Tag Archives: Russia

#DemocracyRIP and the narcissism of Russiagate

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. [Gone with the Wind]

It’s not been a great week for proponents of Russiagate conspiracies. A release of transcripts of meetings of the American House of Representatives Intelligence Committee revealed that person after person interviewed by the Committee denied having any knowledge of collusion between Donald Trump and his campaign on the one hand and the Russian state on the other. This was despite the fact that many of those so interviewed had claimed in public that such collusion had taken place. The discrepancy between their public and private utterances has rightfully been interpreted as further evidence that the whole collusion story was a fabrication from start to finish.

Collusion was only half of Russiagate. The other half was the allegation of Russian ‘interference’ in the US election, founded especially on claims that the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, had hacked and leaked documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). This allegation was based on research undertaken by a private company Crowdstrike, but now the Intelligence Committee minutes reveal that Crowdstrike couldn’t even confirm how the DNC data had been leaked let alone that the Russians were responsible. All they had, according to the testimony, was   ‘circumstantial evidence’ and ‘indicators’ – not exactly solid proof.

Given this, you’d imagine that this would be a good time for Russiagaters to slink off into a dark corner somewhere and hope that people forget all the nonsense they’ve been spouting for the past four years. But not a bit of it, for what do we find in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine than an article by Franklin Foer with the scary title ‘Putin is well on the way to stealing the next election’.

Foer is in some respects the original Russiagater. He was well ahead of the game, and in a July 2016 article in Slate laid out the basic narrative many months before others latched onto it. The article has it all: a scary title (‘Putin’s Puppet’ – meaning Trump); Vladimir Putin’s evil plan to destroy Europe and the United States; a cast of characters with allegedly dubious connections to the Kremlin (Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, etc. – you met them first in Foer’s article); Trump’s supposed desperation to break into the Moscow real estate market; allegations of Trump’s lack of creditworthiness leading him to seek shady Russian sources of finance; and so on – in short, the whole shebang long before it was on anyone else’s radar.

Not wanting to let a good story go to waste, Foer has been on it ever since, and gained a certain amount of notoriety when he broke the ‘story’ that US President Donald Trump was secretly exchanging messages with the Russian government via the computer servers of Alfa Bank. Unfortunately for Foer, it didn’t take more than a minute or three for researchers to expose his revelation as utter nonsense. This, however, didn’t seem to shake him. In the world of journalism there appears to be no such thing as accountability for those who publish fake news about Russians producing fake news, and so it is that Foer is back on the Russiagate wagon with his new piece in the Atlantic, warning us that it’s bad enough that Putin elected Trump once, but now he’s going to do it all over again.

The basic theme of Foer’s latest is pretty much the same as in his original article of July 2016. Back then Foer informed readers that, ‘Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West – and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump’. ‘The destruction of Europe is a grandiose objective; so is the weakening of the United States’, Foer went on, keen to let us know that Putin’s aims were nothing if not extreme (‘The destruction of Europe’ no less!!). Now, nearly four years later, he tell us breathlessly that ‘Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system’ (How does he know this? Does he have some special dream detection equipment he’s snuck into the Kremlin? Alas, Foer doesn’t tell.) According to Foer:

It’s possible, however, to mistake a plot point – the manipulation of the 2016 election – for the full sweep of the narrative. Events in the United States have unfolded more favorably than any operative in Moscow could have dreamed: Not only did Russia’s preferred candidate win, but he has spent his first term fulfilling the potential it saw in him, discrediting American institutions, rending the seams of American culture, and isolating a nation that had styled itself as indispensable to the free world. But instead of complacently enjoying its triumph, Russia almost immediately set about replicating it. Boosting the Trump campaign was a tactic; #DemocracyRIP remains the larger objective.

#DemocracyRIP?? Seriously? Where does Foer get this? I’m willing to offer him a challenge. I’ll pay him $100 (Canadian not US) if he can find anywhere, anywhere, any statement by Vladimir Putin or another top official in the Russian Federation in which they state any sort of preference for what sort of political system the United States has, and in particular state a preference that the USA ceases to be a democracy. If he can’t, he’ll have to pay me $100. I’m confident I’ll win. The truth, as far as I can see, is that like Rhett Butler, they don’t give a damn. America can be a democracy, or an autocracy, or any other thing as far as they’re concerned, as long as it just leaves them alone. Insofar as thinking Russians do discuss the matter, I get a strong impression they generally regard the problem not as being that America is a democracy so much as being that it isn’t, not really, as actual power is seen as lying in the hands of special interests and some sort of version of the ‘deep state’. More democracy, not less, would be the preferred solution.

So where does all the nonsense about Putin wanting to destroy democracy come from? It certainly doesn’t come from anything he’s ever said. And it certainly doesn’t come from a serious examination of Russia’s true potential. Russia can no more destroy American democracy than it send a man to Alpha Centauri. And its leaders know that perfectly well. So why do Americans think that Putin is lying in his bed, ‘dreaming’ about the ‘destruction of Europe’, the ‘weakening of America’ and ‘#DemocracyRIP’? I’ll hazard a guess – it’s a serious case of narcissism. America believes it is the centre of the universe, and it also imagines itself a democracy, and so it thinks that American democracy must be what’s at the centre of everybody else’s universe too. Well, sorry, Franky boy, it just ain’t so. #DemocracyRIP?? In your dreams, perhaps, but certainly not in Putin’s.

Russia’s not so radical youth

One of the regular themes of the ‘Putin is doomed’ crowd is the idea that while older Russians are deeply conservative, undemocratically-minded, and deeply traumatized by their Soviet upbringing, Russian youth, brought up entirely in the post-Soviet era, are of a much more liberal inclination, deeply dissatisfied with their lot and the governing system, and thus likely to sweep away the current order as soon as they grow a little older. This isn’t based on very much other than the fact that those who attend anti-government protests in Moscow contain a large number of young people. But, as I’ve pointed out before, sociological surveys don’t provide much ammunition to support the idea of Russian youth as revolutionaries in waiting – quite the opposite, in fact. So, it’s interesting to see the results of a new survey of young Russians by the German research foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with help from the Moscow-based Levada Centre.

The research polled 1,500 people aged 14 to 29 across Russia, and also involved focus groups. These were some of the points which emerged that I found interesting:

When asked which values were most important to them, 76% said human rights, as shown below. Similarly, another chart later in the report shows 80% of respondents saying that ‘securing rights and freedoms’ should be a priority for the national government, with lower numbers for improving the economy, reducing unemployment, providing social security, and so on (with bottom place going to ‘development of private entrepreneurship’, suggesting a lack of economic liberalism). This somewhat surprised me as previous polls that I had seen suggest that Russians of all ages are more concerned with social and economic issues than with human rights.

survey1

Much, though, depends on how rights are understood, and once you dig a bit deeper things become a bit more complicated, as shown by the next diagram:

Continue reading Russia’s not so radical youth

Twice Doomed

What’s up with The Spectator magazine? As I mentioned in my last post, on Thursday they published a piece by Andrew Foxall entitled ‘Covid-19 is testing Putin’s regime’. And then, on Friday, just one day later, out comes another article, this time by Owen Matthews, with the headline ‘Can Putin survive the coronavirus stress test?’ Really? How many different versions of the same story does the Spectator plan to publish?

Matthews has been on my radar since he produced this piece, just a few days after I had written this one. Perhaps I’m a bit petty, but I was somewhat peeved by the striking similarities. Anyway, Matthews is a fully signed up member of the ‘the Putin regime is doomed’ club, as you can see by the Speccie front cover below from the time of World Cup two years ago. ‘Russia is crumbling’, he told us, which is odd because Russia looked quite good during the World Cup, at least to me and just about everyone else who attended. But it’s always the beginning of the end for Matthews, apparently. The annexation of Crimea? A huge blunder, he said – it would cost a fortune, Putin’s paymasters wouldn’t tolerate it, and it ‘will be the downfall of Putin’. And so on, and so forth.

matthews

Continue reading Twice Doomed

Crisis? What Crisis?

Back in 2014, Paul Starobin wrote an excellent article analyzing what he called the ‘“Russia is Doomed” syndrome’, which is manifested in persistent claims that Russia is on the verge of collapse. This perspective, said Starobin, ‘is grounded in unreality. Russia isn’t going anywhere. Critics tend to exaggerate its ailments or fail to place them in proper context.’ One should add to this that the ‘Russia is doomed’ narrative applies not just to Russia as a whole, but also to the system of government and the person of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. They are all perpetually on the edge of extinction.

You can get a flavour of this from titles of books published by Western journalists this past decade, such as Ben Judah’s  ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin’ (embarrassingly published just before Putin’s ratings rose to record highs following the annexation of Crimea), and Richard Lourie’s ‘Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash’ (neither of which has yet come about). Whenever anything happens which suggests that everything is not going 100% swimmingly well in Russia, then out come the keyboard warriors to flog another screed telling us all how the end is nigh, Putin’s popularity is tumbling, and regime change is just around the corner.

supertramp

Continue reading Crisis? What Crisis?

Various forms of liberalism

I was reading something last week which fitted in rather nicely with the phenomenon I described in my recent review of Joshua Yaffa’s book, namely the idea that if the authorities are flawed one should have absolutely nothing to do with them. The more I read it, the more I liked it. The problem I had, though, was that I liked it so much that as I made notes I began to realize that I was pretty much copying the entire piece. So, in the end I decided to do exactly that, and also translate it. The result is below.

The piece in question is an article written in 1862 by the Russian conservative liberal philosopher Boris Chicherin, entitled ‘Various forms of liberalism’. I’d read some Chicherin before, but not this piece, and I think it’s really great – not a deep piece of philosophy, hardly a product of thorough, empirically justified research, more of an opinionated rant, but all the more enjoyable because of it. And although I regard parts of it as somewhat over the top, the basic themes resonate. One can recognize today, 120 years later, many of the same characteristics of what Chicherin calls ‘street’ and ‘oppositional’ liberalism among liberals both in Russia and the West (indeed I even recognize some of them in myself). For this reason, a lot of this rings true even today. Chicherin’s discussion of the nature of freedom is also interesting.

The translation is far from perfect, and on occasion rather clunky. This is due to the haste with which it was done as well as my own rather limited skills as a translator. Still, I think that it gets the sense across most of the time. I apologize for any inaccuracies.

I have translated Chicherin’s phrase ‘okhranitel’nyi liberalizm‘ as ‘conservative liberalism’, as this is how it is normally done, and I can’t think of anything better. But it doesn’t really do credit to the statist nuance inherent in the word ‘okhranitel’nyi‘ (some historians after all write of okhranitel’nyi konservatizm – which following this translation would be ‘conservative conservatism’). If anybody has any suggestions for a better translation, I’d be happy to hear them.

Here goes:

Various forms of liberalism (Boris Chicherin, 1862)

If we listen to the social conversation which is taking place from one end of Russia to the other, both secretly and openly, in clubs, in drawing rooms, and in the press, then despite the variety of speeches and tendencies, we easily notice one thing in common, which dominates over everything else. There is no doubt that at the present time public opinion in Russia is decidedly liberal. This is not an accident but a product of necessity; it’s a result of the nature of things. The rejection of the old order is a direct consequence of its bankruptcy. It has become obvious to everybody that you can’t have a well-ordered state without also having some degree of freedom.

Continue reading Various forms of liberalism

Exposing the disinformation industry

In my last post I mentioned the growth of an industry of disinformation ‘experts’ who themselves spread disinformation. If anybody has any doubts about it, evidence of how this industry operates came out this week in the form of a couple of short reports from the University of Manchester, which is the home of a research project known as ‘Reframing Russia’.

Led by Professor Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz, both well respected researchers, the project primarily studies the Russian media network RT, saying that ‘ we test hypotheses … that challenge conventional thinking and presumptions about RT and really get to grips with RT’s recalibration of Russia’s public image for international audience.’ Beyond RT, however, the Reframing Russia team also comment occasionally on issues relating to the Russian media and disinformation more generally, and this is where this week’s news comes into play.

First off, we had a frenzy of complaints that the Russian news agency RIA had published an article claiming that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been ventilated while in hospital suffering from coronavirus. This resulted in a series of denunciations of Russia in the press and on social media, followed by a public statement by Johnson’s office that the story was Russian ‘disinformation’. Rather embarrassingly, however, news soon came out that Johnson had been taken into intensive care and was being provided with oxygen, apparently indicating that the RIA story had been true.

The Reframing Russia team therefore decided to investigate. Apparently, the accusations of Russian disinformation were due to ‘mistranslation’ of what RIA had said, which was not that Johnson was being intubated, but that he ‘will’ (future) be receiving artificial ventilation, a phrase that in Russian includes ‘non-invasive use of an oxygen mask’. In other words, RIA didn’t report that something had already happened, but made a prediction which turned out to be true. ‘In sum’, concludes Reframing Russia, ‘there is no evidence of any attempts by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health’. The whole story, in other words, was sloppy journalism. As Reframing Russia puts it, this case indicates how

rudimentary journalistic standards relating to the careful verification of source materials are … sidestepped. … the inaccuracy with which Russian coverage of the COVID-19 crisis is represented in the EU and the UK is concerning. Countering disinformation with mis/disinformation is counterproductive.

That brings us neatly onto the research project’s second report, which deals more generally with claims that the Russian state has been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. The report involves an analysis of the output of the European Union’s counter-disinformation service EUvsDisinfo, which has been the source for a large number of media stories claiming that the Russian Federation is actively spreading false stories about COVID-19 for nefarious political purposes.

To check whether EUvsDisinfo’s claims were correct, Reframing Russia examined the specific stories the EU organization had flagged as disinformation, but also went beyond that by taking a wider look at what Russian TV has been saying about the COVID pandemic. Observing the output of Russian TV’s Channel 1, the team concluded that, ‘there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin “conspiracy theory propaganda’ flagged by EUvsDisinfo.’ On the contrary, ‘The extent of EUvsDisinfo’s misrepresentation of Russian COVID-19 media coverage in the material we then analyzed is troubling.’

The research team identified two ways in which EUvsDisinfo misrepresented the truth. The first is ‘omission’: ‘in some cases individual sentences are extracted from the context of the source materials and rephrased in the form of summaries and headlines which make them sound particularly outrageous. Failure to supply contextual information encourages misreading of the significance of the relevant media.’

The second form of misrepresentation is ‘blatant distortion’. For instance, EUvsDisinfo issued a report claiming that Sputnik Latvia had said that ‘COVID-19 had been designed specifically to kill elderly people’. In fact, ‘the article in question … was clearly ridiculing a whole series of international conspiracy theories … the article highlights their idiocy.’

Beyond this, Reframing Russia attacks EUvsDisinfo’s methodology for assuming that ‘random websites without any traceable links to Russia state structures’ are similar to state-funded media outlets, and that all are part of a coordinated Kremlin-led campaign. This is true even in the case of ‘conspirological, far-right websites which are actually critical of Putin.’

Overall, the Reframing Russia report concludes with characteristically British understatement, that

Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation … The source material cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting countries with an organised around the current public health crisis.

The research team suggests two reasons for this: first, ‘a profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work’ (everything is not, in reality, dictated by the Kremlin), and; second, ‘The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to do the required work’. In EUvsDisinfo’s case, the work is outsourced to some 400 volunteers, who are ‘operating in a post-Soviet space saturated … by anti-Russian attitudes.’

In short, the disinformation experts don’t understand how Russia operates, and they are also unprofessional, and driven by anti-Russian biases.

I’d go farther than this. The output of the disinformation industry doesn’t ‘border on disinformation’, it is to a large degree disinformation. Furthermore, the industry’s output is a product of more than just lack of understanding and lack of professionalism. I’d argue that it’s inherent in the industry itself. Institutions have purposes, and the methods they use reflect those purposes. The purpose for which the disinformation industry was set up is to be a tool in the current East-West geopolitical conflict. The method is to make Russia look bad by presenting Russia as a source of disinformation, which in some way is said to undermine Western unity, democracy, and all the rest of it. In short, disinformation ‘experts’ exist to find Russian disinformation. It’s what they do. If they can’t find it, their reason for existence disappears. So, they find it. And if they can’t, they fabricate it. The ‘blatant distortion’ identified by Reframing Russia is part and parcel of what this industry is.

Sadly, EUvsDisinfo is hardly unique. Other examples, such as the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, abound. The problem is that our media and politicians take them seriously. As Reframing Russia notes, ‘Since it [EUvsDisinfo] bears the EU stamp of credibility, it is unsurprising that the material provided [by it] provided the basis for a series of national international press articles’. This applies more generally. The output of the disinformation industry is widely treated as truth. But as the Reframing Russia team have so ably demonstrated, in reality much of it is not.

Pot, kettle, black

I’ve theorized before that there may be something of a correlation between how loudly someone shouts about misinformation and how much misinformation comes out of that person’s own mouth. Recent years have led to a large-scale, and seemingly well-funded, industry of misinformation ‘experts’, who make a healthy living from exposing alleged foreign attempts to undermine our fragile democratic order, while simultaneously having a rather tenuous hold on the truth themselves. A recent publication from the University of Calgary is a case in point.

Entitled ‘COVID-19 as a tool of information confrontation: Russia’s approach’, the piece comes under the banner of the university’s School of Public Policy, giving it the air of academic respectability. In reality, it’s an under-referenced, poorly produced rant, which doesn’t deserve wide publicity. Still, I think it’s worth referencing as an example of how the misinformation industry operates.

Author Sergey Sukhankin, whose work I have discussed before, argues the following:

As the rest of the world struggles to cope with COVID-9, Russia is churning out propaganda that blames the West for creating the virus. … Russia is using social media accounts, fake news outlets, state-controlled global satellite media, bloggers, pseudo-scientists and supposed scholars, experts and Russians living in the West to spread its lies and distortions. … Putin’s larger goal in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories is to subvert the West … COVID-19 is seen as an ideal way for Russia to deal a powerful blow not only to the EU, but to inflict damage on the ties between Europe and its North American allies.

It’s sounds terrible. The problem is that after two and half pages of introduction and historical filling, the core of the publication, which itself consists of just two pages, contains no evidence to back the assertions above. Note the claim that Russia is ‘churning’ out propaganda, suggesting a huge flood of the stuff. But Sukhankin fails to provide examples, let alone evidence of a process of ‘churning’. Note also the use of the word ‘Russia’, which seems to imply that everything any Russian says is somehow part of some centralized state plan. Again, no evidence is produced. It’s remarkably thin gruel.

What we do get is a complaint of crude disinformation being spread on Russian TV to the ‘least informed of the Russian masses’ by ‘Russia’s most notorious TV anchor, Yevgeny Kisilev’ (a rather embarrassing error, as Sukhankin surely means Dmitry Kisilev – Yevgeny moved to Ukraine in 2008). I have to admit that I don’t watch either Kiselev, so I have no idea what they’ve been saying about coronavirus. But what I do know is that Dmitry broadcasts in Russia, to Russians, not in foreign languages to foreign audiences. How then could he be part of some Russian plan to spread disinformation in the West? It doesn’t make sense. As for what this disinformation is, the only example Sukhankin provides is Russian TV showing pictures from the social media account of hockey star Alexander Ovechkin’s wife, showing empty shelves in American stores. Well, where’s the disinformation in that? (Besides which, most of us have probably seen similar pictures online from the USA and elsewhere from any other number of people – it’s hardly something extraordinary for them to appear on Russian TV).

I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much credence to this stuff. I’ll just provide one more example of Sukhankin’s weird form of argumentation. Apparently, ‘Russian intellectuals have concluded that the virus is a precursor of the coming end of the “liberal world order, and giving way to a new configuration in which old powers, such as the US … are giving way to the new leaders, including China and Russia.’ Well, yes, some have. But the idea that the balance of power in the world is shifting is hardly a uniquely Russian one (let alone disinformation, since it is obviously true), and the potential impact of the current crisis on the international order is a topic exercising intellectuals in the West just as much as in Russia. How is all this proof that Russia is ‘churning out propaganda’ to ‘subvert the West’ and deal a ‘powerful blow’ to the Western alliance? It isn’t. Not in the slightest.

‘Russian military-political elites consider COVID-19 as something that could and should be used to deal a powerful blow to the EU’, concludes Sukhankin, providing not a single reference to anything any Russian military-political leader has said to this effect. But don’t let the lack of evidence get in our way. Something must be done! ‘The Canadian government must take a tougher stance on platforms/agencies operating in Canadian information space and deliberately sowing panic or discord among the population’, says the final words of the report. And so we end up where we so often do, with a call for censorship.

Of itself, this publication doesn’t matter a jot. It’s just the ramblings of one guy in Calgary – a true scholar, I guess, not one of the ‘supposed scholars’ he denounces. But this stuff spreads. For instance, Canadian military historian David Bercuson, a Calgary U professor emeritus, took the opportunity of Sukhankin’s publication to pen a piece in the National Post, spreading fear of Russian and Chinese disinformation. On almost a daily basis, stories and op-eds appear claiming that the Russians are using COVID-19 for geopolitical purposes. The aid Russia has recently provided to Italy and the United States is a case in point. Take a look at these recent headlines:

‘The influence operation behind Russia’s coronavirus aid to Italy: how the Kremlin is using Covid-19 crisis to undermine NATO and the EU.’ (Coda Story, 2 April 2020)

‘Coronavirus: what does “from Russia with love” really mean?’(BBC, 3 April 2020)

‘Beware of Bad Samaritans: China and Russia are sending medical aid to Italy and other coronavirus-stricken countries, but their motives aren’t so altruistic’. (Foreign Policy, 30 March 2020)

‘Russian aid to Italy leaves EU exposed’. (New York Times, 26 March 2020)

‘Russian mercy mission to Italy is a front for intelligence gathering, British expert warns.’ (Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2020)

Having read these, now ask yourself a couple of questions: who exactly is using COVID-19 to spread propaganda? who exactly is exploiting the current situation to raise tensions and stoke conflict? To me, the answer is pretty clear. It’s very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black.