Tag Archives: Russiagate

Latest RussiaGate Allegation

In an article today on the RT website (which you can read here), I discuss the latest Russiagate allegation coming out of the stable of Luke Harding and The Guardian. This takes the form of a claim that the Guardian has seen top secret Kremlin documents which detail a decision by the Russian National Security Council in 2016 to exert all efforts to ensure Donald Trump’s election as US president.

I assume Harding isn’t lying about seeing some documents. But are they real? Or are they forgeries? Without seeing them, without knowing a lot more about how the Guardian got them, and without a whole lot more additional information, we just can’t tell. How can one assess something one only knows about from somebody else? One can’t. But as I explain in my article, there are some reasons to doubt their veracity – not to 100% rule out the possibility that they’re real, that’s kind of hard when we know next to nothing about them – but certainly to treat the story with a large dose of salt.

What makes me take this stance is not just the source of the information – Harding is not no. 1 on my list of reliable journalists (see my review of his book Collusion for an explanation of why). Deeper than that, my issue is that the documents seems to me to be exactly what some Russiagate conspiracy theorist would come up with if s/he was to sitting in his/her basement trying to imagine what a Russian plot to steal the US election would look like. In that sense, they seem to be a reflection of anti-Trump American views of the world, rather than Russian ones. That doesn’t mean they’re fake, but it’s a reason not to take the Guardian’s claims at face value.

Let me explain.

First, as I say in my article, there’s no mention of Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton and her perceived hostility to Russia. Nor is there any discussion of Trump’s election promises to improve relations with the Russian Federation. This is odd. One would have thought that this would have been a prime motivation for any Russian conspiracy to elect Trump.

Instead, the supposed motivation for the Russian campaign of election ‘meddling’ is to ‘destabilize’ the US. As I see it, Russian leaders have never shown any particular interest in this. I’m not aware of anyone in authority ever even have expressed a preference for an unstable America. On the contrary, they tend to emphasize stability. So, the internal condition of the USA is not an obvious Russian concern.

But it is an American concern. Paranoia about internal instability became a big thing during Trump’s rule. But – and here’s another thing – it took a bit of time for that to happen. In other words, it was a big American concern, but not until a bit after the 2016 election. In that sense, the idea that the Kremlin was plotting in early 2016 to ‘destabilize’ the USA seems like a retroactive reflection of the later worries of American anti-Trumpers.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Kremlin hierarchy wasn’t amazingly prescient, nor that it wasn’t saying one thing while secretly believing another. But it’s certainly a reason for a being a little bit suspicious.

Then, there’s a bit in the documents in which the Russians supposedly call Trump ‘mentally unstable’ and revel in the chaos that having such a lunatic in the White House will cause in America. Again, this strikes me as a particularly anti-Trump American take on things. Trump’s crazy – all anti-Trumpers know that. But would that have been how Russian officials in early 2016 looked at things? Well, maybe. One can’t rule it out. But I have to wonder.

And finally, there’s the implication in the documents that the entire Russiagate plot to ‘interfere’ in the US elections was a highly centralized, carefully coordinated campaign directed by Putin himself.

Yes, indeed, it is possible that such a thing was decided centrally and supervised from the very top. But the concept of Russia as an autocratic system in which Putin and his inner circle decide everything strikes me once again as fitting very neatly into Western conceptions of how Russia operates rather than what is necessarily the case.

I’m not going to say that the Guardian’s documents are fake. As I said, you can’t do that without much more information. But do I think that anybody can use them as proof of a Russian plot against American democracy? No, not without a whole lot more corroboration. Claim after claim about the alleged Trump-Russia relationship has been used to ‘prove’ that Russia got Trump elected and that Trump colluded with the Russians in the process, and claim after claim has been shown to be total bunk. In the circumstances, scepticism seems to me to be the only justified response.

Afghan tales

I’ve said before, and no doubt will say again, that depictions of Russia often have little to do with Russia itself and are more about those doing the depiction. For many in the Western world, Russia is, and long has been, a significant ‘other’, comparison with which serves a useful purpose in the creation of self-identity. Beyond that, negative (and on occasion even positive) portrayals of Russia feed into domestic political struggles and help legitimize one side or other in whatever argument people are having. Whether these portrayals of Russia are accurate is neither here nor there. What matters is their impact on domestic politics.

Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but historians who have looked at how Westerners have viewed Russia over the course of time have amassed enough evidence to show that it’s often the case. If you doubt it, then you have merely to look at what has happened in the United States in the past four years, during which time Russia has been elevated into enemy number one, an allegedly existential threat which is on the cusp of destroying American democracy and plunging the country into civil strife. The point of the Russiagate hysteria has never been Russia itself. Rather it has been to delegitimize the election of Donald Trump as American president by portraying him as, in effect, a traitor, who has sold out his country to a foreign enemy. This narrative, of course, presupposes a foreign enemy, for which purpose one has had to be created, and Russia has proven a convenient candidate for the role.

It is this, I think, which explains the latest Russia scandal to strike the United States – the claim this week in the New York Times that Russian military intelligence has been paying the Taleban in Afghanistan to kill Americans. I am, of course, not in a position to testify as to the accuracy of the complaint, but like others am deeply sceptical of anything that is based solely on the testimony of anonymous intelligence officials and that lacks any supporting evidence. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times’s story has led to much derision, being interpreted as a sign once again of the deeply Russophobic nature of the American press. I think, though, that that interpretation may miss the point, which is that the story, like so many others, is not really about Russia but rather yet another effort to discredit Donald Trump as a puppet in the control of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

This is because a key aspect of the story was an allegation that Trump had been briefed about Russia’s nefarious activity but had done nothing in response. As might be expected, Trump’s enemies in the media were quick to exploit the story to attack the president. For instance, MSNBC’s prime Russiagate cheerleader Rachel Maddow had this to say:

Not only does the president know … there was that unexpected and friendly conversation he had with Putin. … President Trump got off that call with Putin and immediately began calling for Russia to be allowed back into the G7. … That’s how Trump is standing up for Americans being killed for rubles paid by Putin’s government.

Maddow’s colleague, MSNBC morning news host Joe Scarborough, followed suit. ‘Donald Trump has known about Putin killing Americans for months and has refused even to condemn Russia diplomatically. What Republican senator will speak out against this shocking dereliction of duty?’ he tweeted. Other journalists were equally outright in their condemnation. ‘While Trump was cozying up to Putin, Russia was paying the Taleban to kill American troops in Afghanistan,’ said GQ’s Laura Bassett on Twitter; and so on.

Whether any of this was true was something that none of these journalists bothered to ask. They simply assumed that it was, for the obvious reason that always assuming the worst about Russia suits their political agenda. Most notably, Trump’s electoral rival, Joe Biden, said this about the president:

Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin. … His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.

The problem with all this is that, as with so much of Russiagate, it appears to be entirely false. The White House immediately denied any knowledge of the Afghanistan story, and the Director of National Intelligence backed up Trump by confirming that, indeed, the president had never been informed about the alleged Russian activity. As so often, The New York Times appears to have been peddling ‘fake news’. None of this, however, has stopped Trump’s opponents from seizing on the story as further evidence of the president’s treachery.

The question in my mind is what will happen should Trump lose the presidential election in November, an outcome that now seems likely. It strikes me that there are two possibilities. The first is that the Democratic Party and its supporters will lose interest in stories of alleged Russian malevolence, as they will no longer be needed. A Biden victory in November could, therefore, lead to a lessening in the current rhetorical tension. The second possibility is that nothing will change. Democrats, I fear, have come to believe the nonsense that they have been peddling, to the extent that it’s become part and parcel of who they are. They are therefore incapable of altering course, and will govern on the basis of the prejudices they have generated in themselves over the past few years. I would like to think that the first possibility will come to pass, but I have to say that I’m not too optimistic. As for what will happen in the event that Trump is re-elected, I dread to think. But at that point, America might well be engulfed in flames, and Russia will be the least of anybody’s problems.

#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.

My inner Pobedonostsev

Watching the unfolding drama of Brexit and the fall out of the Mueller report in the United States, one can’t help but feel more than a little despairing about the state of Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy. For sure, I’m glad to live under such a system of government, but at the same time moments like this make one realize that it’s not all that it’s sometimes cracked up to be. Meanwhile, the Chinese go on from strength to strength. It’s enough to bring out one’s inner Pobedonostsev.

I refer, of course, to the late Tsarist-era Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, known generally as the arch reactionary of the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II. Pobedonostsev had a few choice words to say about liberal democracy and the free press. As a rule, historians use these words to indicate the negative role he had on Russian political development. But on days like today, some of what he said doesn’t look so unreasonable after all.

The problem with democracy, Pobedonostsev argued, was that although it claims to represent the ‘general will’, it fact it gives power not to the ‘people’ but to those minority groups which are best organized. ‘In theory,’ he wrote, ‘the elected candidate must be the favourite of the majority; in fact, he is the favorite of a minority, sometimes very small, but representing an organized force, while the majority, like sand, has no coherence, and is therefore incapable of resisting.’

This pretty much summarizes what Mancur Olson called the ‘logic of collective action’ and nowadays comes under the rubric of ‘public choice theory’ – the theory that government favours concentrated minority interests over diffused majority ones. There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this is indeed what happens. Where the Procurator of the Holy Synod went wrong was in assuming that it only happens in democracies. In his imagination, an autocrat could stand above all this and represent the general will. But politics happens even within authoritarian states, and the results are often much the same. In fact the situation may even be worse in authoritarian states because the ‘general will’ has no alternative means of expression, such as a free press.

But Pobedonostsev was sceptical of the value of that too. Indeed he said some pretty harsh things about the ‘fourth estate’, remarking that:

The press is one of the falsest institutions of our time. … The healthy taste of the public is not to be relied upon. The great majority of readers … is ruled less by a few healthy instincts than by a base and despicable hankering for idle amusement; and the support of the people may be secured for any editor who provider for the satisfaction of these hankerings.

This, I think, is a fairly good description of the dynamics behind Russiagate. Anti-Trumpers were desperate for some salacious scandal which would discredit the US president, and so the editors of the American media gave it to them. And, from the editors’ point of view, it worked. The more they played the collusion card, the more their ratings went up. Take the example of the leading Russia propagandist MSNBC. As Vanity Fair reports:

The ratings don’t lie. Five or six years ago, MSNBC’s viewership was down, and the network was flailing. As with the rest of the news media, the Trump saga has given it a turbocharge. Indeed, MSNBC had its best ever year in 2018, wrapping up with about 1.1 million daily viewers on average, a 121 percent increase from the first quarter of 2016, according to the network. Compared to the first quarter of 2017, right before Mueller got to work, ratings are now up 43 percent, the network’s data shows. In other words, if Trump helped bring MSNBC back to life, Mueller cranked up the electricity running through its veins.

If democracy was really what its name implies, now that the collusion claim has been shown to be false, those who peddled it should be expected to pay a price. In reality, there’s little chance that those responsible for the deceit will be held to account. For as Pobedonostsev pointed out,

The journalist … derives his authority from no election, he receives support from no one. His newspaper becomes an authority in the State, and for this authority no endorsement is required. … How often have superficial and unscrupulous journalists paved the way for revolution, fomented irritation into enmity, and brought about desolate wars! … It is hard to imagine a despotism more irresponsible and violent than the despotism of printed words.

At this point, bearing in mind the free press’s culpability in ‘fomenting irritation in enmity’ via Russiagate (which has poisoned American minds against Russia) and in bringing ‘about desolate wars’ (such as the invasion of Iraq), one has to admit that Pobedonostsev was onto something. Of course, his solution – censorship – was hardly any better, and probably a whole lot worse. But the basic critique is on the nail. Too much of the Western press is all too ready to spread all sorts of toxic nonsense just to improve its ratings, and it is completely unaccountable. This can hardly be said to be the ‘rule of the people’.

Do I have a solution to this problem? No, I don’t. It could be that there isn’t one, that we just have to accept Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others. I’m sure that if I did have a solution it wouldn’t be Pobedonostev-style autocracy, any more than it would be communism, or any other authoritarian system. But if we are to find answers to problems, we first need to admit that we have them. And for that, my inner Pobedonostsev may actually have a useful role to play.