Fearmongering, pure and simple

‘Russia is ready to kill us by the thousands’. So reads a headline in today’s Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s leading daily, allegedly high-brow (i.e. non-tabloid), newspapers. The headline follows a statement by the British Secretary of Defence Gavin Williamson concerning the deadly threat which the Russian Federation poses to the United Kingdom. According to Williamson, Russians have been photographing British power stations. Russians have also supposedly also been investigating the ‘interconnectors’ which connect the UK to energy supplies in other countries. Mr Williamson told the Daily Telegraph that:

The plan for the Russians won’t be for landing craft to appear in the South Bay in Scarborough, and off Brighton beach. They are going to be thinking, ‘how can we just cause so much pain to Britain? Damage its economy, rip its infrastructure apart, actually cause thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths, but actually have an element of creating total chaos within the country.’

Russia, claims Williamson, is willing to cause damage which ‘any other nation would see as completely unacceptable,’ a claim for which he provided no evidence and rather belies the enormous damage the United Kingdom and its allies have done to other countries in recent decades (remember the wholesale destruction of Iraq in 1990/1991 anyone?). The Russian Ministry of Defence is not amused. The British Defence Secretary’s comments, says Russian spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, are like something out of a children’s comic or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In any case, there are some serious flaws in Williamson’s statement.

First, even if it is true that the Russians have carried out reconnaissance of British power systems, that it is not evidence of intent to attack them. Military intelligence collects data on such systems as a matter of course. You can bet your bottom dollar that within the British Ministry of Defence, the National Imagery Exploitation Centre at RAF Brampton, and elsewhere, the British military is collating information about potential targets inside the Russian Federation, and helping its American allies update the ‘Basic Encyclopedia’ (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the ‘Bombing Encyclopedia’) which assigns every such potential target a Basic Encyclopedia Number (BEN). That doesn’t mean that the United Kingdom actually intends to bomb any of these places inside Russia. And absence intention, there is no threat.

Second, one has to ask how Mr Williamson imagines that the Russians will be attacking these energy systems. If what he has in mind is military force – such as Russian aircraft bombing power stations – then what he’s describing is all-out, major war between the UK and Russia. How likely is that? And in that event, how many resources could the Russian military spare for the specific task of hitting British energy supplies? The scenario isn’t particularly credible. If, however, what he is in mind is cyber attacks designed to cripple energy systems, then one has to ask why that would require a major investment by the UK in military power, since military power isn’t much use against computer viruses and the like. Also, Russians taking photos of power stations isn’t really relevant for cyber warfare – photographs aren’t much use in such case.

Third, and this is what I find very revealing, the British military seems rather confused about the true nature of the Russian threat. Mr Williamson says of potential Russian attacks on British energy supplies that this is ‘the real threat… the country is facing at the moment.’ Apparently, this rather unlikely hypothetical is more ‘real’ than security problems such as terrorism as well as domestic political, economic, and social troubles. Yet, just a month ago the British Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, was claiming that the danger was something different – that the Russians might cut underwater communications cables connecting the UK to the rest of the world. According to Sir Stuart, this posed a ‘new risk to our way of life.’  But then again, just last week the head of the British Army, General Sir Nick Carter, was saying that the problem was Russia possessed ‘an eye-watering quantity of capability’, including ‘an increasingly aggressive expeditionary force.’ According to the General, Moscow ‘could initiate hostilities sooner than we expect”, and ‘it will start with something we don’t expect,’ which I guess rules out those potential attacks on power systems and underwater cables, since apparently Britain is now expecting them!

The British military industrial complex needs to get its story straight. The Russian threat keeps changing from week to week, as more and more potentially nation-destroying dangers emanating from Moscow are revealed. The only thing that all the scary stories about Russia have in common is that they repeat the mantra that Russia is dangerous, very dangerous, and that the UK should therefore spend more on defence. The BBC notes in an article about Gavin Williamson’s statement that, ‘It comes as the Ministry of Defence is under pressure to avoid cuts that could be coming from the Treasury.’ It’s quite obvious what’s going on here. It’s fearmongering,  pure and simple, designed to extort more money out of the British taxpayer.

The British Treasury should resist the demands for more money for defence. It should take a hard look at what the United Kingdom has got out of its military in the past few decades, and ask in what ways military spending has actually contributed to Britain’s security and to its welfare more generally. Were it to do so, it would come to the conclusion that military expenditure has not served the country well. Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have not gone well, and have arguably made the UK less not more safe, while costing tens of billions of pounds. Military chiefs have chosen to invest funds in prestige projects such as aircraft carriers which have sucked the blood out of the rest of the armed forces but provided no obvious enhancement of the country’s security in return. British defence policy since the end of the Cold War has been one mistake after another. As a former officer in the British Army, I say this with some regret. I wish it wasn’t so. But it is.

It’s time for the British government to face reality, and abandon the post-imperial fantasies which cast the UK as a global military power and which imagine that the projection of such power serves the national interest. I recently published an article in Economic Affairs arguing that the British defence budget was not too low, but too high.  Elsewhere, I have laid out exactly how the British military could be cut. This would save the country money and enhance the safety of the nation’s citizens at the same time. By contrast, endlessly hyping up the dangers of the ‘Russian threat’ does the United Kingdom no good at all.

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Stalin, Paddington, and the Press

What do Josef Stalin and Paddington Bear have in common? Answer: The Russian Ministry of Culture has tried to ‘ban’ films about them – or at least that what recent headlines would have you believe. The truth is a bit more complex.

The Stalin story relates to a decision by the Ministry of Culture to withdraw a licence for the release of the movie Death of Stalin, pending further investigation. It is debatable whether this really constitutes a ban. Culture Minister Vladimir Mendinsky claims that viewers might consider the film ‘an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past’, something which you might think was richly deserved. Given Mendinsky’s reasons for objecting to the film are political, an outright ban would be legally problematic since the Russian constitution prohibits censorship. This perhaps explains the ministry’s statement that is subjecting the film to further review rather than prohibiting it. Mendinsky says that it would be ‘extremely inappropriate for this picture to come out on the screens on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the historic victory in Stalingrad.’ This leaves open the possibility that the film may be given a licence once that anniversary is over in February.

Regardless of what happens, the Ministry of Culture’s action is quite indefensible. I haven’t seen the film as it hasn’t been released in Ottawa where I live (for commercial reasons, I imagine, not censorship). But I have read the graphic novel on which it’s based, and there’s no doubt that it does indeed mock the Soviet leadership at the time of Stalin’s death. It also distorts history in certain respects – e.g. portraying Soviet citizens being gunned down by soldiers during Stalin’s funeral. But mockery and bad history aren’t reasons for refusing to licence a film. It’s satire, for goodness sake. Writing in Vzgliad, Pyotr Akopov claims that it’s not for foreigners (Death of Stalin is a British film) to satirize Russia – only Russians can do that. This again is a pretty poor argument. Nobody is forcing anybody to watch this film. If you don’t like foreigners satirizing your country, just don’t go see it. Don’t ban it.

The Death of Stalin episode reveals a hyper-sensitive, paranoid, and authoritarian strain in Russia’s cultural elites (several film directors were among those who asked the Ministry not to licence the film). Is Russian identity and national pride really so fragile that the country can’t tolerate some mockery of Stalin’s Politburo (who, let’s face it, were hardly paragons of virtue)? I don’t think so. The Ministry should rethink its actions.

The Paddington case is different. In this instance, the Ministry of Culture attempted to postpone release of the movie Paddington 2. It has the right to do this with foreign films if it thinks that the timing of the release will adversely affect sales of tickets to Russian movies. Given Paddington 2’s success in Europe and North America, the Ministry obviously worried that it would attract viewers who might otherwise have gone to see something made in Russia – thus the decision. In the end, though, consumer outrage forced the Ministry to back down and a licence was released for the film to show from 20 January.

This was a clear instance of economic protectionism, completely unrelated to politics. Unlike the Stalin case, there was also no question of the film being forbidden. The plan was merely to postpone its release for a couple of weeks. It was a pretty dumb idea, but not as insidious as the case of Death of Stalin.

This, however, did not stop the British tabloid press from making some wild claims. The Sun led with the headline, ‘Russia wants to ban Paddington 2 because it’s too popular and considered Western propaganda.’ It followed up with the statement that the film was ‘deemed to be a threat to the Russian way of life,’ as well as with claims that Russia might soon ban McDonalds and KFC. None of this, of course, is true. There was no ‘ban’ of Paddington, the episode had nothing to do with the film being a ‘threat to the Russian way of life’, and the rumour about McDonalds and KFC is pure speculation and quite preposterous. The Sun finished off its article with a section about how the Soviet Union (in 1985 no less!!) had banned Western pop groups such as Village People. Quite what this has to do with modern Russia and Paddington wasn’t explained.

Other British tabloids joined in the feeding frenzy. ‘Russia tried to BAN Paddington 2 branding popular film Western PROPAGANDA,’ shouted the Daily Express, which went on to tell readers that ‘the Kremlin takes issue with the foreign values in the children’s film.’ The Daily Star, meanwhile, linked the affair to Russia’s leader with the headline, ‘Vladimir Putin in bid to ban Paddington film from Russian cinemas.’ There is, of course, no actual evidence to link Putin personally to any of this. Were such stories to appear in RT, they would no doubt soon be classified as ‘fake news.’

All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t put too much faith in either the Russian Ministry of Culture or the British press.

The national interest?

This evening, the class I teach on military and defence policy will be discussing the concept of the ‘national interest’ and whether it has any value. One of the questions I will pose to the students is ‘who defines the national interest?’ That will lead us on to a discussion of the idea of the ‘military industrial complex’, and again we will debate whether this term has any value. The point will be to consider whether defence policy flows naturally from some objective ‘national interest’ or whether it is instead determined by certain narrow, vested interests (or perhaps some combination of the two).

In a happy coincidence of timing, the head of the British Army (of which once, a long time ago, I was a member), General Sir Nick Carter, has provided us with a relevant case study to chew upon in our class. The BBC reports that in a speech tonight to the Royal United Services Institute, General Carter will argue that, ‘Britain’s armed forces risk falling behind Russia without more investment.’ According to the BBC, General Carter ‘will say the Army’s ability to respond to threats “will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries” … He will add that Russia is building an increasingly aggressive expeditionary force, which already boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match.’

Making exact comparisons between countries is somewhat difficult, as exchange rates fluctuate considerably, and there is some disagreement as to what should be included as ‘defence’. According to some estimates (e.g. the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), Russia spends a bit more on defence than the United Kingdom, perhaps a little under US $70 bn, compared with about $50 bn for the UK. That might seem to support the general’s point. However, the most widely respected database on the subject, the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance, lists British defence spending as being larger than that of Russia – $52 bn versus $46 bn. That doesn’t support the idea that Russia is more capable militarily than the UK. Perhaps a fair compromise might be to say that both countries’ spending is roughly in the same ball park. But Russia’s population is more than double that of the UK. Also, the UK is a very small country stretching just a few hundred kilometres from top to bottom, whereas Russia covers 11 time zones. The Russian armed forces have to defend not only their border with NATO, but also borders with the Caucasian and Central Asian states, China, and North Korea. The proportion of the Russian military which would be able to confront the UK in a conflict would be quite small. If you define capabilities in general terms, rather than a few specific items of military equipment, General Carter’s statement that Russia ‘boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match’ is rather hard to justify.

This is particularly so given that the UK is a member of NATO, and in the extraordinarily unlikely event that the UK and Russia ever went to war (the low likelihood of which is itself a point against General Carter), the British Army would never have to fight Russia alone. It would be part of a much larger alliance which outspends Russia by about 13 to 1. Just the European members of NATO outspend Russia by 4 to 1, and outgun it several times in terms of items of major military hardware (tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships, etc). NATO would certainly not ‘struggle to match’ Russia in the case of war.

The BBC notes that in his speech tonight, General Carter ‘will highlight Russia’s new cyber warfare capabilities.’ This is an odd choice of threat to highlight in order to appeal for an increase in defence spending. Combatting cyber threats isn’t an expensive activity, especially compared with, say, building and maintaining aircraft carriers. Mentioning it seems to serve only one purpose – to generate fear.

The BBC is quite clear about what’s going on here – there is ‘speculation of defence cuts’. To resist these, the Defence Minister has instructed the general to speak out about the Russian threat. The BBC says:

General Carter’s intervention is more driven by fears of further deep cuts to the UK’s armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has a black hole in its budget. It is rare for a military chief to make such an obvious and public appeal for more cash. But he’s doing it under the orders of the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. He has sent his generals over the top to put pressure on the chancellor.

When the Cold War came to an end, the justification for the British defence budget collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Defence planners instead came up with the idea of using the military to be a ‘force for good’, reshaping the world through armed intervention. Next, they used the terrorist ‘threat’ to justify increased budgets to pay for wars supposedly being fought against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of that worked out well, so the military has had to find a different justification for its money. And this is where Russia comes in useful. By exaggerating the Russian threat, the British army can make a claim to an increased share of the the country’s resources. The connection between the two – exaggerating threats and claiming resources – is quite explicit in this case.

We see here how the military industrial complex works. The army makes wild claims to justify its budget; the defence minister and his bureaucracy support the claims; institutions such as RUSI spread the word further among those who influence public opinion; and the press does its bit by giving space to the exaggerations. This isn’t a conspiracy – no doubt all these people believe in what they are doing. Long exposure to a given set of institutions tends to make people identify the national interest with those institutions’ interests. But the two aren’t the same. The British nation – that is to say its people – doesn’t benefit from conflictual relations with Russia; nor does it benefit from spending extra money on defence rather than on more productive activities (or alternatively, people getting their money back in the form of tax cuts).

Of course, the military industrial complex isn’t the only ‘complex’ making a claim on the government’s money. Other interest groups are pushing their own stories which justify them getting a large share of the pie at the expense of defence. They too will no doubt make exaggerations of their own. Government has to balance all the different claims for its resources from different groups, and in the process some understanding of the ‘national interest’ perhaps reasserts itself. But that shouldn’t deflect us from seeing in this story a crucial truth: one reason why Russia fear-mongering has become so widespread of late is that it serves powerful sectional interests to have an enemy.

Backtracking on Russian information warfare

It’s interesting to witness somebody backtracking from a long-held opinion without actually admitting it. This thought came to mind when reading an article by Peter Pomerantsev in this week’s New Statesman reviewing David Patrikarakos’ book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. For some time now, Pomerantsev has been propagandizing (I use the word advisedly) the idea that Russia is waging ‘information war’ against the West. This was the primary theme of a report he wrote with Michael Weiss called The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, as well as of a report he co-authored with Ed Lucas, Winning the Information War: Techniques and Counter-Strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe. In his New Statesman article, however, he takes a somewhat different stance.

Pomerantsev comments that he has been researching what he calls ‘foreign (dis)information operations during the German election.’ He remarks that his research showed that,

The campaigns came from all sorts of places. The German-language arm of Kremlin state broadcaster Sputnik was blatantly biased towards the anti-immigrant, far-right Alternative für Deutschland party. Pro-AfD (and most likely German) automated Twitter accounts would avidly retweet Sputnik stories

Contained within this statement is an interesting admission – Twitter accounts promoting the AfD weren’t Russian, it seems; they were ‘most likely German.’ The fact that they may have posted links to Sputnik doesn’t constitute ‘Russian interference’ in the German election. But it turns out that it wasn’t just Germans who were interesting in affecting the outcome of the German election and in promoting the AfD. Pomerantsev continues:

There were also US and European alt-right activists who congregated on the message board 4chan, and more obscure sites such as Discord, to create “meme factories”, partnering with German far-right movements to hijack Twitter hashtags.

So, it turns out that the foreign forces trying to influence German politics were a) American, and b) European. Given the large number of headlines we have seen in the press about ‘Russian interference’ in the German election, this is quite interesting. What we have is not a situation in which everybody in the world is minding their own business apart from the Russians, but one in which people from all over the place are getting involved and trying to influence people in other countries. Pomerantsev thus notes that in his book David Patrikarakos argues that, ‘No longer can we talk of one nation battling another through propaganda: the field is now swarming with individual actors, each a little propaganda state in their own right.’ Pomerantsev concludes:

By the end of our research it was clear that one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space. Instead, one has transnational, ever-shifting networks of toxic speech and disinformation, including both state and non-state actors. These can operate for financial, ideological or simply personal reasons, allying and mutually reinforcing one another to pursue quite different agendas.

Coming from Pomerantsev, this is quite remarkable. After spending the past few years trying to convince us that the problem is information operations conducted by the Russian state against the West, he’s now telling us that, ‘one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space.’ That’s very different.

Pomerantsev doesn’t like what’s going on. The anarchy of the digital information space means that there are lots of ideas out there that he disagrees with, as well as a lot of false information. Something must be done, he seems to be saying. At the same time, Pomerantsev suggests that this messy situation is in some way new, or at least that that is what Patrikarakos claims in his book. But is it really? Non-state actors have been spreading revolutionary messages, trying to discredit their own and other countries, propagating dubious ideas, and distributing downright falsehood for a very long time indeed. If Pomerantsev had been writing 100 or 200 years ago, he’d have no doubt been complaining about how it was far too easy for dodgy states and non-state actors to wage ‘information war’ by means of the printed word, how the declining cost of printing was allowing all and sundry to publish dangerous tracts which undermined Western democracy and subverted our security, and the like. In my opinion, all this talk of ‘hybrid war’ and so on as something new, is so much nonsense. Digital media have made it easier to spread messages faster and wider, but in essence nobody is doing anything different from they’ve done heretofore.

The world is a messy place. Pomerantsev is right about that. That said, I don’t think that messy is bad; diversity of opinions, including that of outsiders, and a clash of narratives and perspectives, is probably healthy. I also have sufficient confidence in the strength of our Western societies not to think that we need to be afraid of people propagating views we dislike on Twitter. Moreover, if what’s really going on is that every man and his dog from every country in the world is piling into political debates, then that’s far removed from the idea that the real problem is ‘Russian information warfare’. It would be good if Pomerantsev admitted it.

Moderation, nuance, balance

I have updated my blogroll, deleting one redundant link to a site which doesn’t seem to have posted anything new for months, and adding a couple of new links: to Meduza and The Duran. The fact that I’m connecting to both those sites, despite their very different politics, is indicative of my desire to listen to a broad variety of viewpoints concerning Russia. To that end, I have long since listed on my blogroll a bunch of websites whose content I almost always vehemently disagree with. I doubt, for instance, that ‘The Power Vertical’ has ever said anything I could remotely endorse. But it’s important that we don’t live in a ‘filter bubble’ in which we block out people whose views don’t coincide with our own.  Truth comes through dialogue, engagement, and discussion, not censorship.

That said, there are limits. Being on my blogroll isn’t an endorsement, but it is a recognition that the site in question is at least not entirely un-respectable. There are websites which discuss Russia and international affairs, which I’m not prepared to link to. I have, for instance, never put The Saker on my blogroll due to its incessant talk of ‘Anglo-Zionist’ conspiracies. That is not something I wish to be associated with.

With this in mind, I have removed the connection to Russia Insider as a response to Charles Bausmann’s ill-judged recent article about Jews. I don’t think that I can stop Russia Insider reprinting my articles if it wishes, but henceforth I will no longer encourage people to visit that site.

Countering the widespread nonsense being spoken and printed about Russia is hard enough as it is. It becomes harder when those wishing  to do so make extremist statements and thereby taint others engaged in similar activity by association. Moderation; nuance; balance – those are the values which we need to bring to the discussion, and those are the values which I hope this blog succeeds in promoting.

Moscow conference

At the start of September I spoke at a conference in Moscow dedicated to exploring the current tensions in Russia-West relations. Paul Grenier has now produced an excellent summary of the conference proceedings for The American Conservative. You can read it here.

Conference participants raised a lot of really interesting ideas. I don’t agree with them all, but I thoroughly recommend Paul Grenier’s piece to you all, so that you can decide for yourselves. On top of that, his analysis raises a host of questions for future consideration:

  • Is there an ideological/philosophical divide lying at the root of current Russia-West tensions? In my own presentation, I suggested that perhaps there is: Russia and the West seem to have very different conceptions of what constitutes a ‘rules-based international order’. If this is the case, then our current difficulties are rather deeper than many people imagine and can’t be resolved simply by compromising over certain material interests. Instead, they require us to find some way of reaching philosophical agreement – not an easy task.
  • But is agreement even possible? Boris Mezhuev’s idea of ‘civilizational realism’ rests on an assumption that it isn’t, and that the only way for Russia and the West to live in peace is to recognize each other as separate civilizations, in effect to agree to disagree.
  • Is there any way that the West would ever ‘agree to disagree’? Western liberalism is essentially universalistic. I have my doubts that it could ever accept ‘civilizational realism’ as this would mean accepting that Western liberalism is not applicable to all. That puts us in an impasse: Russia and West appear to be philosophically divided; they can’t reach agreement, but they also can’t agree to disagree. I have to admit that I’m not sure how we get out of this.
  • Is the answer to be found in some sort of ‘post-liberal politics’? Is the only solution to our problems a re-imagination of what it means to be liberal, as James Carden suggests? Does it require a disassociation of globalization from Westernization, as Nicolai Petro says? Richard Sakwa raises an important issue, in explaining that the West doesn’t truly believe in dialogue. Globalization to date has largely been about spreading Western standards and modes of operation; it hasn’t involve a genuine exchange of ideas between different parts of the globe. Do we need, then, to abandon liberalism, as Adrian Pabst claims? (If we do, I’m not sure that we are capable of it.)

As I said in the conclusion of my own presentation to the conference, we don’t have any great answers to these questions, but at least conferences like this help us define what the questions are. It’s an important first step. Many thanks to Paul Grenier for  organizing our  meeting in Moscow, and to him and The American Conservative for making our deliberations available to a wide audience.

Russia, the West, and the world

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