Tag Archives: Russia

Murder most foul

Russian agents are running around Britain assassinating people with impunity, claims Buzzfeed in a series of articles published in the past week. The British authorities have ‘deliberately sidelined’ evidence indicating murder and passed off all the cases as death by natural causes. Buzzfeed, however, believes that it knows better, having been informed by ‘high ranking US intelligence officials’ that at least 14 people ‘have been assassinated on British soil by Russia’s security services or mafia groups, two forces that sometimes work in tandem.’

Let’s take a look.

In its first article, Buzzfeed looked at the case of Alexander Perepilichny, who died while out jogging in 2012. Perepilichny had previously helped launder money in the infamous case involving Sergei Magnitsky before fleeing to Britain and becoming a whistleblower. His death is currently the subject of an inquest, at which his wife has said that she does not believed that he was poisoned. Why does Buzzfeed think differently?

First, although the original autopsy revealed nothing suspicious in Perepilichny’s stomach, a later examination by an ‘independent plant expert’ identified traces of the toxin gelsemium. It is speculated that Perepilichny died after ingesting the toxin in a soup he ate just before going running, but that is only speculation. Furthermore, if Perepilichny was murdered, there is nothing in the Buzzfeed report to link that to the Russian state, rather than to crime syndicates, who were allegedly extremely angry at Perepilichny for blowing the whistle on their money laundering schemes. The assumption is just that the Russian state and the Russian mafia are one and the same thing. But nowhere is the connection proven.

Beyond that, though, the only evidence Buzzfeed is able to bring forward to justify the claim of murder is that ‘US spies said they have passed MI6 high-grade intelligence indicating that Perepilichnyy was likely “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him”.’ In other words, the entire story is based on accusations of anonymous officials in a completely different country, without any reference to the evidence used to justify the accusations. In short, it doesn’t amount to very much, but it sets the pattern for Buzzfeed’s other pieces – no actual evidence, but links between the dead men and organized crime (not, mark you, the Russian state), and unsubstantiated claims from ‘anonymous US officials’.

The second Buzzfeed article focuses on the case of Scot Young, an associate of Boris Berezovsky, who threw himself out of a window in London. Buzzfeed suggests that he was murdered by Russian agents, though just why isn’t very clear. And again, the online magazine doesn’t produce any forensic or other evidence to justify its case. Rather, it just says that ‘Four high-ranking American intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News they suspect Young was assassinated.’ Yet, the information in the article points in an entirely different direction.

Continue reading Murder most foul

Less TV, more conservative

The anti-corruption protests in Moscow and elsewhere a few weeks ago were interpreted in many quarters as evidence that Russian youth were increasingly opposed to the ‘Putin regime’. As I pointed out at the time, the available sociological evidence doesn’t support this claim. Nevertheless, various analysts continue to believe that changing patterns of media usage will eventually work in that direction.

Part of the narrative which emerged from the protests concerned the fact that young Russians watch less TV than their parents and grandparents. According to some commentators, this means that the Russian state is losing its ability to spread its propaganda, and is therefore in danger of losing control of the population. For example, an article published today by the reliably ‘anti-regime’ Intersection Project discusses how the Russian state is waging an information war designed to create a sense that Russia is under attack from external and internal enemies, but:

Not only do young Russians predominantly access news via the Internet but they also choose to ignore the prospect of a conflict with the West. … the inevitable generational change may bring about a situation where the very idea of information warfare as a means of rallying Russian citizens against external and internal enemies will lose its former efficacy.

It is a superficially plausible thesis, but it doesn’t stand up to very close scrutiny. As the Levada Centre’s Denis Volkov argues in a recent edition of Gazeta.ru, on the basis of surveys carried out by the Centre, the fact that young Russians don’t watch as much TV as older generations doesn’t mean that they are compensating by accessing political news on the internet, let along accessing ‘liberal’ or ‘pro-Western’ news sources. They aren’t. Instead, they just aren’t accessing political news at all!

If you turn on the TV news, you get politics whether you want it or not; on the internet, you have to actively seek politics out. Many don’t bother. They use the internet to find out the sports news, to track what’s happening to their favourite celebrities, and the like, but they pay little or no attention to Russian or international politics. Consequently, Volkov says, ‘The massive rejection by youth of television in favour of the internet doesn’t signify an alternative point of view, but a low level of knowledge about what is happening.’ In other words, the shift to the internet isn’t making young Russians more anti-regime, just more ignorant.

Volkov points out that the combination of the internet and Russian youth’s relative political ignorance does offer opportunities to those who can exploit the internet to grab young peoples’ attention. This would seem to give some hope to politicians like Alexei Navalny, but in fact Navalny is less known among youth (45%) than he is among the Russian population as a whole (55%). Young Russians ‘know little about the opposition’, says Volkov. The turn to the internet does not seem to helping the opposition much.

Indeed, Volkov suggests, the increased ignorance may actually make young people more conservative, more supportive of those in authority. Since they don’t bother informing themselves much about politics, they pick up their political attitudes from those around them, such as family and older people. The result is that, ‘as even independent sociologists note, support for the authorities is 15% higher than average among young people.’

The internet is indeed changing how people get information about politics, and thus is shaping the way they view the world – but not, it seems, in the way so many think.

Turbans and propaganda

Russian ‘information warfare’ is back in the headlines today, with Postmedia publishing a typically over-the-top piece by Matthew Fisher entitled ‘Russia sharpens information weapon’. What prompts this story? According to a Latvian colonel, somebody somewhere on the internet (we are not told who) wrote a derogatory comment about Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan wearing a turban. Of course, nobody writes racist nonsense on the internet without first receiving directions from the Kremlin, so this is clear evidence that Moscow is ‘sharpening’ its information weapons in order to discredit the deployment of Canadian troops to Latvia (though what is so ‘sharp’ about this,  I cannot see). Fisher complains that in a recent report, the ‘pro-Kremlin website’ Vestvi.lv, which is directed at Russian speakers in the Baltics, ‘grossly exaggerated what NATO was doing.’ Gross exaggeration – we can’t have that, can we, Matthew?

Meanwhile, a group of ‘security experts’ from 27 countries are meeting today in Prague for a conference to discuss the threat posed by Russia to democratic elections in the West. Among other things, the delegates will discuss a report issued on Thursday by the Kremlin Watch program of the European Values think-tank entitled ’35 measures in 15 steps for enhancing the resilience of the democratic electoral process’.  The report outlines various ways that Moscow is allegedly interfering in Western elections, as summarized in this diagram:

infowarelections

Let us take a look at this in more detail.

Continue reading Turbans and propaganda

Alexei two percent

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has been generating a lot of headlines recently, and was the subject of a long article last week in The Guardian by Shaun Walker. The Guardian regularly writes on the subject of Navalny. According to the search function of its website, there are 728 Guardian articles mentioning his name. The Guardian also lists 377 for the late Boris Nemtsov, and a massive 1,590 for oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This contrasts with a mere 114 articles mentioning the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, and 163 mentioning Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

The Daily Telegraph is even more extreme, with 1,100 articles about Navalny, 554 about Khodorkovsky, and 287 about Nemtsov, compared with only 92 for Zhirinovsky, 85 for Zyuganov, and 51 for Kasyanov. The score for the Washington Post is Khodorkovsky – 341; Navalny – 272; Nemtsov – 205; Zhirinovsky – 59; Kasyanov – 56; and Zyuganov – 28. For the Globe and Mail: Khodorkovsky – 337; Kasyanov – 106; Nemtsov – 80; Zyuganov – 65; Zhirinovsky – 61; Navalny – 36; and for the Toronto Star, Nemtsov – 82; Navalny – 75; Khodorkosvky – 59; Zhirinovsky – 26; Kasyanov and Zyuganov – both 21.

The pattern is fairly clear: leaders of Russia’s ‘systemic’ opposition receive much less coverage in the Western media than members of the ‘liberal’ and ‘non-systemic’ opposition. The one exception I have been able to find is The New York Times which leads with 844 mentions of Khodorkovsky, but which has 499 of Zyuganov and 481 of Zhirinovsky, compared with 330 of Navalny and 166 of Kasyanov.

The outsized attention given to the non-systemic opposition gives an entirely false impression of its political significance. For the most part, the media gives Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky, who head substantial political parties which got about 13% of the vote in last year’s Duma election, less attention that Kasyanov and Nemtsov, whose PARNAS got less than 1%, and substantially less attention than Khodorkovsky, whose Open Russia organized demonstrations last week which attracted just a few hundred people (which didn’t prevent headlines such as ‘Thousands of Russians Present Letters of Protest in Demonstrations’).

As for Navalny, an opinion poll published by the Levada Centre today gives him almost imperceptible levels of popular support. According to the poll, if a presidential election were held this Sunday in Russia, 48% would vote for Vladimir Putin, 3% for both Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov, and just one percent for Navalny. Several other candidates would also get one percent, while 42% replied that they either don’t know or wouldn’t vote at all.

If you discount this last 42%, then the result of a Russian presidential election this week would be:

Putin – 83%; Zhirinovsky – 5%; Zyuganov – 4%; Navalny – 2%; Others – 6%.

That rather puts into perspective all the recent hype claiming that Navalny has fundamentally altered the Russian political dynamic. It also makes one wonder whether the media has its priorities right.

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.