Tag Archives: Michael McFaul

Michael McFaul’s Counterproductive policy proposals

War, said the great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, is an “interaction.” It is “not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass, but always the collision of two living forces.” One might say the same thing about international politics. Whatever you do always involves others, who have a will of their own and who act in ways which impede the fulfilment of your plans.  

The good strategist doesn’t assume that others will simply comply with his demands. Rather he considers their likely response, and if it is probable that they will respond in a way that harms his own interests, he jettisons his plan and looks for another.

Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump in the recent US presidential election has led to a slew of articles suggesting the policies that the new administration should pursue towards Russia. All too often, instead of considering how Russia will respond, they treat it as a “lifeless mass” which can pushed in the desired direction by pressing the correct buttons. Experience, however, suggests that this is not the case, and the Russian reaction to the proposed policies is not likely to be what the United States desires.

An example is an article by the former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, published this week in the magazine Foreign Affairs. Full of suggestions for ramping up the pressure on Russia, it fails to take into consideration how Moscow is likely to respond to such pressure. Consequently, it ends up proposing a line that if put into practice would probably be entirely counterproductive.

McFaul accuses Russian president Vladimir Putin of leading an “assault on democracy, liberalism, and multilateral institutions,” with the objective of “the destruction” of the international order. From this McFaul concludes that the United States “must deter and contain Putin’s Russia for the long haul.” He then makes several suggestions as to what this policy should involve.

First, he suggests that NATO build up its armed forces on Russia’s border, “especially on its vulnerable southern flank”. Why precisely this is “vulnerable” McFaul doesn’t say, but he does tell us that NATO “needs new weapons systems, including frigates with antisubmarine technologies, nuclear and conventionally powered submarines, and patrol aircraft.”

Second, he argues that America must increase its support to Ukraine. “A successful, democratic Ukraine will inspire new democratic possibilities in Russia,” he says, as if a “successful, democratic Ukraine” is something that can simply be wished into existence. But McFaul wants to do more than just help Ukraine; he also wants to punish Russia. “As long as Putin continues to occupy Ukrainian territory, sanctions should continue to ratchet up,” he says.

Third, McFaul wants the US to get more deeply involved in other countries on Russia’s borders. “Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Uzbekistan all deserve diplomatic upgrades,” he suggests. He also recommends that Joe Biden, “should meet with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya”.

Fourth, McFaul wishes to venture into the world of censorship. America and other Western democracies, “should develop a common set of laws and protocols for regulating Russian government controlled-media,” he says. To this end, he argues that Biden should get social media to “downgrade the information Russia distributes through its propaganda channels.” If a search engine produces a link to RT, “a BBC story should pop up next to it,” he says.

Finally, McFaul says that the United States should bypass the Russian government to forge contacts with the Russian people, so as to “undermine Putin’s anti-American propaganda.” The USA should also train Russian journalists as part of an effort to “support independent journalism and anticorruption efforts in Russia.”

Strategy, as Clausewitz, pointed out, is about using tactics to achieve the political aim. But it is almost impossible to see how the tactics McFaul proposes could help the United States achieve any useful objective. The simple reason is that Russia is hardly likely to react to them in a positive fashion.

Let us look at them from a Russian point of view. How will the Russian government see them?

Sanctions are to “ratchet up” in perpetuity (as they must if they are connected to Russia’s possession of Crimea, which no Russian government will ever surrender); NATO will deploy more and more forces on Russia’s frontier; America will interfere ever more in Russian internal affairs, building up what will undoubtedly be considered a “fifth column” of US-trained journalists and opposition activists; the USA will intensify efforts to detach Russia from its allies and build up a ring up of hostile states around it; and finally, America will launch an all-out information warfare to bend the international media to its will.

What does McFaul imagine Russia will do when it sees all this? Put up its hands and surrender? If he does, then it’s clear that in a lifetime studying Russia, he’s managed to learn nothing.

In reality, the response would probably be not at all to his liking. The growing sense of external and internal threat would lead to an increase in repressive measures at home, undermining the very democracy and liberty McFaul claims to be supporting. In addition, we would most probably see Russia increasing its own military forces on its national frontiers; doubling down on its support for the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine; and pressing further with its own activities in the information domain.

In short, the Russian response would involve Russia doing all the things that McFaul dislikes, but even more so. It is hard to see how his strategy could be deemed to be a sensible one.

If it was just McFaul, it would probably not matter too much. But he is far from the only person saying these things. The general theme among supporters of the new Biden administration is that Trump was too soft on Russia, and that America needs to take a more robust line. This does not bode well for the next few years.

“Know your enemy and know yourself,” said another great strategist, Sun Tzu. Unfortunately, Americans seem to have forgotten this advice. They would do well to heed it.

Looking in the wrong direction

This blog returns regularly to theme of disinformation, drawing attention to the fact that the most prevalent sources of disinformation in any country are domestic, not the product of ‘foreign meddling’. For instance, whatever ‘fake news’ Russian bots may have placed on the internet prior to the 2016 American presidential election pails into insignificance with the daily well-publicized deluge of nonsense which came out of the mouth of candidate Donald Trump. Brexit didn’t happen because of ‘Russian interference’, but (among other things) because of the deceitful claims of pro-leave British politicians, such as the notorious claim that the UK would be able to spend 350 million pounds more a week on the National Health Service if it left the European Union. And so on. When you’re looking for disinformation, it makes much more sense to look close to home than somewhere in far off lands.

Despite this, numerous commentators believe that we can learn a lot from one country’s efforts to combat foreign disinformation – Ukraine. A few days ago I mentioned former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. This is what he has to say on the matter:

There’s some lessons to learn for Canadians. I think Ukraine’s on the front line, and there’s a wake-up call that anybody’s election, including ours in six months, could be altered, disrupted or problems could be created in terms of disinformation if you’re not very watchful about it.

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul shares Axworthy’s point of view, saying the following on Twitter:

Just attended a fascinating discussion on Russian disinformation efforts in Ukraine. We Americans could learn a lot from our Ukrainian colleagues.

Various Ukrainians are keen to support this perspective. ‘While unique, Ukraine’s experience holds broader lessons for how to tackle these emerging phenomena [i.e. disinformation],’ writes one. ‘Britain may well face more of such challenges in the future – it should learn the lessons from Ukraine if it wants to deal with them effectively,’ says another.

Ukraine is currently in the middle of a presidential election campaign. So let’s take a look at how the struggle to protect the Ukrainian democratic process from disinformation is going. An article in today’s Kyiv Post has a lot to say on the matter. It tells us:

Amid increasingly fierce competition, the big guns are coming out: negative campaign ads, so-called ‘black PR,’ and online disinformation. … ‘I think there’s a lot of playing hard and fast with the rules of the information space,’ says Nina Jankowicz, a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute and an expert on disinformation. … ads and social media posts intended to mislead and scare voters have come to play a central role in the presidential race.

Apparently, therefore, Ukraine isn’t doing as well as McFaul, Axworthy, and co. would have us believe. So, let’s take a look at what this ‘black PR’ and disinformation consists of.  The Kyiv Post provides some examples, including:

a website with ties to the Ukrainian security agencies has accused the Zelenskiy campaign of receiving financing from the Russian security service and a Russian-backed militant who fought in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk Oblast. … social media users have long complained of facing harassment from porokhobots — i. e. Poroshenko bots — who vocally defend the president. Some, they allege, are not just ordinary citizens expressing their honest opinions, but paid ‘trolls.’ … In late March, the 1+1 television channel broadcast a program which accused Poroshenko of corruption and implied he had killed his own brother. … On April 10, an organization associated with Poroshenko sent subscribers to its messenger app accounts a video which showed Zelenskiy being hit by a garbage truck and strongly implied he was a drug addict. … In the last week, at least two entities have published information suggesting that the Zelenskiy campaign is tied to or receiving financing from Russia.

In short, it seems that both sides in the Ukrainian election are using both the mainstream media and social media to spread false stories about their opponents, and that these are getting a wide distribution. The thing to notice, though, is that this is something that Ukrainians are doing to one another. As the Kyiv Post comments:

So far, however, domestic disinformation has largely overshadowed foreign. ‘I think most of the disinformation that we can confirm was actually distributed by the campaigns themselves and by domestic Ukrainian actors for political purposes,’ Jankowicz says.

Perhaps, then, Axworthy and McFaul are correct after all. Ukraine does have something to teach us about the role of disinformation in democratic elections, namely that it’s widespread, and that for the most part it is produced domestically, and not abroad. The Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) produced a report a few days ago highlighting the threat from ‘foreign interference’ in Canadian elections. I will comment separately on this in a few days’ time but, dare I say it, if CSE and others are really concerned about the integrity of our electoral processes, they’re looking in the wrong direction.

It’s only propaganda when they do it

A couple of newspaper articles caught my attention this weekend. The first was in The Times, and claimed the following:

President Putin has launched a secret propaganda assault on Britain from within its own borders, The Times can reveal. The Kremlin is spreading disinformation through a newly opened British bureau for its Sputnik international news service, and is infiltrating elite universities by placing language and cultural centres on campuses. Analysts said that the push was part of Russia’s military doctrine, which specifies the use of ‘informational and other non-military measures’ in conflicts.

The Times is particularly alarmed by the fact that, ‘the University of Edinburgh accepted £221,000 from the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation to host Britain’s first Moscow-sponsored language and cultural centre. The foundation has also opened centres at Durham University, which accepted £85,000, and St Antony’s College, Oxford.’ According to The Times, ‘A Nato source accused Russia of “operationalising information” from within Britain. “The Russian information effort is to muddy the waters, to create uncertainty,” he said.’

The second article was published in Sunday’s New York Times. In this, the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul claims that ‘Everywhere, autocrats are pushing back against democrats, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is the de facto leader of this global movement.’ America must resist this movement, McFaul says. Otherwise, ‘The threats will grow and eventually endanger our peace, as we saw in Europe and Japan in the 1930s, and Afghanistan in the 1990s.’

What exactly should America do? McFaul suggests:

Just as the Kremlin has become more sophisticated at exporting its ideas and supporting its friends, so must we. We should think of advancing democratic ideas abroad primarily as an educational project, almost never as a military campaign. Universities, books and websites are the best tools, not the 82nd Airborne.

But it’s best not to do this openly, McFaul admits. He says, ‘Direct financial assistance to democrats is problematic: A check from an American embassy can taint its recipients. America’s next president should privatize such aid and help seed new independent foundations.’

So, let me get this straight. Russkii Mir openly provides money to the University of Edinburgh for the study of Russian language and culture. That constitutes a ‘secret propaganda assault on Britain’. Ambassador McFaul proposes giving money to Russian universities through disguised channels and for decidedly political purposes, and that is ‘advancing democratic ideas’. ‘Nuff said!