Tag Archives: Putin

Tsar Vladimir

Speaking on the ‘Rossiia’ TV channel, Metropolitan Ilarion, chairman of the department of external relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, declared:

It is my opinion that a person who is anointed to reign by priests, a person who receives not merely a mandate from electors to rule for a defined period, but receives sanction for his rule from God through the Church, and remains such for life until he passes power to his successor, is, of course, a form of government which is positively recommended by history and has many advantages compared with any electoral form of government.

No surprise here. The Orthodox Church has long had a preference for monarchy, although its bishops don’t normally proclaim it quite so openly. But who is to be Tsar? Aleksandr Prokhanov has an answer. Responding to Metropolitan Ilarion, he noted that the huge crowds which lined up in the Moscow rain recently to greet the relics of St Nicholas showed that the monarchical spirit was reviving in Russia, and that the time was right to raise the issue of restoring the monarchy. Ideally, the new Tsar would be a descendant of the Rurik and of the Romanovs, but there was no such person in Russia. A new dynasty would therefore have to be created. Prokhanov has a candidate in mind to start it:

It must be a special person; some kind of sign, some sort of sacrament, must be upon him. Vladimir Putin is such a person. In one of his addresses to the Federal Assembly he said that the sacred centre of Russian statehood, of Russian power, returned to Russia along with the return of the Crimea. He had in mind Khersones, where the baptism of Rus took place. And this magical, miraculous, mystical act, when the light of Orthodoxy poured through Prince Vladimir into all the vast expanses of Russia, first from the Carpathians to the Urals, and then beyond the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, this mystical act brought the holiness of Christ into Russian statehood. And the Crimea, restored to Russia by Putin, has brought this holiness into the very centre of Putin’s power, Putin’s statehood. That is why by this act, in some undefinable and undogmatic way, Putin carried the icon lamp of mysterious, mystical light into Russia, into the Kremlin, into his office, into his own mansion. He was chosen for this. He confirmed this choice. And in a very conditional way he was anointed, not by the Patriarch, not in the Uspenskii Cathedral, his coronation was accomplished without the presence of the Bishops. It was accomplished in a mysterious, mystical manner, when the lamp of Crimean Khersones returned in his hands to Russia. And he stood with this lamp, having lit it up with a mysterious light. Thus, in circles close to the Patriarch, in circles dreaming of monarchy, recognizing all the difficulties of restoring monarchy in Russia, more and more often one hears the name of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as a possible first monarch in the Putin dynasty.

Like a lot of Prokhanov’s stuff, this is all a bit OTT. And I’m sorry, Aleksandr, but I have news for you. It ain’t gonna happen. Putin has made it very clear that he has no interest in becoming Tsar, and besides the mass of the Russian population doesn’t seem too interested in the idea. Still, I think that I may use this quotation when I give a talk on the subject ‘Russia and Ukraine’ to the annual symposium of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies in September. For it gives a sense of how much some Russians value Vladimir Putin and the annexation/reunification of Crimea. For sure, most of them don’t view these things in the same kind of mystical-religious fashion, but they value them pretty highly nonetheless. The lesson I will draw is clear: if anybody really imagines that there will be ‘regime change’ in Russia, or that Russia will someday return Crimea to Ukraine, they’re living in an even stranger fantasyland than Aleksandr Prokhanov.

Large and complicated

Today Russian TV broadcast the 15th annual ‘Direct Line with Vladimir Putin’, in which the Russian president spends four hours answering questions from members of the public. There were no shocking revelations; no new policy initiatives; no changes in direction. In this way, it was a typical Putin performance – measured, pragmatic, and cautious.

The caution revealed itself in Putin’s answer to a question about to when he would go if he had a time machine. It would be better not to go anywhen, was the answer; there’s too much risk of messing up the timeline. The same caution could be seen in answers about the economy (it’s getting better, but the situation is still hard, and the path ahead is difficult), about relations with America (we can work together, but it’s not really up to us and depends on internal American politics), and about Ukraine (refraining from openly expressing support for pro-Russian elements as that could complicate their position).

Putin tiptoed around delicate questions: he seemed to hint that he disapproved of Natalia Poklonskaia’s denunciation of a new film about Tsar Nicholas II, but said that he didn’t want to get in an argument with her; he stated that St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg ought to be a cathedral not just a museum, but didn’t say outright that the Orthodox Church ought to own it; and he noted that many historical Ukrainian nationalists favoured a federated Ukraine, but didn’t actually say that he believed the same thing himself. In this way, many things were implied without being stated outright. Again, it was a cautious approach. Confrontation and controversy were avoided.

Several other things struck me.

Continue reading Large and complicated

Discourse analysis

What people say does not necessarily indicate what they really think. Nor does it necessarily give a clue to their future actions. That said, if somebody says the same thing consistently over a long period of time, one has reasonable grounds for concluding that his or her statements reflect a genuine belief and that they reflect more than just immediate advantage. For this reason, there is value in analyzing politicians’ discourse. In different ways, a couple of recent pieces of Russia-related scholarship prove this point.

Last week, in my capacity as co-supervisor, I attended the successful defence of a doctoral thesis in Montreal. The student analyzed how leading members of Russian political parties represented in the State Duma had discussed Russian relations with Georgia and Ukraine from 2000 to 2014. The findings were quite revealing. Consistently, Vladimir Putin and other leading Kremlin officials were much more moderate in their foreign policy discourse than the rest of Russia’s political elite. In an extreme case, back in 2001, when Putin elected to support George Bush in his Global War on Terror, even Yabloko denounced him for being too friendly to the Americans.

The dissertation laid out in great detail how members of the so-called ‘systemic opposition’ have repeatedly criticized the Kremlin for its ‘soft’, ‘pro-Western’ foreign policy. Eventually, in the face of the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin changed its line and adopted the opposition’s positions. While one cannot say for sure that opposition pressure, rather than external events, were responsible for the change in the Kremlin’s discourse, the findings seriously undermine the commonly-held view of Russian politics as lacking opposition and an independent public opinion. It also undermines the view that so-called ‘Russian aggression’ is all the fault of the ‘maudit Poutine’, as one might say in Montreal. In fact, Putin comes across as decidedly moderate on foreign policy issues, but subject to considerable pressure from a much more radical elite public opinion, to which he has had to respond. All this indicates at least some form of ‘democratic’ process.

The second work of discourse analysis was published this month by the academic journal Intelligence and National Security. Written by Stephen Benedict Dyson and Matthew J. Parent, and entitled ‘The Operational Code Approach to Profiling Political Leaders: Understanding Vladimir Putin’, the article subjects Vladimir Putin’s speeches on foreign policy to a form of quantitative analysis to answer three questions:  a) is Putin a rogue leader? b) what motivates him? C) is he a strategist or an opportunist?

I will confess that I am not a huge fan of quantitative analyses of this sort, which I think are far more subjective than they like to pretend (both in how the data is coded and how it is interpreted), lending a gloss of scientific objectivity to what are actually subjective opinions. I also think that question a) above is indicative of an inherent bias (why not phrase it in terms such as ‘do Putin’s views on foreign policy fit or diverge from the mainstream among international politicians?’, or something similar, rather than put in loaded terms like ‘rogue’?). I am also not at all sure that the methodology used can really answer question c), which needs a more detailed qualitative approach. That said, the results are not entirely without value.

In answer to question a), Dyson and Parent conclude that ‘Putin … speaks more like a mainstream than a rogue leader when his comments on all foreign policy topics are aggregated.’ Dyson and Parent fail to define ‘mainstream leaders’, but I assume that they mean by this Western politicians. In other words, Putin isn’t very different from Western leaders in his view of the world .

As to question b) (what motivates Putin), the authors note a strong desire for control, driven by a dislike of disorder.  Dyson and Parent conclude, ‘Our profile … supports the interpretation that Putin’s military interventions in particular toward Chechnya, Ukraine, and Syria, are fundamentally about his perception that chaos and state weakness are existential threats’. This fits with my own analysis.

Finally, in answer to question c), the authors determine that Putin is more of an opportunist than a strategist, based on changes in his attitude towards NATO/US pre- and post-Ukraine. I find this the weakest part of the analysis. The authors admit that ‘there is no direct measure of “strategist” vs. “opportunist” in the operational code construct’, so they are going beyond what their methodology really permits. Moreover, the change in Putin’s rhetoric towards NATO and the USA post-Maidan may not just be an opportunistic justification of his chosen policy but reflect genuine irritation with Western policy as well as other factors (such as those discussed in the doctoral dissertation above). That said, it does somewhat undermine the idea that Putin has been following an unchanging strategic plan from day 1 of his first presidency.

Dyson and Parent rather weaken their aricle, in my opinion, by bringing in some unnecessary discussion of Putin’s alleged ‘thuggishness’. Putin’s rhetoric about terrorism, they note, is extremely harsh, and he is willing to be quite violent in his response to the terrorist threat. This, they say, justifies the label of Putin as a ‘thug’. But Putin is hardly alone in his attitude to terrorism. Name me the Western president or prime minister who doesn’t condemn terrorism in harsh terms, Many of them are also quite willing to use violence. In fact, Western states have used force much more often than Russia over the past 15 years. So, why aren’t they ‘thuggish’? Bringing in value-laden words like this distorts what is meant to be a quantitative analysis and suggests a hidden bias. This has a strong effect on the policy suggestions at the end of the article, which lack validity as a result.

Having said all that, the two works described above do have something in common. Together, they paint a picture of the Russian president as holding views of the world and of foreign policy which are quite moderate and not very different from those of his Western counterparts. This is certainly not the Putin we normally see described in the press.

Farage, Bannon, Dugin, & Trumputinism.

Unfortunately, since the BBC doesn’t let people outside the UK access its programs online, I wasn’t able to watch Monday evening’s episode of Panorama entitled ‘Trump: The Kremlin Candidate?’ I have therefore had to limit myself to an article on the BBC website by what appears to be the main journalist behind the episode, John Sweeney. Captioned ‘Who are the figures pushing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin together?’ the article makes me realise that I didn’t miss very much by not seeing the show, except perhaps to have an opportunity to excoriate another piece of dismal reporting.

Sweeney says of Trump and Putin that, ‘the two men think alike’. He adds:

Mr Trump’s belief in American traditionalism and dislike of scrutiny echo the Kremlin’s tune: nation, power and aversion to criticism are the new (and very Russian) world order. You could call this mindset Trumputinism.

Three men have egged along Trumputinism: Nigel Farage, who is clear that the European Union is a far bigger danger to world peace than Russia; his friend, Steve Bannon, who is now Mr Trump’s chief strategist; and a Russian “penseur”, Alexander Dugin.

With his long hair and iconic Slavic looks, Mr Dugin is variously described as “Putin’s Brain” or “Putin’s Rasputin”. …Mr Dugin is widely believed to have the ear of the Kremlin….

Messrs Farage, Bannon and Dugin are all united that the greatest danger for Western civilisation lies in Islamist extremism. …

The danger is that in allying yourself with the Kremlin in the way they fight “Islamist fascism” in say, Aleppo, you end up siding with what some have called “Russian fascism” or, at least, abandoning democratic values and the rules of war and, in so doing, become a recruiting sergeant for ISIS.

Yikes! So Farage, Bannon, and Dugin are not only the architects of the new international order, but they’re also recruiting sergeants for ISIS (whereas, of course, Anglo-American military interventions in the Middle East haven’t helped ISIS recruit people at all!). It’s quite a claim.

Now, I can’t say that I know much about Steve Bannon, but the idea that either Trump or Putin has been strongly influenced by Nigel Farage strikes me  as quite preposterous. Even more so is the idea that he is somehow responsible for bringing the two together. Farage as the creator of the new Russo-American alliance? Give me a break!

As for Dugin, I have to ask Sweeney, ‘Are you serious?’ ‘Widely believed to have the ear of the Kremlin’, Sweeney says. Widely believed by whom, I wonder. Not any scholars of Russian affairs that I know. Most people dropped the ‘Dugin as Putin’s brain’ meme several years ago once it became clear that it was obvious nonsense. I typed the word ‘Dugin’ into the search engine on the website Kremlin.ru, which contains all of Putin’s speeches. ‘Your search returned no results’ it told me. Putin has never mentioned the man, not even once. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that he’s one of the major forces ‘egging on Trumputinism’.

Panorama has been running since 1953. It averages a little over 2 million viewers an episode. It pains me that so many Britons would be subjected to analysis like this without having the chance to hear anybody tell them what utter rot it is. After walking out of an interview with Sweeney and his team, Dugin tweeted that the BBC reporters were ‘Utter cretins. … Pure Soviet style propagandists.’ I have to say that I sympathize.

The Russian soul and the toxic West

I’ve spent the last week ploughing through the 1,400 pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary. (Boy, that guy knew how to churn out the words!!) The experience has left me pretty well acquainted with the writer’s views on the Russian People (with a capital ‘P’), Europe, the Eastern Question, and Russia’s universal mission. I’ve also just finished writing an academic article which discusses, among other things, references to Dostoevsky in Vladimir Putin’s speeches. And now by some quirk of fate, the international press has produced not one, but two, articles saying that Dostoevsky provides the key to understanding Putin’s politics.

A year or so ago, the press was all over Ivan Ilyin, saying that he was the man you had to read to understand Putin. Before that they said it was Aleksandr Dugin. No doubt a year from now it will be somebody else. But there is a bit of truth in the Dostoevsky meme since Putin has quoted and mentioned Dostoevsky in his speeches on numerous occasions.

So what is being said of the Putin-Dostoevsky connection?

Continue reading The Russian soul and the toxic West

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.