Tag Archives: Russia

Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

If I had to recommend a single article for foreign policy decision makers to read, it would be Robert Jervis’s 1968 essay ‘Hypotheses on Misperception.’ As I’ve written before, many of the tensions between states derive from misperceptions. People misperceive others; misperceive themselves; and misperceive how they are seen by others. In his article, Jervis hypothesizes 14 misperceptions which are commonly encountered in international politics. Hypothesis number 9 is the following: ‘actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.’ Jervis adds that, ‘Further, actors see others as more internally united than they in fact are and generally overestimate the degree to which others are following a coherent policy.’ In my opinion, this is absolutely correct, and we can see a lot of this going on in contemporary analyses of Russia.

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soft power

This week I had the opportunity to attend the first International Forum for the Development of Parliamentarism in Moscow. It was a fairly big show, with about 500 delegates from nearly 100 countries, of whom around 400 were members of parliament and 100 were ‘experts’ (academics and the like). Clearly, the Russians don’t do a thing like this for the sheer hell of it. The forum served a political/diplomatic purpose, namely strengthening contacts with foreign countries and winning friends. In short, it was an exercise in ‘soft power’. I had been asked to make a short 2-3 minute speech, but the session I was meant to do it in ran so much over time that I never got a chance. My own role, therefore, was very much that of observer. But in that capacity, I was able to make a few judgements about how different countries view Russia, what the prospects for Russian soft power are, and how Russia is presenting itself to the world.


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Dirty money, dirty politics

A week ago, the British House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs issued a report entitled ‘Moscow’s Gold: Russian Corruption in the UK.’  Given the title, one might imagine that this was all about corruption and the role played by Russian ‘dirty money’ in the British economy. In reality, the report conflates legal and illegal activity, and contains one statement which, in my opinion, verges on the libellous and constitutes an attempt to intimidate British companies from engaging in legitimate business. In this way, it goes beyond the usual criticism of Russia and into altogether more dangerous territory.

The fact that Russians have invested billions of pounds in the British economy is well known. The probability that some of this money comes from corrupt activities within the Russian Federation is also widely accepted. To the extent that the latter is true, this is a matter of proper concern to the British authorities, and it is right that something be done to clamp down on money laundering. The report ‘Moscow’s Gold’ makes much broader claims, however. It says that ‘There is a direct relationship between the oligarchs’ wealth and the ability of President Putin to executive his aggressive foreign policy.’ Supposedly, the ‘dirty’ money invested by ‘oligarchs’ with ties to the Kremlin can be used to undermine British democracy and for other aggressive activities. The report claims that ‘These assets, on which the Kremlin can call at any time, both directly and indirectly support President Putin’s campaign to subvert the international rules-based system.’

The committee fails to support this claim with firm evidence. The best that it can come up with is a statement by Mark Galeotti about what Galeotti calls ‘small-scale stuff’ in the Balkans, such as funding for websites. No evidence of any ‘large-scale stuff’ is produced, and absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Kremlin is in fact using dirty money invested in the UK for the ends claimed by the report. In any case, even if Russian oligarchs are indeed using their money to such ends, no evidence is provided to show that it is actually dirty money rather than legally invested money. In other words, the issue of corruption is conflated with something entire distinct.

The report likewise conflates corruption with perfectly legal business and financial deals, such as the flotation of Russian companies on the London stock exchange (in particular the Russian company EN+ in 2017) and the selling of Russian sovereign bonds in the British financial market. It may be the case, as the report says, that it makes no sense for the UK to permit such actions at a time when it is simultaneously imposing sanctions on Russia, but that is an entirely separate matter from that of corruption and money laundering.

And that leads me onto the thing which really struck me about this document. This was a statement about the British law firm Linklaters, which managed the flotation of EN+. Shortly before this, the report says ‘Both the EN+ IPO [Initial Public Offering] and the sale of Russian debt in London appear to have been carried out in accordance with the relevant rules and regulatory systems, and there is no obvious evidence of impropriety in a legal sense.’ Yet, it then goes on to say the following:

We asked Linklaters to appear before the committee to explain their involvement in the flotation of EN+ … They refused. We regret their unwillingness to engage with our inquiry and must leave others to judge whether their work at ‘the forefront of financial, corporate and commercial developments in Russia’ has left them so entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin and its supporters that they are no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm.

This is quite outrageous, and also cowardly. The committee in effect accuses Linklaters of corruption, while avoiding complaints of libel by use of the weasel words ‘we leave to others to judge’ – a way of making an accusation while claiming that one hasn’t. What’s so outrageous about the statement is that comes straight after a confession that the EN+ flotation was completely above board. Linklaters didn’t do anything wrong, and the House of Commons committee knows it. Nevertheless, it sees fit to suggest that the company is ‘no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm.’

The implication here is that any company which has extensive dealings with Russian enterprises is ‘entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin’ and so unfit to do business. I cannot interpret this as anything other than an attempt by the committee to threaten British companies and intimidate them into dropping their lawful activities. I consider this disgraceful.

The committee’s attitude can be seen again towards the end of the report, when it writes that ‘instead of participating in the rules-based system, President Putin’s regime uses asymmetric methods to achieve its goals, and others – so-called useful idiots – magnify that effect by supporting its propaganda. So, there you have it. People who do with business with Russia are to be publicly shamed as unworthy of the standards expected of the British people, while those who would dare to point this sort of thing out are to be denounced as ‘useful idiots’. Having any dealings with Russia makes one a Kremlin stooge.

What the British House of Commons ignores is that lots of British citizens have perfectly legitimate reasons to do business with Russia, and do so in an entire legal and proper way. And others also have very good reasons to question public policy regarding Russia. None of them deserved to be insulted in this way by their elected representatives. The authors of this report should be ashamed of themselves.

Reading Russia Right

I had been planning to write a post today about the latest report on Russia by the British House of Commons, but something came my way which is so out of the ordinary that it has to take precedence. The item in question is an article by University of Rhode Island professor Nicolai Petro entitled ‘Are We Reading Russia Right?’ and published in The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. I urge you all to read the full text online here, and to spread it as far and wide as you can. But in case some of you only have time for a condensed version, below is a summary of what Nicolai has to say.

The article starts out by describing the extremely negative image of Russia painted by most Western commentators. This image, Petro says, is incomplete. There are indeed many shortcomings in Russia, but under Putin there has also been enormous progress. Focusing entirely on the former without mentioning the latter produces a thoroughly distorted picture.

Petro then sets about listing the various ways in Russia differs from the image painted of it in the West. These include the following:

More than ten million Russians are involved in some form [of] organized volunteer activity, roughly ten percent of the adult population … sustained by multiple funding sources. …

Several of Russia’s largest daily newspapers, like Vedomosti, Kommersant, and Nezavisimaia Gazeta, are staunchly anti-Putin and reach tens of millions of readers. Novaya Gazeta’s web site alone garners more than twenty million views a month. … only three percent of Russia’s hundred thousand media outlets are state owned … Russia’s media ecology is thus far more complex than is commonly assumed.

… it was Vladimir Putin who introduced key elements of modern criminal justice to Russia. These include habeas corpus, a juvenile justice system, trial by jury, bailiffs, and justices of the peace … courts struck down compensation limits for government negligence, strengthened the rights of defendants to exculpatory evidence, provided clearer guidelines on secrecy … Closed judicial proceedings and pretrial detention centers have been all but eliminated, privacy protections for individuals expanded, and 24,000 free legal aid centers created. … Since 2014, the number of suits brought on behalf of foreign companies has tripled, while judgments in their favor have risen from fifty-nine to eighty-three percent of the total. … the number of persons incarcerated in Russia has fallen by almost forty percent since 2001, and the number of minors in prison has fallen from 19,000 to just 1,000.

… Pensions have risen tenfold since 2000 … average life expectancy has increased by more than six years to 72.6. … the government plans to raise the minimum wage to the living wage.

Western journalists are unable to see these things, says Petro, because they suffer from ‘paradigm blindness’, which is similar to the psychological trait known as ‘availability bias.’ Wishing to interpret events in Russia, they simply take the closest available paradigm which they already know – that Russia is incapable of democracy – and view everything in light of that. ‘Americans,’ says Petro, ‘cannot talk about Russia as a democracy because there is no frame of reference for Russian democracy in their minds.’ In reality, Petro writes,

Putin’s power base lies not with the oligarchs, but with the Russian people. Any approach to Russia that overlooks this is simply out of touch with reality.

Towards the end of his article, Petro includes a number of quite shockingly Russophobic comments by American writers and officials. He quotes Robert Kaplan, for instance, as saying that, all those who love Russia eventually wind up ‘realizing the utter impossibility of any good ever coming out of Russia … and throw up their hands at the beastly unchangeableness of Russia.’ Sadly, this attitude has become the norm.

No doubt those who share Kaplan’s point of view will complain that Nicolai Petro’s article is horribly one-sided, listing all Russia’s achievements while ignoring all its shortcomings. But given how many people do the opposite, some form of rebalancing is much needed. ‘To sum up,’ concludes Petro, ‘a radical re-conceptualization of relations with Russia is long overdue.’ I cannot agree more.

Book review: The road to unfreedom

Timothy Snyder doesn’t like Donald Trump. Really, really doesn’t like him. He fears that under Trump, American (and also European) democracy may collapse into some sort of nasty fascist tyranny. And he wants us all to know who is to blame for this terrible state of affairs, so that we can defend ourselves against it while there is still time. And who is to blame? You know the answer, of course. It’s Russia.

Snyder explains all this in his new book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. You will have to excuse me. This is going to be a very long review. Snyder is quite a high profile intellectual in the United States. He’s doing a tour of the country, selling this book, and giving talks and media interviews. I doubt that many Trump supporters will read his book, but a fair number of middle class, liberal intellectuals will, and no doubt many of them will suck it all up, not realizing that they’re being conned. For that reason, The Road to Unfreedom requires a detailed response. Unfortunately, there’s so much wrong with it that I can’t adequately deal with it in just a few lines. So, it’s going to take a little time. Please bear with me.

snyder book

Continue reading Book review: The road to unfreedom

Garbage in, garbage out

Every now and again the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) holds a seminar to which it invites outside ‘experts’. It then publishes a report on what was said, minus any names so you don’t know who was involved. I never get invited to these (I’m either insufficiently expert or prone to saying the wrong things), but I do get sent the reports. The latest volume arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and I have finally gotten around to reading it. Its title is ‘Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation’, and it summarizes the results of a seminar held in Ottawa last November.

Those of you who have been following discussions of this subject over the past few years will probably need to read no further than the title. You’ll already know what’s in the report: Western democracy is under threat from ‘Russian disinformation’, as the Russian Federation uses RT, internet trolls, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to subvert our populations’ faith in their own media and governments and to support Russia’s nefarious international policies. ‘Who Said What?’ does spend a little bit of time talking about other countries, specifically China and the Philippines, but the majority of the report is clearly focused on Russia since, as the Executive Summary claims, ‘The most skilled national purveyor of falsehoods is Russia.’ According to the report, Russia:

directs an extensive network of Internet trolls and bot networks which generate and spread material across the web. Their activities are intensified by the support of diplomats, state-controlled media outlets such as RT and Sputnik … Working together, these agents of the Russian state can create a false story and ensure it reaches the segment population most likely to be influenced by it through Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. They also appear to corroborate the story through news agency interviews featuring phoney experts, forged documents, and doctored photos and videos. … Russia stands out for its highly organised strategy of using disinformation to interfere with the political systems of other countries. … Operations against Western populations aim to weaken resistance to Russian state objectives. In supporting Syria, Russia has used disinformation to cover the brutality of its attacks on civilian populations. … Russian disinformation machinery is explicitly weaponised as a resource for future wars, weakening a target country’s sense of danger and diminishing the will to resist.

This is all fairly boilerplate stuff which has been said many times. What marks this report out, though, is some of the more extreme statements which accompany it, which give an indication of the type of experts CSIS has seen fit to invite. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

No good interest is served by representing the Kremlin’s activities as Russia versus the West. In fact, the Kremlin’s main adversary has always been, and still is, Russia itself. Virtually every type of action it has undertaken against the West was first implemented in Russia, against the Russian people, and against Russia’s many ethnic, national, and religious minorities.

Hmm. I’d be interested to see the evidence backing this claim, particularly the idea that the Kremlin views Russia’s minorities as ‘adversaries’. Certainly, one doesn’t get the impression that this particular ‘expert’ is a neutral academic researcher. The same could be said of the author of the next set of comments who remarks first that ‘Russia’s current disinformation campaign against the West is more dangerous and sophisticated than ever before’, and second that ‘Every Russian citizen … is now part of a centralized vertical responsible for the state’s information security.’ The second statement is a particularly bold claim, conjuring up a picture of Russia as a totalitarian state in which every citizen is participating as a robotic arm of the Kremlin’s information machine, a quite bizarre image for which no evidence is produced.

Other extreme claims include one that, ‘Coupled with breath-taking militarism … Russia’s measures in the domain of information security have transformed Kaliningrad into a laboratory for testing future warfare’. Another states that it is a ‘myth’ that Russia is fighting terrorism (including ISIS) in Syria, and also says that Russia’s military campaign in Syria was carried out with ‘great brutality and immense suffering. Far from shortening the war, it exacerbated it’. The report then goes on to say that ‘the verified proof … suggests that the Assad government and its allies, including Russia, did indeed have a policy of targeting Syria’s hospitals’. And so on.

Of course, one may wonder how it can be that ‘the verified proof … suggests’. Proof proves. It doesn’t ‘suggest’. And one may wonder also who is doing the disinformation here. Is it the Russians, or is it CSIS’s experts?

At the end of the chapter about Russia and Syria, the report says that ‘What is required is an approach that empowers individuals not only to discover information about Putin’s war in Syria, but also to verify the information themselves.’ I’m all for allowing people to verify information. But that requires them to have access to a large variety of different sources, including those which challenge one another. Yet in a later chapter about Ukraine, somebody who is clearly a member of the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake relates with some satisfaction that, ‘An important step in disconnecting Ukrainians from Russia’s propaganda pipeline was the removal from air of 75 Russian TV channels’ as well as ‘a decree blocking Russian social networks from operating in Ukraine.’ It appears that allowing people ‘to verify the information themselves’ does not include allowing them to verify the claims of those who are hostile to Russia; in fact people must be prevented from doing so.

Interestingly, the only attempt to define disinformation in this report is a sentence which says, ‘Disinformation … is aggressive marketing of information in support of political objectives.’ This is a very odd definition. ‘Marketing of information in support of political objectives’ is what all politicians and political actors do all the time. By this definition, all politics, all diplomacy, everything, is disinformation. It doesn’t even matter if what the Russians are saying is true. They are marketing information for political purposes, and that cannot be tolerated.

The reason it can’t be tolerated is because the West is good and Russia is bad. This is an objective truth which cannot be contested. The report notes that, ‘Certain truths need to be inculcated in each generation, first among them that there is such a thing as truth – that there is an objective reality that cannot be wished away.’ I agree that there is an objective reality. The Syrian Arab Army dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine on Douma. Or it didn’t. Both statements can’t be true. But it’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. We don’t know the truth until we observe it. And in a lot of cases, especially those concerning international politics, we don’t ever get to observe it, or at least any more than a small part of it, and we have to draw conclusions based on limited, often unreliable, information. And then, we have to decide which information is important, and which isn’t, and decide how to fit it all together into a coherent narrative. At that point biases inevitably come into play and ‘truth’ starts becoming a lot more subjective. In such circumstances, what’s dangerous is not a multiplicity of competing narratives, but rather people who set themselves up as holders of the absolute truth and seek to control information in order to stop others getting hold of ‘untruth’. That is the path to totalitarianism.

Alas, there’s more than a whiff of that in this report. About the only restrained element in the document is a chapter on Brexit which concludes that, ‘Analyses of the Brexit botnet did not find strong evidence of widespread “fake news” dispersion.’ Otherwise, the experts consulted by CSIS adopt extreme positions and are so certain of the truth of their own narratives, despite (or perhaps because of) their extreme nature, that they are intolerant of alternatives.

For sure, there’s an awful lot of garbage on the internet, as well as on television, and in our newspapers. But I’m not inclined to trust those who would appoint themselves guardians of what I should and should not read, especially since my own research indicates to me that a lot of what they say is garbage too.

Playing at war

So, the Americans, British, and French have done their bit, and fired off 100 or so missiles at Syria. After all the fears expressed by pundits that this could be the start of World War III, it’s turned out to be a bit of a nothing-burger. That’s not to downplay the symbolic significance of the Western states’ assault on Syria, in which they acted as judge, juror, and executioner while the investigation into the alleged misdemeanour was still ongoing and chemical weapons inspectors were on their way to the site of the supposed incident. But, if early reports are to be believed, nobody was killed in the attack and the physical damage is fairly minimal. The Brits fired a mere 8 missiles; the French only 12. Those are hardly significant numbers. Given that the Brits and Americans have been meddling in the war in Syria for several years now, arming and training various groups, and bombing targets on their behalf (including occasionally bombing the Syrian Arab Army), this doesn’t really constitute much by way of escalation. Tomorrow, the Syrians will brush off the dust, and things will go back to the way they were. Russia (along with Iran) will continue to back the Syrian government, and the latter’s forces will continue to advance and regain more and more territory. It is most unlikely that this assault will have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the struggle in Syria.

What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’

This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would  have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.

Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process

These endless wars allow politicians to claim that they are being ‘strong’, or more precisely fend off complaints that they are ‘weak’. But they don’t make Britain, America, or France any safer, while those at the receiving end of Western militarism suffer greatly because of it. As far as Syria and Russia are concerned, I suspect that the net result of the latest assault will be to reinforce Russian perceptions that the West is hell-bent on a policy of military and political aggression in which Syria is the front line. They will conclude that Russia must see the war in Syria through to a successful conclusion, and also that the Western states, despite all their bluster, don’t possess the will to stop it. One can therefore expect Russia to press on, and because it has the superior will, it will most likely succeed.