Tag Archives: Ukraine

Brean, Braun, and Putin’s Brain

Occasionally, I wonder why I got into the blogging business. Fortunately, whenever these doubts arise, my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen (for which I once used to write), helps me out by publishing some outrageous nonsense, reminding me of the need for someone, somewhere to take the initiative in debunking it all. And since nobody else round here seems to be doing the job, the task falls upon me.

Today the Citizen obliged me by producing not one, but two such pieces, which was kind of generous of it because one would have been quite enough. The theme of both was the impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. As any sensible person knows, this isn’t going to happen (unless the Ukrainians are stupid enough to try to recapture the rebel provinces of Donbass by force). But that hasn’t stopped Western politicians and the media from screaming wolf on an almost daily basis for the past couple of months. Every day that Russia fails to invade Ukraine brings more articles saying that it’s just around the corner. Just wait. ‘The Russians are coming!’

Anyway, article no. 1, on which I won’t spend much time, is a relatively straightforward piece of reporting entitled ‘Russia warns of response if Ukraine joins NATO.’ This uncritically repeats a statement by Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis saying that, ‘We are convinced that Russia is actually preparing for an all-out war against Ukraine. It’s an unprecedented event probably since the Second World War.’

To this my response is that, A) Landsbergis being ‘convinced’ doesn’t make it so, and B) even if true it’s hardly ‘unprecedented’ – there’s been no shortage of wars since 1945, quite a few of them fought by Western powers (The invasion of Iraq anyone? The bombing of Yugoslavia?). So wouldn’t it make some sense to tell readers so?

Next, the article tells us that ‘In response to Moscow’s provocation, EU foreign ministers agreed to hit targets linked to the Wagner group, a Russian private military firm, with punitive sanctions, accusing it of destabilizing Ukraine and parts of Africa.’ So what is the ‘provocation’ here? It’s stated as a given, but no evidence of any ‘provocation’ is given.

And then, the Citizen finishes with this gem:

‘Russia’s domestic intelligence service was accused by its Ukrainian counterpart Monday of waging information warfare after it said it had arrested 106 supporters of a Ukrainian neo-Nazi youth group for planning attacks and mass murders. The Federal Security Service said that two of those held had planned attacks on educational institutions.’

Damn those Russians, arresting Neo-Nazis who planned to attack schools! ‘Waging information warfare indeed!’

The problem with this article is not that it’s factually false, as it mostly just repeats claims by Western and Ukrainian officials, but that it treats those claims as given and makes no effort to either challenge or contextualize them. That said, it’s a relatively mild piece of propaganda compared to what appears on the op-ed page of the same edition. This is an article by one Joseph Brean, entitled ‘Putin’s Taxi Driving Disclosure Part of Plan, Expert Says.’ It’s a real doozy.

Basically, the article is a four column story based entirely on the opinions of a single ‘expert’ – Aurel Braun, a professor at the University of Toronto, who, I think it’s fair to say, sits on the hawkish wing of the Canadian foreign policy community. No other ‘expert’ is cited. Nor is any effort made to analyze whether Braun is right. His mere opinion is considered sufficient to justify half a page of full-sized newspaper.

Let’s take a look at the Braun told Brean. (Their names have a certain ring to them, don’t you think?) The starting point is once again Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine, and the ‘hook’, as journalists say, is a recent revelation by Vladimir Putin that in the 1990s he drove a taxi in order to raise money. ‘One can assume that Putin did not just make these remarks off the cuff,’ says Braun. Putin must have had a reason for raising the taxi driving story.

Fair enough, I say. Putin obviously felt that the anecdote would serve some purpose. Braun and Brean tell us what that might have been:

‘The effect is subtle but by reflecting on the indignity of the collapse of Soviet society, Putin is whipping up support for his campaign against Ukraine, to deny it has a legitimate national identity separate from Russia’s, but rather is a construct of the West, destined to be reclaimed, just like Russia’s imperial influence.’

You can see it, right? Putin says, ‘I drove a taxi’. But what he really means is, ‘let’s invade Ukraine!’ Makes sense, huh?

Braun explains the logic to Brean, who laps it all up uncritically. Putin’s story gives him a link of ‘shared suffering’ with other Russians, says Braun. Putin is thereby indicating to everyone that the ‘loss of superpower status was not just abstract but personal.’ Brean adds: ‘This is typical of the modern Russian geopolitical victim as both aggressor and victim, Braun said, simultaneously projecting confidence and complaining about being treated unfairly.’

Just to make sure we get the point, Brean then proceeds to inform readers that Putin is rewriting history, and wraps up his piece with the following piece of tosh:

‘He [Putin] indulges a rosy view of Joseph Stalin as a firm hand who organized and industrialized Russia. … A recurring theme is that Russia’s future should look like its past, as an imperial Third Rome. His 2014 invasion of Ukraine and Georgia before that, for example, were always described as reclaiming Slavic land and people.’

In a previous post, I mentioned various principles for writing a bad article about Russia. This includes ‘making stuff up’, quoting what others have claimed without mentioning that their claims are dubious or even wrong, and citing only sources that fit your chosen narrative. Here we have them all.

Making stuff up: Putin doesn’t ‘indulge a rosy view of Joseph Stalin’ (as I’ve detailed on various occasions), wasn’t even president during the 2008 war with Georgia, and, as far as I know, has never justified that war in terms of ‘reclaiming Slavic land and people’ (the South Ossetians, after all aren’t Slavs). (One could allow this in the case of Ukraine if one calls the 2014 annexation of Crimea an ‘invasion’, but Putin has never admitted to supporting the rebellion in Donbass, so can’t be said to be justifying that in any terms, let alone those of reclaiming Slavic lands and people).

Quoting claims without pointing out that they may not be true: pretty much the whole article fits that criterion.

Citing only experts who fit your narrative: Brean cites only one expert – Braun – so we have that one too!

In short, we’ve got pretty much the personification of the bad article. Its thesis – that an anecdote about taxi driving reveals some aggressive imperial intent – is amazingly far fetched. One can’t prove it wrong, given that one would have to have access to Putin’s brain to do so. But there’s nothing to connect taxi driving with Ukraine. Putin’s popularity has long rested on his ability to restore stability at home after the chaos of the 1990s. His latest anecdote fits firmly in that narrative. There’s absolutely no reason to see anything else in it.

The taxi driver story is ‘a “calculated” act of propaganda,” says Brean. For sure, there’s propaganda here. But it’s coming from the Ottawa Citizen, not from anyone else. Brean, Braun and Putin’s Brain – quite the combination!

Another Bogus Russian War Scare

I have had a couple more pieces published in RT in the last two days. One concerns the probably temporary closure of the Kyiv Post and why it seems to have provoked immense outrage whereas the previous shutting down of Russian-language Ukrainian media outlets did not. The other responds to a letter of resignation sent by Russian liberal journalist Konstantin [von] Eggert [MBE] to the Chatham House think tank in protest the institute’s decision to give an award to a BLM activist. I use this an opportunity to delve into different Russian and Western conceptions of rights and freedoms. You can read these here and here.  

For this post, though, I intend to tackle another topic, which follows on naturally from my last one. In that, I mocked the idea being floated around in some circles that Russia was behind the Belarus-EU migrant crisis and somehow using it as a provocation for further aggressive action, including maybe a military assault on the ‘Suwalki Gap’.

As we now know from Bloomberg, this theory is nonsense: Russia has no intention of invading Poland, it’s planning to invade Ukraine instead. Or so say ‘American officials’, and as we all know you can trust their judgement 100%.

According to Bloomberg:

“The U.S. is raising the alarm with European Union allies that Russia may be weighing a potential invasion of Ukraine as tensions flare between Moscow and the bloc over migrants and energy supplies.

With Washington closely monitoring a buildup of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border, U.S. officials have briefed EU counterparts on their concerns over a possible military operation, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

… The assessments are believed to be based on information the U.S. hasn’t yet shared with European governments, which would have to happen before any decision is made on a collective response, the people said. They’re backed up by publicly-available evidence, according to officials familiar with the administration’s thinking. 

Russia has orchestrated the migrant crisis between Belarus and Poland and the Baltic states — Lithuania and Latvia share a border with Belarus — to try to destabilize the region, two U.S. administration officials said. U.S. concerns about Russian intentions are based on accumulated evidence and trends that carry echoes of the run-up to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, another administration official said. 

Some analysts argue that Putin may believe now is the time to halt Ukraine’s closer embrace with the West before it progresses any further. 

“What seems to have changed is Russia’s assessment of where things are going,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “They seem to have concluded that unless they do something, the trend lines are heading to Russia losing Ukraine.”

According to defense-intelligence firm Janes, the recent Russian deployment has been covert, often taking place at night and carried out by elite ground units, in contrast to the fairly open buildup in the spring.

Let’s take a look at all this. We have some statements from three anonymous officials, based on “publicly available information” (none of which I have seen that points to an imminent invasion) and some sort of secret information that the US hasn’t shared with anybody and so can’t be assessed. Now call me a sceptic, but unverifiable information from anonymous sources doesn’t sound like something very solid to me.

Beyond that, if the final lines from Janes are correct, we have a deployment of “elite ground units,” but you can’t invade a foreign country just using “elite” units, let alone a country the size of Ukraine. You’d need a massive build-up of a very considerable volume of rank-and-file line units. So, the actual evidence presented doesn’t fit the scenario portrayed.

As for Mr Charap’s statement that “They seem to have concluded that unless they do something, the trend lines are heading to Russia losing Ukraine,” I have yet to see any indication of this. Quite the contrary. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s recent comment that Russia should do “nothing” about Ukraine and simply wait until the Ukrainians come to their senses, points to an entirely different conclusion. We are “patient,” said Medvedev, who is Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, and so one imagines, well versed in what is in people’s minds at the highest level. His comments hardly suggest that senior officials are thinking that radical action is urgently required.

The fact that American “officials” are briefing the press that war is possible, and that analysts from the RAND Corporation are backing them up, speaks to an awful lack of understanding of things Russian in the United States. The fact that Bloomberg then repeats these claims without serious challenge points also to a disturbing lack of critical thinking on behalf of the American press (no surprise there!), as well as reinforcing what academic studies of the media have long since noted – its worrisome dependence on official sources.

The only part of the Bloomberg article that gives readers a real sense of what’s going on comes in the following lines, which say:

Russia doesn’t intend to start a war with Ukraine now, though Moscow should show it’s ready to use force if necessary, one person close to the Kremlin said. An offensive is unlikely as Russian troops would face public resistance in Kyiv and other cities, but there is a plan to respond to provocations from Ukraine, another official said. 

This strikes me as accurate. There is absolutely no reason for Russia to start a war with Ukraine. It would be enormously costly and bring no obvious benefits. Besides which, war needs careful advance preparation of public opinion. There have been absolutely no indications of the Kremlin doing anything of the sort. That said, as I have noted before, I have little doubt that if Ukraine launched a major attack on the rebel regions of Donbass, and if large numbers of civilians were killed as a result (as would be most likely), Russia would respond. And its response would likely be very tough, much tougher than it was in August 2014 when it very briefly sent a limited number of forces into Donbass to defeat the Ukrainians at Ilovaisk. If there is a Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s likely to be large-scale, to settle the issue once and for all.

All this talk of war is therefore rather dangerous. It helps to ramp up tensions on Russia’s borders, and also serves to justify a build-up by NATO forces in the region. That in turn may send the wrong messages to Ukraine and encourage it to act rashly. Fortunately, I don’t think that things will go that far, but I do think that “American officials” and the press are playing with fire. They would be well advised to stop. Unfortunately, one gets the impression that their lack of knowledge and understanding makes that impossible. Sad times indeed.

Do nothing and wait? Or creeping annexation? Russian options in Ukraine.

“Do nothing.” That the advice of former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev regarding Russia’s relations with Ukraine. In a piece published today by RT (here) I discuss an article by Medvedev in the newspaper Kommersant. In this, the author attacks the leadership of Ukraine in quite uncompromising language, saying that they have betrayed their own identity and are acting like “representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia in Nazi Germany being asked to serve in the SS.” Subtle, Medvedev certainly isn’t!

Medvedev concludes that Ukraine’s leadership is utterly incapable of reaching agreement with Russia or the rebels of Donbass. Consequently, he says, there is absolutely no point in talking to them. Instead Russia should wait until a more congenial leadership comes along. “Russia can wait. We are patient people.” Until then, his advice is that Russia sit back and do precisely “nothing.”

In my article, I argue doing nothing isn’t a solution for Russia. For the odds that a more friendly Ukrainian government will emerge at any point in the foreseeable future are very, very low. The Maidan revolution and subsequent events have had a drastic impact on the Ukrainian governing elite, so that anybody who comes to power there will be necessarily restrained and pushed into pursuing an anti-Russian policy, even if he or she originally does not intend to. Waiting won’t achieve anything for Russia.

If Russia wants to move events in Ukraine in a favourable direction, it needs to take a more active line. But that begs the question of what that line could be. And that’s a difficult question to answer, for the options are limited and not very good.

Moscow’s preferred outcome has always been the reintegration of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR) back into Ukraine by the granting to them of some form of extensive local autonomy. This is what the Minsk 2 Agreement of February 2015 envisages. Kiev, however, is dead set against this, and that seems most unlikely to change.

Russia’s problem is that it lacks the means to change Kiev’s incentives to prompt it to alter its position regarding autonomy for Donbass. It also has next to no influence on domestic Ukrainian politics, and any attempt to exert such influence is likely to backfire. As it is, Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the main opposition party, Opposition Platform – for Life, is under house arrest facing charges of treason. There is almost no conduit through which Russia could exert influence on Ukraine.

Military force is one possible solution, but we must hope that it would be considered very much a last resort. Not only would it comes with a great human cost, but it would shatter Russia’s relations with the West for a very long time. I see no enthusiasm for it, and one imagines that it could only be deployed in response to Ukraine starting major military operations against the DPR and LPR.

So what’s left?

As far as I can see, recognizing that Ukraine will not strike an acceptable deal over Donbass (i.e. one that gives the region extensive autonomy) requires admitting that the DPR and LPR are here to stay for the indefinite future. So what next?

The primary issue has to be how to improve the lives of the people living there, lest the rebel republics become the sources of serious instability, organized crime, and so on. That means first of all trying to get a proper ceasefire. Again, though, that runs into the problem that the Ukrainian side seems quite happy with the current situation of “neither war nor peace” in which military operations continue at a very low tempo. The only way I can see that changing is through pressure from Ukraine’s Western allies, but that appears very unlikely.

Beyond that, one logical step would be to annex the DPR and LPR. Certainly, from the point of view of restoring economic life to Donbass, this would be the best option. Continued existence in the limbo of unrecognized status is utterly unconducive to investment or to any sort of economic progress.

Again, however, this runs into the problem of the likely Western reaction, which one can imagine would be extremely hostile and result in severe sanctions being levied against the Russian Federation. While some Russians might say “So what?”, the fact is that it’s worth Russia’s while to maintain as good relations with the West as possible. For instance, Russia has to date being able to sustain trade with Germany, as seen in the recent completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline. It’s not worth rupturing this for the sake of Donbass. The economic interests of Russia’s own citizens come first.

All this leaves, therefore, is some sort of creeping annexation, whereby the process of integration between Russia and the rebel republics moves ever forward. This, though, has the effect of separating those republics ever further from Ukraine and making the achievement of the goal of their eventual reintegration into Ukraine ever more unlikely.

In essence, pursuing this option means abandoning in practice what has to date, at least in public, been the preferred objective. It is, however, probably the only practical option open to Russia at this moment in time.

Perhaps there are some other possibilities for the Russian government out there, and if so I’d be glad to hear what they are. But for now, it seems to me that its options are limited and the path laid out above seems the most likely for the immediate future. So, if I’m right, expect Moscow to publicly retain a commitment to the Minsk agreement, but in private accept that they are a dead letter and continue on the slow process of creeping annexation.

Putin’s Futile Effort to Win Back Ukraine

Russian president Vladimir Putin clearly fancies himself as a bit of a historian. A while back he wrote a piece on the origins of the Second World War for the National Interest magazine, and now he’s penned (or at least he and his helpers have penned) a great long tome discussing the historical origins of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. The purpose of it all is to prove that Russia and Ukraine are truly one, and that their current division is the product of the malicious activities of outside powers – the Poles and Austrians in olden times, the West as a whole nowadays.

I discuss the piece in an article for RT that you can read here. In this I speculate that Putin is trying to appeal to ordinary Ukrainians over the head of their government. Millions of Ukrainians think positively of Russia, he says, but they are intimidated into silence by the despotic regime in Kiev, which is trying to turn the country into an ‘anti-Russia’. It seems that Putin believes that there are large numbers of Ukrainians who share his point of view, and that this is his attempt to speak directly to them in an effort to win Ukraine back for Russia.

Personally, I think it’s a giant waste of time.

Putin may be right that a large segment of the Ukrainian population doesn’t share the anti-Russian stance of its government. One suspects that if – God forbid – Russian tanks were ever to roll into Odessa, while some would fight them, some others would crawl out of the woodwork and declare that they always loved Russia all along. But the thing is that the opinion of the ordinary Joe (or Ivan, or whatever the Ukrainian equivalent is) isn’t that important.

Ordinary Joes don’t run any country anywhere. Political elites compete for their votes, but by and large they live in a different world, with a different frame of mind, shaped far more by what the educated classes think than by the average guy on the street.

At this point, I will admit that I’m not a Ukrainian expert, so I may be entirely wrong about this, but from a distance I get a very strong sense that the Ukrainian educated classes, and with them the political elite, have swallowed the Maidan ‘anti-Russia’ stance with a vengeance. Basically speaking, there are precious few people left who are willing or able to represent the ‘pro-Russia’ point of view.

This isn’t just because it’s been repressed, though it has been – as seen by the arrest of Mr Medvedchuk. It’s more that this representation doesn’t exist in any meaningful form. And without that representation, it doesn’t really matter how many ‘pro-Russian’ people are out there. Politically speaking, their prospects are zilch.

In other words, Ukraine is a lost cause from the Russian point of view. Its upper classes have made up their minds – at least for a generation (perhaps something will change when the promised integration into the West never happens, but even then one can’t be sure). Putin can appeal over the government’s head to the Ukrainian people as much as he likes, but I don’t see it changing a thing.

Silly Season

It’s been a light news week, thus the lack of posts of late. Which means that we are reduced to commenting on the latest silliness coming out of Ukraine, this time concerning the Ukrainian national football/soccer team’s shirts for the Euro 2020 tournament.

Euro 2020, as the name suggests, was meant to take place last year, but was postponed due to the covid pandemic, and is starting on Friday, when Turkey take on Italy in Rome. The Ukrainian team, which is meant to be quite good, is in Group C, alongside the Netherlands, Austria, and North Macedonia.

As the BBC reports, the Ukrainian team’s newly unveiled shirt has caused a little bit of a stink in Russia, as it shows a very faint map of Ukraine, including within its contours the Crimean peninsula. The BBC cites Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mariia Zakharova as complaining that the Ukrainians had thereby ‘attached Ukraine’s territory to Russia’s Crimea.’ creating the ‘illusion of the impossible.’

Continue reading Silly Season

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.

The Foolishness of Linguistic Homogenization

In a new article for RT (which you can read here) I discuss Latvian and Ukrainian efforts to assimilate Russian speakers and to turn their countries into linguistically homogenized states. I note that many of the most successful states in the world have more than one official language, and that ‘that having a multiplicity of languages within a state is not a hindrance to being rich, stable, democratic, or anything else you might consider desirable. ‘

I conclude:

Successful multilingual nations such as Switzerland and Canada have learnt not only to live with diversity but to embrace and celebrate it. In the process they have turned it into a strength. Supporters of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution often say that they want Ukraine to be a “normal country.” They should think about what that means.

Happy reading!