Tag Archives: United States

More Bad Journalism on Russia

Having said in my last post that you shouldn’t disbelieve everything that the press tells you about Russia, I find myself returning once again to examples of bad reporting, as these seem to be rather more prevalent than the good variety. Bad journalism, though, is not all the same. It takes different forms, and some examples from this week and last prove the point.

First off is report by the BBC’s Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg that came out yesterday, which you can watch on the BBC website. Rosenberg travelled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk supposedly to find answers to the question ‘In what direction is Russia heading?’, Krasnoyarsk being chosen because it’s geographically more or less slap bang in the middle of Russia.

As I note in an analysis of the report published today by RT (which you can read here), it’s not very good. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres to Krasnoyarsk, Rosenberg tells us absolutely nothing about the city itself, but limits himself to interviewing three people who tell him a bunch of things he could just as easily have heard if he’d stayed in Moscow. The whole piece is then framed, start and finish, by a statement that “Russia is heading towards a big catastrophe.” Ah yes, Russia is doomed! How many times have we heard that one?

Frankly, I can’t imagine why Rosenberg bothered going to Krasnoyarsk to do this. Having travelled that far, he could have made an effort to explore the city and tell us how things are there. But none of it. It was just another excuse to tell us that Russia is going down the plughole.

This then is one type of bad reporting: it consists of focusing on selling a given narrative rather than trying to understand and explain the object under study.

This type isn’t untrue, it’s just not very interested in anything that doesn’t fit the chosen story. The second type, by contrast, bends the truth to fit the narrative.

Continue reading More Bad Journalism on Russia

Stuck in a Cul-De-Sac, With No Way Out. Half-Speed Ahead.

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the chaos that is American policy towards Russia. First, US president Joe Biden phones Vladimir Putin and suggests that they normalize relations and hold a summit. Then he slaps a bunch of new sanctions on Russia and expels 10 Russian diplomats. Meanwhile, in other news, 2 US warships headed towards the Black Sea, and then turned around and said that they weren’t going to go the Black Sea after all. In other words, a picture of total foreign policy confusion.

To my mind, the phone call and summit offer were something of a blip in American policy, brought upon by a sense of alarm at the possibility of war between Russia and Ukraine. This induced the Americans to try and row back a bit. The problem is that the current in the other direction is just too strong, and so they ended up even further downstream than before.

In any case, I’m not sure that the Americans actually know how to change directions. Take a look at their policies towards Cuba and Iran – they’ve been sanctioning them for decades. It hasn’t made those countries more friendly, but they keep on at it. The policy is a complete dead end, but it’s like America is a massive 18-wheeler that has entered a narrow cul-de-sac and just doesn’t have the maneuverability to get out again. All it can do is keep trying to ram through whatever is blocking the way out, smashing itself (and the obstacle) up in the process, but not getting anywhere.

By now, you’d have thought that they’d have learnt not to keep driving into cul-de-sacs. But, for some reason they keep on doing it (Venezuela is another one). It seems like there’s no learning process.

Other than backing out, the18-wheeler has only chance to escape – when it first enters the cul-de-sac, and still has forward momentum. That’s the moment when the driver needs to step on the gas and smash through the obstacle. After that, occasional little shoves from a standing start won’t do the trick, especially if somebody is busily strengthening the obstacle all the time.

It’s the same with sanctions. Academic studies suggest that if they are to succeed in coercing the targeted party, they need to be fairly comprehensive and immediate – that’s to say, you need to do a lot and do it all at once. Gradual incrementalism is doomed to failure. The target adapts and is often one step ahead, limiting his vulnerability long before you hit him.

So it is with American sanctions against Russia. The latest round will have very limited practical effect. But bit by bit, the sanctions are having the effect of cutting Russia off from America. As that happens, America loses whatever leverage it had at the start. That in turn means that each successive round of sanctions has less prospects of causing real damage than the last.

In short, it’s a dead-end, and no amount of effort to bash through the obstacle is going to work. Sooner or later, the 18-wheeler will have to back out. Judging by past experience, later is more likely than sooner. The danger is that it may be so late that by then the vehicle will have fallen entirely apart. At that point, its only hope will be that a nice new Chinese tow-truck comes along and rescues it.

Military Industrial Boondoggle

Today in my defence policy course my students and I shall be spending some time discussing defence procurement. As luck would have it, as I was munching on my morning bread and marmalade, a highly relevant article swan into view in the op-ed page of my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, after which I then discovered a new US report on a similar topic.

The Citizen article concerns Canada’s shockingly badly managed naval shipbuilding program. Written by a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Defence, Alan Williams, the article declares that ‘Canada’s Warship Program is Sinking Fast.’ In this Williams reports that Canada’s plan to build 15 new surface combatants originally had

an estimated cost of $26 billion, with deliveries to begin in the early 2020s. Today, the forecasted costs to build these ships is far beyond that. Deliveries are to start in the early 2030s, a decade later than scheduled … [The Parliamentary Budget Office] estimates that it will cost $77.3 billion … to maintain these ships over their expected total life-cycle would amount to an additional $208 billion, for a total life-cycle cost of $286 billion. In comparison, the funds available in DND’s [Department of National Defence] budget over the next 30 years to acquire and maintain its capital goods for the army, navy and air force combined is only $240 billion. This program alone would bankrupt the department’s capital and maintenance accounts for the next 30 years.

Despite this, DND insists that, ‘It will neither entertain a new design nor undertake a new procurement process.’ Williams adds that the United States is building very similar ships for about one-third of the price of the Canadian ones, and also that DND rejected an offer by the Italian company Fincantieri to build the ships in Canada ‘at a fixed cost of $30 billion’, less than half what DND is now paying. ‘As currently planned, these ships will likely never be built. They are simply unaffordable,’ concludes Williams.

But could the government cancel such a project after throwing so much money at it? That’s where the US report comes in. Published by the American Enterprise Institute, and entitled The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch, the report mentions how the shift in priorities during the War on Terror led the USA to cancel a whole series of projects originally designed for fighting wars of a different type. You can see the details in this chart, showing cancelled projects from 2002 to 2012 alone.

Continue reading Military Industrial Boondoggle

Russia Stories Rolling Up Like London Buses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

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

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

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

Continue reading Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Imperial Waste

Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.

A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.

It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.

The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.

Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.

So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.

Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.

Continue reading Imperial Waste

The Limited Political Value of Cultural Exchanges

In my latest article for RT, I tackle the issue of cultural exchanges. Various commentators have urged the US and European governments to make it easier for Russians to come and study there. The idea is that they will then go back and be all pro-USA and want to turn Russia into a pro-American liberal democracy. In response, I argue that cultural exchanges are a good in and of themselves, but it’s a mistake to think that they are of much value, if any, as a geopolitical tool. That’s just not how things work.

You can read the argument in full here.

Michael McFaul’s Counterproductive policy proposals

War, said the great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, is an “interaction.” It is “not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass, but always the collision of two living forces.” One might say the same thing about international politics. Whatever you do always involves others, who have a will of their own and who act in ways which impede the fulfilment of your plans.  

The good strategist doesn’t assume that others will simply comply with his demands. Rather he considers their likely response, and if it is probable that they will respond in a way that harms his own interests, he jettisons his plan and looks for another.

Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump in the recent US presidential election has led to a slew of articles suggesting the policies that the new administration should pursue towards Russia. All too often, instead of considering how Russia will respond, they treat it as a “lifeless mass” which can pushed in the desired direction by pressing the correct buttons. Experience, however, suggests that this is not the case, and the Russian reaction to the proposed policies is not likely to be what the United States desires.

An example is an article by the former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, published this week in the magazine Foreign Affairs. Full of suggestions for ramping up the pressure on Russia, it fails to take into consideration how Moscow is likely to respond to such pressure. Consequently, it ends up proposing a line that if put into practice would probably be entirely counterproductive.

McFaul accuses Russian president Vladimir Putin of leading an “assault on democracy, liberalism, and multilateral institutions,” with the objective of “the destruction” of the international order. From this McFaul concludes that the United States “must deter and contain Putin’s Russia for the long haul.” He then makes several suggestions as to what this policy should involve.

First, he suggests that NATO build up its armed forces on Russia’s border, “especially on its vulnerable southern flank”. Why precisely this is “vulnerable” McFaul doesn’t say, but he does tell us that NATO “needs new weapons systems, including frigates with antisubmarine technologies, nuclear and conventionally powered submarines, and patrol aircraft.”

Second, he argues that America must increase its support to Ukraine. “A successful, democratic Ukraine will inspire new democratic possibilities in Russia,” he says, as if a “successful, democratic Ukraine” is something that can simply be wished into existence. But McFaul wants to do more than just help Ukraine; he also wants to punish Russia. “As long as Putin continues to occupy Ukrainian territory, sanctions should continue to ratchet up,” he says.

Third, McFaul wants the US to get more deeply involved in other countries on Russia’s borders. “Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Uzbekistan all deserve diplomatic upgrades,” he suggests. He also recommends that Joe Biden, “should meet with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya”.

Fourth, McFaul wishes to venture into the world of censorship. America and other Western democracies, “should develop a common set of laws and protocols for regulating Russian government controlled-media,” he says. To this end, he argues that Biden should get social media to “downgrade the information Russia distributes through its propaganda channels.” If a search engine produces a link to RT, “a BBC story should pop up next to it,” he says.

Finally, McFaul says that the United States should bypass the Russian government to forge contacts with the Russian people, so as to “undermine Putin’s anti-American propaganda.” The USA should also train Russian journalists as part of an effort to “support independent journalism and anticorruption efforts in Russia.”

Strategy, as Clausewitz, pointed out, is about using tactics to achieve the political aim. But it is almost impossible to see how the tactics McFaul proposes could help the United States achieve any useful objective. The simple reason is that Russia is hardly likely to react to them in a positive fashion.

Let us look at them from a Russian point of view. How will the Russian government see them?

Sanctions are to “ratchet up” in perpetuity (as they must if they are connected to Russia’s possession of Crimea, which no Russian government will ever surrender); NATO will deploy more and more forces on Russia’s frontier; America will interfere ever more in Russian internal affairs, building up what will undoubtedly be considered a “fifth column” of US-trained journalists and opposition activists; the USA will intensify efforts to detach Russia from its allies and build up a ring up of hostile states around it; and finally, America will launch an all-out information warfare to bend the international media to its will.

What does McFaul imagine Russia will do when it sees all this? Put up its hands and surrender? If he does, then it’s clear that in a lifetime studying Russia, he’s managed to learn nothing.

In reality, the response would probably be not at all to his liking. The growing sense of external and internal threat would lead to an increase in repressive measures at home, undermining the very democracy and liberty McFaul claims to be supporting. In addition, we would most probably see Russia increasing its own military forces on its national frontiers; doubling down on its support for the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine; and pressing further with its own activities in the information domain.

In short, the Russian response would involve Russia doing all the things that McFaul dislikes, but even more so. It is hard to see how his strategy could be deemed to be a sensible one.

If it was just McFaul, it would probably not matter too much. But he is far from the only person saying these things. The general theme among supporters of the new Biden administration is that Trump was too soft on Russia, and that America needs to take a more robust line. This does not bode well for the next few years.

“Know your enemy and know yourself,” said another great strategist, Sun Tzu. Unfortunately, Americans seem to have forgotten this advice. They would do well to heed it.

Silencing Putin’s enemies

Andrei Illarionov, once Vladimir Putin’s economic advisor, but later a devoted oppositionist, has become the latest victim of ‘cancel culture’, being forced out of his position at the Cato Institute in Washington DC. Read my piece about it here, on RT, as I discuss the irony of Putin’s enemies being ‘silenced’ in the United States.

Fascist Blindness

Yale historian Timothy Snyder was out banging the fascist drum again this weekend in The New York Times. In the aftermath of the Washington riot by America’s version of the old Russian Black Hundreds, Snyder warns of Donald Trump’s ‘pre-fascism’. This builds on his previous work, which portrays Trump as tool of the not pre- but very genuinely ‘fascist’ Valdimir Putin.

As well as his job at Yale, Snyder has a position as a Permanent Fellow at the Vienna-based Institut fur die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM – Institute for Human Sciences, in English). In November he gave an interview to the IWM for its online publication Eurozine, in which he again evoked the spectre of American fascism, saying that, ‘I think it’s impossible to talk sensibly about Mr. Trump without invoking the history of fascism.’

Snyder, therefore, has no problem in seeing fascists. Except, of course, in Ukraine, where fascists are an invention of Russian propaganda designed to delegitimize the glorious and democratic ‘Revolution of Dignity’. Which makes the following rather interesting.

One of the IWM’s ‘focal points’ is what it calls ‘Ukraine in European Dialogue’, as part of which it has an annual competition to appoint Ukraine in European Dialogue Fellows. Today the IWM issued the following Tweet:

The jury of the Ukraine in European Dialogue fellowship has been requested by the IWM Collegium to reconsider the award of a fellowship to Olena Semenyaka. We take the information recently brought to our attention very seriously and will issue an official statement tomorrow.

And then four hours later:

Following a decision by the program jury, the IWM revokes Semenyaka’s fellowship with immediate effect. We sincerely apologize for the inexcusable misjudgment, especially to the Ukrainian research community, & will take further steps to prevent a similar incident in the future

So, who is this Olena Semenyaka? Well, she is allegedly the one on the left in this picture holding the Nazi flag and doing the Hitler salute.

If you want to know more about Ms Semenyaka, I would recommend an article published in October by George Washington University’s Illiberalism Studies Program, entitled ‘Olena Semenyaka: The “First Lady” of Ukrainian Nationalism’. It’s about the first thing which pops up if you Google her name, which makes the IWM’s decision to appoint her as a fellow all the more bizarre. Did they not check her out first? Or did they just not care until somebody found out?

According to the GWU article, ‘Olena Semenyaka is the female figurehead of the Azov movement’. A former disciple of Alexander Dugin, she broke ties with him following the Maidan revolution and joined the Right Sector before switching to Azov. She has since become a prominent proponent of the Intermarium – a sort of Eastern European Union stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, rather along the lines of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. To this end, she has established links with far right groups across Europe.

Philosophically, Semenyaka draws on the likes of Ernst Junger, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Alain de Benoist, ‘collaborationist writer, Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle’, Julius Evola, and Charles Maurras. On top of this, she’s a big fan of Black Metal music, which she calls an ‘Aryan Luciferianism’. She is ‘close to the neo-pagans and Esoteric Nazis of Wotan Jugend, led by Russian Alexey Levkin, vocalist in the Militant Black Metal band M8L8TH,’ and played ‘an active role in the organization of the “Asgardsrei” Black Metal festival and the “Pact of Steel” Conference.’

If we looking for a fascist, who’s going to be first on our list? Donald Trump or Olena Semenyaka? The answer is pretty damn obvious. So why are people so quick to shout ‘fascist’ in the case of Trump but completely blind to it when it comes to Ukraine?

Take another example – Ottawa-based Twitter commentator Michael McKay, who touts a PhD from the London School of Economics and declares himself a ‘veteran of Ukraine democratic and civil society renaissance.’ Over the past few days, Mr McKay has been keen to portray the riot in Washington as the work of the Kremlin. ‘Not defeating Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Donbas led to Russia falsifying the U.S. election and putting Putin puppet Trump in the White House. Not removing Trump as Ukrainians removed Yanukovych led to the insurrection and attack on the Capitol,’ McKay Tweeted over the weekend.

To this McKay added evidence that Russia was behind the ‘insurrection’ in Washington. Posting pictures of Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Dubynin first with soldiers during the battle for Donetsk airport in 2014 and then with protestors at the Capitol last week, Mckay commented:

A tie-in between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the insurrection in the United States. Serhiy Dybynyn is an infowarrior for Inter TV, nominally owned by fugitive oligarch Firtash but beneficially owned by Putin pal Medvedchuk. Donetsk airport was destroyed by RU forces.

Suspicious, huh? Except, as Bryan MacDonald has pointed out, Dubynin is actually ‘a Ukraine supporting Neo-Nazi who is wanted on criminal charges in the “pro-Russian” Donbas region of East Ukraine.’

Outside of a particular time period (1920s to 1940s), I don’t think that the term ‘fascism’ has a lot of meaning. But I find it odd that those who do like to use the word somehow fail to see it when it’s staring them in the face. Odd, but not inexplicable. It’s probably no coincidence that the IWM somehow failed to investigate Ms Semenyaka’s political beliefs, or that Dr McKay misidentified Mr Dubynin. The term ‘fascist’ is far too easily abused. It’s out there, but not where many people would like you to think it is. Caveat lector.