Unfortunately I haven’t had much time to post here due to work(what little I can get) and preparations for my trip to Ukraine. Since I don’t want to leave you empty handed while I work, here’s another brilliant article taking down the recently passed laws in Ukraine regarding Communist symbols and “independence fighters.” I’m hoping that Poroshenko’s hesitation in signing the laws indicates that he’s contemplating a veto. These laws will not win Ukraine’s war; they will not unify the country.
The Interpreter can be a very good resource for reading up on Russia’s ties to the European far-right as well as Ukraine’s less influential but no less persistent far right, updates on the situation in Ukraine, and debunking certain propaganda claims coming from the Russian media. That site has produced a fair number of rather eyebrow-raising, “Wait…What?” moments though. It seems to me most of the problematic material is connected with the writer Paul Goble. As chance would have it, I got a reminder about that today when I ran across an article of his called “Is Putin About To Begin a Third Chechen War To Escape Ukrainian Impasse?” Let me help you out with a short answer, Paul. No, no he is not. Hell no.
Goble is clearly reacting to the recent scandal where Ramzan Kadyrov gave a speech in which he ordered his own Interior Ministry troops to “shoot to kill” in the event that federal authorities attempt to carry out any operations on Chechen territory without his permission. This harsh warning was in response to a recent raid in Grozny executed by law enforcement officials operating out of Stavropol, during which the suspect was fatally shot. In short, this latest outburst comes at a time when the question of just how much power Kadyrov wields is a major topic in Russia and Russia-watching circles.
Clearly in the minds of some, Kadyrov has thrown the gauntlet down at Moscow’s feet, and thus there is reason to expect some kind of backlash. But even if we don’t dispute this opinion, is there any reason to believe that backlash would be a third Chechen war? It seems anyone with even an elementary knowledge of the Chechen wars and Putin’s rise to power should consider this possibility to be ridiculously beyond the pale. But just for the sake of…entertainment…I guess, let us review Goble’s main arguments in favor of this possibility. He proposes that such a war would bring Putin three advantages.
1. Distract the West from his conflict in Ukraine, and portray Russia as a strong all in the fight against Islamic extremism.
2. Help secure Putin’s “patriotic” credentials and thus protect his popularity.
3. Win him support in the Russian security agencies, which definitely have a beef with Kadyrov and the Chechens.
Now before we debunk these three points, we actually have to start with the headline, which refers to Putin using a war in Chechnya to distract from his “Ukrainian impasse.” The problem is that so far, there’s not much of an impasse for Putin in Ukraine. Yes, the sanctions are hurting, yes the economy is reeling and expected to get worse even by members of Russia’s government, and yes, Russia is assuming all the costs of maintaining the separatist territories, but political and psychologically, at least for the time being, this looks like a Russian victory. Minsk II was followed by the crushing of a Ukrainian salient in Debaltseve; the Ukrainian army managed to avoid a catastrophe only by beating a rapid, massive retreat. For the time being, Putin has his frozen conflict and the West has shown very little interest in truly helping the people it cheered on for rising up against Yanukovych. At the very least in the eyes of Putin’s supporters, he’s attained a decisive victory both in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The impasse is not readily apparent and thus there’s little need to start a real, hot war in order to distract people.
Now we move to the first point. Would Putin wage a third Chechen war to distract the West from Ukraine, and to try to portray himself as a fighter against the threat of radical Islam? Putin may be out of touch with reality, but he’s not stupid. For one thing, Western leaders are well aware that Ramzan Kadyrov is no friend to Islamic terrorists. Even if he wanted to go over to their side, they’d probably take his head off at the first available opportunity. Putin suddenly claiming that Kadyrov has become an Islamic fundamentalist, specifically one who might ally with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, would be met with nothing other than a collective Huh?!
On the second point, Putin’s attempt to use such a war to bolster his patriot credentials is just as ridiculous as the first point. On that point Goble invokes the recent use of the term “Russian World.” The only problem is that Chechnya is not seen as part of that world. There are many Russians who would support wars of conquest against the Baltic countries, Belarus, Ukraine, or Kazakhstan for the sake of “protecting” Russian minorities in those countries, but those same Russians won’t be too thrilled about fighting a war to protect Chechens from other, “terrorist” Chechens. Russian nationalists tend to divide into those who wish to see Chechnya discarded entirely, and those who revile Chechnya and the Caucasus but support Russian control in the region if only because they fear that Washington will move in to fill any vacuum left by Moscow.
What is more, Russians are well aware of the role Chechens and other Caucasian groups play in their army. Chechens in particular have played a major role in the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine. In fact, recently a Chechen Spetsnaz team won an international special forces competition held in Jordan. Considering the damage Chechen fighters did to the Russian army based on some experience in the Soviet army, Kadyrov’s better-equipped, better-trained men will give any Russian troops a hot reception in Grozny, and plenty of Russian “patriots” know this. Lastly on this point, one would have to be naive indeed to think that Kadyrov and his own forces have no contingency plan which provides for a defense of his capital and surrounding territory in the event of a punitive campaign from Moscow.
Even when you ignore all the secrecy surrounding the campaign in Ukraine, the truth is that not many Russian soldiers have been killed there. Even if the number became widely known, it doesn’t have the same resonance that the Chechen Wars have with many Russians. Georgians and Ukrainians tried to take Russia in a stand-up fight, in which they were doomed from the start. What is more, no captured Russian soldiers have been beheaded by Ukrainians. The save-the-last-bullet-for-yourself factor is another reason why Russia’s “patriots”, many of whom avoided or will avoid military service, aren’t going to be praising Putin for starting another war in Chechnya.
There are also some other political contradictions which might prove too difficult to smooth over. The Kremlin has had enough trouble getting patriotic Russians to defer to a former Chechen rebel who once allegedly boasted about killing his first Russian at the age of 16. Russians have seen rivers of state money flow into Grozny, turning its center into something that puts many Russian towns and cities to shame. All the while, Kadyrov collects state awards like they were Hummel figurines. As long as Chechnya is peaceful and Kadyrov continues to allow his men to fight “NATO’s legions” in Ukraine, the “patriots” should be able to suppress their rage. If Putin suddenly declares Kadyrov a terrorist, he’s essentially admitting that he was duped out of countless rubles for over 15 years. Not likely.
Strike three for Goble is the idea that Putin would start such a war so as to please people in his inner circle who are part of the all-important state security agencies. Assuming you believe the rumors about the heads of such agencies allegedly lobbying Putin to move against Kadyrov, recent events seem to point to Putin siding with Kadyrov in that conflict. Besides, who’s suggesting that the solution those security heads supposedly want involves arresting or killing Kadyrov, let alone starting a war? Perhaps they’d start by asking him to pressure Kadyrov into giving into their demands. Also, these security heads cannot be ignorant of the role Chechens are playing in the Ukrainian war. Turning against Chechnya would seriously undermine Russian efforts in Ukraine.
When all is said and done, Goble really makes you wonder about these Russia analysts, specifically how much effort they actually put into determining what is really happening in Russia as opposed to skimming the latest news and then churning out Tom Clancy-style theories. I mean that anyone who knows Putin’s Russia knows how far Putin has bent over backwards for 15 years just to keep Chechnya in line. Chechnya was presented as one of his crowning achievements. Now we’re supposed to believe that he’d deliberately screw all that up just because he’s at a dead end in Ukraine? If he were going to gamble on anything it would be another offensive in that country. At least there he’d score some military victories for the cameras before the rest of the world drops the hammer on Russia’s economy and snaps him back to reality.
Then again, my limited experience with Goble tells me that he’s not particularly critical of his sources, so long as they say things that fit his narrative and contradict that of Moscow, or that which he perceives to be from Moscow. If Western leaders are serious about countering Russia’s information war, they had better start by not relying on old guard Russia analysts who are sloppy with the facts and too liberal with their speculation.
Back in March Russia watchers stood agape as St. Petersburg hosted an international conference of neo-fascists and far-right parties. This was not particularly surprising to me, as Russia has hosted such conferences numerous times over the years, and in fact these conferences were once known as the “White World Future” conference. “White World,” by the way, isn’t a reference to countries which experience significant snowfall in the winter. Also not at all surprising to me was the fact that this conference concluded without any hindrance from state investigatory or law enforcement organs, who are often able to find signs of “extremism” in the most innocuous expressions.
What was somewhat surprising to me, however, was how little these European and American Kremlin supporters actually know about the country they have decided is a bastion of traditional values and the last hope for Western civilization. It seems to me as though if you really believed that was the case, you’d voraciously devour anything about Russia, and in particular you’d want to learn the language to aid you in that process. On the other hand, if you’re aim is really just to attend a circle jerk to pretend you’re relevant and maybe patronize an escort service far from the prying eyes of your own country, well then…
Now when I speak about right-wing misconceptions about Russia, I’m usually referring to their laughably naive belief that Russia is a land of “sacred traditional values” where they will find refuge from their sexual insecurities and inadequacies. Anyone who actually lives in Russia, has even a passing level in the language, and actually interacts with ordinary Russians and follows the local news will quickly be disabused of any idiotic beliefs about “family values” in Russia. From the extremely casual attitude of men towards things like adultery, prostitution, and cruising for girls in the age range of 16-17 to women who openly admire gold-digging, see nothing wrong with marriage as an “economic relationship,” and who flock to dance studios offering striptease or pole-dancing courses, Russia isn’t exactly winning awards in the field of traditional conservatism as its generally imagined. Add to that the high rate of STD’s, HIV, teenage pregnancy, abortion, and drug use coupled with often far more brazen expressions of consumerism, and the idealistic moral crusader for conservative values is faced with a tough choice after being confronted with Russian reality. He can either accept that at the very best, Russia is no less “decadent” or “degenerate” as his own terrible, decaying Western country, or he can do what a few long-term right-wing expats have done, i.e. construct a fantasy land, possibly with the help of mass quantities of alcohol and self-imposed isolation from most of Russian society.
To be fair, I could also talk about other misconceptions these conservatives have in regards to Russia, such as their misplaced faith in Russia’s economic or military power, or the rather hilarious idea that BRICS is some kind of alliance that is building an “alternative” to the Anglo-American-Zionist-Atlanticist New World Order. But in more recent times I’ve noticed a far more hilarious blind spot among these rightists when it comes to Russian society, and a story appeared yesterday which called this to mind.
In case the reader hasn’t heard, Head of Chechnya, luxury car collector, and avid Instagram user Ramzan Kadyrov recently gave a speech to his own Ministry of Internal Affairs personnel, in which he ordered them to “shoot to kill” any non-Chechen officials engaged in armed operations within the territory of the Chechen Republic.The story created a buzz all day among Russia correspondents and their followers, but if you’re not too familiar with the relationship between Russia and Chechnya, let me break it down with an American analogy. Say the FBI wants to raid a drug operation in your city, but the governor of your state doesn’t approve so he tells his state and perhaps local police to “shoot to kill” any FBI agents carrying out raids within his jurisdiction. If you’re American, you know we had a little dispute over the issue of states vs. the federal government, and you also know it escalated quickly.
The reason why this is so significant is that it is no small secret in Russia that Kadyrov is a special case. Tons of money flows to Grozny, so much so that it boasts an impressive, though supposedly mostly empty business district in its center which puts numerous major Russian cities to shame. Kadyrov himself is a collector of luxury sports cars; he is the owner of one of only twenty Lamborghini Reventóns ever made. In addition to that, he’s a fan of gold-plated pistols, which never fail to remind me of Nicholas Cage’s character Castor Troy from the 90’s action film Face/Off.
Aside from all the money Chechnya receives, Kadyrov is also a collector of Russian state awards. He has eleven different awards, including Hero of the Russian Federation, for a total of twelve. When Putin mysteriously disappeared for almost ten days, Kadyrov received a number of Russian state awards, one of which was handed down by Putin himself. Putin has increasingly deferred to Kadyrov in recent years. His most recent statement ordering his own police forces to shoot Russian federal personnel is only the latest, most brazen example in a country where it recently became illegal to publish calls for more regional autonomy or referendums on independence, i.e. the same thing Russia sponsors in Ukraine.
So what’s all this have to do with European and American right-wingers and their shindig in St. Petersburg? Even a cursory glance at the statements of such people and organizations reveals that among the many things they hate and obsess over, Islam and particularly Muslim immigration are usually at the top of the list, or at least a close second. This is almost always the case with European far right organizations, including some of those who were prominently represented at the conference. These people are constantly putting out propaganda with dubious statistics about how immigration is Islamifying Europe, transforming it into Eurabia, replacing Western values with Sharia law, and so forth. They are quick to jump on any example of violence involving Muslims in Europe and exploit it as a talking point against immigrants. They frequently allege that even though Muslims are still a minority in their respective countries, they wield power far out of proportion to their numbers because cowardly politicians kowtow to them and “political correctness” stifles all criticism. For this reason these right-wingers act as though they are persecuted at home, and by contrast they see Russia as a haven from this horror of Muslim-coddling PC.
Just one little problem- Ramzan Kadyrov is a Muslim. In fact he is, at least outwardly so, a very devout Muslim and a member of a people whose identity is very bound up in their Sufi Islamic tradition. Kadyrov is always making public displays of piety, and these days he is almost never seen without his shirt bearing a crescent and star. What is more, Kadyrov has openly spoken out in favor of honor killings, and recently he answered the West’s unity march in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre with a “million ” Muslim march in Grozny in support of the Prophet Mohammed. On that note, Kadyrov has routinely condemned those who portray or malign the Prophet. It has been said by many that there is no line in Russia that Kadyrov cannot cross, possibly posting pics on Instagram in the process.
Russia’s own far-right has agonized and gritted its collective teeth at the rivers of cash flowing to Grozny while ordinary Russian cities and towns crumble and decay. Not surprising considering that Kadyrov was of course himself an anti-Russian guerrilla fighter at one time, who allegedly once said that he killed his first Russian at the age of 16. Rumors also abound that he was present during the beheading of Russian soldiers during that time when he was part of the resistance. Incidentally, many of the Russian nationalists and nationalist organizations which continue to espouse anti-Chechen views are those which do not enjoy the full sponsorship of the Kremlin, or its protection from prosecution, for that matter. There’s “political correctness gone mad” for you. In the minds of Russia’s independent far right, Putin’s rule is associated with subservience to Kadyrov, which is what brought many nationalists to opposition protests in 2011 and 2012. And while racism and xenophobia are their main motives, their perception about Chechnya’s dominant position in Russia is not inaccurate.
This is what makes it doubly hilarious when foreign right-wing nationalists come to St. Petersburg to lavish praise on Russia as the defender of Western civilization. During one presentation, one Scottish representative showed a slide of Vladimir Putin posing bare-chested for a photo-op, and lovingly gushed about how manly Russia’s president is. No word as to whether that speaker prefaced or concluded his profession of man-love with the magic phrase “No homo,” thus rendering that eyebrow-raising spectacle entirely devoid of any homoerotic connotation whatsoever. What he and his audience didn’t know, or perhaps pretend not to know in the case of Russian attendees, is that bear-riding manly man Putin is, based on well-documented behavior, the lapdog of the very loud and proud Muslim, Ramzan Kadyrov. Scream about political correctness all you want, but the Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor has made it clear several times that depictions of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden under Russian law, a regulation which I’m sure took Kadyrov’s politics into account when it was being formulated. The Great Third Rome, savior of Western civilization, is essentially deferential to Islamic Grozny. How appropriate that Kadyrov clearly drew the inspiration for his cathedral mosque from Ottoman designs. Yep, it’s almost as if comedian Dave Chapelle’s famous sketch about the blind black man who becomes a KKK leader has come to life in a way bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.
And so once again we see how Russia represents itself one way to the outside world, while its internal reality is something totally different. This illusion relies on ignorance to sustain itself- ignorance of the language, ignorance of Russian culture, and lack of experience with ordinary life in the country. This in turn creates a bigger problem, because in order to make worthwhile allies, they have to care about your country. They have to know more about it. If you attract them, they will want to learn more. So what happens when they totally buy into Russia’s propaganda, start learning about Russia, and then ultimately find out that it’s all a sham? Obviously people react to catastrophic disillusionment in different ways, but rarely are they positive, or useful. Essentially, Russia’s using the old bait-and-switch tactic.
This is something people need to keep in mind when hearing panicky diatribes about how Russia is “beating the West” in the “information war.” Russia has a natural disadvantage in this war, in the sense that it is incoherent, it literally cannot build a coherent narrative, and the more people are attracted to her, the more they learn the truth, either rejecting their previous beliefs or going into denial and becoming burnt out- essentially rendered ineffective. It would be far better for people concerned about the effects of Russian propaganda in this respect to examine the causes behind any increase in far-right beliefs in their own countries, and work to right the various social problems or misconceptions that fuel reactionary, populist politics. As for these right-wingers gathering in Russia year after year, it’s really just a source of tragic comedy at this point, as these raging anti-Muslim crusaders rely on the hospitality of the world’s large nation, which is the de facto vassal of a publicly-pious Muslim warlord in Grozny. If only they knew.
I hoped I wouldn’t have to write anything else about Ukraine’s recent anti-free speech, historical revisionist laws, but recently a reader raised a point that is simply too crucial to ignore. Just when I thought I was out…They pull me back in!
Do any of my readers remember the biggest global discussion about free speech this year? You should, because it was one where people died. I am of course referring to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I won’t blame you if it slipped your mind, since it slipped mine too. The war in Ukraine went on even after the signing of Minsk II, wildfires are raging in Siberia (Thanks, Obama!), and in the US of course, unarmed black people continue to be gunned down by police one after another. As for me, I wrote an article about some people’s reactions to the massacre, but the most involvement I ever had was conducting interviews with Russians expressing their condolences in front of the French Embassy in Moscow. In short, we all moved on.
In case the reader forgot, on 11 January 2015, a number of world leaders gathered in Paris for a unity march in support of free speech. Naturally, their photo-op drew a lot of justified criticism about hypocrisy, given some of the leaders who were there or the regimes their governments supported. For example, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was in attendance, and the Turkish government is not known for its stoic defense of freedom of speech or the press, to say the least. In fact the motto of the Turkish Republic is “Sik gazeteciler! Ermeni NE?” (English: Fuck journalists! Armenian WHAT?). Turkish PM Davutoğlu was not only in attendance at the march, but he was also in the front rank of the big photo-op shot. He’s the man with glasses, fourth from the right, do you se- Hey wait a minute! Who’s that man on Davutoğlu’s left?
Well I’ll be damned! That’s Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, standing up for free speech in Paris. That was why he was there, right? So how about it, President Poroshenko? After you stood up for free speech in France, will you proceed to strangle it in your own country? I’d like to remind the Ukrainian president and the reader that one of the reasons Charlie Hebdo was allowed to criticize religion and religious leaders so mercilessly is due to the legacy of France’s ancient anti-blasphemy law, which was abolished in 1791 after the French Revolution. In Ukraine there are those who want to create a new religious dogma, which some among them call a “national idea,” and the laws they support are essentially creating a new crime of blasphemy.
As I said before, it is up to Poroshenko to show whether or not he stands for so-called Western values, or whether he and the rest of the Ukrainian government are still products of the same basic mentality that dominates Moscow. These laws will not strengthen Ukraine; all previous attempts to enforce this revisionist, right-wing “national idea” on Ukraine have done nothing but create division, as well as a pool of willing collaborators for Moscow’s schemes in the region. Ukraine needs freedom and unity, not contrived dogma enforced by law.
So there it is, the last thing I’ll write on the topic of Ukraine’s anti-free speech laws. I hope. Should Poroshenko display massive hypocrisy and approve this law, I suppose I’ll have to organize the first international “Everybody Draw Bandera Day.” Stay tuned.
In yesterday’s post, I addressed the issue of Russian propaganda vs. “Western” propaganda, explaining why they aren’t the same. I realize that my conclusions and arguments might not satisfy some. Obviously I’m not going to pander to every audience out there, but I have a special place in my heart for the person who is a dissident in a Western country and who is ready to listen but still skeptical about appearing to be on the side of “the West.” I get weird feelings when I find myself on the same side of the fence as the US government. But then again if the US government says wearing pants in public is a good idea, I’m not going to start running around outside without the southern necessity.
Today I want to expand on the problem of taking the “anti-hegemony” side when it comes to Ukraine via a thought experiment. I also want to demonstrate why it is that I simply cannot in good conscience side with any Kremlin-supporting outlet or organization, knowing what I know now. The inspiration for the thought experiment came from an encounter I had many years ago, when I was foolish enough to engage in endless debates with 9/11 truthers. By simply questioning their claims, I earned the ire of a whole posse of the conspiracy theorists. One thing I started to notice was that many of these individuals had conflicting narratives of what supposedly happened that day. In spite of these contradictions, they never got into arguments with each other; everyone was unified against me. I started to get this idea that you could believe anything you wanted, as long as it was a conspiracy theory.
At one point, I was getting exasperated so I posed a question to my main opponents. Basically I told them that I gave up, that I was wrong and I was now convinced that 9/11 was an inside job. I just had one problem, though. I decided to believe one particular narrative of the conspiracy, but some of my other opponents had different narratives. For example, some said a remote-controlled plane hit the Pentagon, but others insisted it was a cruise missile and not a plane. Obviously I couldn’t believe both. So I wondered aloud as to what I should do when confronted with someone saying the towers were brought down by unmarked military planes replacing the airliners, holographic projections of planes in conjunction with “micro-nukes,” missile hitting the Pentagon vs. remote controlled airliner hitting it, etc. Wouldn’t you know, I never got an answer. They continued to attack me, accusing me of working for numerous intelligence agencies.
The question remains. What would I do if someone convinced me of their particular 9/11 conspiracy theory, and then I confronted someone with another theory which included things which conflicted with my narrative? Do I demand evidence from Mr. No-planer? I don’t really have any real evidence of the remote controlled planes theory, or the unmarked military planes theory. His “evidence” is going to be just as good as mine. And of course to him, me asking for evidence is going to sound an awful lot like someone who believes “the official story.” In fact, that’s basically what it is, because if his story isn’t right, he doesn’t have that esoteric knowledge of “what really happened.” I think this is why for the most part you will rarely see these people seriously debate conflicting theories in forums, and why people who advocate conflicting theories will put any and all differences aside to pile up on anyone guilty of believing the “official story.” To be sure, debates do exist within such movements, but they tend to be between authors or leaders of organizations, in other words, people with something to gain from their theory being the most popular. This is also why rather than debating, participants will usually accuse each other of being shills for the government or “disinfo” agents.
Thought experiment: I give up! You win!
Now let’s return to the present. Many of us on the left are told not to listen to the propaganda of the “Western” media when it comes to Ukraine. Ignoring for a moment how easy it is to find articles and other examples from that same media criticizing the actions of the Ukrainian government, talking about the right-wing aspect of Euromaidan, or allowing pro-Russian sources or politicians speak their piece, I feel I must first ask how we define “Western” media in the first place. I’m not playing a semantic game here based on the actual location of these media outlets. It’s been my experience that any media outlet which fails to tout the Kremlin line on Ukraine, including the few remaining independent media organizations in Russia, will be dismissed by the pro-Kremlin side as “Western,” or if not that, totally false and somehow connected to the CIA, National Endowment for Democracy, or whatever. If some of you more masochistic readers out there like debating RT fans online, I encourage you to play to test this hypothesis. For example, choose one media outlet that’s pretty evenhanded and ask for comments on an article that is very critical of Ukraine’s government. After they respond, present them with another article from the same publication(BONUS: same author), and ask them about that. Perhaps ask them if you think the publishing of two articles means that venue isn’t biased against Russia. Note the responses.
It doesn’t matter where it’s from, the content and narrative matter. So if it’s pointing out the massive social problems in Russia, critical of the annexation of the Crimea, or fair to Ukraine, it’s nothing but Western propaganda which can be totally dismissed. At best, a piece that really strives to be evenhanded will be praised for everything but those parts which contradict or question the narrative of the Russian government. So basically, “Western” media can mean anything that isn’t the Kremlin’s narrative. With the definitions out of the way, we can get on with the main thought experiment.
It goes like this. Russia Insider, Sputnik, RT, you were right. I was wrong. Putin is a wise leader. Russia’s cause in the Donbass and Crimea is just. Russia is the right side in this battle against the global corporate hegemony. I just have a couple of problems though. Maybe some of your “political analysts” can help me out.
The first is MH17. I now acknowledge, for no reason in particular, that all those investigations carried out by official European bodies, though they are almost entirely consistent and in at least one case also put some complicity on the Ukrainian military, were of course fraudulent and aimed at framing Russia. Obviously the Ukrainian government, with the complicity of the US, shot down MH17 in order to provide a pretext for bringing sanctions against Russia, sanctions which, according to the Russian government, media, and a lot of you guys are actually helpful for Russia while simultaneously being the reason behind any negative economic changes in the country. Okay that last bit’s a little confusing, but I’m really trying to follow along here.
This is my question. I’m ready to accept the narrative that anyone but Russia and its proxies in the Donbass was responsible for shooting down MH17. I support Russia’s alternative hypothesis. My only problem is which alternative hypothesis do I go with? First the Russian media said that it was shot down from the ground because the Ukrainians thought it was Putin’s plane. Shortly thereafter, a Spanish air traffic controller at Boryspil airport tweeted that he had heard something about a Ukrainian fighter shooting down the aircraft. Unfortunately, it turns out he never existed and Boryspil airport doesn’t employ foreign air traffic controllers. Next the Russian ministry of defense came out with a slick presentation, but even that said that MH17 could have been shot down by Ukrainian airplanes or a “Buk” SAM system operated by the Ukrainian forces. Then of course Russian TV showed a fake satellite photo showing a Ukrainian Mig-29 shooting at MH17, but the other plane theories all said it was an SU-25. In fact, the next theory came from the Investigative Committee and they said they had an anonymous eyewitness who told them a Ukrainian SU-25 shot down the airliner. Even more recently, the Russian government has voiced claims that a Ukrainian SAM shot down the plane, and the DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko said he personally saw two Ukrainian planes shoot down the airliner. Which one of these alternative explanations do I go with? It can’t be all of them.
If only it were just MH17. Russia’s role in the world itself is in question. If I join you guys and your global internet-based movement against the Anglo-American Atlantic hegemony, I can still be a leftist, right? As I understand, the neocons running the US and EU overthrew Viktor Yanukovych because he stood in the way of their plans to advance NATO to the borders of Russia, even though that already happened in 2004. According to some of your pundits, the Americans installed a fascist puppet government in Kyiv, and now racist, neo-Nazi thugs are establishing an authoritarian, discriminatory regime that will implement neo-liberal austerity policies. But I’ve read a lot of your side’s material, and some of you guys have been telling the world that Ukraine has been taken over by wacky European liberals who want to force gay marriage and gender-bending sex education on that country. Also I’ve noticed that a lot of the people on your side, especially the ones who talk about this, happen to be associated with far right parties in Russia and Europe. How am I supposed to square all that with my left wing politics? I thought that Kyiv is run by fascists, so why is it when I look around on the net, it seems almost all the actual fascists or far-right wing extremists I find enthusiastically support Russia? Why don’t they have their international conferences in Kyiv?
I could go on with this little thought experiment, but I think it’s clear enough for the reader. Once you actually know Russia, and more importantly once you know how their media spits out multiple, often contradictory narratives as fast as an MG42 spits out bullets, it becomes virtually impossible to believe that side. At that point, you have to make a conscious decision not only to ignore any and all evidence which contradicts the Kremlin’s line, you have to pretend as though the Kremlin itself isn’t putting out conflicting versions of the particular narrative you went with.
Whenever one gets to that point, the stupidity takes root, and they begin to look increasingly ridiculous. This is the point where you start believing more and more absurd things not because you are stupid, but rather you have to become stupid in order to believe. In my lifetime I have believed some pretty stupid things. But once I learned I was wrong, I had to discard those ideas. I will not deliberately remain stupid for the sake of a belief. And that’s why I can’t side with international Putin fan club. Sorry, guys.
A potential solution
In another recent article about the so-called information war, I threw out an example of what I feel is a more effective way of countering the propaganda of the Russian media, compared to some of the proposals that have been floated recently. This method consists of cataloging and condensing all Russian narratives according to topic, both those stories intended for foreign audiences and those in the Russian Federation. Essentially what we’re talking about is like Stopfake.org on crystal meth. The crucial difference would be that whereas Stopfake.org posts fake news stories as they come, this resource would not only present the latest claims, but it would have everything organized by topic.
Here’s how it would work. Someone sees a Youtube video produced by a pro-Kremlin source on the topic of MH17. It’s got CGI graphics, “experts,” etc. But let us imagine this person is a bit skeptical because they never knew much about the case. So with some Googling they come across this hypothetical resource, and they see the section on MH17. When they go to that section, they are confronted with a summary of all Russian MH17 stories to date, complete with examples, explanations, and links to the real investigations. Ideally, of course, a person would run across this site first, before seeing any conspiracy videos, of course.
The idea is that many people will get drawn in to conspiracy theories when they don’t know the basic details of an event in the first place, and then they see something promising to impart hidden knowledge “they” don’t want you to know. The deal is sweetened if pitch contains messages that resonate with their political beliefs. But what happens if they’re confronted with the fact that the video they just watched or the article they just read isn’t in fact “the” alternative explanation? What if they learn that it’s one of potentially dozens of different hypotheses, many of which are contradictory? They can’t all be “what really happened,” particularly when some of the mutually exclusive hypotheses are actually coming from the same source. Lastly, they will be even more skeptical when they find out that these claims are aimed at different audiences, including those whose political beliefs are diametrically opposed to their own.
Hopefully when more people are confronted with concrete evidence that they are being lied to, they will have no choice but to reject pro-Kremlin propaganda or look incredibly stupid. One thing is for sure, however, and that is no one should risk looking ridiculous by deliberately adopting foolish beliefs simply because they are afraid to be on the same side as a government they disagree with, including their own. It is precisely that fear of looking like a “sell-out” that has led many self-proclaimed and actual leftists in the West to make utter fools of themselves. I understand that if one made one’s career off of criticizing everything the US does, they stand to lose some fans should they admit that there’s an even worse government out there, though it supposedly “opposes” America. Personally I think those supporters are expendable. The worthwhile people will respect someone who stands up for truth and reason. As I said in that recent article, if you still feel uncomfortable because it looks like you’re taking the side of the “Western” media, blame the Kremlin for producing such sloppy, incoherent propaganda as to make Western governments and their media organs look far more credible by default.
Well it just so happens that on a day when I have numerous ideas for articles, I also have other obligations and little time in which to fulfill them. That being said, I do have something for the time being, which I think is extremely important.
This is an open letter to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, asking him not to approve those idiotic, anti-free speech laws which were recently passed by the Ukrainian Rada. The letter is signed by numerous Ukrainian and international academics. Once again, the list contains many of the same people who signed a petition in support of Maidan which, while acknowledging the problematic influence of the far right,condemned attempts to portray the whole movement as being wholly controlled by fascists or right-wing extremists. In other words, good lucky claiming these people are shills for the Kremlin.
Given his status as an oligarch, and some of his more boneheaded actions which at times are eerily similar to those of Vladimir Putin, I never had any love for Poroshenko. I support the citizens of Ukraine, Ukrainian independence, and Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in spite of any conflicts I might have with certain people or factions in Ukraine, or the Ukrainian government. Having said that, if Poroshenko strikes these laws down, he would be making a bold step in favor free-speech and progressive politics. More than this, he would be drawing a clear line of separation between two nations, Ukraine on one hand, and Putin’s Russia on the other.
With the stroke of a pen, Poroshenko can prove that Ukraine is truly moving forward, or he can fulfill the fondest wishes of the Kremlin rulers and their propagandists, not to mention their military strategists. Let’s hope Petro makes the right choice.
One difference between me and the so-called “mainstream” talking heads who specialize in Russia is that I don’t take sides. I try to maintain my own line, changing positions only when the available facts compel me. Yesterday I wrote a rather long piece about the efforts of the West to combat Russia’s self-declared “information war.” I think to the critically thinking reader, it’s pretty obvious that I don’t give Western governments a blank check. On the other hand, some people, especially those from my neck of the political woods, might have seen me as having a soft spot for Western governments. Today I wanted to address some potential objections coming from that side.
Any time one talks about potential objections or counter-arguments, there’s a danger of creating a straw man argument. Thus in this case, if I happen to be constructing a straw man I’m going to be as favorable as I can. He’ll be straw with some kind of wire skeleton for reinforcement, perhaps anchored in the ground via a steel picket. He won’t be knocked down so easily. Let us meet our new and improved straw man 2.0 of the future!
Let us imagine that our hypothetical objector acknowledges that Russia’s government has serious problems. They do not doubt that the government is corrupt and authoritarian. What is more, they don’t deny that Russia is putting out a lot of propaganda, often of laughably dubious quality. They agree that outlets like RT give a platform to cranks and crackpots, and they don’t want to be associated with those people. At the same time, they think the fact that RT still gives a platform to activists who might never be featured on mainstream news organs in their own country means that it serves as useful purpose, if only indirectly. Apart from that, they might genuinely wish that outlets like RT would clean up their act and try to do legitimate reporting.
Apart from this, they might rightly ask whether outlets such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and various Western financed NGOs are also engaging in propaganda. Sure, Russia’s information war is really all about the Russian government’s agenda, but aren’t those Western outlets just doing the same for their own governments, who incidentally hold their purse strings?
Posing such questions to some talking heads will often result in instant dismissal for whataboutery, “false” or “moral equivalency,” or accusations of being a useful idiot. I personally have found this behavior to be infuriating for as far back as I can remember. There really does seem to be this attitude among certain pundits and state officials, particularly in the US, whereby one categorically refuses to brook any criticism of the US government. Often times their resistance involves a lot of whataboutery itself. These people at least appear to think that all discourse should be limited by boundaries that they set. This is extremely arrogant and often drives otherwise reasonable people to embrace increasingly radical narratives until they go off the scale and end up in conspiracy land. I on the other hand, prefer to deal with these people and their objections before that happens, particularly because in my youth I went over that edge and was lucky enough to come back.
Is all propaganda the same?
Let’s start with the question as to whether RFERL, NED, and other NGOs or think tanks put out propaganda, and let’s get right to the point. Yes, these are propaganda organs. They’re not going to be hard on the US government or EU governments, if at all. They are more likely to focus on problems in regimes unfriendly to those governments than problems in their own countries or those regimes on good terms. Having put that out there, there are some very big caveats to consider.
First of all, Western propaganda and PR is not the same a Russian propaganda. Western propaganda organs, of any time, care about being believed. They care about their credibility. They’re not likely to falsify information or make up stories, because that hurts credibility. If they’re going to lie, it’s going to be via omission, or just a slanted point of view. These media organs and think tanks often rely on academics with reputations to consider. If we were to personify them, we might imagine them as a slick car salesman. The propaganda is his sales pitch. He’ll leave out details that might harm the pitch, he’ll exaggerate the necessity of some extra options, but he’s not going to tell you this car won’t have a single problem for the next decade, nor will he claim that it gets 200 miles to the gallon. When you walk on the lot, you expect him to do the former, but if he does that latter you will know he’s lying and you get out of there.
By contrast, Russian propaganda does’t lie, rather it spreads bullshit. The difference is crucial. Russia’s information warriors, or at least their bosses, don’t care how believable their concocted stories are. The goal is to confuse, make people question reality, and to spread cynicism. Evidence, or even coherence isn’t important when it comes to their claims, because you’re not really expected to question any of them. If you try, they’ve most likely already moved on to the next wild claim. Here the best personification of Russian propaganda would be the guy who walks around wearing a military uniform and patches that he bought at a surplus store, telling people about his heroic exploits in spite of the fact that he never even attempted to join the military. We’re talking about that really tragic case who can’t help but spout off about his secret missions and “confirmed kills” even after learning that you were actually in the military, possibly because he just assumes that everyone else lies like him. “Oh you were in the army? Me too! What did you do? Signal? Oh yeah I was Special Delta Forces Team X-Ray, 43rd Silent Sniper Division. I killed 300 ISIS jihadis last summer. Would have been more but the army decided I was getting too dangerous so they gave me a discharge. I started putting on this weight as soon as I got out!”
Russian propaganda, personified
This difference is extremely crucial. Firstly, if you’re one of those people wishing that RT would clean up its reputation and try to establish some kind of credibility, forget it. This is not why they exist. Their task is to essentially try, as futile as it is, to apply the tactics of Russia’s domestic media on a world audience. It’s not about creating some kind of “debate” with Western propaganda organs. What is more, all those conspiracy theories attract a lot of views; they are essentially RT’s answer to the Western corporate media’s celebrity gossip. They’re not going to give up the goldbugs and assorted conspiracy nuts and replace them with respected, dissenting Western academics so as to carry on a sort of debate with their rivals in other countries, if only because any such intellectual who is honest isn’t going to refrain from calling out the Russian government when they do the exact same thing that Western governments do, or worse.
If you’re still not convinced of the essential difference between these two kinds of outlets, let me put it this way. In spite of being published in several publications, in spite of being on TV, and in spite of getting endorsements from some pretty important Russia-watchers who are internationally renowned, I’m quite certain that I have pretty much zero chances of getting hired by an outfit like RFERL, or some DC think tank. By contrast, I know that if I so desired, I could not only get a job at RT easily, but I could possibly get my own show. I know this because plenty of friends and acquaintances who work there have either recommended that I do so, or have said that it is entirely realistic. If for some reason I couldn’t work there, I could definitely get on as a guest. All I have to do is bash America and the EU and refrain from saying anything negative about Russia and its shrinking circle of allies. Piece of cake. The same goes for other pro-Russian insta-think tanks or online publications. It would be too easy- “Washington said X about Russia. That’s hypocritical because(insert bad thing the US did, even if it is over a decade old).” Just repeat several times a week. The sad thing is how many bloggers actually do the same for free.
Ceding the moral high ground
Another key difference between Russian and non-Russian propaganda these days is that Russian propaganda is far more cynical, whereas its opponents’ propaganda is at least morally superior. Democracy, human rights, and personal freedoms are at least positive values. Russian propaganda doesn’t actually advocate such values. All it does is points out weaknesses in the liberal system, and with a cynical eye roll says, “Is this democracy? Is this what they mean by human rights?”
This tactic is ridiculous for a number of reasons. One reason is that in order for RT to even find out about a lot of these lapses in respect for human rights, they rely on sources within those countries, often activists and dissidents. That then leads us to question how dissidents are treated in Russia. The likelihood that the US government will concoct some kind of bizarre criminal case against someone like Abby Martin or Lee Camp is pretty much nil. In terms of charging them with “extremism,” it’s legally impossible.
This leads to the next reason why this kind of criticism is so ridiculous, namely the fact that in most cases, Russia is a bigger offender than the country that is being criticized. I consider it an indisputable fact that there are serious problems in the American system of democracy. Personally I don’t consider it true democracy, but that’s a whole different essay. Yet in spite of that, I’m sorry but it is far more democratic than Russia. I hate Hillary Clinton’s sense of entitlement and the fact that this half of a super-rich power couple is likely to have the nomination and possibly White House delivered to her on a silver platter, and that this is so because the only alternative in the presidential race will be a conservative Republican. But you know what I would hate even more? I’d hate to have Hillary run the country for the next 15-years, taking the media under the control of her administration, removing the right to elect state governors, and portioning out positions and jobs in return for loyalty. I’d hate it if every time I raised an entirely legitimate criticism of Hillary, people would react by telling me there is no one else qualified to lead the United States and then calling me a national traitor who hates America. That would, for lack of a better word, totally suck.
This is what makes these hypocrisy arguments so hypocritical. They attack others for failing to live up to their ideals, which is legitimate, but the argument is coming from those who not only fall further below the bar, but who don’t even really care about those ideals at all. It seems like the only reason the Russian government ever uses words like democracy or human rights is for propaganda purposes. It also seems they believe all other states and individuals have the same point of view.
I could go on with this point, but the bottom line here is that cozying up to Russia’s side in the information war means ceding the moral high ground. One of the most tragically comic things about modern Russia is how even when someone hands them the moral high ground, they always have to screw it up somehow. Witness the curiously selectively-applied Magnitsky act, to which the Russian government responded by launching an attack on their own orphaned children. Or look at their response to Western sanctions against their elite- pay them off with the people’s money and then deny them food imports. If Western governments don’t have the moral high ground in a particular spat with Russia, rest assured that the Kremlin will readily abandon it to them through its impulsive, act-before-thinking behavior.
Right by default
In order to demonstrate one last point about the difference between Western and Russian propaganda in this information war, and why the latter is absolute poison especially if you are opposed to the former, we need a thought experiment.
Imagine, for example, an alternate reality where Yanukovych flees Ukraine, but Russia doesn’t annex the Crimea or sponsor an uprising in the Donbass. In fact, imagine that Russia actually dials back its propaganda and activity in Ukraine, with their logic being, “Wow, look how mad we made those people! We really crossed a line.”
Now the world is looking at Ukraine. It’s still run by oligarchs. The Rada is still a boxing ring. Emboldened nationalists actually do go around and start beating people and violently disrupting events put on by any group or organization they don’t like. The government, taking advice from the EU, implements austerity. While the businessmen and their foreign partners party away at the finest clubs in Kyiv, ordinary people suffer. Corruption continues to flourish.
Who would the industrialized world be looking at, in that case? I know which country we wouldn’t be looking at- Russia. Sure, they were backing Yanukovych, but Yanukovych has been gone for over a year. If Russia stood back, all eyes would not only be on Ukraine, but the EU as well. We would be having a conversation about austerity and creditor-friendly economic policy, as with EU member countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, or Portugal. We’d be looking at the very real involvement of European or US-funded NGOs in Maidan and asking why these organizations encourage such movements without fully warning their supporters and audiences of the potential costs. We’d want to know why and how so many people had been led to believe that a trade agreement with the EU would almost effortlessly lead to higher standards of living in their country. We’d demand an explanation about the nationalist violence and question the idea that the Ukrainian national identity should rest in the hands of such people. We’d blame them for dividing the country during such a difficult time.
We’d probably be doing all of that and more in our parallel universe, but alas, we are not. We’re not doing that because Russia had to come to the rescue by illegally seizing part of Ukraine’s territory and starting the first major war in Europe since 1999. This sure makes it easy to blame any if not all economic hardships on Russia, and to some extent it’s justifiable to do so. Russia is waging its information war on Ukraine as well, and since as I mentioned they have absolutely no concern for credibility, the sheer wackiness of their propaganda leads many people to assume that anything remotely critical of the Ukrainian government is probably either a product of the pro-Kremlin media or at least based on their material. Some people may fear voicing their viewpoint could cause them to be associated with the Russian side, thus killing their credibility or respectability. In other words, Russia made life very easy for genuine Western propagandists. They can dismiss counter-criticism as whataboutery, even when the criticism is in fact valid, they can dismiss arguments as Russian propaganda, and they can insinuate that their opponents are paid information warriors for the Kremlin.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is just a repetition of the same thing I’ve been saying for the past year or so. If you oppose the things your particular Western government is doing, don’t think taking Russia’s side will help. They don’t care about your cause, they don’t believe in aspiring to higher forms of democracy or respect for human rights, and they’re only going to use you for their purposes drag your movement or cause down into the mud. Even if we just assume everything is in fact equal when it comes to the two sides both disseminating propaganda, one side’s propaganda is highly effective while the other doesn’t even know what it’s doing. The sheer idiocy of much Russian propaganda actually gives its Western counterpart more credibility.
I think many of us still have this mental heuristic, whereby when we read something critical of Russia we experience anything from discomfort to rage if we don’t see some kind of tit-for-tat comparison with problems in America or the leading European countries. Yet when we read articles about, for example, American problems, whether its unarmed black men being shot dead by cops or the power of money in our political system, we never feel this yearning for a paragraph about Russia and its problems. Thus I know why many people reading this may experience unease admitting that yes, sometimes, their governments can be on the right side of an issue, and that sometimes the propaganda they sponsor is true. It feels like selling out. So how do we deal with that feeling?
I found the answer is quite simple. Realize that Russia is the reason for their opponents triumph. The very heads of Russia’s various state-run news media outlets have themselves eschewed the idea of objective reporting, and in fact they have routinely and openly dismissed concepts like objective truth altogether. So whose fault is that? Did Timothy Snyder make them do that? Did RFERL make them decided that objective truth doesn’t exist? Did the National Endowment for Democracy force Russian TV to air a program with laughably phony satellite photos showing MH17 being shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, or did they make Russian journalists report the death of a girl who never existed? Please, browse Stopfake.org as much as you like and find me a single example of the Western media, government-sponsored or private, forcing the Russian press or its allies to concoct one of these fabricated claims.
Whatever you think of your government or other Western governments, the facts of the case are clear. Their propagandists actually care about credibility. Russia’s information warriors did not and still do not. They made an a priori decision that everyone lies and thus they were therefore justified in lying. As a result, they look like complete idiots to all critically thinking people, while even unsubtle NATO or EU propaganda looks perfectly logical by comparison. Once you realize that the disparity is Russia’s fault, you’ll no longer feel like you’re selling out just because you happen to accept the same facts that NATO governments have been disseminating. Russia did all the work for them by forfeiting credibility, making its opponents right by default.