Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Reporting on Russia – A Case of Rigid Orthodoxy

What a week it’s been! 80 days or so since we were told that Russia was about to invade Ukraine, it has yet to march its troops across the border. But the state of tension continues to rise, driven, it must be said, not by Russian officials, who have stated repeatedly that there are no invasion plans, but by those of Western states along with their enablers in the press.

Today, for instance, The Guardian’s Sunday edition, The Observer, was banging the anti-Russian drum as loud as possible with the thoroughly misleading headline “Russian ships, tanks and troops on the move to Ukraine as peace talks stall.”

Note the phrase “to Ukraine,” suggesting that Russian soldiers are actually heading across the frontier. The article itself is a little different from the headline saying merely that “Russia has sent troops more than 4,000 miles to Ukraine’s borders and announced sweeping naval drills,” which is not exactly the same as sending troops “to Ukraine.” But even this more moderate statement turns out to be not really accurate. For as The Observer goes on to tell us, the naval activity involves ships heading to the Mediterranean, while the ground forces “have arrived in Belarus … for joint military exercises set for mid-February.”

Maybe I’m being overly pedantic but the Mediterranean isn’t Ukraine and neither is Belarus. Besides, if the troops are going to be engaged in exercises in mid-February, they’re probably not going to be invading Ukraine in the meantime. The facts don’t back up the scaremongering.

Nevertheless, the Brits are sure that those evil Russkies are up to no good. For they’re not just planning to invade, they’re also plotting a coup in Ukraine – or at least so British intelligence would have us believe. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Moscow may topple the [Ukrainian] government and install Yevhen Murayev, a former MP who controls a pro-Russia television station.”

It’s time people retired this “pro-Russian” label for every Ukrainian politician who happens to disagree with the Ukrainian nationalist agenda. As Murayev told The Guardian, “You’ve made my evening. The British Foreign Office seems confused. It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated.” Murayev is not only not “pro-Russian” and not much liked by the Russian government, but his Opposition Bloc party is so unpopular that it failed to get the 5% of the vote required to get seats in parliament in the last Ukrainian election. A more improbable candidate for coup leader it would be hard to find.

Besides which, one has to wonder how this proposed coup would work. First, the plotters would have to amass sufficient firepower to seize control and then they’d have to defend themselves against the inevitable counter-coup. It beggars belief, given the current state of affairs in Ukraine, that a “pro-Russian” force could do this.

That doesn’t mean that some people in Russia might not be muttering into their beer glasses that a coup in Kiev would be jolly good thing. And it doesn’t mean that Russian intelligence isn’t doing all it can to recruit spies and supporters within Ukraine. But a coup is not a serious prospect. Again, it’s pure scaremongering.

The problem with all this is that the stories of invasion, coups, and so on generate a lot of headlines, raising international tensions along the way, but when they then fail to occur, the headlines are absent. “Russia fails to invade Ukraine again,” isn’t exactly clickbait.

Much the same applies to all the other conspiracy theories concerning Russia – lots of noise when the initial accusations are made, and then more or less silence when it turns out that the theory isn’t true. And certainly, the conspiracy theorists are never held to account for misleading everybody.

Take, for instance, the case of Havana Syndrome, which I cover in an article this weekend for RT (here). For some time now, we’ve been led to believe that the mysterious health problems experienced by scores of American diplomats around the world are the product of Russian microwave weapons that have been frying their brains. But now the US media reports that, according to sources in the CIA, “The idea that widespread brain injury symptoms have been caused by Russia or another foreign power targeting Americans around the world, either to harm them or to collect intelligence, has been deemed unfounded.”

Will all those who spread the story about Russian microwave weapons now repent? I doubt it. Careers rarely suffer from falsely exaggerating the scale of the Russian threat (or indeed any other alleged threat to Western security from actors deemed for some reason to be malign). By contrast, challenging the prevailing narrative that Russia is a deadly and immediate threat to our safety is a career-killer.

If you have any doubts, observe the fate of the head of the German navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, who had to resign (involuntarily, one imagines) after having had the temerity to tell a conference in India the obvious truth that Ukraine had lost Crimea for good. In my opinion, anybody who thinks otherwise is utterly deluded, but God forbid that this truth be said out loud.

Schoenbach dug himself deeper into a hole by saying that Russia sought “respect” and it would be to the West’s benefit to give it what it wanted. One can agree or disagree with this, as one wishes, but the idea is hardly a radical one, and it is surely important that military policy be drawn up in an atmosphere in which different hypotheses are carefully considered and not dismissed without consideration as beyond the pale. Rigid orthodoxy is not conducive to sensible decision-making. Unfortunately, it seems that rigid orthodoxy is now a requirement for senior office.

In fact, this goes far beyond senior officials. As the other stories mentioned in this post illustrate, in much of the West a very narrow orthodoxy has set in regarding all things Russian. Those who challenge it, are dismissed, sidetracked, or blackened as agents of “Russian propaganda.” An example of the last of these comes in a report published last week by the US State Department that seeks to expose “Russian disinformation and propaganda,” and in the process engages in some definite disinformation of its own. But that’s something for another post later this week. It’s a rather disgraceful story, but then again, given everything else, hardly surprising.

Spooks, Russia, and Disinformation

Jeremy Morris has an interesting post on his Postsocialism blog about the malicious role played by Western intelligence services in shaping narratives of Russia. I’m somewhat sceptical about his thesis – or at least the extent of the phenomenon he describes – but as if by chance, today I also came across a story that kind of backs him up.

Morris complains of two “elephants in the room,” who together distort our understanding of Russia. The first is the “clear leveraging of latent public sympathy abroad for the Russian regime by our friends at the English-language offices of RT.” I guess that would be me.

The second is “academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.” Given my former involvement in the intelligence world, and the fact that I’ve taught courses at the University of Ottawa with members of the Canadian security and intelligence services, I guess that would be me too.

Double elephant!

I imagine that Morris thinks that elephant number one distorts things in favour of Russia, and elephant number two distorts them against. That must make me some sort of push-me-pull-you doing both at once. Perhaps that explains why I always end up occupying the middle ground!

Anyway, I digress, because this isn’t meant to be about me. Back to the point.

“If you underestimate the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia – from both elephants, then you are guilty of the ‘fallacy of insufficient cynicism’,” writes Morris. I must confess myself guilty as charged. I can be pretty cynical, but I don’t think that everybody has “hidden motives.” People who write what one might call “pro-Russian” articles for RT aren’t doing it for the money or because the FSB has got some dirt on them any more than people writing Russophobic stuff for think tanks are doing it because they’re taking orders from the FBI, MI5, or CSIS. People tend to believe what they’re doing.

In any case, I worry less about spooks and more about the military industrial complex and its funding of think tanks and the like, all of which work together to inflate threats, keep us in a state of fear, and justify increased defence spending and aggressive foreign policies. But even there, the think tankers etc believe in what they’re doing. The problem is that believers get funded whereas non-believers don’t. I don’t think “hidden motives” are the issue.

That said, Morris has a point, in that security and intelligence services do maintain contacts with chosen favourites and feed them information that they hope will further their chosen narrative. The story I came across today illustrates how this works quite well.

A while back, I mentioned a law case in the UK involving Guardian journalist Carol Cadwalladr and British businessman Arron Banks. Banks is suing Cadwalladr for libel for having claimed that the Russian government offered him money for use in the Brexit referendum campaign, and that he lied about his relationship with the Russians. The case is now before the court, and Cadwalladr’s defence is becoming clear.

The Guardian journalist isn’t claiming that what she said about Banks was true, merely that given the evidence she had at the time she had good reason to believe that it was in the public interest for her to report it. So what was this evidence, and where did she get it from? This is where it becomes interesting. For as the Guardian reports,

In her written evidence statement, she [Cadwalladr] said she had obtained two intelligence files from an organisation contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation in Europe on behalf of a government agency, one file of which raised concerns about Banks’s Russian wife.

In other words, British intelligence fed the information to her via another source.

The accusation that Banks took Russian money to fund Brexit received widespread coverage. It was even repeated in a parliamentary report. Yet no evidence to support the claim has ever been produced, and as we have seen, Cadwalladr isn’t trying to say that it was true. In short, it was disinformation. And yet, what prompted it was in part documents leaked by British intelligence to a third party “contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation” and then in turn given by that organization to Ms Cadwalladr.

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit iffy?

In the first place, the story reinforces what I have said several times before, namely that the “disinformation industry” set up to “counter Russian disinformation” is itself a major source of disinformation. And second, it reveals an excessively cosy relationship between the media – supposedly an independent guardian of the truth that holds the state to account – and state organizations, including secret intelligence.

Personally, I find it more than a little disturbing.

Maybe Mr Morris is right after all!

If the Russians were in Scotland …

George:   The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-building.

Blackadder: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.

George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. [Aside, to Baldrick] Mad as a bicycle!

I’ve mentioned before that two of the major problems in international relations are state leaders’ lack of self-awareness and lack of strategic empathy. Given their imperial history, as well as their awful recent history of invading, destabilizing, and generally messing up foreign countries, you might imagine that the Brits would have learnt to avoid these pitfalls and developed a bit of humility as well as some understanding that others might not view them positively. But it appears not. No matter how they (or should I say ‘we’, since I have a British passport) screw things up, they/we still think that they/we are on the side of the angels whereas others are the devil incarnate, and that all the world needs is a bit more Britain.

If you doubted this, I suggest you take a look at a new article published this week by the British Defence Secretary, who goes by the good Scottish name of Ben Cameron Wallace. The bulk of the article – which appears on the UK government website – is an attack on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s historical essay on Russian-Ukrainian relations, which argued that Russians and Ukrainians were in essence one people, or at least very closely related peoples. Given that Putin wrote his piece some months ago, it might seem a little strange that Wallace would suddenly decide to respond. But his reply coincides with a decision by the British government to send additional weapons to Ukraine. It’s clearly therefore designed to provide some sort of moral justification for that move.

Wallace starts out by saying that Russia’s belief that it is threatened by NATO is a ‘straw man’. Why? Because – and you’ve heard this before – ‘NATO, to its core, is defensive in nature. … It is a truly defensive alliance.’

Really?

How was NATO defending itself in Yugoslavia? Or in Libya? Or even in Afghanistan, for that matter? The idea that NATO is ‘to its core, defensive’ is, of course, ridiculous. At the very least, as I noted in a recent post, even if NATO is in some objective way defensive, others have very good subjective reasons for viewing it differently.

Not only has NATO attacked countries that posed no threat to it, but so too have NATO members acting outside the alliance. The UK itself is a prime example. After invading Iraq in 2003, the cheek of British politicians portraying their country as ‘defensive’ and others as ‘aggressive’ is quite something.

But all that is fairly obvious and has been said time and time again. For whatever reason, the Brits don’t want to acknowledge their own aggressive behaviour or how it might look to others. I guess it would make them feel bad. So let’s put it aside for now, and continue on with what Mr Wallace has to say about Putin’s essay on Ukraine, for that’s what constitutes the bulk of his article.

Now, to be fair to Wallace, I wasn’t a huge fan of Putin’s piece myself. All this ‘brotherly nations’ stuff, based on distant historical ties when modern nations as such didn’t exist, strikes me as rather dubious. Still, there are some things about Wallace’s analysis that are worthy of note.

First, he accuses Putin of ‘ethnonationalism’ saying that in his article the Russian president ‘puts ethnonationalism at the heart of his ambitions’ in order to achieve ‘the subjugation of Ukraine and at worse the forced unification of that sovereign country.’

Obviously, Wallace hasn’t read a lot of Putin. If he had, he’d be aware that the Russian leader has regularly denounced ethnonationalism and called for a Russian state which respects the multiplicity of ethnicities and religious that make up its population. Putin’s nationalism is a state nationalism, i.e. it’s founded on loyalty to the Russian (Rossiiskii not Russkii) state. Wallace is a bit out of his depth, I think.

Second, and this is where I think it gets interesting , the British Defence Secretary comments that ‘Ukraine has been separate from Russia for far longer in its history than it was ever united.’ This is just bad history. For what do you mean by ‘Ukraine’? If you mean the lands that now make up Ukraine, then Wallace is right. But if you mean Ukraine as a nation, then he’s wrong, since Ukraine, like most nations, is a fairly modern construct. There was no ‘Ukraine’ until recently. In fact, there was no independent Ukraine until 1918, and then only for a few months. And there was no Ukraine with its current borders until 1945.

But – and now I’m getting to my point – one would be telling the truth if one noted that ‘Scotland has been separate from England for far longer in its history than it was ever united’. The Kings of Scotland date back to the ninth century, giving the country some 800 years of independent existence compared to 300 years of unity with England.

Why do I say this? Because Wallace is not only a Scot, but a former Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, ‘Unionist’ being the word in point. Wallace views England and Scotland as one. He’s a fierce opponent of Scottish separatism. Speaking in the House of Commons, he once denounced a member of the Scottish National Party by saying, ‘The honourable lady is making a brilliant argument for why we don’t want to put borders between countries.’

Wallace and his fellow Tories should have thought of that before backing Brexit, of course. But that’s not why I bring it up. The point is that Wallace doesn’t think that it’s a good thing to split up peoples that have long lived together – at least where Britain is concerned. You’d think, therefore, that he’d have a bit more empathy towards Russians (and Ukrainians) who feel that efforts to further divide Russia and Ukraine are to be regretted. In short, you’d think he have a bit of understanding of Putin’s position. But it seems that what applies to us doesn’t apply to you.

Let’s take this a bit further. Imagine that Scotland became independent. And imagine that it then asked to join the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and that it invited Russia to deploy military forces on its soil. And imagine that the prospect arose of Scotland becoming a base for Russian missiles capable of reaching London in five minutes. What do you think Wallace’s reaction would be then?

He’d be leaping up and down with fury! He’d be demanding action. He’d be screaming about Russian aggression (as he does already, in fact, even though there are no Russian troops within 1,500 kilometres of London). That’s what he’d be doing. In short, he’d be doing everything that Putin’s doing, and maybe even then some.

As I said, a lack of self-awareness and strategic empathy. Britain needs better than this.

Brits in Crimea: Scared of looking scared

It’s said that, when asked why he had escalated America’s military campaign in Vietnam, US president Lyndon Johnson pulled down his trousers, whipped out his male member, and said “That’s why!’

I have no idea if this is true, but it’s quite plausible. For LBJ, Vietnam was nothing if not a test of manhood. As he told his biographer Doris Kearns: “If I left that way and let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward … an unmanly man, a man without spine.”

It’s perhaps too harsh to say that 58,000 Americans died so that LBJ could feel like a man. But there’s something to it. And as I detailed in my 2006 book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, LBJ is hardly unique. Throughout the ages, war – like international politics generally – has been powerfully influenced by the search for honour, and perhaps even more by the desire to avoid dishonour.

One you realize this, a lot of international politics suddenly makes sense. Modern Westerners tend to be a bit uncomfortable with the language of honour. It sounds a bit archaic. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant – just that we’re not very good at recognizing it in ourselves. A case in point is the incident last week when a British warship sailed through what Russia claims are its territorial waters off Crimea. But before we get onto that, we first need to take a little diversion into academic theory.

Honour, as Aristotle put it, is “the reward for virtue.” What virtue consists of is something we’ll come onto in a moment, but the key point is that honour comes from displaying virtue. Honour also comes in two forms – external and internal, otherwise expressed by words such as prestige, reputation, face, etc. in the first instance, or like conscience and integrity in the second. Seen this way, honour is, according to a well-known definition, the worth of a person in his/her own eyes as well as the worth of a person in the eyes of others. Either way, it’s a measurement of worth. But of the two forms (internal and external) the first is the most important – the reason one wants to be considered worthy in the eyes of others is because it makes you feel worthy in your own eyes. Ultimately, honour is all about feeling good about yourself.

Another way of looking at honour is to divide it into two other types. The first is absolute, and is often associated with female honour. This type you either have or you don’t – you’re pure, and so honourable, until you aren’t and you’re not. The second type is relative and competitive – or “agonistic” in the technical jargon. This type is traditionally associated with male virtues – strength, courage, prowess, and so on. Honour of this type has to be perpetually defended, lest one loses one’s relative position. It requires one both to challenge others and to defend oneself any time one is challenged.

This latter type of honour tends to flourish where governance is weak, and people or institutions feel that they need to exert themselves in order to survive. This gives it an instrumental purpose. But it also tends to get detached from this purpose. Strength, courage, prowess etc are considered important in the sense of being necessary to defend against threats. Because of that, societies tend to promote them as virtues, rewarding their display. The result is that people internalize them and feel a need to display these virtues even when it’s not appropriate. Because virtue and worth have become associated with strength, courage, prowess etc, showing strength, courage, prowess, etc becomes almost an end in itself – or at least, a psychological necessity to avoid the sense of shame that comes from failing to live up to the standard of virtue.

The result is a lot of utterly unnecessary conflict, as individuals, including state leaders, feel the need to challenge one another and respond forcibly to anything that is perceived to be a challenge.

Which brings us on to the shenanigans of the Royal Navy last week off the coast of Crimea.

In a recent post, I speculated as to what inspired this particular piece of foolish derring-do. Now we have an answer, courtesy of some waterlogged Ministry of Defence documents found abandoned behind a bus stop in Kent. In these, anonymous defence officials predicted that the Russian response to a British incursion into Crimean waters might be fairly forceful. But they also concluded that this was no reason not to direct the British warship HMS Defender to sail through the waters in question. Were that to happen, said the documents, people might get the impression of “the UK being scared/running away.”

At which point, I hope, the connection with what I said earlier becomes clear. One might imagine that the Russian-British spat was a matter of high principle or national interest. In reality, it’s about not wanting to look cowardly.

In effect, the Russian annexation of Crimea was a “challenge” to the West. As such, the logic of honour requires a response. Failing to face up to the challenge by sailing around Crimea would have meant ducking the challenge, and as such was unacceptable. The fact that the Russians might respond forcefully made meeting the challenge even more essential. If there was no chance of a forceful response, there wouldn’t be any cowardice in failing to meet it. It was precisely the possibility that things might turn violent that made the escapade necessary.

This seems strange, but the logic is entirely in keeping with the perverse incentives provided by the honour code. The possibility that an incident might escalate into war isn’t a reason to back off; it’s actually all the more reason to press on.

The thing about this, though, is that the challenge in question was purely imaginary. It existed in the minds of the Royal Navy, but not anywhere else. People weren’t actually going to think that the British were a bunch of cowards if they decided to sail from Odessa to Georgia by some other route. In fact, nobody would have noticed, let alone cared.

Thus, going back to what I said earlier, the internal aspect of honour is what matters here – it’s all about self-perception rather than the perception of others. What’s driving this is a feeling in the British establishment that their status in the world isn’t what it was. The sense of internal dishonour this provokes makes them feel bad about themselves. And so they incite a conflict in order to boost their self-esteem.

If you have a spare hour, I recommend Bill Moyer’s documentary LBJ’s Road to War. A lot of it consists of recordings of President Johnson’s phone calls with his advisors about Vietnam. What comes out of it is that all concerned knew that escalating the war was a bad idea and wouldn’t succeed. But more important from LBJ’s point of view was that he didn’t want to look weak. And the rest as they say, is history. The lesson is obvious, and its one that the Brits – and everybody else – would do well to learn.

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.