Tag Archives: Putin

Brean, Braun, and Putin’s Brain

Occasionally, I wonder why I got into the blogging business. Fortunately, whenever these doubts arise, my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen (for which I once used to write), helps me out by publishing some outrageous nonsense, reminding me of the need for someone, somewhere to take the initiative in debunking it all. And since nobody else round here seems to be doing the job, the task falls upon me.

Today the Citizen obliged me by producing not one, but two such pieces, which was kind of generous of it because one would have been quite enough. The theme of both was the impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. As any sensible person knows, this isn’t going to happen (unless the Ukrainians are stupid enough to try to recapture the rebel provinces of Donbass by force). But that hasn’t stopped Western politicians and the media from screaming wolf on an almost daily basis for the past couple of months. Every day that Russia fails to invade Ukraine brings more articles saying that it’s just around the corner. Just wait. ‘The Russians are coming!’

Anyway, article no. 1, on which I won’t spend much time, is a relatively straightforward piece of reporting entitled ‘Russia warns of response if Ukraine joins NATO.’ This uncritically repeats a statement by Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis saying that, ‘We are convinced that Russia is actually preparing for an all-out war against Ukraine. It’s an unprecedented event probably since the Second World War.’

To this my response is that, A) Landsbergis being ‘convinced’ doesn’t make it so, and B) even if true it’s hardly ‘unprecedented’ – there’s been no shortage of wars since 1945, quite a few of them fought by Western powers (The invasion of Iraq anyone? The bombing of Yugoslavia?). So wouldn’t it make some sense to tell readers so?

Next, the article tells us that ‘In response to Moscow’s provocation, EU foreign ministers agreed to hit targets linked to the Wagner group, a Russian private military firm, with punitive sanctions, accusing it of destabilizing Ukraine and parts of Africa.’ So what is the ‘provocation’ here? It’s stated as a given, but no evidence of any ‘provocation’ is given.

And then, the Citizen finishes with this gem:

‘Russia’s domestic intelligence service was accused by its Ukrainian counterpart Monday of waging information warfare after it said it had arrested 106 supporters of a Ukrainian neo-Nazi youth group for planning attacks and mass murders. The Federal Security Service said that two of those held had planned attacks on educational institutions.’

Damn those Russians, arresting Neo-Nazis who planned to attack schools! ‘Waging information warfare indeed!’

The problem with this article is not that it’s factually false, as it mostly just repeats claims by Western and Ukrainian officials, but that it treats those claims as given and makes no effort to either challenge or contextualize them. That said, it’s a relatively mild piece of propaganda compared to what appears on the op-ed page of the same edition. This is an article by one Joseph Brean, entitled ‘Putin’s Taxi Driving Disclosure Part of Plan, Expert Says.’ It’s a real doozy.

Basically, the article is a four column story based entirely on the opinions of a single ‘expert’ – Aurel Braun, a professor at the University of Toronto, who, I think it’s fair to say, sits on the hawkish wing of the Canadian foreign policy community. No other ‘expert’ is cited. Nor is any effort made to analyze whether Braun is right. His mere opinion is considered sufficient to justify half a page of full-sized newspaper.

Let’s take a look at the Braun told Brean. (Their names have a certain ring to them, don’t you think?) The starting point is once again Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine, and the ‘hook’, as journalists say, is a recent revelation by Vladimir Putin that in the 1990s he drove a taxi in order to raise money. ‘One can assume that Putin did not just make these remarks off the cuff,’ says Braun. Putin must have had a reason for raising the taxi driving story.

Fair enough, I say. Putin obviously felt that the anecdote would serve some purpose. Braun and Brean tell us what that might have been:

‘The effect is subtle but by reflecting on the indignity of the collapse of Soviet society, Putin is whipping up support for his campaign against Ukraine, to deny it has a legitimate national identity separate from Russia’s, but rather is a construct of the West, destined to be reclaimed, just like Russia’s imperial influence.’

You can see it, right? Putin says, ‘I drove a taxi’. But what he really means is, ‘let’s invade Ukraine!’ Makes sense, huh?

Braun explains the logic to Brean, who laps it all up uncritically. Putin’s story gives him a link of ‘shared suffering’ with other Russians, says Braun. Putin is thereby indicating to everyone that the ‘loss of superpower status was not just abstract but personal.’ Brean adds: ‘This is typical of the modern Russian geopolitical victim as both aggressor and victim, Braun said, simultaneously projecting confidence and complaining about being treated unfairly.’

Just to make sure we get the point, Brean then proceeds to inform readers that Putin is rewriting history, and wraps up his piece with the following piece of tosh:

‘He [Putin] indulges a rosy view of Joseph Stalin as a firm hand who organized and industrialized Russia. … A recurring theme is that Russia’s future should look like its past, as an imperial Third Rome. His 2014 invasion of Ukraine and Georgia before that, for example, were always described as reclaiming Slavic land and people.’

In a previous post, I mentioned various principles for writing a bad article about Russia. This includes ‘making stuff up’, quoting what others have claimed without mentioning that their claims are dubious or even wrong, and citing only sources that fit your chosen narrative. Here we have them all.

Making stuff up: Putin doesn’t ‘indulge a rosy view of Joseph Stalin’ (as I’ve detailed on various occasions), wasn’t even president during the 2008 war with Georgia, and, as far as I know, has never justified that war in terms of ‘reclaiming Slavic land and people’ (the South Ossetians, after all aren’t Slavs). (One could allow this in the case of Ukraine if one calls the 2014 annexation of Crimea an ‘invasion’, but Putin has never admitted to supporting the rebellion in Donbass, so can’t be said to be justifying that in any terms, let alone those of reclaiming Slavic lands and people).

Quoting claims without pointing out that they may not be true: pretty much the whole article fits that criterion.

Citing only experts who fit your narrative: Brean cites only one expert – Braun – so we have that one too!

In short, we’ve got pretty much the personification of the bad article. Its thesis – that an anecdote about taxi driving reveals some aggressive imperial intent – is amazingly far fetched. One can’t prove it wrong, given that one would have to have access to Putin’s brain to do so. But there’s nothing to connect taxi driving with Ukraine. Putin’s popularity has long rested on his ability to restore stability at home after the chaos of the 1990s. His latest anecdote fits firmly in that narrative. There’s absolutely no reason to see anything else in it.

The taxi driver story is ‘a “calculated” act of propaganda,” says Brean. For sure, there’s propaganda here. But it’s coming from the Ottawa Citizen, not from anyone else. Brean, Braun and Putin’s Brain – quite the combination!

Putin mentions Gandhi: proof he loves Hitler!

I was going to write today about a new report by a British think tank called the Council on Geostrategy, but then I came across something even worse (I know, it’s difficult, but it’s true!). So I’m going to have to put the report to one side while I discuss the particular horror that it is Bruno Macaes’s latest piece for the New Statesman. https://www.newstatesman.com/world/asia/2021/11/is-vladimir-putin-preparing-for-war

Continue reading Putin mentions Gandhi: proof he loves Hitler!

Postliberalism, or a ‘conservatism for optimists’

Apologies in advance, but this will be a long post, as I feel my way forward in an effort to fuse my recent research into the history of Russian liberalism with current affairs. If I ramble, it’s because I don’t have a clear idea where I’m heading and I’m making it up as I go along. I hope that what comes out makes sense. But in a way, it’s the journey that matters, rather than the destination.

Russia’s development should be founded on a ‘conservatism for optimists’, argued the country’s president Vladimir Putin a speech to the Valdai Club in Sochi last week. This is a somewhat curious expression since conservatism is often defined as an essentially pessimistic philosophy. Whereas liberals and socialists believe that human nature can be improved by means of suitable social and economic reforms, the conservative supposedly follows Thomas Hobbes in believing that humans are basically nasty by nature and in need of the hand of the Leviathan to keep them in order. Thus in a book-length study of conservatism, my former colleague at the University of Hull, Noel O’Sullivan, described it as a ‘philosophy of imperfection’.

‘Conservatism for optimists’ was not the only phrase Putin used. He also referred to ‘sensible conservatism’, ‘healthy conservatism’, and ‘moderate conservatism,’ and declared that progress must be ‘organic’, thus neatly aligning with my own definition of conservatism as a ‘theory of organic development’. In this regard, Putin made it clear that conservatism was not about standing still or going backwards, but about going forwards, but doing so in a ‘stable’ fashion without the kind of revolutionary shocks that have done Russia so much harm in the past. He then compared this progressive, moderate, ‘optimistic’ conservatism with unhealthy ‘simple okhranitel’stvo’, a phrase that is very hard to translate but has resonances of harsh defence of state power for its own sake.

It would be a mistake to regard Putin as an intellectual. Still, his speech made it clear that his thinking has evolved over time in a philosophical direction and that he has developed a fairly coherent ideological outlook. It is perhaps not particularly original, and it contains big gaps, particularly in terms of how it is to find practical implementation, but it is, as I said, coherent. It’s also fairly moderate, and far removed from the claims made by many about him that he is a ‘fascist’, ‘far right’, ‘ultra-conservative’ or the like.

Justifying his position in the Q&A session after his speech, Putin cited the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. When asked by my Ottawa-based colleague Piotr Dutkiewicz who inspired him, he mentioned both Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin, whose ‘book is on my shelf, and which from time to time I take out and read.”

This isn’t the first time that Putin has referenced Berdyaev and Ilyin, and as regular readers of this blog will know, I have discussed the issue on several occasions, especially in light of accusations that Ilyin was a fascist and that Putin’s admiration of him makes him a fascist too. But although I have gone over some of this ground before, I think it’s worth another take on the subject, as it provides a useful way of illustrating the relevance of these figures to the current day and thereby illuminating something about today as well. To do that, though, we need to go through a reasonably lengthy historical diversion.

Continue reading Postliberalism, or a ‘conservatism for optimists’

Absurd Pandora Hype

Perhaps I shouldn’t pick on Luke Harding. He’s kind of the low hanging fruit of bad journalism – altogether too easy a target. Perhaps it would make more sense to challenge someone more worthy of our attention. But then, what’s the point of challenging good journalism? Besides which, Harding gets the big headlines, sells a lot of books, and so on. So, here goes.

In my latest for RT, I tackle Luke’s analysis of the Pandora Papers, which consist of several million files detailing the financial wheelings and dealings of the rich and powerful, with a special focus on property deals conducted via offshores companies. In an article on the Pandora Papers, Harding mentions the name ‘Putin’ no fewer than 50 times. I kid you not – 50 times!

But here’s the thing. The 12 million or so pages of the Pandora Papers apparently don’t mention Putin even once!

The juxtaposition is quite extraordinary. What’s up? Read my piece here to find out.

Putin’s Futile Effort to Win Back Ukraine

Russian president Vladimir Putin clearly fancies himself as a bit of a historian. A while back he wrote a piece on the origins of the Second World War for the National Interest magazine, and now he’s penned (or at least he and his helpers have penned) a great long tome discussing the historical origins of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. The purpose of it all is to prove that Russia and Ukraine are truly one, and that their current division is the product of the malicious activities of outside powers – the Poles and Austrians in olden times, the West as a whole nowadays.

I discuss the piece in an article for RT that you can read here. In this I speculate that Putin is trying to appeal to ordinary Ukrainians over the head of their government. Millions of Ukrainians think positively of Russia, he says, but they are intimidated into silence by the despotic regime in Kiev, which is trying to turn the country into an ‘anti-Russia’. It seems that Putin believes that there are large numbers of Ukrainians who share his point of view, and that this is his attempt to speak directly to them in an effort to win Ukraine back for Russia.

Personally, I think it’s a giant waste of time.

Putin may be right that a large segment of the Ukrainian population doesn’t share the anti-Russian stance of its government. One suspects that if – God forbid – Russian tanks were ever to roll into Odessa, while some would fight them, some others would crawl out of the woodwork and declare that they always loved Russia all along. But the thing is that the opinion of the ordinary Joe (or Ivan, or whatever the Ukrainian equivalent is) isn’t that important.

Ordinary Joes don’t run any country anywhere. Political elites compete for their votes, but by and large they live in a different world, with a different frame of mind, shaped far more by what the educated classes think than by the average guy on the street.

At this point, I will admit that I’m not a Ukrainian expert, so I may be entirely wrong about this, but from a distance I get a very strong sense that the Ukrainian educated classes, and with them the political elite, have swallowed the Maidan ‘anti-Russia’ stance with a vengeance. Basically speaking, there are precious few people left who are willing or able to represent the ‘pro-Russia’ point of view.

This isn’t just because it’s been repressed, though it has been – as seen by the arrest of Mr Medvedchuk. It’s more that this representation doesn’t exist in any meaningful form. And without that representation, it doesn’t really matter how many ‘pro-Russian’ people are out there. Politically speaking, their prospects are zilch.

In other words, Ukraine is a lost cause from the Russian point of view. Its upper classes have made up their minds – at least for a generation (perhaps something will change when the promised integration into the West never happens, but even then one can’t be sure). Putin can appeal over the government’s head to the Ukrainian people as much as he likes, but I don’t see it changing a thing.

Summit Yawn

I feel that I should write something about the outcome of the much-awaited Putin-Biden meeting in Geneva, but to be frank it’s a bit of a yawn. As was to be expected, nothing much was decided, though they at least avoided a major bust-up (it would have been more newsworthy if they hadn’t). The Russian news agency TASS asked me for a comment, and I replied as follows:

Expectations were low regarding this summit and it’s fair to say that those expectations were met. Nobody foresaw a major breakthrough on any issues, and there weren’t any. At most, they agreed to keep talking, especially on nuclear arms control. That said, the two sides took a very, very modest step towards better relations, as seen by the announcement that the respective ambassadors will be returning to their posts. Overall, I would assess as it as a very moderately positive outcome, but the gap between the two sides remains extremely wide.

In essence, there’s not a whole lot to say about the summit. The real issue is how both sides go on from here. There are serious impediments to any forward movement. It’s not just that the USA and Russia have incompatible views of their own national interests. It’s also that there appears to be an almost complete lack of mutual trust. Consequently, I tend to the view that what matters is not reaching agreement on any substantial matters but preventing the hotheads on either side from dragging US-Russia relations even further into the depths. In other words, it’s not about repairing relations, it’s about preventing them from collapsing entirely.

On the Russian side, the big danger, to my mind, is that some idiot in the security and intelligence services will take it into his brain to do something crazy, like the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, or even worse. Sadly, one can’t rule it out. Beyond that, outside of the talking heads on Russian TV shows, I don’t see any appetite for conflict in Russia. I see of lot of resignation that it’s unavoidable, but no desire to make things worse.

I’m less confident in that regard when it comes to the Americans. Biden himself seems fairly level-headed, but as I pointed out in a recent post about Ambassador Kurt Volker and his phrase “success is confrontation,” there is an element in the US foreign policy establishment that seems to be gunning for a fight. On the American side, the challenge will be to see these people off.

I suspect that Biden will be able to quieten the extremists on his side a little bit by pointing to the fact that he used the summit to raise issues with which Putin might feel uncomfortable, such as human rights. No doubt Biden’s supporters will use this as evidence that he is suitably “tough.” In reality, though, this is so much window dressing. One can’t imagine that it will change Russian behaviour in any way. More important is what Biden didn’t do, which is that he didn’t go out of his way to annoy Putin. Nor did he put any obvious spokes in the way of future negotiations. In fact, the summit ended with agreement to keep talking on some key matters. That’s not exactly progress, but it’s not the confrontation that Volker and his ilk were looking for.

In that sense, I see the summit as a bit of a defeat for the hardliners in Washington. Not a huge one, to be sure, but still a setback for them. Given that we couldn’t realistically have expected anything more, I think that on the whole we can consider the meeting a job well done.

Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Remember the claims that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government had a role in inciting the mob that broke into the Capitol building in Washington DC back in January? I wrote about this in an article a few weeks ago. No sooner had the dust settled than social media was abuzz with statements that Putin either arranged the whole thing or at the very least was celebrating what had happened. As former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes put it, “This is the day that Vladimir Putin has waited for since he had to leave East Germany as a young KGB officer at the end of the Cold War.”

The idea that Putin and the Russian state want nothing more than to see Western democracies collapse into chaos is now so widespread as to be pretty much an uncontestable truth. Everybody knows that it is so. Russian “disinformation”, election “meddling”, and all of the rest of it, are put down to Putin’s enormous fear of democracy and of the West, and his concomitant desire to undermine both.

If you have any doubts, just Google “Putin, undermine democracy.” I did, and this is what I got:

Continue reading Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Rule of Law in russia

In my latest article for RT, which you can read here, I discuss Russia’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, and the possibility that Russia will quit the Council of Europe so as to withdraw itself from the court’s jurisdiction. I argue that it would be a shame if Russia did decide to do this. The evidence does not suggest that the court is biased against Russia, and many Russians have benefitted from it being there to protect their rights. I suggest that,

The problem with a number of Russian leaders, throughout history, is that they have tended to want to make their subordinates accountable to the law, while at the same time not wanting the same accountability to apply to themselves.

I conclude that Russian president Vladimir Putin should avoid going down the same path himself.

Of course, many people think that he went down that path long ago, and I was interested to see a couple of pieces this week that also address issues of the rule of law in Russia.

The first is an NBC News interview with exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In this Khodorkovsky says, ‘Putin is a typical mafia godfather, a typical head of a crime syndicate.’

The second is a piece in Meduza that discusses liberal economic reform during Putin’s first presidency, and in particular the role of two important officials, Alexei Kudrin and Herman Gref. The article reports the following:

Kudrin and Gref pushed for new things like a tax of mineral mining. According to Gref, major oil companies were not happy with the proposal. He says that a representative of the company Yukos approached him on the night before the new law was to be discussed by the Duma and told him that they’d made an agreement with all of the deputies. As a result, the ministers were given a choice: they could either not take the proposal to parliament, or they could ‘be taken out [feet first]’. … Gref called Kudrin and found out that he’d also been visited and threatened. … In the end the legislation failed miserably.

So, who was it who owned this oil company, Yukos, which suborned parliamentary deputies and threatened senior officials? Well, golly gosh, it was none other than Khodorkovsky, the same man who accuses Putin of being a ‘mafia godfather.’

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Russian president Vladimir Putin had a private meeting the other day with the heads of key media organizations. Normally, the content of these meetings remains secret, but on this occasion one of those present leaked what Putin had said. Apart from the statement that ‘We will not abandon Donbass,’ what grabbed the headlines was the following words of Putin:

I believe in passionarity [passionarnost’], in the theory of passionarity. As in nature, so in human society, there is development, a peak, and extinction. Russia hasn’t yet reached the peak. We are on the march, on the march of development. The country passed through very tough experiences in the 1990s, at the start of the 2000s, but it is on the march of development. I look at what is happening here: we have a sea of problems, but unlike other nations that are old or aging, we are still on the rise. We are quite a young nation. We have an immortal genetic code. It is founded on the mixing of bloods, if you can say it in such a simple, popular, way.

I mentioned this odd topic of passionarity once before, but it’s worth returning to it for a more detailed explanation of what Putin is on about, as I suspect it doesn’t mean a lot to most Western readers.

The term ‘passionarity’ was invented by the Soviet ethnologist Lev Gumilev and was a key point in his (failed) doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, entitled Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. But before going on to that, it’s necessary to introduce a bit of historical background.

Continue reading Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity