Tag Archives: Information war

Poking the bear

What sort of guy thinks that it is a good idea to deliberately provoke a nuclear-armed power? Answer: the sort of guy who writes for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a think-tank which claims that its purpose is to ‘bring about positive change in Central-East Europe and Russia by strengthening NATO’s frontline, better understanding the Kremlin’s strategic aims, promoting greater solidarity within the EU, and bolstering Atlanticism.’ CEPA ‘experts’ include the Economist’s Edward Lucas and the Power Vertical podcast’s Brian Whitmore. In short, it’s the kind of institution you go to if you think that Western politicians and journalists are being far too soft on the Russians. In line with its mission, every now and again CEPA brings out a report about the evils of Russian aggression and disinformation. Its latest, entitled Chaos as a Strategy: Putin’s ‘Promethean’ Gamble is a doozy.


The authors of Chaos as a Strategy are CEPA president and CEO Peter Doran, and Senior Fellow and former diplomat Donald Jensen. Their report is a classic example of what I call ‘conceptual flipping’ – i.e. taking a concept created by one’s opponent and then flipping it around. As Ofer Fridman shows in his recent book, Russian thinkers such as Aleksandr Dugin and Igor Panarin were accusing the West of waging information warfare against Russia for years before Westerners took the idea, flipped it around (on the basis of the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’) and began to accuse Russia of the same. Similarly, for some time now, Russians (most notably Sergei Glazyev) have been accusing the West of deliberately sowing chaos around the world in order to weaken potential rivals and secure American hegemony. Glazyev calls this ‘world chaotic warfare’. Doran and Jensen now flip this over: Russia, they say, is using a ‘strategy of chaos’ against the West. Specifically,

In recent years, Russian leaders and strategists have developed a set of methods aimed at spreading disorder beyond their borders for strategic effect. Their goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems.

Doran and Jensen call this strategy of chaos ‘Promethean’, a term used by Polish leader Josef Pilsudski to describe the policy adopted by Poland toward Russia in the inter-war period. Whereas Glazyev’s ‘world chaotic war’ is primarily economic in nature, Doran and Jensen’s ‘Prometheanism’ is centered around disinformation and propaganda, these being seen as the primary tools used by the Kremlin to sow chaos in the West. Despite its claims to be revealing something novel, Chaos as a Strategy therefore rapidly disintegrates into a simple repetition of all the normal claims about Russian disinformation, hybrid warfare, the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, and the like. Consequently, I found its analysis of Russian behaviour very unoriginal and not in the slightest interesting. It’s just one more example of analysts leaping on the information warfare bandwagon without adding anything new.

What is somewhat interesting, and perhaps a little bit scary, is the report’s recommendations. Doran and Jensen are of the view that the West has been far too reactive in the face of Russian information warfare, and believe that it ought to be taking the initiative. They recommend that the West should:

Prioritize the sequencing of the ‘carrots and sticks’ offered to the Kremlin. Sticks first. This means initially increasing the penalties imposed on Russia for continued revisionist behavior and the sowing of chaos. We can start with tougher sanctions, wider travel bans, greater restrictions on access to the global financial system, and financial snap exercises. Presently, some of these tools are used – but they are underused in most cases. This needs to change. Particularly, in the domain of information warfare, the West must hit back harder. … Our responses for now should serve the shorter-term goal of forcing Russia to place more defense and less offense. For this purpose, we should lessen our preoccupation with ‘provoking’ the Kremlin. It is hardly a basis of sound policy to prioritize Putin’s peace of mind.

Back in my youth, we used to talk about the importance of ‘confidence building measures’. The idea was that potential enemies could reduce the chance of conflict by reassuring each other that they did not have hostile intent and thereby giving one another ‘peace of mind’. But now, supposedly sane foreign policy ‘experts’ think that it’s a good idea to provoke nuclear-armed powers and that peace of mind is dangerous. What these experts seem to want is the very opposite of confidence building – the creation of paranoid foreign leaders who are continued worried about their security. This is most foolish. Fear is not a good basis for decision-making. Inciting fear in others, therefore, is not a good idea, and especially not a good idea when those others have some powerful resources at their disposal.

The whole point of provocation is that incites the provoked party to do something stupid. Doran and Jensen seem to think that this will help the West. The logic is that of a zero-sum game – if the Russians harm themselves by reacting to our provocations, the West gains. But the world doesn’t work like that. When provoked, people don’t generally back down and surrender – they strike out even harder than before. In the process the person doing the provoking finds that the problem he was trying to eliminate has become worse rather than better. Perhaps your enemy goes down, but he takes you down with him.

The problem we face at the moment is that rather than framing issues in terms of disagreements and seeking to come up with mutually acceptable ways of resolving those disagreements, too many people on both sides of the current East-West divide are framing issues in terms of threat and thus of ‘enemies’. Consequently, they devise ‘solutions’ designed to weaken the ‘enemy’ rather than resolve the underlying problems. Such solutions are not solutions at all, but risk accelerating the cycle of escalation. This report is a striking case in point.

I’ve come across some fairly irresponsible policy proposals in the past few years, but ‘let’s worry less about provoking the Kremlin’ takes irresponsibility to a new level. It reveals that for some in the West, escalating the confrontation with Russia is a deliberate choice. Russians will of course notice this, consider their fears justified, and respond accordingly. That response may not help them, but they have sharp claws, and it certainly won’t help us either. Poking the bear has become a popular pastime of late. We shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end well.



No history, no culture, please

Western governments should ‘re-focus financial support for Russia-related academic programs from culture and history to in-depth analysis of Russia’s authoritarianism, kleptocracy and corrupt practices’. So says a new report issued this week by the Institute for Modern Russia, a think-tank funded by former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. For God forbid that students should learn about Russian culture and history before expressing any opinions about that country. Knowing some culture and history might lead to understanding, which might lead to sympathy or at least empathy, and thus to a desire to engage in dialogue, find mutual solutions to international problems, and all the rest of it. And that, of course, would be dangerous. Ignorance is much to be preferred.

There’s a lot about this report which is rather disturbing, but as someone who studies Russian history for a living this particular recommendation stood out for me. History and culture are the foundations of study of any society. If you want to know a foreign country, you have for a start to learn its language, which means reading its literature. You then need to know its history to be able to put things in the right context. But there are some, it seems, who don’t want people to understand context. They know the truth, and anything which might challenge it needs to be censored.

In any case, according to the argument put forward by report’s author, Kateryna Smagliy, those who don’t agree with her deserved to be silenced. Why? Because they are agents of the Kremlin. She urges Western governments to ‘step up efforts to expose Russia’s network of agents within Western academia’. ‘The Russian government pursues a coherent and well-coordinated “knowledge weaponization” strategy,’ she says. This strategy

led to the rise of the new phenomenon of ‘hybrid analytica’, which we define here as the process of design, development and promotion of various  pseudo-academic narratives by duped or manipulated bona-fide intellectuals, academics and think-tank experts of political ‘lobbyists in disguise’, whose vested interests have been recruited through the global network of the Kremlin-linked operatives.

This network is extraordinarily widespread, as you can see by the following graphic:

hybrid analytica

Among the members of the Kremlin’s academic network, it appears, are the notoriously Russophobic Legatum Institute (ha, ha!), Oxford University, Durham University, King’s College London, and two score other European universities. In the United States it includes such institutions as The National Interest magazine, the Kennan Institute, The Wilson Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a network like that, it’s amazing that public opinion in the West is still so hostile to Russia.

What exactly are these institutions doing which is so dangerous? Well, they’re doing things like establishing ‘an interdisciplinary research center “to communicate the riches of Russian civilization to the general public”’; running a conference ‘devoted to the discussion of Russian influences on California’s history’; hosting ‘Russian folklore choirs and the Saint Petersburg Horn Orchestra’, and fostering ‘lasting connections between Russian and American youth through music and theatre performances, film screenings, conferences, and student exchanges.’ This is scary stuff. People should be studying ‘Russia’s authoritarianism, kleptocracy and corrupt practices’ instead. All that history and culture will turn their heads. It must be resisted.

Western ‘experts’ suborned by Russia peddle dangerous theories, we learn. This includes the obviously preposterous, and politically dangerous, theory put forward by the Carnegie Endowment’s Eugene Rumer, who ‘published an article arguing that anti-Russian sanctions produce no desired results and that sometimes they even backfire.’ Such publications suggest that Carnegie’s work feels ‘like an analytical screen to cover a suspicious political project.’ The idea that scholars might come to conclusions like this independently, on the simple grounds that their research points them that way, seems not to occur to Smagliy. If they say these things, it must be because they’ve been bought by the Kremlin. To stop such things from happening, Western academic institutions and think tanks should cut off all contact with their Russian counterparts forthwith.

It would be easy to ignore all this as idiotic and unimportant. After all, the insinuation that those who study Russian history and culture, and who engage in cultural exchanges, are somehow witting or unwitting agents of the Kremlin, and assisting Russia in its acts of external and internal aggression, is quite preposterous. And it’s not as if this kind of report gets a mass audience. But still, it’s a little creepy. It’s not likely that some spook will read this and be so convinced that he’ll decide to start bugging professors’ phones. But then again, look at Carter Page, who was investigated by the FBI after he had the audacity to deliver a lecture at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. In the current McCarthyite atmosphere, you just don’t know any more. And I have to wonder what effect this will have on young researchers. Tenured full professors like me can shrug it off and carry on doing what we’re doing. But if I was advising young PhD students I’d have to tell them to be careful about what they write if they want to maximize their career prospects. It’s not a healthy situation.

In short, we are facing a concerted attack on academic freedom. The front of Ms Smagliy’s report contains a little logo saying ‘Free Speech’. Somehow I doubt that she appreciates the irony.

hybrid analytica2

Mutual disbelief

A few months ago, the Joint Investigation Team which is examining the 2014 shooting down of Flight MH17 asked Russia to provide evidence about the origins of the anti-aircraft missile used in the attack. Today the Russian Ministry of Defence did just that, producing documents showing that the missile in question (identified by the serial numbers on the missile fragments) had been produced in Soviet Russia and then transferred to an air defence unit in Ukraine in 1986. The implication was that the missile was Ukrainian, and that therefore Ukraine, not Russia or the rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic, must have been responsible for downing MH17 (assuming that the rebels didn’t capture the missile from the Ukrainian Army, which can’t actually be ruled out).

The immediate reaction of Western journalists was to scoff at the Russians’ claim. For instance, The Daily Telegraph’s Alec Luhn wrote on Twitter, ‘In short, Russia has cited its own documents to claim the missile that downed MH17 was delivered to Ukraine in 1986 and never left.’ Quite where Russia would have gotten documents on the matter other than from Russia is a question Luhn ignores, but his insinuation is clear: Russian documents can’t be trusted, and so this story isn’t worth further investigation. The Financial Times’s Max Seddon was equally dismissive. ‘How convenient for them to have discovered this now, four years after the fact,’ he wrote on Twitter (where the top of his feed continues to show a Tweet saying that ‘Russia’s team is so bad fans are worried they won’t make it out of the World Cup group stage’!). And the Kyiv Post’s Christopher Miller showed a picture of a giggling journalist, and remarked ‘The face of the person in the crowd at the Russian MOD briefing on MH17 tells you all you need to know about the latest desperate attempt to deflect blame for the disaster.’

Western journalists’ rapid dismissal of the Russian documents contrasts with their equally rapid acceptance of documents purporting to be the passport applications of Salisbury poisoning suspects Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. I have absolutely no idea whether any of these documents are genuine. For all I know, all or none or some of them might be. What concerns me here is what the journalists’ reactions tell us about their biases, namely that as a matter of course they don’t trust anything coming out of the mouth of Russian officials.

My observations of the Russian media show me that the same is true of Russians, albeit the other way round, i.e. they display an almost total distrust of anything said by Westerners. RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who carried out a recent interview with the Salisbury suspects, expressed the sentiment very clearly on the political talk show 60 Minutes the other day. She didn’t have an opinion as to whether Petrov and Boshirov were telling the truth, she said, but what she did know was that Western intelligence agencies had lied about Iraqi WMD and had published a document which named her 27 times as leading an effort to undermine American democracy, something which was completely untrue. Why she should believe anything the West said, she asked? Reading the Russian press, and watching other TV shows, I get the impression that this attitude is fairly widespread.

There are some good reasons for Westerners not to trust the statements of the Russian government (which has, to say the least, been less than transparent and truthful regarding its involvement in the war in Donbass), as well as for Russians not to trust what’s said in the West (where both politicians and journalists have peddled all sorts of nonsense on matters such as Iraqi WMD, Colonel Gaddhafi giving his troops Viagra in order to commit rape, Russian atrocities in Syria (while ignoring the destruction caused by American bombing), and so on). Western commentary on Russia is often so far removed from reality as to appear deranged. The same, sadly, is often true of Russia commentary on the West. My point, therefore, is not to say that one side or other is right or wrong. Rather, it is that we seem to have reached a situation in Russian-Western relations of almost complete mutual disbelief. The perception that the other side is engaging in propaganda and ‘information war’ leads people to instinctively dismiss what it is saying, even when it is well-grounded in fact. That in turn leads them to adopt extreme positions, thereby rendering themselves even less credible in the eyes of the other side. The result is a vicious circle of escalating distrust.

Is there any way out of this mess? As I’ve said before, I’m not optimistic.

Undermining democracy

Knowing what somebody else has done, is doing, or is capable of doing can be hard enough. Knowing why they are doing it, or what they intend to do in the future is an even more difficult task. Understanding intentions requires a deep and sympathetic knowledge of other actors’ motivations, interests, and mentality, of the constraints under which they operate, and of the manner in which they view the world. That requires one to drop all one’s own preconceptions and adopt fully those of another, which can only be done by studying them, their surroundings, and their history intimately. And even then one can never truly ‘know’ somebody else, as it is impossible to get inside their head. All statements about intentions are at best assessments. They can never be considered fact.

None of this, of course, stops people from proclaiming confidently that ‘Putin wants this’ or ‘Russia wants that’ as if their claims were proven. Rarely are these assertions backed by solid evidence; hardly ever do they refer to what Putin or other Russian officials have actually said that they want; they are simply guesses disguised as facts.

An example is a new report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), entitled Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions. This is the product of two meetings of an ‘expert group’ organized by CSIS. The report makes bold claims about Russian intentions. But going through the list of ‘experts’, I could find only one with any expertise specifically on Russia rather than security and intelligence more broadly. How the experts came to their judgements on Russian intentions is never made clear.

The report begins with a foreword which states in startling terms that:

American democracy is under attack from Russia. … Putin’s objective is to weaken us by sowing chaos and discord, and to undermine the appeal of democracy itself. If he can show that American-style democracy … is incompetent, illegitimate, and hypocritical, he can use that to undermine its potential appeal among Russia’s population and in other countries around the world where we compete for influence.

This is an assertion concerning Vladimir Putin’s intentions, not his actions. Nevertheless, underpinning it is an assumption about actions – namely that Russia has indeed been waging some sort of ‘information war’ against the United States. It is indicative of the current state of affairs that this assumption is simply taken for granted, even though some people might consider it unproven (and if it is indeed unproven then everything else which follows falls apart). However, let us put that aside for the moment, and return to the issue of intentions. If it is true that Russia has done any, or all, of things of which it is accused, what does it have in mind?

The CSIS experts are confident that they know the answer: the aim is to ‘sow chaos and undermine trust in the liberal democratic order,’ ‘to erode trust in Western governments and sow confusion and discord,’ and ‘to exacerbate existing divisions in society … to weaken democracy.’ The report concludes that:

The Russian government is engaged in a covert and overt campaign to weaken Western democracies, with the express intent of promoting an illiberal order dominated by Moscow and like-minded states.

I have to wonder where this idea of an ‘express intent’ comes from, because I have never read anything by any Russian official expressing such an intent – never. Take, for instance, Vladimir Putin, whose speeches I have read in detail and on which I have published a couple of academic articles. You will read his speeches in vain for any criticisms of democracy as a form of government, any expressions of a desire to weaken democracy in the West (or in Russia for that matter), or any desire to ‘sow chaos’ around the world. On the contrary, you will find multiple expressions of support for democracy, of support of order and stability, and of support for better relations with the West. Of course, you could argue that his actions tell you something different, but the fact remains that he and other Russian officials have never stated the intention being assigned to them.

The CSIS report doesn’t say how it came to the conclusion that Putin wants to undermine democracy. It doesn’t produce any actual evidence to support its claim. It just asserts it. Moreover, it asserts it as a proven fact, failing to make clear that this is just what a bunch of security experts who don’t know too much about Russia happen to think is the case. Any suggestion of uncertainty is entirely absent. That does not necessarily mean that the claim is false, but it does mean that the confidence with which it is asserted is entirely unjustified and that the report therefore misleads by failing to make the degree of uncertainty clear.

Furthermore, there are points in the report where the ‘expert group’s’ lack of  knowledge of Russia becomes clear and makes one seriously doubt their right to be able to claim to understand what’s in Vladimir Putin’s head. In particular, the report says:

The Experts Group discussed the perception of Russia as the ‘3rd Rome’ among an increasingly broad constellation of groups and individuals. Russian nationalists, with the encouragement of the Russian government, have promoted the idea of Russia as the heir to the Byzantine and Roman empires. … Russia is the sole protector of ‘legitimate’ conservative values: homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.

But what is the evidence that the Russian government encourages ‘3rd Rome-ism’ and Russian nationalists, let alone ‘homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism’? In reality, nationalists and the government don’t get on very well, and most of the former regard the latter with undisguised hostility. The issue of homophobia is somewhat contentious, but on the other matters I am completely unaware of any actions or statements by the Russian government promoting xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Indeed, if you read Putin’s speeches, you will find numerous condemnations of such things along with a repeated emphasis on the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian nation (which is one of the reasons Russian nationalists don’t like him).

Underlying all this is a rather odd idea that Putin is bent on spreading an illiberal authoritarian model of government around the world, rather like the Soviet Union tried to spread communism. But this is an idea which is entirely unsubstantiated, and in my view entirely fictitious. Likewise, the claim that he wishes to spread chaos rather ignores the damage that such chaos would do to Russian interests, which rest largely on having a stable international order. It seems to me that the CSIS ‘experts’ are locked into a Cold War mode of thinking which they have failed to adapt to contemporary realities.

There’s another segment in the report which also struck me as very odd. This says the following:

The Russian government has advanced its strategic influence in Eastern and Central European countries by gaining influence, and in some instance, control over specific sectors: energy, banking and finance, real estate, transportation infrastructure, and media … First, Russia state-owned enterprises purchase assets … The purchased entity then gains influence with local officials … Simultaneously, the Russian government creates or sponsors local nongovernmental organizations … Finally, supportive local officials are placed in national governments … Collectively, these activities in some countries result in state capture.

It strikes me that there is a certain amount of projection going on here, as what is described could very easily be said, with rather more justification I suspect, about the United States. But in any case, what is the evidence for this claim? What country in Eastern and Central Europe has Russia ‘captured’? Which one? I can’t think of a single example. The claim concerning ‘state capture’ is is pure fiction.

The CSIS report ends with a series of proposals for what the United States should do to protect itself against the Russian threat. Some of these are uncontroversial. The report, for instance, calls for better cybersecurity measures. One can hardly argue with that. But Russia doesn’t have much to do with it. Better cybersecurity is required regardless of whether Russia is waging some sort of information war. Other proposals, though, are more problematic. For instance, we are told that:

Internet platforms and democratic governments must work together on technological and policy measures to increase barriers to entry for disinformation campaigns and make it easier for citizens to differentiate between legitimate and false information.

‘Legitimate’ information? What is that? And who is to determine what it is, and tell us that we shouldn’t have it? I find this sort of thing a little creepy, and don’t really think that it is for the state or private corporations to tell us what we should be allowed to read or what we should think.

At the end of the report, the authors note that ‘increasing public resilience against the kind of techniques used by Russia may ultimately be the most effective countermeasure.’ In particular, ‘participants emphasized that a sense of shared narrative is perhaps the strongest defence against Russian threats to our democratic institutions.’ This is possibly the most sensible thing that the report says. Russian ‘propaganda’, if there is such a thing, can only succeed in dividing people who are already prone to being divided. If the divisions in American society were reduced, then it would be harder for outside actors to ‘sow chaos’. If American government, state institutions, and the media were more trustworthy, Americans might be less inclined to turn to alternatives for information and political analysis. In such an event, Russian ‘disinformation’ would have no effect whatsoever.

In other words, the real threat to American democracy lies within America, not without.


The latest indictments in the ‘Russiagate’ affair certainly lend credence to the claim that some Russians went to some considerable effort to set up social media accounts that would look like they were genuine American ones, but their intentions in so doing remain a matter of speculation. It is probably the rather haphazard internet trolling allegedly carried out by ‘Russia-linked accounts’ that induces people to conclude that it was a matter of ‘causing chaos’, but it can’t be stated as fact. In any case, there is a difference between haphazard trolling and a deliberate effort to ‘undermine democracy’ in order to create an ‘illiberal international order’, which is a far more dramatic claim. I have yet to see any evidence supporting this.

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.

The hunters become the hunted

There are times when you think that the media in the English-speaking world can’t possible get any worse; that’s it’s finally plumbed the depths; that the ignorance and hysteria have become so great that it’s got to turn around soon. And then you read something which just makes you shake your head in despair, and ask. ‘Don’t these guys check anything? Don’t they know anything? Or do they just not care?’ We’re told to be endlessly on our guard about ‘fake news’ and disinformation flooding the internet from troll factories in St Petersburg and the editorial offices of RT, but are they really worse than the Daily Mail? Here’s today’s Mail on Sunday front page:


Continue reading The hunters become the hunted

The international order

I’m off to England tonight for a conference at Ditchley Park on the subject ‘Russia’s role in the world today and tomorrow.’ I’ll be slumming it in a grand country mansion with a bunch of ambassadors, retired senior officials, and other people far more distinguished than myself, but as it’s all under the Chatham House rule, I regret that I won’t be able to report on it. Still, it provides an excuse to ponder the state of Anglo-Russian relations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to divert attention from her Brexit troubles the other day with some inflammatory remarks about Russia at the annual banquet of the Lord Mayor of London. May remarked that Russia has

fomented conflict in the Donbass, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag [German parliament], among many others. It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions.

May accused Russia of ‘threatening the international order on which we all depend,’ and concluded by saying that, ‘I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of western nations to the alliances that bind us.’

As if to back May up, Ciaran Martin, the head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, stated yesterday that, ‘I can confirm that Russian interference, seen by the National Cyber Security Centre over the past year, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunication and energy sectors.’ To this Martin added, ‘Russia is seeking to undermine the international system. That much is clear. The PM made the point on Monday night – international order as we know it is in danger of being eroded.’

Along with all this comes alongside allegations that Russian internet trolls attempted to the influence the Brexit referendum. Evidence for this is a little weak since despite the hype, the Guardian reports that, ‘Prof Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian that at least 419 of those [Russian Twitter] accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.’ It would be interesting to know how many tens of thousands, or for all I know, hundreds of thousands of tweets were posted about Brexit by Brits and peoples of other non-Russian nationalities, but the fact that the alleged ‘interference’ mostly took place after the referendum in any case rather weakens the argument for the prosecution.

But let’s put that to one side. And let’s put aside also May’s somewhat contestable claims about fomenting war in Donbass, regularly violating European airspace, and the like. Let’s accept, for simplicity’s sake, that Russia is trying to influence people in Britain and that its intelligence agencies are attempting to hack the computer systems of British institutions. Let’s face it, it would be pretty odd if they weren’t. This is pretty much run of the mill for states which imagine that they have some position on the international stage. The questions which then arise are: a) does this constitute ‘interference’? and b) does this constitute  an attempt ‘to undermine the international order.’

The answer to the first question depends, I guess, on how you define ‘interference.’ But, to my mind, trying to influence people isn’t interference; it’s just a normal part of human relationships. I think that people need to calm down a little bit on this matter. There seems to be a rather odd view that only people within a country can attempt to influence the citizens or the government of that country. That is, of course, not the way Western states operate – Brits, for instance, are continually trying to influence others. And in any case, it’s just impractical. Human interaction is a perpetual attempt to influence one another. The interaction between states and between states and the peoples of other states is just the same. For sure, Russians want to change the way people in Britain think. That’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with it. The whole ‘interference’ narrative is wrong-headed at the philosophical level.

To this, some might reply that the problem is not Russians trying to influence Brits, but that they are doing so by spreading ‘fake news’. Well, perhaps they do sometimes, though I think that the ‘fake news’ meme is greatly exaggerated, and if we’re talking about social media there’s no shortage of utter tripe, including manifestly untrue stories, appearing in the Facebook and Twitter posts of non-Russians. A few hundred Russian tweets really don’t matter very much in the larger scheme of things. But, at a deeper level, we have to ask, ‘who is determine what is ‘fake’ and what is not?’ Are you going to say that we should have some sort of media police which eliminates what we deem to be inaccurate? If so, we have censorship, not a free society.

And then we come to question b) – does this constitute an attempt to ‘undermine the international order?’ The answer to this is fairly simple – No, and two times no! Yes, the Russians engage in espionage. They try to influence people. They always have! And so have Western countries! This isn’t an attempt to undermine the international order. This is the international order!! Let’s not be naïve about this. The international order consists of a whole set of institutions and rules which states for the most part abide by. At the same time, they occasionally break the rules, by for instance carrying out espionage on one another. Yet the order continues on nonetheless. Russia spies on Britain. Britain spies on Russia (remember the British spy rock in Moscow, anyone?) That’s how the order works.

I’m tempted to go off into a bit of ‘whataboutism’ and talk about all the many times that the United Kingdom has egregiously broken the rules of the international system. It’s hardly an innocent in this regard. But instead, I’ll end on a different thought. If Mrs May really thinks that Russia is undermining the international order in general and more specifically British democracy, then shouldn’t she be reconsidering Brexit? Of course, Mrs May won’t do anything of the sort. She recognizes the result of the Brexit referendum as legitimate and binding. Yet Brexit is a huge shock to the international order, one of the biggest in recent years. Who ‘undermined the international order’? The British people, that’s who.

UPDATE:  According to Sky News, Yin Yin Lu of Oxford Internet Research has identified 22.6 million tweets associated with the alleged Russian ‘troll factory’. Of these, 400 were about or related to Brexit. As Ms Lu says: “First of all the number of these tweets is important to highlight. So there’s about 400 tweets here out of 22.6 million. That is a very infinitesimal fraction. So the word interference is perhaps a bit exaggerated.”