Tag Archives: Russia

#$@&%*!

There are times when I near the point of total despair. This week’s Congressional hearings into alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election are such a moment.

Answering questions about Russia, FBI Director James Comey said the following:

He [Putin] hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was that he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

They engaged in a multifaceted campaign to undermine our democracy.

They were unusually loud in their intervention. It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew, that they wanted us to see what they were doing.

Their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of our entire democracy enterprise of this nation.

They’ll be back. They’ll be back, in 2020. They may be back in 2018.

Also, in response to the question ‘Would they like to see more Brexits?’, Comey said ‘Yes.’

These statements were described by the BBC as ‘things the FBI knows about Russia’. Note the use of the word ‘knows’. In a previous post, I pointed out the need to differentiate between fact and opinion. In his evidence to Congress, Comey didn’t say that these things were his opinion. He stated them as facts, as things he ‘knows’. Putin ‘hated’ Clinton; Russians’ mission ‘is’ to undermine American democracy; ‘Yes’, they do want more Brexits, etc.

But what evidence did Comey produce to support what he was saying? None. These were opinions, masquerading as facts, not actual facts. So the question which then arises is whether Comey’s opinions on Russia are ones we should trust.

The organization he heads – the FBI – is an internal policy agency. It isn’t its job to analyze Russia, Russian politics, or Russian politicians, nor does it have the expertise to do so. It doesn’t know what’s going on inside Vladimir Putin’s head; it doesn’t have an inside line to what Russians are thinking about their ‘mission’ and whether they want to undermine American democracy; it doesn’t have any particular knowledge about what Russia’s leaders think about Brexit.

Simply put, unless  he has been spending the last few years learning Russian, speaking to Russians, interrogating Putin and his ministers, reading Putin’s speeches, analyzing what well-researched publications have to say on the subject, and the like (which of course he hasn’t), Comey isn’t qualified to make judgments of these sorts. And he certainly isn’t entitled to present them as definite facts.

Nor are his Congressional interrogators any better.

Take this exchange between Comey and Representative Jackie Speier (who had previously called Igor Sechin ‘CEO of the Russian gas giant, Rosneft’):

Speier: Do you know anything about Gazprom, Director?

Comey: I don’t.

Speier: Well, it’s a – it’s an oil company.

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

It’s RosNEFT stupid! It’s GAZprom!

And what about Comey? One minute he’s telling us with 100% confidence that he knows exactly what they’re thinking in the Kremlin, something which even the most seasoned Kremlinologists would have to admit they don’t have the faintest clue about, and the next he’s admitting that he doesn’t even know what Gazprom is.

#$@&%*!  – He doesn’t know what Gazprom is!!! But yet, he ‘knows’ Moscow’s innermost secret plans!

These guys are clowns. They are beyond ignorant, because they are ignorant even of their own ignorance.

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

Nobody should take these hearings in the slightest bit seriously.

Guess who’s getting happier and who’s not?

A couple of years ago I commented on the 2015 World Happiness Report, which showed Russia rising up the rankings. The 2017 version is now available, and for Russia it provides yet more good news.

I’m not convinced that ‘happiness’ is the right word to describe what the report measures, but it is certainly measuring something connected with general well-being and life satisfaction. Each country’s score is based on 8 factors: GPD per capita in terms of purchasing power parity; healthy life expectancy; social support, measured by answers to the question ‘If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you?’; self-evaluated freedom to make life choices; generosity, determined by charitable giving; perceptions of corruption; ‘positive affect … defined as the average of laughter and enjoyment’; and ‘negative affect … defined as the average of previous day affect measures for worry, sadness, and anger.’

Two years ago, Switzerland was no. 1 in the world, and Russia was ranked 64th. This time, Norway is top and Russia is up to 49th.

happiness1

happiness4

More remarkably, Russia is ranked no. 7 in the world in terms of changes in happiness over the past 10 years. Russia is still some way behind the Western European and North American countries which dominate the top of the table, but it is catching up.

happiness2

This is all the more remarkable given that Russia has suffered two major economic recessions since 2007, meaning that the GDP element of the happiness measurement has not increased. This in turn means that the more subjective elements of the measure must have improved quite significantly. Russians aren’t richer than they were a decade ago, but they apparently evaluate their lives as being much better. Either they’ve been thoroughly bamboozled by state propaganda or something is actually going well for them.

By way of contrast, let us look at the bottom of the table of changes in happiness, 2005-2007 to 2014-2016:

happiness3

Ukraine’s dismal performance suggests that, at least in the short term, Euromaidan has had a highly negative effect on Ukrainians’ state of mind. Meanwhile, although France and the United States remain highly ranked overall (31st and 14th), they are falling down the table fairly fast.

Make of all this what you will. As I said, I’m not entirely sure what this is really measuring. But if you’re looking for an explanation of Vladimir Putin’s popularity, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of Marine Le Pen, this report perhaps provides at least part of the answer.

Autocracy and the media

Thinking a bit more about the recent report on the Kremlin’s alleged weaponizing of comedy, as well as other claims concerning ‘Russian propaganda’, what has struck me is how many people seem to assume that everything which happens in Russia is directed by the Kremlin. As it happens, in the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Russian conservatives in the last 50 years of the Russian Empire. One might imagine that in an autocratic country such as late Imperial Russia, the press was under the firm control of the state, that there was no independent ‘civil society’, and that conservative and patriotic groups took their orders from the central authorities. Yet this is not exactly how things were.

Take, for instance, the most prominent Russian journalist of the 1860s, 70s, and 80s, Mikhail Katkov. He was a fervent supporter of the autocracy and was given free rein to write what he pleased. But it would be a huge mistake to believe that the products of Katkov’s pen reflected the opinions of the Tsar and his bureaucracy. On the contrary, much of his work consisted of severe criticisms of Russia’s rulers for what Katkov considered their weak-willed policies and insufficiently aggressive defence of Russian interests. These writings sometimes infuriated Tsars Alexander II and III, but they permitted it in part because Katkov also railed against the Tsars’ revolutionary enemies, and in part because they knew that Katkov’s views were shared by a large portion of educated public opinion. On one occasion Alexander III was so angered by a Katkov article that he threatened to issue a public denunciation. But he was persuaded not to on the grounds, among other things, that the negative public reaction might cause a crash in the stock exchange.

katkov
Mikhail Katkov

Whether the labels ‘autocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ really apply to modern Russia is a matter of debate, but those who believe that they do also appear to think that this means that the Russian media is entirely under the state’s direct control, and so everything that it prints or broadcasts represents the government’s wishes. Arkady Ostrovsky has pointed out in his study of the post-Soviet Russian media that its shift to patriotic themes from the late 1990s onwards responded to a clear public demand. Too many commentators choose to ignore this inconvenient fact. Some historians consider Mikhail Katkov an opportunist. He said what he said because it sold newspapers; but it sold newspapers because people supported it and wanted to read it. Much the same dynamic is probably true today.

The Russians are coming!

Macleans magazine, which, roughly speaking, is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, has published a couple of articles this week on the topic of the day – Russia.

The longer of the two, entitled ‘The Return of the Tsar’ is fairly innocuous. I have to confess that I’m not quite sure what it’s trying to achieve, apart from expounding some vague cliché about Russians wanting a strong ruler. It’s a fairly typical piece of impressionistic journalism, in which the author wanders around a Russian town, speaks to a few people, and based on a handful of anecdotes infers some broad-sweeping conclusions about the eternal ‘Russian soul’ and the like. By all means read it if you’ve got nothing better to do, but to be frank I don’t think you’ll get much from it.

The other article, by contrast, deserves a long reply, as it exemplifies fairly well what’s wrong with so much commentary on things Russian nowadays. You can get a sense of the thing just from the title: ‘Russia’s Coming Attack on Canada’. Watch out, Canadians, the Russians are coming, author Scott Gilmore warns, starting out by saying:

Moscow has been waging an increasingly daring clandestine war against western democracies. Under the direction of President Vladmir Putin, Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned of Russian attempts at cyber attacks. In France, Moscow has funded right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and is alleged to be spreading false propaganda about her opponents. There are now reports from British parliamentarians that Russia may have meddled with the Brexit campaign. And, of course, Putin’s interference in the U.S. Presidential election has lit a tire fire in Washington that may bring down the Trump administration.

Let’s take a look at this. Gilmore takes a bunch of allegations (Merkel has ‘warned’; Moscow is ‘alleged’ to be targeting Le Pen’s opponents; a single British MP (Ben Bradshaw to be precise) claimed that Brexit was the result of Kremlin interference’, etc), and without producing any evidence to substantiate these allegations uses them to claim that it is a definite fact that ‘Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance.’ But accusations aren’t by themselves evidence. So what proof is there?

Well, according to Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German state security service, the BND, has found that ‘there is no evidence for Putin’s disinformation campaign’.  In France similarly, no evidence of Russian involvement of leaks targeting Francois Fillon has been forthcoming, and it would be odd if it were given that Fillon is considered ‘pro-Russian’. In Britain, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson declared a couple of days ago that ‘We have no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment. We don’t actually have that evidence.’ All the British have, according to Johnson, is ‘evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that,’ which is not at all the same thing. And finally, in the USA, according to a recent report, ‘Even some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee now quietly admit, after several briefings and preliminary inquiries, they don’t expect to find evidence of active, informed collusion between the Trump campaign and known Russian intelligence operatives’.

So much for all that.

Undeterred by the lack of facts to support his thesis, Mr Gilmore nonetheless ploughs on, as follows:

Moscow is being forced to play these aggressive and risky games out of desperation. The country is in bad shape is getting worse. The once great superpower now has an economy smaller than Canada’s and it continues to shrink. … Even the ragtag Ukrainians have fought them to a standstill. Diplomatically, Moscow has never been so isolated and powerless. You can count its friends on one hand, and it’s not an impressive list: Syria, Iran, Belarus.

How true is all this?

To be sure, the Russian economy isn’t in great shape. It has pretty much stagnated over the past 10 years. But it isn’t ‘getting worse’ and it doesn’t ‘continue to shrink’, as Gilmore claims. In fact, the economy has begun to grow again (not by much, to be sure, but growth isn’t shrinking), consumer demand is rising, and inflation is the lowest in post-Soviet history. As for ‘ragtag’ Ukrainians fighting Russia ‘to a standstill’, that is a very odd description of events in Donbass – a more accurate description would be that it was a ‘ragtag’ bunch of rebels (with some help from Moscow) who fought the Ukrainian army to a standstill. And finally, as for Russia’s friends, they go beyond Syria, Iran, and Belarus. What about China, for instance? For sure, Russia has fewer friends than it did a decade ago, but it’s hardly ‘isolated’.

And here we reach a serious contradiction in Gilmore’s thesis – Russia is supposedly at one and the same time ‘powerless’ and a deadly danger. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, the article claims that Canada is likely to be the next target in Russia’s sights. Gilmore writes:

Russia has three objectives as it goes after Canada. The first is to undermine any policies or politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests. For example, the Russian Embassy has already been trying to discredit Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, an outspoken advocate for continued sanctions, with a smear job about her grandparents. Russia also wants to discredit the broader political system, to undermine Canadians’ faith in “the system”, be it our own election process, our system of government, or parliamentary affairs. Finally, it wants to undermine Canada’s support for our allies, and for the international system including NATO and the United Nations.

All countries try to undermine policies which go against their interests. There isn’t anything odd about that. But the idea that the Kremlin wishes to undermine any ‘politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests’ is rather problematic in the Canadian context, because that would be just about every politician. Say the Russians were somehow able to discredit the ruling Liberals. What then? They’d just get the Conservatives, who are every bit as Russophobic. Why would that help? Moreover, it’s rather strange to blame the Russian Embassy for the ‘smear job’ about Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather, as the story began not with the Embassy but with independent journalist John Helmer and spread thereafter, without the need for any outside help, via social media. As for whether Russia wants ‘to undermine Canadians’ “faith in the system”,’ that is pure conjecture. And while Russia might indeed wish to undermine NATO, it has repeatedly stressed its desire for an international system resting on the United Nations (UN), blaming Western states for discrediting the UN via actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya.

Gilmore’s accusations are unsubstantiated, and frankly more than a little bizarre. What possible good would it do Russia to launch an underground war against Canada? And how on earth could such a weak and ‘powerless’ country actually hope to succeed in a war against such a prosperous and stable proponent? And where is the evidence that it is doing any of this, anyway? It is perhaps more than a little appropriate, therefore, that Gilmore concludes by saying that:

To achieve these goals, Moscow will likely rely on the same methods it has used relatively successfully in the United States and elsewhere. It will spread disinformation—false stories that create confusion around a controversial and heated issue.

‘Disinformation’ and ‘false stories’ – like this one, maybe?

A tale of two cities

‘Putin projects Russian might. A decaying town tells a different story’. So says Maria Antonova in an article in Sunday’s New York Times. Antonova comes from the town of Donskoi in Tula province, a few hours south of Moscow, and her grandfather was mayor in Soviet times. After the USSR collapsed, Donskoi’s industry collapsed too. Now, says Antonova, the town is ‘in a state of ruin’. Despite having a population of 30,000 ‘there is not a single café.’

With the help of Google, I decided to take a look. True enough, Donskoi appears to have just one restaurant (named ‘Plazma’), a very small shopping centre which on Google Street View seems to have a faux MacDonald’s burger bar named Mru, and the Viktoria café-bar on Ulitsa Lenina which portrays itself more as a bar than a café. So yes, eating and drinking choices in Donskoi are pretty meagre. Moreover, if you drive around the streets on Google Street View, it doesn’t look like a very prosperous place.

But Antonova doesn’t leave it at that. She goes on: ‘The problems here are common in provincial towns: potholed roads, ancient uitilities, and underfunded healthcare’. In this way, she portrays Donskoi as an example of all that is wrong in what is often called ‘Putin’s Russia’ – a land of decaying towns whose resources have been sucked away by Moscow to pay the war in Syria and for frivolities like the Sochi Olympics.

But is Donskoi typical?

Just three kilometres from Donskoi is another town – Novomoskovsk, the local administrative centre. With the help of Google, I was able to discover that: Novomoskovsk has several shopping malls including a swanky new 18,000 square metre shopping centre (the ‘First Shopping Centre’) on Trudovye Reservy Street. It has a 3-D cinema; a real MacDonald’s; multiple restaurants; and no shortage of cafés: the Sinyor Pomidor; the Pomegranate Seed; Lyuks; Robin Sdobin; and so on.

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Pervyi shopping centre, Novomoskovsk

In short, while Donskoi does indeed appear to be a bit of a dump, Novomoskovsk (which is within walking distance of Donskoi) seems to be doing fairly well. Drawing sweeping conclusions about the state of modern Russia from the sole example of Donskoi is, therefore, rather misleading.

To draw a parallel, it’s a bit like when Donald Trump visits some particularly depressed rust-belt town in the USA and uses it to suggest that America as a whole is in terminal decline. The New York Times really dislikes that tactic, and spends a lot of its time denouncing it. It’s rather ironic that it should think that the same ploy is valid when it comes to Russia.

Radio interview

I was interviewed this morning on CBC Radio on the subject of the Russia-related scandal engulfing America. You can listen to it at the link here. I first appear at the 12.27 minute point, then there’s someone else, then me again.

—- If you have problems with the link I have given, go to

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent

then click on where it says ‘listen to full episode’.

 

Infamous Putinphile

My old University of Toronto friend Bill Szuch, who produces the UkeTube youtube channel, has published a rather fun interview with Taras Kuzio denouncing the ‘Russophiles’ and ‘Putinphiles’ in Canadian universities. The roll of honour is: myself (apparently I am ‘infamous’, which pleases me no end); Ivan Katchanovski (author of a well-known study of the shootings on Maidan); University of Ottawa’s Chair of Ukrainian Studies Dominique Arel (who I am sure will be most surprised to be listed among the Putinphiles); Mikhail Molchanov of St Thomas’ University; and Carleton University’s Piotr Diutkewicz. John-Paul Himka also gets a mention.

One thing which puzzles me is why Kuzio thinks that I am ‘anti-American’. What he gets right, however, is that there are quite a few Canadian academics – including several whom Kuzio didn’t mention – who don’t follow the normal Kremlin-bashing line and who have put forward alternative perspectives about the war in Ukraine as well as other issues (see, for instance chapters in this and this). In fact, it is interesting that scholarly analysis of these issues tends to be much more sober and balanced than what you read in the press.

Anyway, watch and enjoy below.