Helsingin Sanomat – quoted a lecturer at Tallinn University’s Communication School as claiming that the bear symbolised Russia and was designed to place a positive image of the country in children’s minds.

The lecturer, Priit Hobemagi, said that the series was a ‘beautifully presented’ part of a campaign that is dangerous for Estonian national security. Anthony Glees, an intelligence expert from The University of Buckingham told The Times: ‘Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.’

masha
Masha defends Russia’s borders

The Daily Mail concludes:

Russia’s state media have refuted the claims from the likes of Estonia and Lithuania. They have also branded the concerns in the Baltic states as ‘pathological’ Russophobia. The company who produce the popular cartoon, Animaccord, said the show is an independent project that has never received state funding.

This is one of those stories where any sort of commentary seems  superfluous. Its absurdity speaks for itself. One day, historians are going to look back on this period of our history and shake their heads in astonishment.

 

The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

Cooktown, Australia, is about 6,650 kilometres from Russia. You might imagine that it’s as safe from Russian invasion as anywhere on the globe. But, as I learnt this week, its inhabitants haven’t always been convinced of that. I thought it was worth sharing the story.

cooktown

Continue reading The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

The final casualty

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the end of fighting in the First World War.

A few miles from my family home in south Wales is a small village with the seemingly unpronounceable name of Kilgwrrwg. Just outside the village is a tiny church. You can’t reach it by road, but have to brave the sheep and molehills and trudge several hundred yards through a typically wet and muddy Welsh field to get there. When you do, you find a little piece of British history. For outside the church is the grave of Able Seaman Richard Morgan, who died 100 years ago today on the morning of 11 November 1918.

kilgwrrwg2

We know little of Richard Morgan, other than that he was a woodcutter who volunteered for service in 1916. No photograph of him survives. He drowned after the small boat he was on capsized. It is believed that he was the last British serviceman to die prior to the armistice which brought fighting in the First World War to an end. He was, therefore, the final casualty in what most now believe was an utterly futile war. So, if you’re ever in the region, perhaps consider taking a short hike across the fields to Kilgwrrwg church, pay homage to Richard Morgan, and contemplate the folly of man.

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Kilgwrrwg church