Tag Archives: United Kingdom

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.

Continue reading How Russia Views the UK, Supposedly

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.

Lipstick on a Pig, British-Style: Or Why the UK’s Anti-Russian Propaganda Campaign is Bound to Fail

In his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia British journalist Angus Roxburgh details the time he spent working as a public relations consultant for the Russian government. The problem he confronted, he writes, is that the Russians felt that negative fallout from any type of bad news, or bad behaviour, could be avoided if the news was given the appropriate media spin. He kept telling them that if they insisted on doing x or y, it would look bad regardless of how it was spun, while they insisted that as a PR guy it was up to him to make it look good nevertheless. In essence, Roxburgh says, the Russians never understood that if you put lipstick on a pig, everyone will still see that it’s a pig.

It’s a fair enough point, and I couldn’t help thinking of it when reading news this past week of a big dump of leaked documents showing how the British government has been spending millions of pounds on supporting anti-Kremlin journalists, media organizations, youtubers and other influencers both in Russia and its near abroad (especially the Baltic states).

The leaked documents consist of instructions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to companies wanting to bid for contracts to supervise the media campaign, as well as various bids drawn up by companies hoping to win the contracts. You can find some of the details in an article by Kit Klarenburg on RT as well as on the Moon of Alabama blog.

The latter goes out of its way to portray this as a campaign of British subversion targeted against Russia. Strictly speaking, nothing in the documents says that. Rather, the FCO couches its language in terms of training journalists, overcoming disinformation, improving the quality of reporting, raising journalistic ethics, and so on. Who can argue with any of that? On the surface, it’s all fine and dandy, though perhaps a bit patronising, as there’s an underlying assumption that Russians are incapable of high quality, ethically sound reporting, whereas the UK (home of the Sun, the Daily Express, and the like) knows all about that sort of thing and can teach those poor benighted Russians how to do things properly.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and it’s clear that something is not quite as innocent as the FCO would like to make it out. Particularly striking was a statement that British funds have been used to set up a network of Russian youtubers while also helping them avoid having to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’, as required by Russian law. It’s hard to see how the Brits will be able to explain that to the Russians as not constituting interference in domestic affairs and aiding and abetting people to break the law.

Likewise, it’s difficult to say how one can describe positively the news that the FCO-funded Zink Network has been working with the Latvia-based Meduza and other media outlets, holding “weekly mentoring sessions with specialists from the outlets”, “adjusting their editorial and commercial strategy accordingly” and creating “common framings of issues.” It will be interesting to see how Meduza from now on rebuffs the accusation that it’s acting as an arm of the British government (I imagine that it just won’t bother trying).

I’m not going to go into all the details – you can read them yourselves, if you want. Instead, I feel it useful to mention a couple of points which these documents raised in my mind.

The first is that what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘disinformation industry’ (i.e. the industry devoted to combatting alleged Russian disinformation) is big business. There’s millions of pounds to be made in this. And nobody’s going to get any of that money by playing down the Russian threat.

The second is that it is all utterly pointless, even counterproductive. This sort of thing has a tendency to become public knowledge – as it now has – and when it does, it looks bad. In the process, it taints all and every anti-government source of information in Russia as the agent of hostile foreign states, even when they’re not. In this way, schemes like this actually end up playing into the hands of the Kremlin, justifying its claims that Russia is under attack from the West.

Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if somehow this great media campaign convinced huge numbers of people to change their view of the world. But I don’t see any evidence that it does. One of the leaked documents has the following to say about the Baltic states:

Especially amongst 40+ populations there is a lower level of trust in both the domestic and international media amongst Russian-speaking populations. There is the strong perception that the Baltic states’ Russian TV and radio programmes favour a Baltic perspective rather than reflect the Russian minority’s perspectives. There is also a degree of mistrust in the authorities especially around citizenship and language.

Returning to Mr Roxburgh, the correct solution to this, it seems to me, would be to address the policies that cause the mistrust, and also to start reflecting the Russians’ perspectives in your programming. But that’s not what the FCO plan wants to do. It assumes that the current policies and perspectives are fine; they just need some decent PR to sell them better. So, keep on churning out the same old line, just train some people to do it more professionally.

In short, paint some lipstick on the pig. But as the quote above shows, the reason Russians are listening to the message isn’t because the pig is ugly, but because it’s a pig. Making it a nicely painted British pig isn’t going to help in the slightest.

Defaming Veterans

I have written a piece for RT paralleling Alexei Navalny’s trial for defaming a WW2 veteran with the arrest of someone in Scotland on similar charges, and link it all to the place of WW2 in national mythology. You can read it here.

Meanwhile, my morning newspaper brought me this story of a fellow professor at the University of Ottawa whom a Polish court has just ordered to apologize for allegedly defaming someone (long dead, I believe) in relation to WW2. Is this a new trend?

The Russian Brexit Plot That Wasn’t

Russian Disinformation. Russian Disinformation. Russian Disinformation. How many time have you heard that over the past four years?

But what about British disinformation?

Much of the current Russia paranoia began with the claims that Donald Trump was recruited by Russian intelligence years ago as a sleeper agent, and then given a leg-up into the presidency of the United States with the help of the GRU. The claims of ‘collusion’ were repeated over and over, and yet at the end of the day none of them could be substantiated. And where did it all start? In the now notorious dossier assembled by former British spook Christopher Steele.

Steele, it has now been revealed, got his information from a guy called Igor Danchenko. He in his turn got a lot of it from a former classmate, Olga Galkina, described as an alcoholic ‘disgruntled PR executive living in Cyprus’, and as such obviously a well-informed source with intimate knowledge of the Kremlin’s innermost secrets.

In short, the Steele dossier was a load of hokum, commissioned by a British Black PR operative and then fabricated by some random Russian émigrés with no access to anything of value. And yet, millions believed it.

And then, we have the story of Brexit. Ever since the 2016 referendum which resulted in Britain leaving the European Union, we have been repeatedly told that the victory of the Leave campaign was made possible by ‘Russian interference’. Most significantly, it was claimed that the Russian government illicitly funded the Leave campaign by funneling money through the campaign’s most significant financial backer, businessman Arron Banks.

Leading the charge against Russia and Banks was journalist Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer (as the Sunday version of The Guardian is known). ‘We know that the Russian government offered money to Arron Banks’, she said. ‘I am not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government’, she added, ‘I say he lied about his contact with the Russian government. Because he did.’

But it turns out that it was Cadwalladr who had a tricky relationship with the truth. Angered by her assertions, Arron Banks sued her for libel. Three weeks ago, she publicly backed down from one of her accusations. ‘On 22 Oct 2020,’ she said, ‘I tweeted that Arron had been found to have broken the law. I accept he has not. I regret making this false statement, which I have deleted. I undertake not to repeat it. I apologise to Arron for the upset and distress caused.’

This week Cadwalladr went further. The judge in the libel trial ruled that the meaning of her statement that Banks had lied about his relationship with the Russians was that he had lied about taking money from Russia, and that she had intended this as a statement of fact, not a call for further investigation. In the face of this judgement, Cadwalladr withdrew her ‘truth’ defence and has been ordered to pay Banks’ costs relating to this aspect of the case. In this way she in effect conceded that she was not willing to defend as fact the proposition that Russia financed Leave via Banks. While Cadwalladr continues to fight the case using a ‘public interest’ defence, the withdrawal of the truth argument is a dramatic concession.

The Banks story is not the only problematic aspect of Cadwalladr’s reporting. The journalist earned international plaudits and a prestigious Orwell prize for her report on how the British firm Cambridge Analytica supposedly used big data dredged up out of Facebook to help both the Leave campaign and Donald Trump win victories in 2016. This too had a Russian connection. In a 2018 article for The Observer Cadwalladr described how, ‘Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University academic who orchestrated the harvesting of Facebook data, had previously unreported ties a Russian university. … Cambridge Analytica, the data firm he worked with … also attracted interest from a key Russian firm with links to the Kremlin.’

Others jumped on the Russia-Cambridge connection. ‘The Facebook data farmed by Cambridge Analytica was accessed from Russia’, claimed British MP Damien Collins, head of the House of Commons Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. In this capacity, he then published a report outlining allegations of Russian propaganda and meddling in British affairs, including unsubstantiated insinuations that Russian money had influenced the Brexit campaign via Mr Banks.

And yet, all this was false too. The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) spent over two years investigating Cambridge Analytica, including its alleged role in the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, and its supposed ties to Russian government influence operations. Having completed its investigation, the ICO reported that apart from a single Russian IP address in data connected to Cambridge Analytica, it had found no evidence of Russian involvement with the company. Moreover, it concluded that claims of the company’s enormous influence were ‘hype’, unjustified by the facts.

In other words, just like the Steele dossier, the whole story about Russia influencing the outcome of the Brexit referendum was made-up nonsense.

And yet, it has had an enormous influence. The allegations that Russia ‘interfered’ in Brexit have been repeated again and again – in parliamentary reports, newspaper articles, scholarly journals, books, social media, and so on. Despite their falsehood, they have enjoyed a spread and influence that Russian ‘meddlers’ could only dream of.

Will the peddlers of British disinformation repent? Will they now pen scores of articles admitting that they were wrong? Will they give evidence to parliament denouncing the scourge of false stories about Russia emanating from the British media and MPs?

Of course not. Ms Cadwalladr’s humiliation will get a few lines buried somewhere deep in some newspapers’ inner pages, and will then be forgotten. Meanwhile, the original claims will remain uncorrected in the many documents that repeat them, and the myth of Russian interference in Brexit will trundle on as a basis for denouncing the threat emanating from the East. The damage has been done. Ms Cadwalladr has been discredited, but someone else will soon be found to pick up the torch.

Self-Deception

According to an article in The Guardian on Friday, in the United Kingdom, ‘A cross-party group of MPs is threatening to sue [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson unless he orders an independent investigation into Russian interference in recent UK elections and the 2016 Brexit vote.’ This follows accusations by a recent parliamentary report which claimed that the British government had not taken the threat of Russian disinformation and electoral interference properly. The Guardian notes:

The MPs say the government’s refusal to investigate Kremlin meddling is a breach of the European convention on human rights, which enshrines the right to free elections in protocol 1.

The group says it will take the prime minister to court if he fails to implement what it describes as essential steps to protect future elections. It has sent him a pre-action letter, to which Downing Street has two weeks to respond.

Claims that the UK has been the target of a ruthless campaign of Russian disinformation designed to sway the opinions of British voters have been a staple of political discourse ever since the Brexit referendum, but have become increasingly hysterical in the past 12 months or so. In the runup to last autumn’s general election, for instance, Politico ran an article with the ominous headline ‘Suspected Russian Disinformation Campaign ahead of UK Election’. Among members of what I call the ‘disinformation industry’, the idea that Russia was bound to try to fiddle with the election was widespread.

When no signs of such meddling could be found, the industry turned on the government, accusing it of failing to find the signs which everybody knew had to be there, if only the government bothered to look. ‘How Hostile Disinformation by Russia has Harmed the UK’, shouted a headline in the New Statesman, reflecting the general view of the British commentariat.

Well, it turns out that somebody now has taken a look at the election, and has found copious evidence of disinformation. But unfortunately, it turns out that it wasn’t the Russians who were responsible. It was Britain’s very own Conservative Party. As The Independent reports:

The Conservative Party used disinformation tactics with a ‘new level of impunity’ during last year’s general election, a report has found.

Researchers from King’s College London warned that the campaign had risked undermining public trust during the coronavirus pandemic.

Their report said Tories had ‘employed overt disinformation’ to secure votes, such as by altering a video of [Labour MP and now leader] Sir Keir Starmer and posing as a fact-checker on Twitter during a leader’s debate.

The King’s College team aren’t the only ones to have looked into the matter. The Independent tells us also that:

In separate research, the fact-checking organisation First Draft found that Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats all published misleading advertising during the campaign.

But the Tories were ‘by far the most frequent’, with 88 per cent of their most shared online adverts between 1 and 4 December containing misleading information, compared to 6.7 per cent for Labour.

‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ one is tempted to shout the next time one sees Boris Johnson on TV. Of course, we all know that politicians tell porkies, but 88% seems to be taking economy with the truth a little far. It turns out that Conservative politicians (who now make up the British government) really can’t be trusted. The article in The Independent concludes,

The report called for more research to be done across multiple platforms to examine how false information spreads and takes root, calling claims that ‘Facebook, or bots, or the Russians are the core threat’ a ‘misdiagnosis’ of the problem.

So what is the problem? Where does disinformation come from? The article leaves little room for doubt:

The King’s College research said that while government policy had focused on social media as a source for disinformation, much of it was being ‘spread by domestic political actors’ and news outlets.

You don’t say? Who’d have thought it? There is a problem with disinformation in political life, but overwhelmingly the source of that disinformation is not Russia but domestic politicians and their helpers in the media. Unless, of course, this report itself is disinformation. Its allegations were ‘wild assertions’, said a Conservative Party spokesman. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Garbage in, Garbage out, again

I’ve complained before about the habit of the intelligence community of inviting evidence from a very narrow group of experts, occupying what can only be called an extreme position. Well, here we go again.

The long awaited report on the Russian ‘threat’ by the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has finally come out. Having downloaded it, I immediately turned to the back page to see where the committee had got its information, on the principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out’. Having done so, I am afraid that I let out an expletive so loud that people from the other side of the house ran over to see what was wrong. For this is what I saw:

Oh, FFS. Applebaum, Browder, Donnelly, Lucas, and Steele. Really??? I’m assuming that most readers know these names, but just in case you don’t, it’s like they’ve pulled in all the most discredited, Russophobic ‘experts’ they can find, and ignored everybody else who has any sort of knowledge of the subject. This is not a representative sample of expert opinion about Russia.

I have no objection to one or two such people being summoned as witnesses, but when all you have is representatives of the most extreme wing of the Russia-watching community, some of whom, most notably Christopher Steele, have been thoroughly discredited, then what you are not getting is a balanced, all-round picture of what you are studying.

The report thanks these witnesses for the fact that ‘they provided us with an invaluable foundation for the classified evidence sessions’. In short, the five external witnesses mattered. The picture of Russia provided by these people is the ideological rock on which the rest of the report is built.

Such an extreme, one-sided set of external witnesses not only casts doubt on the value of the information provided to the committee, but also on the impartiality of the committee itself. It speaks to extreme lack of an open mind, as if experts were chosen because they conformed to a strong predisposition which the committee was not interested in challenging.

Intelligence work requires a willingness to consider multiple competing hypotheses. Looking at the list of ‘experts’ makes it clear that this committee has only been exposed to variations of one – ‘Russia is evil’, ‘Russia is out to get us’, ‘Russia is inherently aggressive and dictatorial’. This is no way to do intelligence work.

I’ll write something about the content of the report in my next post. But as I said, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

Floreat gens togata!

EtonShield

Britain has had 54 Prime Ministers. Tomorrow, it gets its 55th, and the 20th to have passed through the hallowed portals of The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor (though only the second to have been one of the ‘tugs’ – the gens togata or ‘gowned ones’, as the school’s intellectual elite, the King’s Scholars, are known). What can we expect from Boris Johnson? Will he save Britain from its current political chaos, or will he lead it further into the abyss? I can’t say that I know the answers, and my mind is somewhat divided. I can’t help but like and admire the guy. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if he’s really who one wants to run one’s country. A few memories help to explain why.

Boris combines brilliance and eccentricity in equal measure, as I witnessed in about 1986 when I stumbled across him one day in the Gladstone Room of the Oxford Union hosting a group of visitors from the Netherlands. Boris was clearly at a loss as to what to do with the Dutch, but on seeing me he summoned me over and launched into a hymn of praise to Eton’s founder, King Henry VI:

Rex Henricus, sis amicus

Nobis in angustia;

Cujus prece, nos a nece,

Salvemur in perpetua.

Continue reading Floreat gens togata!