Tag Archives: Putin

The inability to see

I spend most of my time on this blog mocking all the exaggerated nonsense which passes for political commentary nowadays. It’s a rare day that I come across something which is both stimulating and well-written. Fortunately, this is one of those days. Via Facebook (which has its uses), I was pointed in the direction of an excellent article by Patrick Lawrence in this summer’s edition of the magazine Raritan Quarterly, of which I had not previously been aware. I can recommend it to you all, and you can find it here.

In my last post, I made fun of the demand that people should learn less about history and culture. Those making this demand clearly fear that an understanding of context will undermine the simple narratives they are peddling. This is how Putinversteher (someone who understands Putin) became a dirty word. Understanding is a bad thing. Patrick Lawrence comments in his article that,

None of our prevailing versions of Putin has any context. There is no trace of Russian history, political culture, national priorities, or national identity in any of them. In conversation I call this POLO, the power of leaving out, for it is perniciously effective. Leaving out context is an old trick among the propagandists – and of our press, we must at last recognize. It now turns our discourse into irrational nonsense.

Amen to that! But what is the context that we need to understand in this case? Lawrence argues that it relates to the fact that Russia was ‘a late developer’ compared to that part of the world which we call the West. This created a problem for Russians, as they had to answer the question ‘Was to modernize to Westernize?’ Answering that question in turn required them to engage in some soul-searching ‘for believable accounts of identity’. In response, says Lawrence, the great majority of Russians came to a common opinion: ‘Russians had to cut their own path into the modern. It was to be theirs alone, sui generis. They would have to think it through and make it.’

As it happens, this is an important theme in my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism. Lawrence makes the point, however, by citing examples from what one might call the political ‘left’ of Russian history – Alexander Herzen and the lesser known Mikhail Mikhailovsky. The fact that one can use examples from throughout the Russian political spectrum to make this point confirms its basic validity. While seeking to modernize, Russians have also sought to preserve (and one might even say, create) their own identity, in other words to modernize in their own way, while preserving what they value from their past. ‘There is plenty to suggest Vladimir Putin is well acquainted with this notion,’ writes Lawrence, ‘This modernizer is consistently attentive to the unmodern, and the unmodern in Russia is vast.’ [As an aside, I note that this sounds remarkably similar to Alexander Dugin’s idea of the archeomodern.]

According to Lawrence, this explains much of Putin’s behaviour. On the one hand, Putin wishes to modernize Russia. On the other hand, he is well aware that he governs a deeply conservative country in which people, as Lawrence says, ‘value order … above democracy’, and following the economic and social collapse of the 1990s (another vital piece of context) ‘want life to improve … but want little to do with Western neoliberalism.’ Governing in such a situation, ‘requires constant acts of balance,’ notes Lawrence. Putin isn’t an all-powerful autocrat. He ‘needs to build a broad consensus to get anything done.’ This explains many of his actions. The infamous legislation prohibiting the ‘propaganda of untraditional sexual practices’ to minors, for instance, can be seen as a kind of compromise which aimed to appease the conservative mood of the public while not going too far in the direction of a form of social control Putin is not actually interested in. Similarly in foreign policy, Putin’s instincts were initially pro-Western and he still insists on calling Western states his ‘partners’, but he is under consistent pressure from critics at home who ‘complain he is too slow in protecting Russia’s interests against the West’s repeated challenges to them.’ ‘These internal complaints’, notes Lawrence, ‘are part of the domestic politics Putin must manage.’

Seen this way, the policies Putin pursues can be seen as a response to Russia’s historical and domestic political context, not, as they are normally portrayed in the West, as the products of his own personal, malicious personality. And while Putin’s government is not democratic, in the purely procedural sense that we tend to understand it, Lawrence notes that ‘the majority of Russians consider that he acts broadly within Russian tradition.’ Putin’s rule, therefore, fits with a model of legitimacy in which ‘legitimacy tends to derive less from participatory political processes than from the provision of security, services, sound infrastructure, and altogether the prospects of well-being within the polity.’

Lawrence concludes that Western commentators are so obsessed with ‘the need to believe’ that they have acquired an ‘inability (or refusal) to see’ along with an inability to think. Alas, I think that this is all too true.

 

Advertisements

The use of force

There are occasions when statements of the blindingly obvious are rather revealing, although not in the way that those making the statements intend. One doesn’t learn anything new about the specific matter being discussed – as it’s blindingly obvious, one knew it already – but one does learn something about the person making the statement, namely that it wasn’t so obvious to him or her. And that’s where it can get quite interesting.

Journalist Simon Saradzhyan has worked in Russia for 15 years, and is now part of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he runs, and writes for, the website Russia Matters. In his latest article, he has a go at explaining in what conditions Russian president Vladimir Putin is willing to endorse the use of force. He writes:

In my view, at least two conditions need to be in place for Russia’s leadership to seriously consider this option. They can be broadly defined as follows: First, Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests that he thinks cannot be neutralized by any means short of force. … The second condition for Russia to use military force against another country is that Moscow must have a reasonable hope that such actions would yield a net reduction in threats to Russia’s vital interests (“Condition 2”). This may not mean outright victory. But Russian leaders must be confident that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs.

To prove this case, Saradzhyan refers to the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015, and contrasts these with the non-use of force in cases such as Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and Armenia (2018). The first case (Georgia, 2008) is rather problematic because Putin wasn’t President of Russia at that time, and I’m not aware of any evidence that the decision to counter the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not Dmitry Medvedev’s. But that’s by the by. What really interests me here is Saradzhyan’s two conditions. Reading them was another of those occasions when I felt a powerful urge to say, ‘Well, duh!’. Putin, we’re told, only uses force when vital interests are at stake and a cost-benefit analysis suggests that benefits will outweigh costs. Of course! What else would you expect? After all, what’s the alternative? To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be crazy. All Saradzhyan’s thesis tells us is that in his opinion Putin is a rational actor.

So why are these two amazingly obvious conditions such a revelation? Why does Saradzhyan think that they will tell anybody anything that a rational person should not already expect? I see two possible explanations.

First, the image of Putin as irrational and unpredictable is so deeply embedded that an analysis which describes him as something different is considered revelatory, penetrating, and insightful rather than merely prosaic.

Second, Saradzhyan and his intended audience don’t understand that his conditions are simply common sense and should apply to everybody everywhere. And the reason why they don’t understand this is because those conditions are not Western practice.

And that’s where this article’s statement of the blindingly obvious becomes quite interesting. For, viewed this way, what this article explains to us is not the conditions under which Putin uses force so much as the conditions under which the West does so – when vital interests aren’t at stake, and when we end up worse off afterwards. Judging by this article, we’ve now become so used to this that anything else apparently comes as a big surprise.

World cup blog post 3

Today was a busy day in Moscow for us. Our first stop was Red Square, where we tried to get into Lenin’s mausoleum. However, the queue was huge and moving very slowly, so after a short while we gave up. Nearby Manezh Square looked like it had been invaded by Danes.

DSCN2512

The highlight of the day was to be the evening football match, so to fill time in the absence of Lenin, we went to the Cosmonautics museum at VDNKh, which I found mildly interesting. Then lunch, after which we returned to our hotel to get the match tickets. I didn’t know that Russia had a Hockey Hall of Fame, but it turns out that it does, and as it was right next to our hotel, we popped into it for a few minutes. Here’s a picture of the hockey jersey of a certain ‘Putin, V.V.’.

DSCN2514

And then there was the game: Denmark v. France. What a disappointment. The large number of Danish fans provided a colourful atmosphere in the Luzhniki stadium, but before long they weren’t making a lot of noise – not because their team was losing, but simply because the game was decidedly dull. The longer it went on, the clearer it became that both teams, but particularly Denmark, were very happy with 0-0. In the last 30 minutes or so, whenever the Danes got the ball and looked set to attack, they stopped, paused, and then passed the ball sidewards or backwards. It was one of the most negative displays of football I’ve seen. It ended 0-0, satisfying the players, but leaving those watching rather dissatisfied.

DSCN2521
Danish fans try to find something to cheer about

Tomorrow we head off to Kaliningrad. I’ll provide an update after the England-Belgium game on the 28th.

 

 

Three doses of drivel

[Trigger warning: Clicking on the links below and reading the articles revealed thereby is likely to induce severe nausea. Readers are advised to have a dose of Gravol nearby to suppress any unwanted symptoms.]

 

Maclean’s is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, that’s to say it’s a glossy magazine with lots of photographs mingled together with analysis of domestic and international events. In recent times, it’s been a reliable source of foaming-in-the mouth Russophobic commentary, but this week’s it’s outdone even itself by printing no fewer than three articles involving Russia, each one every bit as bad as the other.

The first comes from columnist Terry Glavin, who’s one of those strange left-wing human rights activists who give the impression that they truly believe that the world can be divided up into simple categories of good and evil and that the problem is that the good people aren’t doing enough to physically exterminate the evil ones by every means possible. The fact that the actual consequences of toppling dictators wherever you think you find them often end up being tragic doesn’t seem to register in their thought processes. Glavin’s latest piece in Maclean’s is a case in point. Its content is pretty clear from its headline: ‘Putin is the new Stalin. Here’s why his poisonous gangland oligarchy will prevail,’ Coming across a title like that generally induces something approaching a state of nausea. You know that it’s going to be really hard to read what follows, and your natural tendency is to turn away and have nothing more to do with it. It takes a strong stomach to digest stuff like this, but sadly it’s my job, so I do. It’s not pleasant.

The article is essentially one Putin cliché after another. Glavin tells us that the reason that Putin will win Sunday’s presidential election is that his ‘primary challenger was conveniently disqualified from running for office’; that ‘Journalists are frequently found among Putin’s domestic critics who end up dead’; and that, ‘Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008.’ The facts that the ‘challenger’ in question (Alexei Navalny) has yet to register above 2 percent in any opinion poll; that there’s little to no evidence linking Putin to murders of journalists and that the rate of such murders is far below what it was under Boris Yeltsin; and that Dmitri Medvedev was President of Russia at the time of the Georgian war and that in any case Georgia started it, are ignored. Glavin says also that in Syria ‘6,600 civilians have been killed by Russian bombers.’ I can’t say whether that is true or not; maybe it is. Urban warfare is bloody. But I wonder how many civilians have been killed in Syria and Iraq by NATO countries (particular the USA, UK, and Turkey). Why does Glavin pick out Russia as particularly guilty in this regard? He doesn’t say, but rounds off his article with the following gem:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the new Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.

Stalin, as I’m sure you all know, led a revolutionary movement which completely transformed Soviet society, including massive industrialization and forced collectivization. The latter so disrupted agriculture as to cause a famine in which perhaps 6 million people died. Meanwhile, Stalin oversaw the Great Terror in which some 700,000 people were executed. And somehow Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the same. What utter drivel! Why on earth is this stuff published?

More clichés come in the second article, written by Scott Gilmore and entitled ‘Russia is a mess but it’s still playing the West.’ Gilmore tells us that, ‘Russia is a mess … It has one of the worst incidences of alcoholism in the world and one of the highest suicide rates. … the fertility rate has crashed. … The population size peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining ever since.’ What Gilmore fails to mention is that the rates of alcoholism and suicide have declined dramatically in Russia in the past 20 years. The fertility rate did indeed ‘crash’ in the 1990s, but it has since somewhat recovered, and currently stands at about 1.75 children per couple. That’s not sufficient to maintain the current population, and Russia faces some definite demographic issues, but its fertility rate is actually considerably higher than that of most other European countries (the European average is about 1.6). Moreover, because of immigration and rising life expectancy (currently the highest ever in Russian history) the Russian population has actually increased slightly in recent years. Gilmore’s claims are simply untrue.

Oddly, Gilmore thinks that although Russia is in terminal decline, it is beating the West hands down in the international arena. He writes:

The Russian state is falling apart. Putin, in an effort to regain some control over his country’s failing fortunes, is attempting to destabilize the West. And he is beginning to succeed, by ignoring the new rules of internationalism. … We need to step up our game. … We need a more determined and aggressive strategy.

Again, what utter drivel! The Russian state is not ‘falling apart’, not in the slightest. Moreover, the idea that Putin is trying to ‘destabilize the West’ is a fiction (Russians, including Putin, generally stress stability and believe that it’s the West which is doing the destabilizing). So too is the concept that Putin is doing so in order to prop up his failing country (which isn’t, after all, ‘failing’ in quite the way imagined). As for the ‘new rules of internationalism’, I admit that I don’t know what Gimore is talking about. What I do understand is the call for a more ‘aggressive strategy’. It sends a chill through my bones. Have we not been aggressive enough already?

The drivel continues in the third Maclean’s article, this one written by Stephen Maher and entitled ‘Donald Trump failed a simple test on his Russian ties.’ Maher begins by saying:

Donald Trump’s sudden Twitter firing of Rex Tillerson on Tuesday is the moment that it became impossible to maintain the fiction that Trump is not in some way in league with Vladimir Putin … if there was any real doubt about the relationship, Tillerson’s firing removed it.

Why is this? According to Maher, it’s because ‘Tillerson … was fired the day after he denounced Russia for the attempted assassination of a former double agent in Britain.’

One wonders where Maclean’s finds such authors capable of writing such extraordinary nonsense. I realize memories are short, so I remind readers that just a few months ago Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State was being touted as proof that Trump was in the pay of Putin – Tillerson, after all, had business connections with Russia and had even been granted a medal by Putin. But now the fact that he’s been fired is proof that Trump is a Russian agent. It’s Putin Derangement Syndrome taken to a whole new level of insanity.

Maher is clearly not up to date with the latest developments in studies of Russian military strategy, for he entertains his readers with an explanation of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.’ Had he been on the ball, he would have known that Mark Galeotti, the inventor of the term ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, has recently admitted that there is in fact no such thing. But, as in all the other articles, mere facts are not important. We are fighting Russian ‘disinformation’ after all.

Like Gilmore, Maher thinks that the West is losing its struggle against Russia. ‘The EU, NATO, and the United States have all been dramatically weakened,’ he says. Really? I can’t say that I see it. Where’s the evidence for this fantastic claim? If there’s a sunny side for NATO, continues Maher, it’s Canada. As he explains, ‘In Canada, likely because of the political clout of our Ukrainian diaspora, there has been no opening for the Russians.’ Thank goodness for the members of the Ukrainian diaspora, bravely fighting to protect the world from the terror of Putin, just as their grandfathers bravely fought to protect the world from the evils of Putin’s hero, Joseph Stalin, 70 years ago.

Slava Ukraini!!

Young Russians for Putin

Remember all the articles a few months back, following one of Aleksei Navalny’s rallies, about how young Russians were turning against Vladimir Putin? At the time I pointed out how wrong this is – numerous surveys have shown that Russian youth are the most pro-Putin element of the Russian population, as well as the most patriotic and the most optimistic about their country’s future. It seems that the English-speaking media have finally woken up to this reality. This week, we have not just one , not just two , and not just three, but four articles pointing this out.  Let’s take a look.

First, the Washington Post’s Anton Troianovski notes that, ‘81 percent of adults approve of Putin as president – including 86 percent of Russians 18 to 24 years old. Among the age group, 67 percent told Levada they believed the country was going in the right direction, compared to 56 percent of the general public.’ Troianovski speaks to three young Russians in the city of Kurgan near the border with Kazakhstan. The prevailing mood is that their lives are better than those of their parents. They profess awareness of restrictions on their freedoms, but at the same time consider themselves freer than any previous generation. As one says, ‘There are jobs. You can do whatever you want. You can travel wherever you want. The borders are all open before you – and this truly makes me happy.’ They credit Putin for the improvements in the quality of life and fear that any attempt to overturn the existing system would result in a return to the chaos of the 1990s.

Similar themes come up in the second article, in which Wall Street Journal writers James Marson and Thomas Grove interview young Russians in the towns of Chelyabinsk and Tyumen. The tone is set by the introductory paragraph which says,

Nikita Ivlev doesn’t really follow politics. But the high-school student says he is sure that only President Vladimir Putin can manage a country as big as Russia. Anastasia Kuklina, who is studying law, values the “peace and stability” of Mr. Putin’s rule and is thrilled with new shopping malls in her hometown. Darya Yershova says Russian life is better and freer than in the past. “When we talk with our parents, they are sometimes shocked by the numerous opportunities we have today,” she says.

Marson and Grove note that, ‘Many say their lives are better than their parents.’ Material conditions have improved:

Chelyabinsk’s supermarkets and shopping malls are packed. … The young generation has broader horizons: They can travel abroad on cheap package tours to Turkey or Egypt and around one-third speak a foreign language. … A coffee-lover who wears a Vincent van Gogh pin, Ms. Yershova says her generation has much more freedom to develop and express itself than her forebears, who had more run-of-the-mill concerns amid the hardship of the 1990s.

In the third article, the Associated Press takes a slightly different line, with the headline ‘Breaking mold, some Russian youth speak out against Putin’. Author Francesca Ebel quotes a Moscow student as saying that, ‘I don’t think I have a single friend who thinks that Putin is good.’ But as Ebel then admits, ‘polls show Moscow’s metropolitan, middle-class youth are far from representative of Russia as a whole.’ Like the other authors she cites polling data showing Putin’s high level of support among youth, and adds, ‘Many young Putin supporters feel they have more opportunities in Putin’s Russia compared with their parents. “Our generation is really lucky because we can do absolutely everything that we want,” said Anna Lichaeva, 19.’

Finally, the Economist publishes a series of interviews with young Russians which provide a revealing insight into the way they think.

The first interviewee is aspiring actress Valeria Zinchenko from Moscow, who thinks that life is easier in the West, but declares that, ‘I wouldn’t want to move away from here. I’m used to the mentality. I’m proud because we have a glorious history—we have so many great people, great writers, politicians and artists. If you look at world history, we’ve had so many victories. We’re a great power.’ She notes also: ‘I wouldn’t want to see two men kissing on the street. I think it’s a violation of physics or nature. I understand that such people exist, but it’s not natural.’

Next in the Economist article is army conscript Vyacheslav Volkov, who declares his desire to become a priest once his army service ends. Volkov says:

We have a lot of people in the country these days who criticise instead of doing something. They like to shout loudly about how bad everything is here. I don’t agree. I like living here. I have everything I need. Some people say that we live poorly. I say: guys, every second person, even in villages, has an iPhone. Every other family has three cars. And you say that our lives suck?

I’m going to vote this year. I’ll lose my electoral virginity. I believe that Vladimir Putin is a great leader. Knowing the history of this country, he really pulled us out of the shitter.

‘From a biblical point of view, a wife exists for her husband,’ claims Volkov, ‘The husband is the one the whole family hangs on, and the wife is there to help him.’

Third in the Economist is Abubakr Azaev, a Muslim from Dagestan. Azaev comments that ‘Religion plays the central role in my life.’ ‘Having multiple wives is permitted in Islam–to some extent it’s Sunnah, so it’s even a desirable thing,’ he continues.

Thereafter, the article provides us with a variety of different perspectives. There’s a trainee veterinarian from Barnaul in Siberia, who’s a Navalny supporter, but rejects revolution; a student chef from Novosibirsk, who has a much positive attitude towards same-sex relationships than previous interviewees and who says he isn’t religious, but is rather at a loss when it comes to Russian history. ‘I’m not sure who Lenin was and what he did,’ he says, ‘And Stalin, was he president? I don’t know, I heard he was a really harsh guy.’ There’s a gay chemistry student from Moscow who dislikes Putin; an economics student from Murmansk who favours greater sexual equality; a girl from Dagestan who wants to leave Russia and live abroad; a student from Khimki who is thinking of voting Communist but declares that, ‘Our generation already has more opportunities than our parents. It’s obvious.’; and a law student from Murmansk who thinks that domestically things are getting worse in Russia but that ‘Putin is a strong leader. As long as he’s in power, there won’t be any attacks on us.’

The Economist article ends with Mikhail, a telecoms student in Novosibirsk, who says ‘I hope to serve in the army as a signals operator, to make a contribution to the Fatherland.’ ‘Putin is a good president,’ says Mikhail, ‘There’s nothing I don’t like about him.’

Putin takes Italy

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody has yet accused Vladimir Putin of being behind the rise to power of the newly elected head of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Doug Ford.  Ford is perhaps the closest thing Canada can produce to Donald Trump – i.e. somebody generally dismissed by the media as a populist, blowhard, know-nothing. The fact that such people somehow manage to win elections baffles much of our commentariat (and with Ontario’s governing Liberal Party well behind in the polls, it seems likely that Ford will soon be our new Premier). After the shambolic, drug-filled performance of Doug’s brother Rob as Mayor of Toronto, it defies the normal liberal observer’s sense of reason that anybody would vote for yet another member of the Ford dynasty, let alone that he could become leader of Canada’s largest province. In the same way, it defied reason that Britons could vote for Brexit, Americans for Trump, Germans for the AfD, and the like. It follows that there must be some external force which is to blame.

In the current climate, that means Russia. And so it is that the successful performance of the Five Stars Movement in this week’s Italian general election is being put down to the malign influence of Russia, and being debated more in terms of what it means for the allegedly relentless rise of Russian power than in terms of Italian domestic politics.

Hot off the mark was former American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who tweeted on Monday that, ‘In the past 2 years, Putin has won elections in the United States, Austria, Czechia & now Italy. He’s also delivered Brexit & performed well in France & Germany.’ And today, the Sunday edition of the New York Times contains an op-ed by regular columnist Frank Bruni entitled ‘Italy has dumped America. For Russia’.  Five Stars’ performance,  writes Bruni,

was characterized as the triumph of populism. But it was a triumph for Putin, too: proof that many Italians have jilted and replaced us — with Russia.

When they cast their votes, Italians were, of course, not thinking of their country’s own internal problems, issues relating to large-scale immigration from North Africa, or anything like that; they were thinking of the United States and Russia, and casting a vote for or against Vladimir Putin. Or so it seems in the strange world of Bruni-land. Mr Bruni quotes the editor of the Italian newspaper La Stampa as telling him, ‘Nobody ever took this poll but I believe that if you were asking all Italians today who is the most popular foreign leader in all of Italy, Putin would win.’ I have often complained in this blog of the lack of evidence being produced for claims about Russia, and here we have it in spades – a poll which nobody has ever taken! Obviously true, then.

Bruni, to be fair, is aware that he’s on weak ground. He admits:

To be clear, neither the Five Star Movement’s nor the League’s appeal to Italian voters hinged on its stance toward Russia. “How many Italians are really positive about Russia?” asked Roberto D’Alimonte, a prominent Italian political scientist. “I haven’t seen any data, and I have my doubts.” What’s more, there’s a strictly practical reason for Italian politicians to take a gentle, friendly tone toward Russia: The sanctions have cut off the Russian market from Italian manufacturers and farmers who could profit mightily from it.

So here we have it – Italians don’t care too much about Russia, and Russia didn’t actually have anything to do with how they voted. How then does this translate into ‘Italians have abandoned America for Russia’? Well, this is the New York Times, so you can probably guess the answer – it’s Trump’s fault. The problem is that, ‘Trump has certainly sent the message that he cares a whole lot less than his predecessors did about what longtime European allies like Italy want.’ As a result, Italians dislike him. Bruni continues:

And when they look toward Trump, what do they see? An American president who praises and sometimes seems intent on emulating the autocrats of the world, starting with Putin. Trump isn’t promoting the values — free markets, open borders, humanitarian aid — that bound the United States and Western Europe. He’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game, albeit with less practice, less polish and his shirt on.

Faced with this, Italians are looking for an alternative, Bruni claims. And who is that? Putin, obviously.

This makes no sense. In the first place, Bruni has already admitted that Russia wasn’t on Italian voters’ minds. And in the second place, if what Italians don’t like about Trump is that ‘he’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game’, why would they consider Putin to be an ‘alternative’ to Trump? Either Trump is the same as Putin, or he’s different – he can’t be both.

I’m sure that there’s some technical term for intellectual constructs of this sort, in which two unrelated items are placed side by side in order to create a false impression in readers’ minds that the two are connected. If so, I don’t know what the term is, but it’s clearly what’s going on here. Add in a short caveat to make it clear like you’re a reasonable person, and then say ‘Italy, Putin’, ‘Italy, Putin’, ‘Italy, Putin’ enough times, and people will think they’re somehow connected.

In reality, they’re not. Americans, Canadians, Brits, Italians, and others, who vote for unexpected people or causes, do so for their own reasons which have nothing to do with Russia. Meanwhile, once the dust settles and Italy gets a new government, it will still be a member of NATO, still be a member of the EU, and still sanctioning Russia. It will no more be a Russian client, and no less an American ally, than it was a week ago. Has Italy ‘dumped America for Russia’? No. Of course not.

Evidence be damned!

Amy Knight missed a trick. In her book Orders to Kill, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, she recounts the stories of a whole series of people in whose deaths Vladimir Putin was allegedly involved. But she missed one – the former mayor of St Petersburg, and Putin’s one-time mentor, Anatoly Sobchak. It’s a strange error, for if the BBC is to be believed, Putin may have had a hand in Sobchak’s death too. It explains why he’s allowing Sobchak’s daughter, Ksenia, to run for president this March – he feels guilty.

‘What?’ I hear you ask. ‘Sobchak was murdered?’ If you’re old enough to remember such things, you probably thought that his death in 2000 was of natural causes. BBC reporter Gabriel Gatehouse has his doubts about this. He writes:

Some have suggested Putin may have had a hand in his death. Did Sobchak have something on him? [Sobchak’s widow Lyudmila] Narusova dismissed that idea out of hand.

I went back and looked at the footage of the funeral.

Putin really is distraught. His eyes are red, he seems to struggle to swallow as he embraces Lyudmila Narusova. Putin is not an actor. Nor is he prone to public displays of emotion. So it’s reasonable to assume that he is struggling with some genuine grief. Or is it something else. Guilt?

“There were people who were manoeuvring Putin into power,” Narusova told me.

She’s right. Back then, Putin was a vehicle to power for various factions inside the Kremlin. To some extent he still is.

If Sobchak was murdered, was it by one of those factions who feared his mentor’s hold over him? Maybe. And if so, did the old KGB officer realise his old friend died in the furtherance of Project Putin. It’s only a suspicion, but I’m beginning to think so.

Gatehouse doesn’t actually produce any facts linking Putin to Sobchak’s death. In fact, he points out that Putin was truly distraught, and elsewhere in his piece Gatehouse remarks that this is about the only time that Putin has been seen to cry in public. So, why does he think that Putin in some way felt guilty about Sobchak’s death? He doesn’t explain.

As in so many of these cases, what we have here is pure speculation and argument by means of insinuation, devoid of any actual evidence. Gatehouse admits that, ‘It’s only a suspicion’. Why then does the BBC publish it? All sorts of people suspect all sorts of things for no good reason. That doesn’t mean that premier media agencies give them space to print their crazy theories. If this was the Daily Beast, one might excuse that sort of thing. But this is the BBC. It’s meant to uphold certain standards of journalism, and as such not make wild accusations on the basis of absolutely nothing.

At least, one might imagine that that was the case. But what this piece indicates is that when it comes to Russia and Putin all the normal rules seem to go out the window and any sort of unwarranted ‘suspicion’ is permitted to be aired. What on earth is the point of this article? There can be only one – to taint Putin with some sort of responsibility for Sobchak’s death and so blacken his name further. It seems that that is reason enough to publish it. Evidence be damned!