Tag Archives: CSIS

Garbage in, garbage out

Every now and again the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) holds a seminar to which it invites outside ‘experts’. It then publishes a report on what was said, minus any names so you don’t know who was involved. I never get invited to these (I’m either insufficiently expert or prone to saying the wrong things), but I do get sent the reports. The latest volume arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and I have finally gotten around to reading it. Its title is ‘Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation’, and it summarizes the results of a seminar held in Ottawa last November.

Those of you who have been following discussions of this subject over the past few years will probably need to read no further than the title. You’ll already know what’s in the report: Western democracy is under threat from ‘Russian disinformation’, as the Russian Federation uses RT, internet trolls, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to subvert our populations’ faith in their own media and governments and to support Russia’s nefarious international policies. ‘Who Said What?’ does spend a little bit of time talking about other countries, specifically China and the Philippines, but the majority of the report is clearly focused on Russia since, as the Executive Summary claims, ‘The most skilled national purveyor of falsehoods is Russia.’ According to the report, Russia:

directs an extensive network of Internet trolls and bot networks which generate and spread material across the web. Their activities are intensified by the support of diplomats, state-controlled media outlets such as RT and Sputnik … Working together, these agents of the Russian state can create a false story and ensure it reaches the segment population most likely to be influenced by it through Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. They also appear to corroborate the story through news agency interviews featuring phoney experts, forged documents, and doctored photos and videos. … Russia stands out for its highly organised strategy of using disinformation to interfere with the political systems of other countries. … Operations against Western populations aim to weaken resistance to Russian state objectives. In supporting Syria, Russia has used disinformation to cover the brutality of its attacks on civilian populations. … Russian disinformation machinery is explicitly weaponised as a resource for future wars, weakening a target country’s sense of danger and diminishing the will to resist.

This is all fairly boilerplate stuff which has been said many times. What marks this report out, though, is some of the more extreme statements which accompany it, which give an indication of the type of experts CSIS has seen fit to invite. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

No good interest is served by representing the Kremlin’s activities as Russia versus the West. In fact, the Kremlin’s main adversary has always been, and still is, Russia itself. Virtually every type of action it has undertaken against the West was first implemented in Russia, against the Russian people, and against Russia’s many ethnic, national, and religious minorities.

Hmm. I’d be interested to see the evidence backing this claim, particularly the idea that the Kremlin views Russia’s minorities as ‘adversaries’. Certainly, one doesn’t get the impression that this particular ‘expert’ is a neutral academic researcher. The same could be said of the author of the next set of comments who remarks first that ‘Russia’s current disinformation campaign against the West is more dangerous and sophisticated than ever before’, and second that ‘Every Russian citizen … is now part of a centralized vertical responsible for the state’s information security.’ The second statement is a particularly bold claim, conjuring up a picture of Russia as a totalitarian state in which every citizen is participating as a robotic arm of the Kremlin’s information machine, a quite bizarre image for which no evidence is produced.

Other extreme claims include one that, ‘Coupled with breath-taking militarism … Russia’s measures in the domain of information security have transformed Kaliningrad into a laboratory for testing future warfare’. Another states that it is a ‘myth’ that Russia is fighting terrorism (including ISIS) in Syria, and also says that Russia’s military campaign in Syria was carried out with ‘great brutality and immense suffering. Far from shortening the war, it exacerbated it’. The report then goes on to say that ‘the verified proof … suggests that the Assad government and its allies, including Russia, did indeed have a policy of targeting Syria’s hospitals’. And so on.

Of course, one may wonder how it can be that ‘the verified proof … suggests’. Proof proves. It doesn’t ‘suggest’. And one may wonder also who is doing the disinformation here. Is it the Russians, or is it CSIS’s experts?

At the end of the chapter about Russia and Syria, the report says that ‘What is required is an approach that empowers individuals not only to discover information about Putin’s war in Syria, but also to verify the information themselves.’ I’m all for allowing people to verify information. But that requires them to have access to a large variety of different sources, including those which challenge one another. Yet in a later chapter about Ukraine, somebody who is clearly a member of the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake relates with some satisfaction that, ‘An important step in disconnecting Ukrainians from Russia’s propaganda pipeline was the removal from air of 75 Russian TV channels’ as well as ‘a decree blocking Russian social networks from operating in Ukraine.’ It appears that allowing people ‘to verify the information themselves’ does not include allowing them to verify the claims of those who are hostile to Russia; in fact people must be prevented from doing so.

Interestingly, the only attempt to define disinformation in this report is a sentence which says, ‘Disinformation … is aggressive marketing of information in support of political objectives.’ This is a very odd definition. ‘Marketing of information in support of political objectives’ is what all politicians and political actors do all the time. By this definition, all politics, all diplomacy, everything, is disinformation. It doesn’t even matter if what the Russians are saying is true. They are marketing information for political purposes, and that cannot be tolerated.

The reason it can’t be tolerated is because the West is good and Russia is bad. This is an objective truth which cannot be contested. The report notes that, ‘Certain truths need to be inculcated in each generation, first among them that there is such a thing as truth – that there is an objective reality that cannot be wished away.’ I agree that there is an objective reality. The Syrian Arab Army dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine on Douma. Or it didn’t. Both statements can’t be true. But it’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. We don’t know the truth until we observe it. And in a lot of cases, especially those concerning international politics, we don’t ever get to observe it, or at least any more than a small part of it, and we have to draw conclusions based on limited, often unreliable, information. And then, we have to decide which information is important, and which isn’t, and decide how to fit it all together into a coherent narrative. At that point biases inevitably come into play and ‘truth’ starts becoming a lot more subjective. In such circumstances, what’s dangerous is not a multiplicity of competing narratives, but rather people who set themselves up as holders of the absolute truth and seek to control information in order to stop others getting hold of ‘untruth’. That is the path to totalitarianism.

Alas, there’s more than a whiff of that in this report. About the only restrained element in the document is a chapter on Brexit which concludes that, ‘Analyses of the Brexit botnet did not find strong evidence of widespread “fake news” dispersion.’ Otherwise, the experts consulted by CSIS adopt extreme positions and are so certain of the truth of their own narratives, despite (or perhaps because of) their extreme nature, that they are intolerant of alternatives.

For sure, there’s an awful lot of garbage on the internet, as well as on television, and in our newspapers. But I’m not inclined to trust those who would appoint themselves guardians of what I should and should not read, especially since my own research indicates to me that a lot of what they say is garbage too.


Russian world-views

A couple of years ago I was pretty unkind about a report about Russia published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This report was the product of a workshop CSIS had held on the subject. I wasn’t invited to the workshop, nor was I to another one which CSIS held recently, also on the subject of Russia. But I have been sent a copy of the report, entitled Russian World-Views: Domestic Power Play and Foreign Behaviour. You can read it online here.  It’s better than the last one, but I still have a few issues with it.

The report is a summary of the views expressed at the most recent workshop by four anonymous experts from Europe and North America (though, based on what they wrote, I’m pretty sure who some of them are). Because of this one shouldn’t read this document as representing CSIS’s official opinion, nor as that of the Government of Canada. It’s just what a bunch of people told CSIS. Still, it’s interesting in the sense that it gives one a flavour of the type of analysis that government officials receive.

Continue reading Russian world-views

Not so doomed: Russia in 2018

‘Russia is doomed’ is a common refrain of newspaper articles and think tank reports. It is quite refreshing, therefore, to read something which while not entirely optimistic about Russia’s immediate future is nonetheless a little more circumspect. A new report issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), entitled 2018 Security Outlook: Risks and Threats, aims ‘to explore the drivers influencing the security risks and potential threats related to specific regions of the world and themes by the year 2018.’ According to the introduction, ‘five leading global thinkers were commissioned’ to write about China, the Middle East, Russia, weapons of mass destruction, and ‘state power and cyber power’. CSIS doesn’t reveal who these ‘leading global thinkers’ are, but the one responsible for the chapter on Russia has produced 15 pages of sober analysis without any of the hyperbole normally associated with the subject.

The chapter begins by noting that ‘Pessimism characterises much Western analysis of Russian futures,’ and states that ‘the consensus appears to be that the future is alarming.’ However, it then lays out a far less negative picture, stating at the end of the introductory segment that ‘the [Russian] government’s long term family development and transport policies have shown some sign of success … Serious health problems … have substantially declined … [and immigration] is likely to sustain Russian population growth.’

After this, the chapter discusses three so-called ‘mega-trends’ which will determine Russia’s condition in 2018.

The first mega-trend is the economy. The chapter states that Russia ‘faces a wide range of problems’, and that security concerns are having an ever greater influence on economic policy. This is resulting in greater defence spending, import substitution, and increased Kremlin ‘control over macroeconomic policy.’ The chapter suggests that there is considerable ‘potential for at least the partial reversal of either liberalisation [or] international integration.’ Nevertheless, it concludes that these factors are unlikely to substantially alter the trajectory of the Russian economy, which ‘is more likely to slowly adapt to the adverse environment.’ The economy will probably move ‘firmly into positive territory in 2017 with growth of 1.7 per cent to 2.5 per cent in 2018.’

The second mega-trend is Russian domestic politics. The report says that the ruling United Russia party will probably do well in the forthcoming Duma elections. Although minor changes in personnel in the government are likely in the next two years, major changes in Russian politics are not. Theoretically, terrorism and social protest could produce significant changes in the political environment, but in practice are most unlikely to do so. The chapter therefore concludes that, ‘despite potential influences, the push and shove of political life, and some contradictions within the system, the main trend in Russian domestic politics is one of evolving consolidation.’

The third mega-trend is ‘Russia on the world stage.’ The chapter notes that Russia would like to improve its relations with the West and ‘there are strong lobbies, particularly in continental Europe, who seek to stabilise relations with Russia.’ But there are too many points of contention between Russia and the West to permit the two sides to draw closer together in the near future. In the face of ‘considerable turbulence and insecurity’ brought about by ‘Western regime change operations’ and ‘increasing competition between states over resources and values’, Russia will continue to act assertively to defend its interests. The chapter concludes that ‘the Russian leadership shows little sign of softening its position, even under economic duress. Quite to the contrary … Russia responded not by changing course, but by reinforcing it.’

Since 2014, Western policy has been to sanction Russia in an effort to undermine its economy, weaken its political leadership, and encourage a change in Russian foreign policy. If the analysis in the CSIS report is correct, none of these objectives are likely to be achieved. By 2018, the Russian economy will once again be growing; the ‘Putin regime’ will have further consolidated its power; and Russia will still be pursuing an independent line in defence of its interests. The CSIS report does not draw any policy conclusions – that is not the role of intelligence agencies – but the conclusions seem fairly clear: current Western policy is failing and will probably continue to fail; a new policy is needed.

CSIS misses the mark

This seems to be the season for reports about Russia. Hot on the footsteps of the Bow Group report last week, another volume has just landed in my mail box – a booklet from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) entitled Russia and the West: The Consequences of Renewed Rivalry. The report (which is available online) is a summary of a workshop held by CSIS’s Academic Outreach program. As the workshop was held under Chatham House rules, and as I wasn’t invited to the event, I can’t tell whose opinions are reflected in the document (though I could make some guesses). Also, the fact that what were probably 30-40 minute presentations have been reduced to 2-3 page summaries means a lot of sweeping generalizations and broad brush conclusions without much substantiation. As a result, the report is of limited use. Nevertheless, it does show what advice the academic community is giving government agencies in the West about Russia.

Some of it, such as the sections on the Russian intelligence community, business and politics in Russia, and the effects of sanctions, is o.k. Others parts are less sensible. The overall tone of the report is negative, putting the entire blame for current tensions in Russia-West relations, as well as for the war in Ukraine, on Russia. In the chapter on the Ukrainian conflict, there is a brief spark of recognition that things may be a bit more complicated than normally depicted, with a statement that, ‘Ukraine’s non-compliance with the [Minsk] agreement has now become glaringly obvious’, but this is little more than a blip in the general narrative.

This is clear from the first paragraph of the Executive Summary which states that after becoming president in 2012, ‘Instead of emphasising diplomatic initiatives, Putin introduced a comprehensive narrative of grievance which rejected post-World War Two security principles, revived traditional Russian imperialistic themes, and promoted an aggressive interpretation of Russia’s status’. Next, the chapter ‘Russia’s Self-Image and its Consequences’ states the following:

There is a clear historical link between Russia’s top-down form of government and Moscow’s imperial record. … That understanding includes the presumed right and need to dominate neighbouring regions. … What we have today is a set of legally protected myths which glorify the past. Stalin and the Great Fatherland War are its core elements. … The reality of rule by a narrow, self-interested and in part nervous cabal is by now imperfectly concealed. … Russian decision-makers have insisted with increasing vehemence that their principal antagonist is indeed the West. … It is hard for Western observers to grasp the meaning of such hollow narcissism. … Does Moscow really not understand why so many of its neighbours are afraid of it? … The logic of Russian policy is that the Kremlin should impose its rule by proxy on Kyiv. … Putin’s Kremlin is trying to force Russia into a mould that rejects its European heritage.

This reflects a common Western perception that autocratic, or at least imperfectly democratic, states are more aggressive than liberal democratic (i.e. Western) ones. And yet, most scholars who have studied the subject believe that while democracies rarely if ever fight each other, they are not in fact any less aggressive than other regime types. Martin Malia convincingly showed in his book Russia under Western Eyes that Russophobia in the West has rarely had any relation to the actual threat Russia has posed. When Russian leaders’ domestic policies have been viewed favourably, Western commentators have turned a blind eye to Russian imperialism, but when its leaders have been viewed as tyrannical, the West has vastly exaggerated the Russian danger to its security. Thus, public opinion in the West was vehemently anti-Russian during the reign of Nicholas I, even though Nicholas refrained from aggressive military actions, but it was very pro-Russian during the reign of Catherine the Great (perceived as an enlightened ruler) even though Russia expanded enormously. The idea that centralized and autocratic rule makes Russia a threat is without solid basis in fact.

Next, the idea that Stalin is a central part of Russia’s contemporary self-image is somewhat bizarre. Certainly, the Great Patriotic War plays an important role in Russian identity (as indeed does the Second World War in some Western nations), but Russians aren’t all neo-Stalinists. As for Russia’s alleged ‘hollow narcissism’, this charge is not entirely without foundation – Russian fears of Western hostility are, I believe, exaggerated, and there is a tendency for Russians to think that Western actions are directed against them when they are not. But there are some good reasons for it. Take, for instance, NATO’s proposed European anti-ballistic shield. I tend to the view that NATO planners really do see this as protecting Europe against Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles, and not as a tool against Russia. But I fully understand why Russians don’t agree. After all, the Iranian nuclear missile threat doesn’t exist. Accepting NATO’s claims means accepting that its leaders live in strange fantasy world. It’s easier to believe that they are rational, in which case, the anti-missile shield must have an alternative target, i.e. Russia. Russian fears do have some foundation. And while it is true that Russia’s rulers do not seem to realise how their actions in Ukraine might frighten some Europeans, this report makes it very clear that many in the West are equally incapable of seeing how Western actions might frighten Russia. This lack of self-awareness, on both sides of the Russian-Western divide, is a major cause of current tensions.

Finally, the claim that the Kremlin ‘is trying to force Russia into a mould that rejects its European heritage,’ is not untypical of comments in recent months which like to emphasize Russia’s alleged ‘turn to the East’, the supposed influence of Eurasianism, Putin’s increasing conservatism, and so on. But it is a huge exaggeration. The fact that Russia is trying to increase its ties with its Asian neighbours does not in any way mean that it wishes to cut its ties with Europe. On the contrary, President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and others have made it clear that this is not their intention. Moreover, Russia’s ‘European heritage’ is a cultural phenomenon which runs so deep that rejecting it is simply impossible.

The report’s final chapter concludes that ‘the relationship [between Russia and the West] is going to be cold, unproductive, and adversarial in certain areas, and will offer minimal opportunities for successful mutual cooperation.’ This fate can be avoided. But doing so will require a change in attitudes not only in Russia but also among those in the West who perpetuate negative stereotypes.