Tag Archives: New York Times

The Putin I knew

In my last post I drew attention to a strange schizophrenia in the way many commentators view Russia. On one hand, there’s what I will call model one, in which they blame the country’s problems and its supposed aggression on the authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. On the other hand, there’s model two, in which they consider these problems to be the product of some supposedly innate characteristic of the Russian people – the ‘Russian soul’, as it were. Model one often takes the form of extreme Putinophobia – that is to say a tendency to blame everything one doesn’t like about Russia on the malign character of the country’s president. Model two manifests itself in sweeping statements about Russians, which if made about another people might be considered racist. The two models tend to go hand in hand, but they’re not easily compatible – after all, if it’s all Putin’s fault, then the nature of the Russian character is irrelevant.

This schizophrenia is on full display in a controversial article published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled ‘The Putin I knew: the Putin I know’, it’s written by Franz Sedelmayer, a businessman who worked in the 1990s in St Petersburg, where he became well acquainted with the then deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin. In his article Sedelmayer recounts how Putin helped him set up his business. In 1996, though, Sedelmayer was a victim of ‘reiderstvo’ – raiding, or asset grabbing – when the Russian state illegally seized control of his company. Reiderstvo was pretty common back in the Yeltsin years, and it still happens, though one gets the impression that there’s not quite as much of it as in the 1990s and that Western businesses are safer than they used to be. Anyway, Putin apparently told Sedelmayer that there was nothing he could do to help him, and from that moment on their friendship was over. Putin changed, Sedelmayer writes. Previously, Putin ‘acted rationally and appeared to be sincere in his interest in St. Petersburg. He didn’t take bribes’. Now, though, he:

is in many ways similar to President Trump. Like him, Volodya makes decisions based on snap judgments, rather than long deliberation. He’s vindictive and petty. He holds grudges and deeply hates being made fun of. He is said to dislike long, complicated briefings and to find reading policy papers onerous.

Like Mr. Trump, the Mr. Putin I know reacts to events instead of proactively developing a long-term strategy. But in sophistication, he is very different. A former K.G.B. officer, he understands how to use disinformation (deza), lies (vranyo), and compromise (kompromat) to create chaos in the West and at home …. More than anything, he wants to be taken as an equal or a superior, trying to destroy anything with which he cannot compete.

There are quite a few unsubstantiated assertions here. And it’s all very personal. As so often, Russia is reduced to Putin – when things happen that we don’t like, it’s Putin’s fault. Thus Sedelmayer writes,

President Vladimir Putin of Russia celebrated the New Year by having an American tourist, Paul Whelan, arrested as a spy. Mr. Whelan was in Moscow to attend a wedding. But Mr. Putin needed a hostage as a potential trade for a Russian woman with Kremlin connections — Maria Butina, who had pleaded guilty of conspiring with a Russian official “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” So Mr. Putin grabbed Mr. Whelan, who has not been released.

Perhaps this is accurate, but then again perhaps not. How does Sedelmayer know that Putin personally ordered Whelan’s arrest – ‘Putin grabbed Mr Whelan’ (Really? He did it himself?) – and that he did so as a hostage to exchange for Maria Butina? Butina isn’t even charged with espionage, and given how long she’s already been in prison prior to trial, she’ll likely be out fairly soon anyway. There’s no obvious reason to want to exchange her.

All this falls firmly within model one. But like so many others, Sedelmayer can’t resist explaining matters also by model two. As he writes:

A couple of months ago Volodya tried — luckily, he failed — to insert a crony as head of Interpol, the international police organization, presumably so he could turn it into his personal posse. Of course he did. Corruption is in Russia’s DNA.

Putin’s friends are rumoured to be holding billions of dollars on his behalf. But when he retires, will his friends give him his money, Sedelmayer asks. Probably not, he replies:

Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve lived in Russia. Sharing’s not the Russian way.

‘Oh, those Russians!’ as Boney M said.

I have some sympathy with Sedelmayer. Like a lot of people in Russia in the 1990s, he got robbed. He has reason to feel bitter. But it wasn’t because ‘corruption is in Russia’s DNA’. And it wasn’t Putin that robbed him – it was Boris Yeltsin’s state. Sedelmayer would do better to analyze the causes of the anarchic lawlessness of the Yeltsin era and and to study the specific route that Russia took in the 1990s. That would require an approach closer to that adopted by Tony Wood in his book ‘Russia without Putin’. It would be more complex, but it would also be more helpful.

Instead we get a combination of model one and model two, both of which oversimplify. Mixing them together – by personalizing Russia’s problems while simultaneously blaming them on innate national characteristics – serves only to confuse and to reinforce simplistic prejudices which suggest that whatever differences we may have with the Russians are entirely their fault. But maybe that’s the point.

Nonsense news

I have mentioned before my belief in the Biblical maxim about the mote and the beam, and I have repeatedly emphasized on this blog, including my last post, the need for greater self-awareness and greater humility. An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times reveals this need very clearly.

The editorial used former FBI chief James Comey’s testimony to Congress to lambast Donald Trump for his lack of integrity, describing Trump as a ‘venal, self-interested politician who does not recognize, let alone uphold’ the ‘legal principles at the foundation of American democracy.’ The headline made the editorial’s point very clear. ‘Mr Comey and All the President’s Lies’, it said. Telling the truth, it seems, is something that the New York Times values highly.

Or maybe not.

What the editorial didn’t tell readers was that the transcript of Comey’s testimony contains the following exchange between Comey and Senator Jim Risch:

RISCH:  I remember, you — you talked with us shortly after February 14th, when the New York Times wrote an article that suggested that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians. This is not factual. Do you recall that?

COMEY: Yes.

RISCH: OK. So — so, again, so the American people can understand this, that report by the New York Times was not true. Is that a fair statement?

COMEY: In — in the main, it was not true. And, again, all of you know this, maybe the American people don’t. The challenge — and I’m not picking on reporters about writing stories about classified information, is that people talking about it often don’t really know what’s going on. … I mentioned to the chairman the nonsense around what influenced me to make the July 5th statement. Nonsense, but I can’t go explaining how it’s nonsense.

Later, Senator Tom Cotton returned to this subject.

COTTON: On February 14th, the New York Times published a story, the headline of which was, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.”

You were asked earlier if that was an inaccurate story, and you said, in the main. Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong?

COMEY: Yes.

The New York Times has done a lot to stoke the accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, going so far on one occasion as to publish an op-ed by Louise Mensch. But while refusing to address the issue of collusion directly, Comey nevertheless poured cold water on it, as seen by the following exchanges with Senators Burr and Cotton:

BURR: Director, the term we hear most often is “collusion.” When people are describing possible links between Americans and Russian government entities related to the interference in our election, would you say that it’s normal for foreign governments to reach out to members of an incoming administration?

COMEY: Yes.

COTTON: Let’s turn our attention to the underlying activity at issue here: Russia’s hacking into those e-mails and releasing them, and the allegations of collusion. Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?

COMEY: That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting. As I said, that — we didn’t — that (ph) when I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump.

So, let’s get this straight. James Comey in effect says that he doesn’t think Trump colluded with Russia (‘we didn’t’, as he says above), and denounces the New York Times for publishing ‘nonsense’, in a story about alleged collusion which was ‘almost entirely wrong’. Yet, the response of the New York Times is not to apologize, and indeed not even to mention the matter, but instead to publish an editorial saying that Donald Trump is a liar.

Perhaps he is, but another maxim comes to mind: one about stones and people in glass houses. Recent research indicates that ‘public trust in the media [is] at all time low’. I wonder why.

Guilt by association

‘Extremists turn to a leader to protect Western values: Vladimir Putin’. So screams the headline of an article in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. The article takes up an entire page, an indication that the newspaper’s editors consider its message to be of great importance. It says:

Throughout the collection of white ethnocentrists,  nationalists, populists and neo-Nazis that has taken root on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Putin is widely revered as a kind of white knight: a symbol of strength, racial purity and traditional Christian values in a world under threat from Islam, immigrants and rootless cosmopolitan elites. Fascination with and, in many cases, adoration of Mr. Putin – or at least a distorted image of him – first took hold among far-right politicians in Europe, many of whom have since developed close relations with their brethren in the United States. Such ties across the Atlantic have helped spread the view of Mr. Putin’s Russia as an ideal model. … Russia also shares with far-right groups across the world a deeply held belief that, regardless of their party, traditional elites should be deposed because of their support for globalism and transnational institutions like NATO and the European Union.

Building on this, the article paints Russia as a threat to national and international security, because of its ‘efforts … to organize and inspire extreme right-wing groups in the United States and Europe.’

And yet, buried in the middle of the article are a number of interesting titbits which undermine this thesis. After claiming that Russia has provided financial and logistical support to far-right forces in the West, the article admits that ‘the only proven case so far involves the National Front in France’. Moreover, Russia ‘has jailed some of its own white supremacist agitators’, and, as the New York Times confesses,

Mr. Putin has never personally promoted white supremacist ideas, and has repeatedly insisted that Russia, while predominantly white and Christian, is a vast territory of diverse religions and ethnic groups stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Nor has he displayed any sign of hostility toward Jews, a fact that has infuriated some of Russia’s more extremist nationalist groups.

One might imagine that at this point the article’s authors would change tack and take the opportunity to argue that Putin had been wrongly tarred with the extremist brush. This, however, would undermine the apparent purpose of the piece, so instead the authors plough on ahead with the tarring, while making an increasing mess of themselves in the process.

For instance, after discussing alt-right activist Richard Spencer, who recently caused a scandal by making a Nazi salute and shouting ‘Hail Trump’, the article says ‘Mr. Spencer acknowledged that Mr. Putin did not share his ideology.’ Next, the authors mention a conference of European and American nationalists organized in Russia by the Rodina party (which got about 1% of the vote in the recent Duma elections), but cite organizer Fyodor Biryukov as saying that ‘the Kremlin had not supported the event.’ Despite this, the article concludes that ‘Mr. Putin’s Russia [is] now the home of a new global alliance of far-right groups.’

The New York Times never says as much, but with a sort of ‘wink, wink’ it implies guilt by association: ‘White ethnocentrists and neo-Nazis’ like Putin, ergo Putin must be a neo-Nazi. This is a classic example of what is sometimes called the ‘association fallacy’ or ‘bad company fallacy’. And yet, the evidence in the article doesn’t actually support the message implied in the headline. It isn’t ‘fake news’, but it’s misleading nonetheless.

Kremlin killings?

The front page of Sunday’s edition of The New York Times bears the headline ‘More of the Kremlin’s Critics are Ending Up Dead’. According to the long article which follows: ‘Muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistle-blowers and other Russians who threaten that image are treated harshly — imprisoned on trumped-up charges, smeared in the news media and, with increasing frequency, killed.’ The article then cites Gennadi V. Gudkov, ‘a former member of Parliament and onetime lieutenant colonel in the KGB’ as saying, ‘The government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies. … It was not just Litvinenko, but many others we don’t know about, classified as accidents or maybe semi-accidents.’

I have two serious doubts about the Times article. First, it makes a claim about an ‘increased’ frequency of state-sponsored murder without providing any evidence that such murders are indeed more frequent than in the past. The article mentions 13 deaths. The great majority of these occurred before Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. This is hardly evidence of an ‘increasing’ frequency of state-sponsored murder

Second and more importantly, the article fails to provide evidence that most of the people it mentions did indeed die unnatural deaths and also died at the hands of Kremlin assassins.

There is certainly an element of truth in the article. It seems clear that the Russian secret services were responsible for the death of at least one of those mentioned – Ibn al Khattab – while a second – Sergei Magnitsky – died in police custody. It is also not unreasonable to claim a link between Russian intelligence and the death of Alexander Litvinenko, while the death of another person mentioned – Alexander Perepelichny – undoubtedly seems suspicious. Had the New York Times limited itself to those cases, it would have been on much more solid ground. Unfortunately, it goes beyond them and includes several more cases in which people apparently died of natural causes, or in which evidence of a link between the Kremlin and the death in question is not provided.

Take, for instance, Oktai Gasanov, who was connected to the company Heritage Capital, which Russian police accused of fraud – a case which led to Magnitsky’s imprisonment and death. But Gasanov died while the alleged fraud would have been still in its early stages. There was no reason for the Kremlin to be interested in him. Furthermore, The New York Times lists his cause of death as ‘heart failure’. Similarly, the article mentions the deaths in 2016 of two former officials of the Russian sports anti-doping agency, Nikita Kumaev and Viacheslav Sinev. I haven’t been able to find details for Sinev but Kumaev is said to have died of a heart attack. In neither case does The New York Times or any other source I have found provide any evidence that either man’s death was other than natural. There has been speculation that Kumaev was about to ‘reveal all’ about Russia’s doping policies, and perhaps The New York Times thinks that he was murdered to stop this. But if so, it doesn’t say so, let alone provide any proof.

In two other instances, the article mentions people who clearly did suffer unnatural deaths, but without giving any indication of why it thinks these deaths were linked to the Kremlin. The first case is that of Ivan Kivelidi, a business killed by cadmium poisoning in 1995. As The New York Times itself admitted at the time, then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin ‘expressed outrage over Mr Kivelidi’s death’ at a Cabinet meeting, and attended his funeral. The second case is that of Mikhail Lesin, who died of ‘blunt force trauma’ in a Washington hotel room in 2015. But Mr Lesin was a Kremlin loyalist, not an opponent. The New York Times wants us to believe that Russian intelligence killed both Mr Kivelidi and Mr Lesin, but it provides no evidence, and it seems rather unlikely.

There is a case to be made that the Russian state has been involved in some extrajudicial killings. But the lack of evidence produced by The New York Times in the majority of the cases this article lists makes its overall thesis very unconvincing.