After RT published a video released by the Russian Federal Security Service showing the head of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation meeting with an alleged MI6 agent, I rushed out a quick blog post. After a minute or two, I then deleted it, as I believed that the issue needed deeper reflection. I have now rewritten the piece, and it has been published by RT here.
To make life easier for you all, I have copied the text into this blog post below. I’ve also added in the RT report with the FSB video (I embedded the Russian version as the English one, for some reason, doesn’t include the excerpt I cite below, but if you don’t speak Russian, don’t worry – in the key bits of the video they are speaking in English. Just fast forward to the segments in black and white). Here it is:
Yale historian Timothy Snyder was out banging the fascist drum again this weekend in The New York Times. In the aftermath of the Washington riot by America’s version of the old Russian Black Hundreds, Snyder warns of Donald Trump’s ‘pre-fascism’. This builds on his previous work, which portrays Trump as tool of the not pre- but very genuinely ‘fascist’ Valdimir Putin.
As well as his job at Yale, Snyder has a position as a Permanent Fellow at the Vienna-based Institut fur die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM – Institute for Human Sciences, in English). In November he gave an interview to the IWM for its online publication Eurozine, in which he again evoked the spectre of American fascism, saying that, ‘I think it’s impossible to talk sensibly about Mr. Trump without invoking the history of fascism.’
Snyder, therefore, has no problem in seeing fascists. Except, of course, in Ukraine, where fascists are an invention of Russian propaganda designed to delegitimize the glorious and democratic ‘Revolution of Dignity’. Which makes the following rather interesting.
One of the IWM’s ‘focal points’ is what it calls ‘Ukraine in European Dialogue’, as part of which it has an annual competition to appoint Ukraine in European Dialogue Fellows. Today the IWM issued the following Tweet:
The jury of the Ukraine in European Dialogue fellowship has been requested by the IWM Collegium to reconsider the award of a fellowship to Olena Semenyaka. We take the information recently brought to our attention very seriously and will issue an official statement tomorrow.
And then four hours later:
Following a decision by the program jury, the IWM revokes Semenyaka’s fellowship with immediate effect. We sincerely apologize for the inexcusable misjudgment, especially to the Ukrainian research community, & will take further steps to prevent a similar incident in the future
So, who is this Olena Semenyaka? Well, she is allegedly the one on the left in this picture holding the Nazi flag and doing the Hitler salute.
If you want to know more about Ms Semenyaka, I would recommend an article published in October by George Washington University’s Illiberalism Studies Program, entitled ‘Olena Semenyaka: The “First Lady” of Ukrainian Nationalism’. It’s about the first thing which pops up if you Google her name, which makes the IWM’s decision to appoint her as a fellow all the more bizarre. Did they not check her out first? Or did they just not care until somebody found out?
According to the GWU article, ‘Olena Semenyaka is the female figurehead of the Azov movement’. A former disciple of Alexander Dugin, she broke ties with him following the Maidan revolution and joined the Right Sector before switching to Azov. She has since become a prominent proponent of the Intermarium – a sort of Eastern European Union stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, rather along the lines of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. To this end, she has established links with far right groups across Europe.
Philosophically, Semenyaka draws on the likes of Ernst Junger, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Alain de Benoist, ‘collaborationist writer, Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle’, Julius Evola, and Charles Maurras. On top of this, she’s a big fan of Black Metal music, which she calls an ‘Aryan Luciferianism’. She is ‘close to the neo-pagans and Esoteric Nazis of Wotan Jugend, led by Russian Alexey Levkin, vocalist in the Militant Black Metal band M8L8TH,’ and played ‘an active role in the organization of the “Asgardsrei” Black Metal festival and the “Pact of Steel” Conference.’
If we looking for a fascist, who’s going to be first on our list? Donald Trump or Olena Semenyaka? The answer is pretty damn obvious. So why are people so quick to shout ‘fascist’ in the case of Trump but completely blind to it when it comes to Ukraine?
Take another example – Ottawa-based Twitter commentator Michael McKay, who touts a PhD from the London School of Economics and declares himself a ‘veteran of Ukraine democratic and civil society renaissance.’ Over the past few days, Mr McKay has been keen to portray the riot in Washington as the work of the Kremlin. ‘Not defeating Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Donbas led to Russia falsifying the U.S. election and putting Putin puppet Trump in the White House. Not removing Trump as Ukrainians removed Yanukovych led to the insurrection and attack on the Capitol,’ McKay Tweeted over the weekend.
To this McKay added evidence that Russia was behind the ‘insurrection’ in Washington. Posting pictures of Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Dubynin first with soldiers during the battle for Donetsk airport in 2014 and then with protestors at the Capitol last week, Mckay commented:
A tie-in between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the insurrection in the United States. Serhiy Dybynyn is an infowarrior for Inter TV, nominally owned by fugitive oligarch Firtash but beneficially owned by Putin pal Medvedchuk. Donetsk airport was destroyed by RU forces.
Suspicious, huh? Except, as Bryan MacDonald has pointed out, Dubynin is actually ‘a Ukraine supporting Neo-Nazi who is wanted on criminal charges in the “pro-Russian” Donbas region of East Ukraine.’
Outside of a particular time period (1920s to 1940s), I don’t think that the term ‘fascism’ has a lot of meaning. But I find it odd that those who do like to use the word somehow fail to see it when it’s staring them in the face. Odd, but not inexplicable. It’s probably no coincidence that the IWM somehow failed to investigate Ms Semenyaka’s political beliefs, or that Dr McKay misidentified Mr Dubynin. The term ‘fascist’ is far too easily abused. It’s out there, but not where many people would like you to think it is. Caveat lector.
America goes to the polls today to pass its judgement on Donald Trump’s four years as president. Domestic issues will no doubt determine the choice of most voters, but for a few of them foreign policy will matter too. Among some of the latter there will be a sense of disappointment that Trump failed to deliver what he had promised four years ago.
Back then, more than a few people were more than a little worried about the aggressive foreign policy tendencies of Trump’s rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. The chilling video of Clinton laughing about Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal death, and chuckling ‘We came, we saw, he died’, led to fears that her victory would lead to even more wars, with the neoconservative/liberal interventionist lobby riding on Clinton’s coat-tails to push American deeper into futile military adventures overseas.
In contrast to Clinton, candidate Trump, back in 2016, promised peace. He’d restore relations with Russia, talk to North Korea, and bring the troops back from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Trump seemed to understand that endless war brought America nothing but harm, and that foreign and defence policy needed a complete rethink. He was thoroughly castigated for it, but he was right. If he’d done what he said he’d do, the United States, and many other places, would be much better off today.
Alas, it was not to be. Trump tore up the nuclear agreement with Iran and assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The wars he promised to end are all still going strong. Initially, rather than bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, Trump authorized a surge of additional forces. Later he announced that all American troops would leave Syria, only to reverse himself a few days afterwards, and then ended up declaring that American had to stay in Syria to control the oil fields! As for relations with Russia, they’ve gone from bad to worse. It’s not a pretty record.
What happened? One part of the answer is that Trump made some poor personnel choices, surrounding himself first with a bunch of generals and then with hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. It’s almost like he was deliberately sabotaging himself. Another part of the answer appears to be that, at least in some respects, Trump has been a very weak president, unwilling or unable to press his point of view when faced by resistance from the civil and military bureaucracy. Reports say that whenever Trump came up with a plan to reduce America’s military footprint abroad, the bureaucracy would devise some scheme to ‘scare’ him into believing that the consequences of such a move would be disastrous. Again and again, Trump caved in.
There are just two things that can be said in Trump’s favour. First, he at least tried to talk with Russia and North Korea, and in Afghanistan with the Taleban (in the latter case, with some success). And second, he is the first US president in 40 years (since Jimmy Carter) not to start a war.
Think of that last one for a second – the first president in 40 years not to start a war. In a way, it’s a real achievement. Perhaps Trump does, after all, deserve the title ‘peace president’. But then, think a bit more. Not starting a war shouldn’t really count as something special. It ought to be the default position. The fact that it is so remarkable tells us less about Trump than it does about the dysfunctional nature of US foreign policy.
In the end, then, the feeling of disappointment is not unjustified. By 2016, the American people were getting fed up with failed military adventures. Trump won a mandate to bring those adventures to an end. But he blew it. He could have been the peace president. Instead, he was at best the ‘almost’ peace president, or at any rate the ‘not war president’. That’s at least better than the alternative, but it’s not what people were hoping for. We’ll have to see what happens next, but I can’t say that I’m brimming with optimism.
Oh boy, oh boy! The United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has come out with a new report on ‘Russian active measures campaign and interference in the 2016 US election’, and it’s a whopper – 1,000 pages. Being a glutton for punishment, I whizzed through it last night, but unless you are truly obsessed with the topic, I don’t recommend that you follow suit.
The reason is that it is unlikely to change your mind. If you already believe in a vast Russian conspiracy to undermine American democracy, you will read the report as confirmation that you are right. And if you don’t, you’ll find nothing in it to make you think differently. I’m not going to waste your time, therefore, discussing whether I consider the report’s conclusions credible. Instead I will use the report in a different way, as a lens through which we can examine the basic assumptions which drive analyses of anything Russia-related in the United States.
I’ve said before, and no doubt will say again, that depictions of Russia often have little to do with Russia itself and are more about those doing the depiction. For many in the Western world, Russia is, and long has been, a significant ‘other’, comparison with which serves a useful purpose in the creation of self-identity. Beyond that, negative (and on occasion even positive) portrayals of Russia feed into domestic political struggles and help legitimize one side or other in whatever argument people are having. Whether these portrayals of Russia are accurate is neither here nor there. What matters is their impact on domestic politics.
Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but historians who have looked at how Westerners have viewed Russia over the course of time have amassed enough evidence to show that it’s often the case. If you doubt it, then you have merely to look at what has happened in the United States in the past four years, during which time Russia has been elevated into enemy number one, an allegedly existential threat which is on the cusp of destroying American democracy and plunging the country into civil strife. The point of the Russiagate hysteria has never been Russia itself. Rather it has been to delegitimize the election of Donald Trump as American president by portraying him as, in effect, a traitor, who has sold out his country to a foreign enemy. This narrative, of course, presupposes a foreign enemy, for which purpose one has had to be created, and Russia has proven a convenient candidate for the role.
It is this, I think, which explains the latest Russia scandal to strike the United States – the claim this week in the New York Times that Russian military intelligence has been paying the Taleban in Afghanistan to kill Americans. I am, of course, not in a position to testify as to the accuracy of the complaint, but like others am deeply sceptical of anything that is based solely on the testimony of anonymous intelligence officials and that lacks any supporting evidence. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times’s story has led to much derision, being interpreted as a sign once again of the deeply Russophobic nature of the American press. I think, though, that that interpretation may miss the point, which is that the story, like so many others, is not really about Russia but rather yet another effort to discredit Donald Trump as a puppet in the control of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
This is because a key aspect of the story was an allegation that Trump had been briefed about Russia’s nefarious activity but had done nothing in response. As might be expected, Trump’s enemies in the media were quick to exploit the story to attack the president. For instance, MSNBC’s prime Russiagate cheerleader Rachel Maddow had this to say:
Not only does the president know … there was that unexpected and friendly conversation he had with Putin. … President Trump got off that call with Putin and immediately began calling for Russia to be allowed back into the G7. … That’s how Trump is standing up for Americans being killed for rubles paid by Putin’s government.
Maddow’s colleague, MSNBC morning news host Joe Scarborough, followed suit. ‘Donald Trump has known about Putin killing Americans for months and has refused even to condemn Russia diplomatically. What Republican senator will speak out against this shocking dereliction of duty?’ he tweeted. Other journalists were equally outright in their condemnation. ‘While Trump was cozying up to Putin, Russia was paying the Taleban to kill American troops in Afghanistan,’ said GQ’s Laura Bassett on Twitter; and so on.
Whether any of this was true was something that none of these journalists bothered to ask. They simply assumed that it was, for the obvious reason that always assuming the worst about Russia suits their political agenda. Most notably, Trump’s electoral rival, Joe Biden, said this about the president:
Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin. … His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.
The problem with all this is that, as with so much of Russiagate, it appears to be entirely false. The White House immediately denied any knowledge of the Afghanistan story, and the Director of National Intelligence backed up Trump by confirming that, indeed, the president had never been informed about the alleged Russian activity. As so often, The New York Times appears to have been peddling ‘fake news’. None of this, however, has stopped Trump’s opponents from seizing on the story as further evidence of the president’s treachery.
The question in my mind is what will happen should Trump lose the presidential election in November, an outcome that now seems likely. It strikes me that there are two possibilities. The first is that the Democratic Party and its supporters will lose interest in stories of alleged Russian malevolence, as they will no longer be needed. A Biden victory in November could, therefore, lead to a lessening in the current rhetorical tension. The second possibility is that nothing will change. Democrats, I fear, have come to believe the nonsense that they have been peddling, to the extent that it’s become part and parcel of who they are. They are therefore incapable of altering course, and will govern on the basis of the prejudices they have generated in themselves over the past few years. I would like to think that the first possibility will come to pass, but I have to say that I’m not too optimistic. As for what will happen in the event that Trump is re-elected, I dread to think. But at that point, America might well be engulfed in flames, and Russia will be the least of anybody’s problems.
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. [Gone with the Wind]
It’s not been a great week for proponents of Russiagate conspiracies. A release of transcripts of meetings of the American House of Representatives Intelligence Committee revealed that person after person interviewed by the Committee denied having any knowledge of collusion between Donald Trump and his campaign on the one hand and the Russian state on the other. This was despite the fact that many of those so interviewed had claimed in public that such collusion had taken place. The discrepancy between their public and private utterances has rightfully been interpreted as further evidence that the whole collusion story was a fabrication from start to finish.
Collusion was only half of Russiagate. The other half was the allegation of Russian ‘interference’ in the US election, founded especially on claims that the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, had hacked and leaked documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). This allegation was based on research undertaken by a private company Crowdstrike, but now the Intelligence Committee minutes reveal that Crowdstrike couldn’t even confirm how the DNC data had been leaked let alone that the Russians were responsible. All they had, according to the testimony, was ‘circumstantial evidence’ and ‘indicators’ – not exactly solid proof.
Given this, you’d imagine that this would be a good time for Russiagaters to slink off into a dark corner somewhere and hope that people forget all the nonsense they’ve been spouting for the past four years. But not a bit of it, for what do we find in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine than an article by Franklin Foer with the scary title ‘Putin is well on the way to stealing the next election’.
Foer is in some respects the original Russiagater. He was well ahead of the game, and in a July 2016 article in Slate laid out the basic narrative many months before others latched onto it. The article has it all: a scary title (‘Putin’s Puppet’ – meaning Trump); Vladimir Putin’s evil plan to destroy Europe and the United States; a cast of characters with allegedly dubious connections to the Kremlin (Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, etc. – you met them first in Foer’s article); Trump’s supposed desperation to break into the Moscow real estate market; allegations of Trump’s lack of creditworthiness leading him to seek shady Russian sources of finance; and so on – in short, the whole shebang long before it was on anyone else’s radar.
Not wanting to let a good story go to waste, Foer has been on it ever since, and gained a certain amount of notoriety when he broke the ‘story’ that US President Donald Trump was secretly exchanging messages with the Russian government via the computer servers of Alfa Bank. Unfortunately for Foer, it didn’t take more than a minute or three for researchers to expose his revelation as utter nonsense. This, however, didn’t seem to shake him. In the world of journalism there appears to be no such thing as accountability for those who publish fake news about Russians producing fake news, and so it is that Foer is back on the Russiagate wagon with his new piece in the Atlantic, warning us that it’s bad enough that Putin elected Trump once, but now he’s going to do it all over again.
The basic theme of Foer’s latest is pretty much the same as in his original article of July 2016. Back then Foer informed readers that, ‘Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West – and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump’. ‘The destruction of Europe is a grandiose objective; so is the weakening of the United States’, Foer went on, keen to let us know that Putin’s aims were nothing if not extreme (‘The destruction of Europe’ no less!!). Now, nearly four years later, he tell us breathlessly that ‘Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system’ (How does he know this? Does he have some special dream detection equipment he’s snuck into the Kremlin? Alas, Foer doesn’t tell.) According to Foer:
It’s possible, however, to mistake a plot point – the manipulation of the 2016 election – for the full sweep of the narrative. Events in the United States have unfolded more favorably than any operative in Moscow could have dreamed: Not only did Russia’s preferred candidate win, but he has spent his first term fulfilling the potential it saw in him, discrediting American institutions, rending the seams of American culture, and isolating a nation that had styled itself as indispensable to the free world. But instead of complacently enjoying its triumph, Russia almost immediately set about replicating it. Boosting the Trump campaign was a tactic; #DemocracyRIP remains the larger objective.
#DemocracyRIP?? Seriously? Where does Foer get this? I’m willing to offer him a challenge. I’ll pay him $100 (Canadian not US) if he can find anywhere, anywhere, any statement by Vladimir Putin or another top official in the Russian Federation in which they state any sort of preference for what sort of political system the United States has, and in particular state a preference that the USA ceases to be a democracy. If he can’t, he’ll have to pay me $100. I’m confident I’ll win. The truth, as far as I can see, is that like Rhett Butler, they don’t give a damn. America can be a democracy, or an autocracy, or any other thing as far as they’re concerned, as long as it just leaves them alone. Insofar as thinking Russians do discuss the matter, I get a strong impression they generally regard the problem not as being that America is a democracy so much as being that it isn’t, not really, as actual power is seen as lying in the hands of special interests and some sort of version of the ‘deep state’. More democracy, not less, would be the preferred solution.
So where does all the nonsense about Putin wanting to destroy democracy come from? It certainly doesn’t come from anything he’s ever said. And it certainly doesn’t come from a serious examination of Russia’s true potential. Russia can no more destroy American democracy than it send a man to Alpha Centauri. And its leaders know that perfectly well. So why do Americans think that Putin is lying in his bed, ‘dreaming’ about the ‘destruction of Europe’, the ‘weakening of America’ and ‘#DemocracyRIP’? I’ll hazard a guess – it’s a serious case of narcissism. America believes it is the centre of the universe, and it also imagines itself a democracy, and so it thinks that American democracy must be what’s at the centre of everybody else’s universe too. Well, sorry, Franky boy, it just ain’t so. #DemocracyRIP?? In your dreams, perhaps, but certainly not in Putin’s.
This week brought a bunch of news about the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have been directly involved in fighting the Taleban for over 18 years. In Syria, they’ve attempted to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad with the help of proxies in various forms, who are now holed up in an ever-shrinking enclave in Idlib province. And in Yemen, they’ve been backing the Saudis in their attempt to reinstall Adrabbun Mansar Hadi as president in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, now under the control of the Houthis. So, how go America’s wars?
A few days ago, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released his latest quarterly report to the US Congress. According to an email I got from SIGAR’s office, the key points of this report include the following:
Enemy-initiated attacks (EIA) and effective enemy-initiated attacks (EIA resulting in casualties) during the fourth quarter of 2019 exceeded same-period levels in every year since recording began in 2010.
The month of the Afghan presidential election (September 2019) saw the highest number of EIA in any month since June 2012, and the highest number of effective enemy-initiated attacks (EEIA) since recording began in January 2010. The high level of violence continued after the presidential election; October 2019 had the second highest number of EIA in any month since July 2013.
According to the UNODC, the overall value of opiates available for export in Afghanistan in 2018 (between $1.1 billion and $2.1 billion) was much larger than the combined value of all of the country’s licit exports ($875 million).
As of December 18, conflicts had induced 427,043 Afghans to flee their homes in 2019 (compared to 356,297 Afghans during the same period in 2018).
Between November 2019 and March 2020, an estimated 11.3 million Afghans – more than one-third of the country’s population – are anticipated to face acute food insecurity.
I think that gives a good enough impression. Eighteen years on, things aren’t going so well in Afghanistan.
War, said Clausewitz, is an ‘interaction’, ‘not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass but always the collision of two living forces.’ This is one of the things which makes it so difficult to manage. You can’t just do x, and expect y to happen, even if y happened last time you did x, because there are always others involved, with wills of their own.
If war is an interaction, so too is peace. Short of one party’s total destruction, war ends because both sides choose for it to end, either because they’re both exhausted and choose to negotiate, or because one side realizes that it’s defeated and gives up. In the latter case, it’s not the winner who decides exactly when the war ends, it’s the loser. Or, as Fred Ikle put it in his book ‘Every War Must End’, ‘peace is made by the loser’.
In short, even when you’re on top, you don’t get to unilaterally decide when and how to stop a conflict. The key is getting your opponents to agree to stop. This can be done through a combination of negative and positive inducements, or by negotiation. But at the end of the day, the other side always has to agree (even if reluctantly).
Unilaterally-imposed take it or leave it solutions which involve the humiliation or total submission of one party are a bad way of getting this agreement. Given the loss of honour (at best), or of independence or even life (at worst), which such solutions involve, people won’t agree to them unless the negative inducements are extremely powerful (think Germany in 1945, for instance). Consequently, if you’re not prepared to put such extreme negative inducements into effect, you don’t really have any choice, if you truly want peace, but to talk with the other side. You have to get them to agree.
Somewhere along the line, sadly, we seem to have forgotten this (if we ever actually understood it). There’s this sense that great powers can draw up a peace plan for somebody else’s conflict and then force it down their throats without even bothering to consult them. It’s odd, for the most part decidedly unrealistic, and more than a little arrogant.
And so it is that Donald Trump today rolled out his ‘deal of the century’ to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Notionally, this is an American plan, but it seems clear that the Israelis were consulted about it before it was unveiled, and they obviously don’t have any objections to it. The problem is that neither the Israelis nor the Americans bothered consulting the other party to the conflict – the Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, the latter have wasted no time in rejecting the plan, as well they might given that the map released by the White House shows that the planned Palestinian state would look like this:
The Palestinian response is hardly surprising. Short of extreme negative inducements, it’s hard to see why anybody would accept a state divided up into lots of little pieces which doesn’t even have access to water. The whole thing seems to have been designed entirely to keep one side happy, while not bothering at all about what the other side wants (the hope apparently being that they can be bought off with a lot of money). One shouldn’t be too shocked if it all turns out to be dead at birth.
Sadly, though, this isn’t a unique case. The American approach to the war in Ukraine has been rather similar. The official line has been to put pressure on the Russian Federation so that it will abandon Donbass, which will then be forced to accept whatever terms Ukraine chooses to give it. More moderate analysts instead propose cutting some sort of deal with Russia (e.g. recognition of the annexation of Crimea in return for the abandonment of Donbass). But either way, talking to the people of Donbass, let alone their notional leaders, is out of the question. However peace comes, it isn’t to be by means of agreement with the people doing the fighting. Peace must be unilateral, or there won’t be peace at all.
Which, of course, is nuts. As I said, it takes two make war. It takes two to make peace as well.