Silence of the cows

Russia and the West have long denounced one another for spreading disinformation. In a new report published by The Interpreter magazine, and entitled The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, authors Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev go a step further and accuse Russia of ‘weaponizing’ information. Weiss and Pomerantsev have also discussed their findings in a podcast on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Power Vertical blog.

The report’s primary thesis is that Russia is using information not as propaganda, but rather as a ‘weapon’ in a campaign of ‘aggression’ against the West, in order to ‘confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze’. ‘The border between “fact” and “fiction” has become utterly blurred in Russian media and public discourse’, claim Weiss and Pomerantsev, ‘the notion of “journalism” in the sense of reporting the “facts” or “truth”, has been virtually wiped out.’

Unfortunately, the report is couched in terms which suggest that it more suited to political polemic than objective journalism or academic research. Take, for instance, this segment out of a particularly polemical paragraph:

Land that was not so long ago the cynosure of the worst atrocities of modernity has once again become an active war zone, above which commercial airliners filled with hundreds of foreign-born innocents are blown out of the sky with impunity. A former KGB lieutenant-colonel, rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe, stands an excellent chance of outstripping Josef Stalin’s tenure in power and now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries. As if to demonstrate the seriousness of his threat, he dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers into their airspaces on a near weekly basis.

Let us dissect this segment bit by bit:

  • First, the authors’ use of language distorts reality by suggesting that things which have happened just once are regular occurrences, so making them seem more threatening. Note, for instance, the plural word ‘airliners’. Precisely one airliner has been shot down over Ukraine. That is bad enough, but Weiss and Pomerantsev use deceptive language to suggest something even worse. Also, observe how the authors claim that Putin ‘now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries’. This no doubt refers to a statement by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that Putin told him that if he wanted to he could have troops in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest within two days. The word ‘speaks’ suggests a regularly repeated, ongoing habit, whereas in fact we have one instance in which Putin allegedly ‘spoke’. This is a subtle difference, but it is important.
  • Second, the story of Putin threatening to invade NATO countries is entirely uncorroborated, and comes from a source with a strong interest in making Putin look bad. But even if true, it does not constitute speaking ‘openly’ of invading NATO countries given that the conversation was private. Moreover, we don’t know why Putin said what he did (if he did). Perhaps he did so in response to a threat from NATO, as a way of saying ‘don’t attack Russia because Russia can hit back hard and fast’, in which case his statement was defensive in nature, not aggressive. Context is everything, but Weiss and Pomerantsev make no attempt to address this. Instead they suggest that it is an objective truth that Putin is even now openly threatening to attack NATO. This is deceptive.
  • Third, note how Putin is described as ‘rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe’. Strictly speaking, this is not a lie. There is a rumor to the effect that Putin owns a majority share in the commodity trading company Gunvor, giving him a personal wealth of $40 billion. The problem with this preposterous rumor is that the only source for the information is an entirely unsubstantiated claim by Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, who is a cousin of the deceased exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a man described by a British judge as a liar. Repeating unfounded rumors is an easy way of blackening somebody’s reputation, but it is not good journalism.
  • Fourth, the paragraph repeatedly slips in irrelevant points whose only purpose is emotional – to turn the reader’s mind against Putin by means of association. See how I slipped in the stuff about Berezovsky in the last bullet point, to turn you against Belkovsky by associating him with a liar. Weiss and Pomerantsev use this trick repeatedly. Thus we have a reference to the ‘worst atrocities of modernity’, as if the current war in Ukraine is somehow comparable; then we have a mention of the KGB; and finally there is a comparison with Josef Stalin, a man who oversaw the deaths of millions of people. Weiss and Pomerantsev at no point directly tell readers that they are making these comparisons, but their intent is clear.
  • Finally, we read that Putin ‘dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers’ into the ‘airspaces’ of NATO countries ‘on a near weekly basis’. But a complete list of incidents involving Russian aircraft assembled by the European Leadership Network lists only two NATO countries (the Netherlands and Estonia) as having their airspace violated in the past twelve months, one of them (the Netherlands) only once. Even the more regular alleged intrusions into Estonian airspace (about five in the past six months) are not ‘near weekly’ and in any case ‘result from an unsolved airspace issue where Russian air traffic control overlaps Estonian airspace.’ Furthermore, none of these intrusions involved nuclear bombers. Such aircraft have entered the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of the United States, but ADIZs are not part of national airspace and entering the American ADIZ is a not a violation of U.S. sovereignty. Contrary to what Weiss and Pomerantsev write, there are no instances of nuclear bombers entering the airspace of NATO countries.

All these distortions appear in just one half of one paragraph. The authors accuse the Russian media of disinformation, but they are guilty of the same thing themselves.

Also interesting is the organization Weiss works for. The Interpreter magazine is a product of The Institute of Modern Russia, whose president (and source of funding) is Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of another disgraced former oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It is relentlessly hostile to the current Russian government. So too is The Power Vertical podcast. The Americans did not found and subsidize Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War for the fun of it. Rather, these radio stations had the specific purpose of subverting communism in eastern Europe. To some extent, the subversive objective remains unaltered, at least as far as Russia is concerned. You don’t turn to The Power Vertical if what  you are looking for is balanced discussions of modern Russia reflecting multiple points of view.

In short, The Interpreter and RFE/RL are ‘weapons’ too. Weiss’ and Pomerantsev’s report is very much of a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Or as the Russians say, ‘чья бы корова мычала а твоя молчала’: some people’s cows can moo, but yours should keep quiet. Hence the title of this post.


Object lesson #3: Russian hat

It snowed this week in Ottawa; time to get out the winter gear. So, for this week’s object I chose a hat I bought in Vladivostok a few years back. I have never been able to work out the purpose of the little black tail, and can only assume it is decorative.

2014-03-18 13.11.46

Debating the War in Ukraine

A number of very interesting papers were presented at the recent Danyliw seminar on Ukraine here at the University of Ottawa. These have now been posted online. Here I would like to highlight three which provide a different interpretation of the causes of the war in Ukraine from that current in the West.

Volodymyr Ishchenko of Mohyla University in Kiev discussed the role of the far right in the Maidan protests in Kiev and the pro-Maidan demonstrations which took place in other Ukrainian cities. According to the data collected by Ischenko:

The far right’s participation in Maidan was anything but insignificant. …  The far right groups were the most frequently mentioned collective actors at all stages of Maidan. Despite the decline in Svoboda’s participation in the last days of the armed insurrection, Right Sector took first position. … Our data indicates that significant far right involvement in Maidan protests were hardly an invention of hostile Russian media.

Ishchenko says that the prominent role played by the far right in Maidan was ‘a natural and inevitable continuation’ of a coalition which the more moderate opposition parties had formed with the nationalist Svoboda Party even before the Maidan protests began. This ‘legitimized the far right as a part of “normal” Ukrainian politics without any serious challenge to their reactionary and anti-democratic ideology.’

In contrast, according to another speaker, Lucan Way of the University of Toronto,  the Orange Revolution of 2004 had always been very careful with its use of symbols, avoiding anything which might antagonize the people of Eastern Ukraine. Also in 2004, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko rejected overthrowing the government by force as he understood that such an act would lead to civil war. In 2014 this caution was abandoned. This was not the 2014 revolutionaries’ only misjudgment. According to Way, ‘There was a mistaken belief that Euromaidan represented the whole of Ukraine’. This arrogant attitude meant that upon taking power the revolutionaries refused to come to any sort of accommodation with their political opponents. Instead, says Way, ‘what happened was victor’s justice’.

The result was counter-revolution in the east of Ukraine. According to a third speaker, Serhiy Kudelia of Baylor University,  the collapse of the previous governing party, the Party of Regions, following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich, left the people of Eastern Ukraine without representation. Consequently, they took matters into their own hands. The subsequent insurgency, says Kudelia, was ‘organized horizontally not vertically’, in other words it was not directed from above by Russia but was local in origin, being organized by ‘local strongmen’.

Subsequently, the new Ukrainian government’s reliance on paramilitary forces who ‘engaged in massive human rights abuses’ stoked the insurgency, as did ‘indiscriminate violence’ by the Ukrainian Army. ‘Ukrainians underestimated local support for insurgents’, Kudelia claims.

It is commonplace to blame the war in Ukraine entirely on Russia, and certainly Russia must bear a fair share of the responsibility for what has happened, as all the speakers at the Danilyw seminar acknowledged. But as their papers show, those now in power in Kiev are responsible too.

Friday Object Lesson #2: Gallipoli Medal

Ninety-three  years ago this week, between 11 and 15 November 1921, General P.N. Wrangel and the White Russian Army under his command abandoned the Crimea to the Bolsheviks and sailed across the Black Sea to Constantinople and exile. One corps of Wrangel’s army, led by General P.A. Kutepov, spent the next year in an internment camp on the Gallipoli peninsula. On this anniversary, here is the second in my series of Russia-related objects – a Gallipoli medal.


The Russian Army arrived at Gallipoli as a defeated and demoralized force, but under Kutepov’s harsh leadership, discipline was restored and his soldiers regained a sense of pride and purpose. This moral resurrection, termed the ‘Gallipoli miracle’, became an important part of the mythology of the inter-war Russian emigration. To celebrate it, Gallipoli medals were awarded to all the soldiers of the Russian Army who were interned there. (For more, see my book The White Russian Army in Exile.)

Pivoting to Asia

This week’s class on ‘Russia and the West’ looks at the Russian oil and gas industries. The week’s big news on the subject is the signing of another natural gas mega deal between Russia and China. Russia will deliver 30 billion cubic metres of gas annually to China via a new western route, the Altai Pipeline. This follows a previous deal in May of this year to deliver gas into eastern China through the Power of Siberia Pipeline, a deal supposedly worth about $400 billion to Russia over 40 years.



Western commentators always view Russian gas deals through political lenses. In this case, they are cited as evidence that Russia is ‘pivoting’ towards China, seeking a closer alliance with its Asian neighbour in order to reduce its dependence upon the West. This is a process supposedly accelerated by recent tensions between Russia and the West, and especially by the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia because of its role in the war in Ukraine.

But is this explanation of Russia’s actions accurate?

Only partly, I would say. Certainly, many Russian political and economic leaders are speaking of the need to find alternative trading partners to Europe. This means not only China, but also the other BRIC countries – Brazil and India. However, I would caution against making too much of this. One cannot simply shift one’s trade from one part of the world to another overnight, let alone do so without substantial cost. Furthermore, this year’s gas deals with China are only preliminary in nature. Crucial details of the first agreement remain to be decided, and its practical implementation is far from a done thing.

More significantly, it would be wrong to see Russia’s desire to trade with China as solely, or even primarily, a reaction to tensions with the West. As Vladimir Putin said in his speech to the Valdai Club in October:

Some are saying today that Russia is supposedly turning its back on Europe – such words were probably spoken already here too during the discussions – and is looking for new business partners, above all in Asia. Let me say that this is absolutely not the case. Our active policy in the Asian-Pacific region began not just yesterday and not in response to sanctions, but is a policy that we have been following for a good many years now. Like many other countries, including Western countries, we saw that Asia is playing an ever greater role in the world, in the economy and in politics, and there is simply no way we can afford to overlook these developments.

We in the West are very prone to a common cognitive failure. We think that what other countries are doing is always somehow about us, and thus requires some response from us. But often it isn’t, and doesn’t. Russia would have sought stronger ties with China regardless of what happened in Europe, and if Russia and China both end up better off as a result, then that is all to the good.

Russia, the West, and the world

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