Tag Archives: Russia

Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order

The Arctic tends not to get a lot of headlines. But here in Canada, it’s a big deal. Or at least it is rhetorically speaking. Canadians like to think of themselves as a wintery, northern people – as Gilles Vigneault sang: ‘Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.’ We get all emotional about the north, and pump ourselves up with stirring speeches about defending our sovereignty. After which, we then do nothing – at least until the next time somebody else does something we don’t like in the Arctic. At that point, we make some more stirring speeches, before slinking off back to our local Timmy’s in Toronto or some other place as far from the Arctic as we can get without actually ending up in the United States.

And so it is that the Canadian press was none too happy this week when the Russian Federation deposited its latest submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to advance its claim to a large portion of the Arctic Ocean seabed. ‘That’s our Arctic Ocean seabed, you wretched Russians! How dare you?”

The Commission in question is a product of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that gives states the right to exclusive exploitation of the seabed up to 200 nautical miles from their continental shelf. To claim such a right, however, states have to provide the Commission with scientific evidence of where the continental shelf extends under the sea. If they can satisfactorily show where the shelf goes, then the UN will approve the claim. If they can’t, then the UN won’t.

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How Russia Views the UK, Supposedly

I have a pretty poor opinion of think tanks. Perhaps it’s academic snobbery, but then again, maybe not. In the past few years, I’ve read too many really bad reports published by think tanks to regard them very highly. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, their output kind of stinks. Or at least, so it seems to me.

The United Kingdom has a new think tank, pompously entitled the Council on Geostrategy. The name alone gives you a hint that there’s more than a bit of imperial nostalgia involved – dreams of GREAT Britain, and all that. The advisory council is full of retired military folks and regimental-tie wearing Conservative MPs who sit on the parliamentary defence committee. Meanwhile, the staff is replete with cast-offs from the Henry Jackson Society, an institution widely perceived as decidedly neo-conservative in nature (the kind of place that still thinks that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, if you get my drift). In short, ideologically speaking, not my kind of people at all.

The Council on Geostrategy defines its mission as being “to strengthen Britain and re-assert our leadership in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. We promote robust new ideas [“robust” – I like that word!!] to enhance our country’s unity and resilience, bolster our industrial and technological base, and boost our discursive, diplomatic and military power – especially our naval reach.” So, you get what these guys are up to: Hurrah Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too!

Despite only being founded this year, the Council has got off to a running start, and today published a report, written by another Henry Jackson cast-off, Andrew Foxall, with the title “How Russia ‘Positions’ the United Kingdom.” In case you’ve forgotten, Foxall’s the guy who claimed that perhaps half of the 150,000 Russians living in the UK were “informants” for the Russian intelligence services (that’s 75,000 informants, if you can’t do the math – those guys in the SVR must be real busy!). Suffice to say, he’s not no. 1 on my to-go list for reliable analysis of things Russian, but let’s give him a chance and see what he has to say in this report.

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IS Russia About to Invade Ukraine?

Short answer – No. The press has been full of hype this past week about an alleged ‘massing’ of the Russian army near the Ukrainian border, although the number of troops involved (supposedly about 4,000) is well below that needed for an invasion force. I discuss the issue in a new article for RT, that you can read here.

Suffice to say, as so often, the hype is overblown. If Russia does attack Ukraine, it won’t be something that happens out of the blue. The only credible scenario for such an attack would be if the Ukrainian army launched an all-out assault on the rebel forces in Donbass, killing large numbers of civilians. Were such an assault to take place, the possibility of Russian intervention is quite high. It would be catastrophic for Ukraine, whose army would almost certainly be crushed in short measure. Imagine what happened in Georgia in 2008 – the result would be much the same.

The consequences would also be bad for Russia – not only because of the inevitable loss of life, but because one can imagine that it would lead to an almost total severing of relations with the West. It’s best for everybody that this scenario be avoided. This means that Western powers should do what they can to make it clear to Ukraine that they would not support it in the event of war, and that Ukraine should not therefore attempt to regain its lost territories in Donbass by force. I don’t get the sense that they are doing this. If so, it is very regrettable.

Hopefully, sanity will prevail in Kiev. As I mention in my article, there seems to be some awareness of the risks. I reckon that the probability of all-out war is fairly low. But the fact that we are even talking of the possibility is a sign of how dangerous the situation has become.

Institutionalizing the West

On Saturday I took part in an online conference organized by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute on the topic “Why Canada Should Leave NATO,” which you can watch on Facebook here . Note that the conference title was not phrased as a question! To be honest, I was a bit of a fish out of water, ideologically speaking, in this group, but it gave me a chance to develop my ideas on the topic of NATO in light of some recent reading I’ve been doing.

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was in the process of reading some works on late Soviet thought and the origins of perestroika, for instance Robert English’s book “Russia and the Idea of the West.” What I got out of all that is that among dissidents and what one might call “enlightened bureaucrats” of the late Soviet era, there was a strong desire to “return to the West” as it were. A certain element within the Soviet intelligentsia, some of whom were to strongly influence the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wished to end what they considered to be their country’s isolation from the West, and to reintegrate with it, so that Russia could again become a “European” country.

In another book I read last week, Daniel Thomas’ “The Helsinki Effect,” Thomas shows how this desire then collided with the fact that the Soviet Union had agreed in 1975 to include human rights in the Helsinki Final Act. With this, human rights became a norm of international relations, leading to a situation in which Soviet reformers who wanted to “return to Europe” concluded that such a return was impossible without a liberalization of the Soviet Union, to bring the country into conformity with these new international standards.

Thomas thus concludes that Western pressure on human rights did have an effect on the Soviet leadership. But I think that one needs to go one step further. It had this effect only because there was an influential element within the Soviet leadership that yearned to be part of the West and believed that if it did the West wanted it would be appropriately rewarded. This situation, I think, is not the case to day.

Sadly for the Soviet reformers, it didn’t work out the way they wanted. The Soviet Union reformed, then collapsed, but it never became part of the West. In fact, something else happened.

Historically speaking, the West has never been a real thing, in the sense of actually existing anywhere other than in peoples’ minds. The West – and more narrowly, Europe – has been more of an idea than anything else. As such it was always possible for Russia to be part of it, if it so chose.

Moreover, politically Europe was always divided. Alliances came and went in ever changing combinations, and Russia could be part of the European network of international relations as one of the members of this continually fluctuating system. When the Iron Curtain came down across Europe in the late 1940s, the situation changed, with Europe divided into two rigid blocs. But the collapse of communism seemed to provide an opportunity for Russia to once again join in the wider European system.

What actually happened, though, was something different. The institutions of Western Europe – the EU and NATO – spread eastwards up to Russia’s borders, in effect dividing Europe into two pieces – “Europe” and Russia. In the process, the West, which had previously only been an idea, became institutionalized, and institutionalized in such a way as to permanently exclude Russia.

We are therefore now in an entirely new historical situation – something that I don’t think that most people understand. The problem with EU and NATO expansion is not that they threaten Russia, but that they have institutionalized the dichotomy between Russia and the West. This has serious implications.

There is no point in modern-day Russian reformers arguing like their Soviet forebears that that they need to change the way that the Russian government operates in order to facilitate Russia’s “return to Europe”. Such a return is now impossible. For the same reason, it’s naïve of people in the West to imagine that the human rights agenda today can have the same impact that it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond that, the institutionalizing of the West can in the long term only weaken Russians’ sense that they are Western, and so weaken also their desire to seek the West’s approval.

This is, of course, not an irreversible process. For now, Russia for the most part still looks West. But the more the institutionalized West seeks to exclude Russia, and the more that the new Iron Curtain solidifies, the harder it will be to convince Russians that they have a European future. In this context, it’s difficult to see how a new generation of Westernizing reformers could come to power in the way of the enlightened bureaucrats of Gorbachev’s era.

Of course, few people saw Gorbachev and co. coming, so you never know. It could yet happen. But I wouldn’t bet the house on it. The situation now is very different, and in some respects not for the better.

Inflating the Russian Threat

Continuing on the theme of the military industrial boondoggle, in my latest piece for RT (which you can read here) I discuss how the Western security community has long been inventing or exaggerating threats. The nature of the threat continually changes, but one thing remains constant – the claim that the world is becoming ever more dangerous. Having shifted from failed states to ethnic conflict to rogue states to terrorism to hybrid warfare, the threat generation industry has now returned to state-on-state warfare as the scenario designed to frighten people, with a focus on the allegedly military superiority that the Russian Federation enjoys over NATO. I look at some of these claims, and demonstrate why they are nonsense. The Russian army has improved in recent years, but an attack on NATO would be suicidal. Efforts to suggest anything else are scaremongering, pure and simple.

Russia Stories Rolling Up Like London Buses

You know what they say about London buses – you wait for ages for a Number 57 to come along and then three arrive all at once. It’s a bit like that with suitable stories for this blog. You can have a long drought when it seems like there’s nothing to write about and then, wham, story after story arrives in quick succession.

Which is what it’s been like these past few days.

First, we had claims from the US State Department that Russia was trying to blacken the name of Western anti-covid vaccines in order to persuade other states to buy the Russian Sputnik V vaccine instead. Just about no evidence was provided to support this claim, beyond mention of three obscure websites that I imagine almost nobody reads. Allegedly, these websites have ‘links’ to Russian intelligence, but again no evidence was given to support that allegation. Furthermore, the State Department organization responsible for the claim has in the past made some highly dubious similar allegations against other websites (that I discussed and debunked here). Nobody should take its statements at face value. Frankly, the story is poorly-informed scaremongering.

It’s also enormously hypocritical, for next up was the disgraceful story that the United States had pressured Brazil not to accept deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine. I really think that this is one of the outrageous things that I have read of late. After accusing the Russians of anti-vax activities, it turns out that the US government is not only involved in such activities itself but is rather proud of it. In the name of countering Russian ‘influence’, it sought to deprive Brazilians of a much-needed defence against a pandemic that has already killed a substantial part of the Brazilian population. It is quite indefensible.

Then, we had bus number 3: the publication of a new foreign policy and defence review by the British government. This listed Russia as “the most acute threat to our security,” and announced the UK’s intention to “reshape the international order,” increase military spending, and supplement its nuclear arsenal, while also declaring that, “The UK will deploy more of our armed forces overseas more often and for longer periods of time.”

I have written a piece about this for RT, which you can read here. I conclude that, “A Russian could only draw the conclusion that the United Kingdom is hell bent on an aggressive and hostile policy,” but that “Ultimately, the main loser will not be the Russians, the Chinese, or any other foreign power, but the British people themselves.” For their government’s “bizarre set of priorities”  will squander their national resources on pointless military adventurism at a time when other far more important matters should be taking precedence.

But the buses keeping rolling along. For next we have the US intelligence community making more bizarre allegations of Russian electoral interference, this time in the 2020 presidential election. And then after that, we have President Joe Biden calling Vladimir Putin a ‘killer’.

My contempt for the US intelligence community has never been greater. As a former intelligence person myself, I find myself asking, ‘Were we always this bad?’ I don’t know the answer, but in this instance, we have claims that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2020 election based on the actions of two guys who aren’t even Russian, but are said to be ‘proxies’, with yet again no supporting evidence provided. If I have time, I’ll write more on the topic later. Suffice to say, the reality doesn’t justify the hysterical headlines.

As for Biden’s comments, well what can one say? Didn’t he just order the bombing of Syria. Doesn’t that make him a ‘killer’ too? Politicians should avoid this sort of language. I suspect, though, that what this and the intelligence report mentioned above indicate is that Russiagate, with its allegations of Trump-Putin collusion to undermine American democracy, has done irreparable damage to US-Russia relations. One gets the impression that there is now a deep, deep hatred of Russia within the US government, a hatred that prevents any sane analysis of Russian intentions and actions, as well as of US national interests. I fear that this will last for quite a long time.

Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Remember the claims that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government had a role in inciting the mob that broke into the Capitol building in Washington DC back in January? I wrote about this in an article a few weeks ago. No sooner had the dust settled than social media was abuzz with statements that Putin either arranged the whole thing or at the very least was celebrating what had happened. As former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes put it, “This is the day that Vladimir Putin has waited for since he had to leave East Germany as a young KGB officer at the end of the Cold War.”

The idea that Putin and the Russian state want nothing more than to see Western democracies collapse into chaos is now so widespread as to be pretty much an uncontestable truth. Everybody knows that it is so. Russian “disinformation”, election “meddling”, and all of the rest of it, are put down to Putin’s enormous fear of democracy and of the West, and his concomitant desire to undermine both.

If you have any doubts, just Google “Putin, undermine democracy.” I did, and this is what I got:

Continue reading Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Cracks in the Anti-Russian Narrative (Soon Painted Over)

A couple of very little cracks appeared in the anti-Russian narrative this past week. One shouldn’t make too much of them, and as will become clear, the manner in which deviance from the general line is framed reveals that there are distinct limits about how far people feel they can go and maintain their respectability. Still, it was interesting to see at least some willingness in unexpected circles to challenge prevailing views.

The first example is a think piece published by the Atlantic Council, normally the home of the hardest of hardline anti-Russian commentators. More sanctions, arm Ukraine, bring down the Putin regime – that’s the general Atlantic Council line. However, in an article entitled ‘Reality Check no. 4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia,’ authors Emma Ashford and Matthew Burrows pour cold water on the Council’s favored approach.

Not because they like Russia, of course. Nor because they think that the negative claims about it are exaggerated. Here’s where the limits come into play. You won’t get the Atlantic Council to listen to you if you play down the evils of the Russian empire. And so Ashford and Burrows prove their credentials by showing that they agree that Russia is a terrible place where ‘the regime has murdered journalists and activists and cracked down on civil society.’ But beyond that, they (quite rightly, in my opinion) point out that taking a hard line against Russia doesn’t do anybody any good.

First, they point out ‘Washington’s past efforts to impose sanctions because of human rights abuses have been relatively unsuccessful. … The Magnitsky Act and post-Crimean invasion sanctions have instead caused economic damage but not policy change.’ They mention the Jackson-Vanik Amendment as one example of successful sanctions, but even this is highly disputable. As Cardiff University prof Sergei Radchenko pointed out in a response on Twitter, ‘the available evidence shows that Jewish emigration dried up soon after Jackson-Vanik was passed, which clearly suggests that the sanction actually had the opposite effect from the one desire.’

So yes, sanctions don’t promote human rights. Ashford and Matthews have got that correct. Also correct are their other arguments: sanctions against Russia are driving a wedge between the USA and Europe (definitely so in the case of North Stream 2); democracy promotion is often counter-productive, as the targeted regimes respond by clamping down on opposition; and ‘democratization in Russia would not necessarily be good for the USA). The last point is a good one – as I’ve often pointed out, Vladimir Putin is a relative moderate on foreign policy by Russian standards. The idea that democracy would bring somebody to power more in tune with Western interests is naïve. The result might be something much less to our liking.

All in all, therefore, it’s quite encouraging to see this coming out of the Atlantic Council, but don’t expect it to win any hearts and minds. The response from most quarters was to say the least hostile. How dare the authors suggest de-emphasizing human rights was the general reply. Of course, the authors do so for a simple reason – the human rights based policy doesn’t work. But for some reason or other, what works doesn’t seem to be a concern of much of the policy community.

And then we have article no. 2, which appears in the latest edition of the New Statesman.

Written by Felix Light, the article seeks to explain why Russians failed to turn up in huge numbers in support of imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Light begins by putting it down to ‘vicious police violence’ and throwing in some quotes from Navalny’s henchman Leonid Volkov, thereby letting us know that, despite what he’s about to say, he’s not on the side of the regime. But then he goes off the rails, and tells us the following:

Today’s tightened belts are unlikely to drive Russia into revolution, simply because most Russians can still remember a time when things were much worse. The Russia of 2021 may have registered close to zero GDP growth in a decade, but it is a vastly more prosperous, healthier and more habitable country than the dysfunctional wreck Putin inherited in 2000, to say nothing of the still worse conditions of 1990 or 1950.

… Despite everything, the present is still a historically good time to live in the world’s largest country. Contemporary Russians live longer, drink less and, strange though it may seem, enjoy more personal freedom than in almost any time in their history. 

… Moreover, Russia under Putin – though undoubtedly deeply corrupt – is far more than the failed, gangsterised parody of democracy that some portrayals abroad suggest. At home, it is a reasonably coherent system that asks only its citizens’ passive acceptance, whilst promising in return a modicum of political participation, a decent semblance of law and order and at least a chance at personal prosperity. For Russians, who have only rarely enjoyed much of any of these blessings, all three at once is a historically alluring proposition.

… Putinism pledges never again to cast Russia as the guinea pig in any grandly conceived social experiments. Instead, it offers stability, continuity and development to a nation that has been required to regularly relearn the rules of society by rulers from Peter the Great to Yeltsin. … that simple promise remains far more attractive than Navalny’s call to, once again, transform Russia beyond recognition.

Felix nails it! There’s a lot wrong with Russia, but compared to any time in its past it ‘is a historically good to time live’ there, and Russians live longer, and ‘enjoy more personal freedom than in almost any time in their history.’ Exactly. It’s not rocket science. Anybody who visited the place in the 1980s, 1990s, and then goes back today couldn’t fail to notice this. Well done, Felix, for pointing it out.

But…

But…

You see, it wouldn’t look good to leave it like that. People might think that Felix Light was thinking supporting Putin. Having given a good explanation of the current situation, it’s like he realized that he’d gone off the rails and felt a desperate need to get back on track and so rejoin the world of the respectable. And so, he gives us a section break and then a one line paragraph saying, ‘And yet none of this means Putinism is immune from crisis.’

Relief! We’re back where we should be, and Mr Light wraps up with two long sections telling us that a new ‘shock may be just around the corner’. Parliamentary elections are coming up. The ruling United Russia party is doing badly in the polls (not really true – it did quite well in the local elections last year and there’s no reason to suspect it will do any worse in 2021), and we can expect some serious vote rigging when the ballots are counted later this year. That might produce some major protests – not enough to bring down the hated regime, says Light, ‘But a loud and sustained outburst of anger at another stolen election might just arrest Russia’s slide towards full dictatorship. And right now, that would be a victory in itself.’

And so, to conclude, we’ll give young Felix a few points for trying, but in the end he slipped back into old habits. Shame. Cracks in the narrative, for sure, but cracks only, and they’re painted over pretty quickly.

Rule of Law in russia

In my latest article for RT, which you can read here, I discuss Russia’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, and the possibility that Russia will quit the Council of Europe so as to withdraw itself from the court’s jurisdiction. I argue that it would be a shame if Russia did decide to do this. The evidence does not suggest that the court is biased against Russia, and many Russians have benefitted from it being there to protect their rights. I suggest that,

The problem with a number of Russian leaders, throughout history, is that they have tended to want to make their subordinates accountable to the law, while at the same time not wanting the same accountability to apply to themselves.

I conclude that Russian president Vladimir Putin should avoid going down the same path himself.

Of course, many people think that he went down that path long ago, and I was interested to see a couple of pieces this week that also address issues of the rule of law in Russia.

The first is an NBC News interview with exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In this Khodorkovsky says, ‘Putin is a typical mafia godfather, a typical head of a crime syndicate.’

The second is a piece in Meduza that discusses liberal economic reform during Putin’s first presidency, and in particular the role of two important officials, Alexei Kudrin and Herman Gref. The article reports the following:

Kudrin and Gref pushed for new things like a tax of mineral mining. According to Gref, major oil companies were not happy with the proposal. He says that a representative of the company Yukos approached him on the night before the new law was to be discussed by the Duma and told him that they’d made an agreement with all of the deputies. As a result, the ministers were given a choice: they could either not take the proposal to parliament, or they could ‘be taken out [feet first]’. … Gref called Kudrin and found out that he’d also been visited and threatened. … In the end the legislation failed miserably.

So, who was it who owned this oil company, Yukos, which suborned parliamentary deputies and threatened senior officials? Well, golly gosh, it was none other than Khodorkovsky, the same man who accuses Putin of being a ‘mafia godfather.’

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

WAtching the Disinformation Watchers

The Roman poet Juvenal was a curmudgeonly old sod. Rome was going to the dogs, he thought. Things were better in the good old days, when men were men, people had a sense of duty, and there was an all round understanding of the importance of public morality. Foreigners, women, homosexuals – you mention it, Juvenal disliked it (one has to wonder if it’s still permissible to get students to read him nowadays). He also wasn’t too fond of soldiers, and in his final (incomplete) satire complained that it was impossible to get redress against them. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’) he asked, and never has a more pertinent question be posed.

As I’ve mentioned before, the fight against alleged Russian disinformation, electoral ‘meddling’, and so on, has led to the creation of a large and well-funded disinformation industry devoted to controlling what the rest of us can read and hear, in accordance with the industry’s own understanding of reality. Canada, where I live, now has its own branch of the industry in the form of an organization called Disinfowatch, which is reported to be funded by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the US government.

So, who watches Disinfowatch?

Continue reading WAtching the Disinformation Watchers