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World Cup

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. I’ve been either glued to the TV watching the World Cup (I type this while watching Russia v. Egypt – currently 2-0 – no, now it’s 3-0!!) or typing a book chapter which I had promised someone I would complete by mid-June
(finished it 5 minutes ago). Tomorrow I fly off to Moscow with my two boys to watch some of the World Cup in person. We’ll be going to Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, and Kaliningrad. I will try to do a bit of World Cup blogging while there.

Stay tuned!

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Babchenko lives!

The big news from Kiev yesterday was the murder of Russian journalist and Chechen War veteran Arkady Babchenko, who in 2017 had left Russia and gone to live in Ukraine.  According to reports, his wife found him bleeding on the street outside their home. He had been shot several times in the back, and died a short while later. Once the news became public, Ukrainian officials lined up to blame the Russian government for the murder. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, for instance, referred to Babchenko’s last post on Facebook, saying:

This is the last post of Arkady Babchenko. Ten hours ago he wrote about his second birthday. And then they killed him. I am confident that the Russian totalitarian machine did not forgive him his honesty and principled stance. He was a true friend of Ukraine who told the world the truth about Russian aggression.

Except, it turns out that Babchenko isn’t dead after all. As the Kyiv Post reports:

Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist who was reportedly killed in Kyiv on May 29 and widely mourned, stood up alive at the office of Ukraine’s State Security Service on May 30, claiming his death was faked in a special operation to capture the actual killer.

Babchenko thanked the security services of Ukraine [SBU] and asked his friends and his wife, who was also unaware of the operation, to forgive him for the suffering they had to endure thinking that he had been dead.

According to the SBU, the Russian special services ordered the murder of Babchenko and paid an unnamed Ukrainian citizen, $40,000 to organize the murder. He searched for a killer to perform the murder among the Ukrainian veterans of the war in Donbas. According to the SBU, he eventually hired a man, paying him $30,000 for the murder, but the SBU learned about the operation, recruited the hired “killer” as a double agent and stage the murder in order to arrest the organizer.

The Ukrainian organizer was detained following the staged murder. According to the SBU, he was going to organize killings of 30 Russian citizens in Ukraine on Russian special services’ order, with Babchenko being the first one.

My first thought on this is: what sort of guy allows his wife to find him apparently bleeding to death outside his home and then allows her to believe that he has died from his wounds? I find this quite staggering. My second thought is: why should we believe anything the Ukrainian authorities say about this matter? After all, they’ve just admitted lying about Babchenko’s murder. They even went so far as to release false information about the murder weapon, issuing a report that three bullet casings from a Makarov pistol had been found near the scene. At this point, they can hardly be considered a reliable source of news.

The plots being uncovered by the SBU keep getting odder and odder. Just before the Babchenko case, for instance, we had the arrest of Rada Deputy Nadia Savchenko for an alleged conspiracy to blow up the Ukrainian parliament and then charge into whatever would be left of the building with machineguns to mow down any survivors. Frankly, I am having problems knowing what to make of all this. It is beyond bizarre.

Perhaps Ukraine really is a hotbed of coup plots and murderous Russian conspiracies. Alternatively, the Ukrainian state has lost all semblance of normality and is resorting to the strangest methods in order to maintain an atmosphere of fear and external threat. I’m not in a position to say which is true, but I strongly suspect that many Russians will draw the latter conclusion and see the Babchenko case as further proof that the Ukrainian state has become entirely deranged. Even if the Ukrainian claims are true, this isn’t a normal way of doing business, and Kiev’s credibility will be damaged as a result.

 

Reading Russia Right

I had been planning to write a post today about the latest report on Russia by the British House of Commons, but something came my way which is so out of the ordinary that it has to take precedence. The item in question is an article by University of Rhode Island professor Nicolai Petro entitled ‘Are We Reading Russia Right?’ and published in The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. I urge you all to read the full text online here, and to spread it as far and wide as you can. But in case some of you only have time for a condensed version, below is a summary of what Nicolai has to say.

The article starts out by describing the extremely negative image of Russia painted by most Western commentators. This image, Petro says, is incomplete. There are indeed many shortcomings in Russia, but under Putin there has also been enormous progress. Focusing entirely on the former without mentioning the latter produces a thoroughly distorted picture.

Petro then sets about listing the various ways in Russia differs from the image painted of it in the West. These include the following:

More than ten million Russians are involved in some form [of] organized volunteer activity, roughly ten percent of the adult population … sustained by multiple funding sources. …

Several of Russia’s largest daily newspapers, like Vedomosti, Kommersant, and Nezavisimaia Gazeta, are staunchly anti-Putin and reach tens of millions of readers. Novaya Gazeta’s web site alone garners more than twenty million views a month. … only three percent of Russia’s hundred thousand media outlets are state owned … Russia’s media ecology is thus far more complex than is commonly assumed.

… it was Vladimir Putin who introduced key elements of modern criminal justice to Russia. These include habeas corpus, a juvenile justice system, trial by jury, bailiffs, and justices of the peace … courts struck down compensation limits for government negligence, strengthened the rights of defendants to exculpatory evidence, provided clearer guidelines on secrecy … Closed judicial proceedings and pretrial detention centers have been all but eliminated, privacy protections for individuals expanded, and 24,000 free legal aid centers created. … Since 2014, the number of suits brought on behalf of foreign companies has tripled, while judgments in their favor have risen from fifty-nine to eighty-three percent of the total. … the number of persons incarcerated in Russia has fallen by almost forty percent since 2001, and the number of minors in prison has fallen from 19,000 to just 1,000.

… Pensions have risen tenfold since 2000 … average life expectancy has increased by more than six years to 72.6. … the government plans to raise the minimum wage to the living wage.

Western journalists are unable to see these things, says Petro, because they suffer from ‘paradigm blindness’, which is similar to the psychological trait known as ‘availability bias.’ Wishing to interpret events in Russia, they simply take the closest available paradigm which they already know – that Russia is incapable of democracy – and view everything in light of that. ‘Americans,’ says Petro, ‘cannot talk about Russia as a democracy because there is no frame of reference for Russian democracy in their minds.’ In reality, Petro writes,

Putin’s power base lies not with the oligarchs, but with the Russian people. Any approach to Russia that overlooks this is simply out of touch with reality.

Towards the end of his article, Petro includes a number of quite shockingly Russophobic comments by American writers and officials. He quotes Robert Kaplan, for instance, as saying that, all those who love Russia eventually wind up ‘realizing the utter impossibility of any good ever coming out of Russia … and throw up their hands at the beastly unchangeableness of Russia.’ Sadly, this attitude has become the norm.

No doubt those who share Kaplan’s point of view will complain that Nicolai Petro’s article is horribly one-sided, listing all Russia’s achievements while ignoring all its shortcomings. But given how many people do the opposite, some form of rebalancing is much needed. ‘To sum up,’ concludes Petro, ‘a radical re-conceptualization of relations with Russia is long overdue.’ I cannot agree more.

Time to break free from America

The Chinese smartphone company ZTE employs 75,000 people and last year sold $17 bn of products. Yet, despite being a booming and profitable concern, this week ZTE shut down its operations. Why? Because the United States has ‘banned American companies from exporting technology’ to it. ZTE phones contain a number of US-made components, as well as US-designed software. Thanks to the ban, the phones can no longer be made. ZTE is out of business, and 75,000 people will lose their jobs – just like that.

The ZTE ban follows American complaints that the company had been circumventing US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. ZTE admitted this and paid a $890 million fine to the US government, but American regulators maintained that it was still not being honest about its dealings – thus the sanctions imposed against it.

Meanwhile, following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal previously agreed between the USA, Iran, and several other countries, American officials have been warning European companies that they must stop doing business with Iran. The European company Airbus had signed an agreement to sell Iran billions of euros worth of passenger aircraft. More than 10% of those aircraft, however, consists of American parts. Conseqently, the US has now prohibited Airbus from selling them to Iran because of sanctions re-imposed on Iran following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Airbus could, of course, sell the planes anyway, but it would then find itself being fined huge sums of money in the USA and, like ZTE, have its American supplies cut off.

Any other non-American companies who rely on US components or software, and who are considering doing trade with Iran are now going to have to seriously reconsider their position. European governments and the European Union are none too happy with this. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian complained that, ‘We feel that the extraterritoriality of their [American] sanction measures are unacceptable. The Europeans should not have to pay for the withdrawal from an agreement by the United States, to which they had themselves contributed.’ Meanwhile, French Finance Minister Bruno de Maire asked yesterday, ‘Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers? Or do we want to say we have our economic interests?’

European politicians are now considering what measures they can take to protect themselves from American efforts to force them to comply with American sanctions policies. According to de Maire, the EU is considering various avenues. One of these, he says, involves ‘looking at Europe’s financial independence – what can we do to give Europe more financial tools allowing it to be independent from the United States?’ Connected with this is a ‘proposal is to set up a purely European finance house to oversee euro-denominated transactions with Iran’

For some time now, a number of Russians who disagree with their government’s economic policy have been complaining that by seeking to integrate Russia more and more into the world economy, the government has undermined national sovereignty and made it vulnerable to financial pressures from potential enemies, notably the United States of America. Economists such as Sergei Glazyev have for a while been urging the Kremlin to increase Russia’s financial independence by, for instance, ‘the creation of a system of exchanging information between banks, analogous to SWIFT but independent of the USA and the EU,’ the establishment of ‘our own rating agencies,’ pricing exported goods in rubles rather than dollars, and so on. For very good reasons, the Russian government has resisted going down this route. Economic autarky tends not to turn out well. Integration into the global economy has its benefits. Having said all that, it seems to me that examples like those above are going to add to the pressure not only on Russia but also on other countries around the world to go in the direction the likes of Glazyev are suggesting, albeit gradually and with caution. Looking at the fate of ZTE and Airbus, any senior manager of an international company worth his or her salt is going to have start thinking about how to reduce the company’s dependence on US suppliers. Politicians are also going to have to put more thought into how to strengthen their economic sovereignty. This is not something which is going to happen overnight, but the impulse to move in that direction must be stronger this week than last.

Some steps have already been taken. We see new financial structures outside US control beginning to emerge, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the petro-yuan. Already financial journalists are speculating that the US decision to renege on the Iranian nuclear deal will strengthen the latter. I tend to the view that such developments are an inevitable part of the global shift in economic power. As the US declines in relative economic terms, its grip on international institutions is bound to weaken. But decisions such as that concerning Iran can only accelerate this process. Very gradually, but nonetheless more and more perceptibly, other countries are going to want to distance themselves from the United States.

The Americans are like a man sinking in quicksand.: the more he struggles in an effort to get out, the faster he sinks. As their relative power declines, the Americans are fighting with all their might to retain their hegemony, striking out in sometimes rather peculiar directions. But the very act of struggling just sucks them down further. In the aftermath of Trump’s decision on Iran, the sound of the sand sucking America under can be heard louder and clearer than ever before.

Thought for the day

In the past few years I have noticed something of a pattern. Those who complain the loudest about Russian ‘disinformation’ are often the most inaccurate in their own depictions of reality. You can see this in my review last week of Timothy Snyder’s latest book. Likewise, I noted three years ago in my review of Peter Pomerantsev’s book ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible’ that Pomerantsev distorts reality every bit as much as the Russians he complains about. Pomerantsev also produced a report with Michael Weiss entitled ‘The Menace of Unreality’ about Russian ‘misinformation’ which, as I wrote, was very much ‘a case of the pot calling the kettle black’ given that the report was full of misinformation itself. Then there’s our own beloved Chrystia Freeland, complaining about Russian disinformation because of stories about her grandfather, stories which are true and which therefore make her own statements on the matter disinformation. And so on. You get the picture.

The same phenomenon, I think, applies on the Russian side. Russian TV contains lots of complaints about Western ‘fake news’, but generally speaking those who complain the most about it are those whom I trust the least.

And then, of course, there’s the Donald, who also loves to scream about fake news, while being a completely unreliable source of  information himself.

I don’t think that any of this is coincidence. People who complain that others are spreading disinformation are likely to be people who are very confident that they themselves are absolutely right and that people with other points of view are therefore wrong. But an excessive belief in one’s own absolute correctness is likely to be associated with extreme opinions and a closed-minded attitude, and so with being wrong.

So, here’s my observation on this matter, which I might term ‘Robinson’s law’:

‘There is a inverse correlation between the quantity and volume of somebody’s complaints about disinformation and the truthfulness of that person’s own pronouncements.’

Discuss.

‘Foreign’ Minister

Chrystia Freeland gives a new meaning to the title ‘Foreign Minister’. Normally, it means the person in charge of a state’s dealings with foreign countries. In Canada’s case, however, it sometimes seems to mean something rather different – namely, the minister who represents the interests of a foreign country. For on occasion Ms Freeland appears to be less the foreign minister of Canada and more the foreign minister of Ukraine.

This week, Canada is hosting a meeting of foreign ministers of the G7. But on this occasion, Freeland has made it into something of a G8 by inviting along her Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin. As The Globe and Mail reports:

Russia is using Ukraine as a test ground for its information war against Western democracy, Ukraine’s foreign minister told G7 ministers meeting here on Sunday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chystia Freeland wants the disruptive influence of Russia on the West to be a top agenda item, and she set the table – literally – for Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin to deliver that message to her G7 counterparts.

Freeland invited Klimkin to be part of Sunday’s talks, hosting him and other ministers at her home for a traditional brunch that was prepared by her own children.

“It was amazing how she organized it, in the sense of creating this friendly atmosphere of hospitality with ministers sitting around the table with her kids what they had personally prepared,” Klimkin told The Canadian Press in an interview Sunday afternoon.

Their conversation was decidedly less festive, with Klimkin pressing the G7 to make a strong, unified stand against what he described as Kremlin efforts to destabilize democracy through election interference and other cyber-meddling.

He called this part of a bigger war “against the democratic transatlantic community.” Supporting Ukraine, he said, should be seen “as a part of a bigger pattern.

“Fighting along with Ukraine would give an immense asset to the whole democratic community in the sense of understanding Russian efforts to destabilize the western world.”

Freeland views the clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time, and she has singled out Russian President Vladimir Putin as a major disrupter.

The G7 consists of Canada, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. These countries have some serious issues to deal with: trade relations (particularly due to the renegotiation of NAFTA, Brexit, and the recent round of protectionist measures taken by the USA and China against each other); climate change and environmental issues more generally; terrorism and international security, including the wars in Syria and Iraq; and so on. Yet Ms Freeland, in setting the G7’s agenda, has put Ukraine at the top of the list.

To say the least, it’s a rather odd choice. The future of Ukraine is hardly a vital Canadian national interest; not only is it far, far away, but bilateral trade between the two countries is a pathetic $260 million a year. The decision to promote the topic can only reflect Ms Freeland’s own personal connections to Ukraine and her consequent desire to get the G7 to take action against Russia. This becomes clear in the phrases above which say that, ‘Freeland wants the disruptive influence of Russia on the West to be a top agenda item … Freeland views the clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time, and she has singled out Russian President Vladimir Putin as a major disrupter.’

G7 members take turns chairing and hosting the meetings, so a country only gets to set the agenda once every seven times. You’d have thought that you’d use this rare opportunity to turn conversation to matters which are really vital national interests. Instead, Canada has chosen to use it to focus on Ukraine and on whipping up anti-Russian sentiment. It is extremely hard to see how this serves the Canadian national interest.

The only explanations I can come up with is that either Freeland is blinded to Canadian national interests due to her Western Ukrainian nationalist sentiments, or she really believes all that guff about Ukraine being in the front line of a Russian-led assault designed to transplant democracy with authoritarianism, and so actually does imagine that Canadian democracy is in peril because of the malign influence of Russia. If it’s the former, she subordinating Canadian interests to those of a particular foreign government. If it’s the latter, she is, in my opinion, quite deluded.

Take, for instance, the war in Syria. This does not fit Freeland’s idea of a ‘clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time’. On the one side in Syria, there is the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. One can argue about this, but just for the simplicity’s sake, let’s take it as given that this side doesn’t consist of bastions of liberal democracy. But who’s on the other side? The USA, Britain, and France, plus a whole bunch of jihadists of various unpleasant sorts, plus the increasingly ‘authoritarian’ Turkey, plus the decidedly undemocratic Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So, how is this a war of ‘democracy’ versus ‘authoritarianism’. It clearly isn’t, as the democracies are acting in alliance with quite definitely non-democratic actors.

Then, there’s the war in Yemen: Iran supposedly backing the Houthi rebels, and Britain and the USA backing Saudi Arabia. Again, given that the democracies are working hand in hand with the Saudis, how can this be described as democracy versus authoritarianism?

One could go on and on. The authoritarianism/democracy dichotomy is not a good model for describing international relations. And it isn’t a good model for describing what’s happening in Ukraine either. The toppling of Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 was certainly not a democratic process, and the post-Maidan government has not exactly been a paradigm of liberal democratic government. In today’s Kyiv Post, I see the headline ‘US State Department calls for anti-graft court, slams human rights violations in Ukraine.’ Meanwhile, another of today’s Ukraine-related headlines reads: ‘Ukrainian neo-Nazi C14 vigilantes drive out Roma families, burn their homes.’ The article which follows reveals that this wasn’t a ‘vigilante’ attack after all: the neo-Nazis responsible were members of the National Guard working in cooperation with the local administration.

Somehow, I doubt that we’ll ever see Chrystia Freeland condemning any of this. Canada’s foreign foreign minister would have us believe that Ukraine is the frontline of a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Forgive me, but I’m not buying what she’s selling.

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?