Tag Archives: Russia

All Russians are spies

A couple of weeks ago, after attending a showing of the Russian TV talk show Vremia pokazhet, British journalist Angus Roxburgh complained that what he saw shocked even as hardened and cynical a Russia-watcher as him. ‘Xenophobia, fear, and intimidation’ were what he witnessed, he said.

I confess to be an occasional Vremia pokazhet watcher. It’s hard to understand what people are saying half the time, as the show tends to descend into a shouting match. But that’s kind of the point. There’s always a vigorous debate. It’s not just somebody spouting the official line, although it has to be said that the official line tends to win out when the dust settles. But let’s engage in a little bit of whataboutism. Would Mr Roxburgh be equally shocked if he spent some time watching American TV? Would he come across ‘xenophobia, fear, and intimidation’ there?

Let’s take a look.

A couple of days ago, CNN interviewed Congressman Mike Quigley. This is what Quigley had to say:

When you meet with any Russians, you’re meeting with Russian intelligence and therefore President Putin.

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Russian world-views

A couple of years ago I was pretty unkind about a report about Russia published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This report was the product of a workshop CSIS had held on the subject. I wasn’t invited to the workshop, nor was I to another one which CSIS held recently, also on the subject of Russia. But I have been sent a copy of the report, entitled Russian World-Views: Domestic Power Play and Foreign Behaviour. You can read it online here.  It’s better than the last one, but I still have a few issues with it.

The report is a summary of the views expressed at the most recent workshop by four anonymous experts from Europe and North America (though, based on what they wrote, I’m pretty sure who some of them are). Because of this one shouldn’t read this document as representing CSIS’s official opinion, nor as that of the Government of Canada. It’s just what a bunch of people told CSIS. Still, it’s interesting in the sense that it gives one a flavour of the type of analysis that government officials receive.

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Threat perceptions

The US Defense Intelligence Agency has issued a report entitled Russia. Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations, which you can read here. This has the following to say about Russia’s strategic objectives:

Moscow seeks to promote a multi-polar world predicated on the principles of respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ internal affairs, the primacy of the United Nations, and a careful balance of power preventing one state or group of states from dominating the international order.

You might say that this is a statement of the blindingly obvious, but what is interesting is what it doesn’t say, that is anything on the lines of “Russia is an aggressive, imperialist power bent on invading her neighbours, restoring the Soviet empire, and destroying the existing international system.” The statement that Russia supports the “primacy of the United Nations” and a “balance of power” in order to maintain the “international order” is quite a striking riposte to the often-repeated claim that Russia seeks to overthrow “the rules-based global system.”

Next the report analyzes ‘Russia’s threat perceptions’, and notes that Russia’s actions “belie a deeply entrenched sense of insecurity regarding a United States that Moscow believes is intent on undermining Russia at home and abroad.” Furthermore:

Russia also has a deep and abiding distrust of U.S. efforts to promote democracy around the world and what it perceives as a U.S. campaign to impose a single set of global values. Moscow worries that U.S. attempts to dictate a set of acceptable international norms threatens the foundations of Kremlin power by giving license for foreign meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. … Moscow views the United States as the critical driver behind the crisis in Ukraine and the Arab Spring and believes that the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych is the latest move in a long-established pattern of U.S.-orchestrated regime change efforts, including the Kosovo campaign, Iraq, Libya, and the 2003–05 “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

This is also pretty obvious, and one doesn’t need a $4 billion a year agency to come up with this stuff, but it’s interesting that at least somebody in the American security establishment is willing to admit that people elsewhere in the world don’t all appreciate what the United States is doing. Unfortunately, all intelligence agencies can do is point out the facts. It’s up to politicians to decide what to do about them. If the evidence of the past is anything to go by, they aren’t too interested in hearing the other side’s point of view. This report will no doubt raise alarms in Washington about how Russia is modernizing its armed forces. What the report has to say about why Russia is doing so will probably be ignored.

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.

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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.