Monthly Archives: April 2016

Kremlin: Vladimir Putin comes out in support of whatever cause you happen to believe in

MOSCOW- Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov finally confired rumors that Russian president Vladimir Putin made bold public statements on GMO’s and vaccines in recent years. At a Friday morning press conference Peskov explained that his boss not only had strong opinions about vaccines and GMO’s, but that he actually supports whatever cause any given social media user might passionately support.

“There is no issue that escapes Putin’s concern,” Peskov told reporters. “If you see a viral news story in your news feed and it claims that Putin said something that supports a cause or idea you personally support, you can rest assured that the quote is 100% genuine and Vladimir Putin cares very deeply about whatever issue it is.”

The Kremlin’s confirmation dispelled controversy which erupted after the dissemination of a number of viral news stories such as one headlined “PUTIN EXPOSES VACCINES,” wherein the Russian president had allegedly claimed that vaccines were a plot used by “Western governments” to enslave humanity.

In that article, Putin was reported to have said: “When your children are barely human, psychologically-altered bots, their nerve cells and synapses failing to connect, and their neurodevelopmental processes dulled to the point of restricting them to sub-human level repetitive grunts and gormless stares, what are you going to do then?”

Critics initially pointed out that the style, vocabulary, and subject matter of the quote in no way resembled anything the president had said before, but the Kremlin’s confirmation this morning has put their objections to rest.

Experts say that this precedent now confirms the Russian president also firmly supports a host of other causes that social media users care about, from gun ownership to economic theory.

Ron Howell, 36, of Lubbock, Texas says he came to admire the Russian president for his stance on gun rights.

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Example of a viral “meme” with a formerly controversial quote

“To be honest I never really thought about the president of Russia- I’d always figured he was just another Commie we’d forgotten to kill in WWII,” Howell explained as he sat in his living room cleaning one of several semi-automatic firearms while wearing full US military-spec tactical gear.

“But then one of my buddies from the range shared this quote from Putin on Facebook and I realized that the Russian president is one of us. I like him a whole lot better than that Kenyan Marxist Nazi usurper Obama. No wonder the liberal media’s always on Putin’s case.”

Nick Grimes, 21, a computer science student at UCLA, says he was impressed by the Russian president’s thoughts on free market economics.

“Look, I’ve taken econ 101, I’m a regular on the Misis Insitute forum, I know how economics works,” said Grimes.

“Unfortunately are glorious leaders don’t know jack. They think they can just keep spending and borrowing forever, providing welfare to lazy people while strangling the industrious, the job creators.”

Grimes found encouragement in his Facebook news feed, however, when a friend shared a image of Putin expressing his opinion on economic policy. putinfreemarket

“Finally, someone gets it, I thought,” Grimes explained. “I’m already thinking of moving to Russia and starting a business there. If I stay here, the government will just tax and regulate me to death.”

Still others see in Putin a crusader against out of control capitalism and corporate domination, such as Jason Ellis, 22, a political science student at Boston University.

“Obviously our own leaders don’t care about wealth inequality just like they don’t care about racism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender-binary normativity, cultural appropriation,decolonization, Palestinian rights, speciesism, classism, or post-industrial post-modernist third wave anarcho-feminism, but that’s not the case in Russia,” Ellis said, who was wearing a souvenir ushanka hat complete with a Soviet army badge in spite of the pleasant 75 degree weather.

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“This is why the Western media is always demonizing Putin, especially after he stopped the neocons’ fascist neo-liberal coup in Ukraine from spilling over his borders. He’s a threat to the Global North’s hegemony.”

Ellis added that he too hopes to move to Russia one day, as he heard they have free healthcare there.

Until Friday, most Russia experts and Kremlinologists would have laughed at the idea that Vladimir Putin actually supports so many disparate and often contradictory causes, but now each and every social media user can be certain that if they see a quote from the Russian president that appears to agree with their worldview, they are in fact getting Putin’s genuine opinion on the matter. putinlp

“Let me make this absolutely clear,” presidential spokesmen Peskov said when questioned by skeptical reporters at this morning’s press conference. “Putin totally supports anything you happen to believe in. So be sure to share that picture or link.”

 

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This. Stop doing this.

For many years, one of my most passionate subjects was the “Eastern front” of WWII. Reading the memoirs of F.W. von Mellenthin and watching documentaries like Battlefield and World at War were probably one of the most important contributing factors which rekindled an interest in Russia that had waned due to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Naturally, actually moving to Russia, with its abundance of sources and information often not published outside of the Former Soviet Union, was a sort of kid-in-a-candy-store experience. For about six of my nearly ten years here, I was obsessed with the idea of writing a novel or screenplay that I hoped would lead to the production of a film about Stalingrad. My vision was to create a Soviet version of something like Band of Brothers or The Pacific. It was to be dignified, remorselessly realistic and historically accurate. Whether it would have ended up as a mini-series or a feature length film, the idea was that this story would become the go-to answer whenever someone from outside the Former Soviet Union wanted to get an idea of what fighting on the Eastern front looked like. In the autumn of 2013 I put the idea on hold. By 2014 I didn’t want to hear anything about the Second World War at all. That feeling hasn’t changed either.

How did this come about? Well as I said before, living in Russia is great for an enthusiast of the Great Patriotic War. Once you attain a certain competency in the Russian language you now have access to sources you’d never find in the West. Still, in my early years in Russia, the years when the hedonism and consumerism of the elite was openly flaunted, I couldn’t help but feel discomfort at the contradiction inherent in Russia’s celebration of the Soviet victory. The Soviet struggle against fascism conflicted with the popularity of far right-wing ideology, xenophobia, and at times anti-Semitism in post-Soviet Russia. The achievements of women during the war run up against the notoriously poor treatment of women not only in Russia but other former Soviet republics. And of course Russia’s staggering wealth inequality made a mockery of the Soviet Union, nominally a socialist state.

Somehow I had for years managed to look beyond those contradictions, or rather I could separate them. Perhaps what made this no longer possible was around 2014, when the state kicked its appropriation of the Soviet victory into high gear for its own ends, complete with the demonization of anyone supportive of Ukrainian independence and sovereignty as a “Banderite.” It’s really hard to pinpoint the moment when I went over the peak, though today I saw a reminder of why this topic that I used to love has become such an anathema to me.

Ukraine Today somewhat sensationally reported on a Russian public service announcement featuring a video wherein modern Russian children meet the “ghost” of a Russian child who apparently died during the war. The ghost is wearing a Red Army uniform.

 

The key part of the video is when the kids ask the “ghost” whether he was afraid to die, and he says: “That’s not important. What’s important is that we won.”

This theme of involving children in the story of the war is more common than some might think. Back in 2013 I participated in a massive WWII reenactment called Pole Boya (Field of Battle). All participants received some gift swag, and among the various videos was a sort of documentary about the war, which can be viewed here:

 

As you no doubt noticed, the narrator is an annoying little kid. Nothing personal, I find all little kids to be annoying to some degree or another. You probably do too; that’s why everyone hated Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace so much.

The video had got me thinking and a bit later I started to see this as something very inappropriate. What is the reason for having a little kid trying to describe World War II? Western war documentaries are either narrated by vocally-gifted celebrities like Sir Lawrence Olivier or George C. Scott, or some guy who can do a passable impression of the Don LaFontaine action thriller trailer voice. Little kids and war don’t mix; whenever they do, war wins and little kids end up losing, badly too. And keep in mind this wasn’t intended to be a historical festival for children either. So what was the purpose?

It began to seem like there’s almost a deliberate attempt to associate the war with little children, to get children to take part in the celebration of what can arguably be called the worst disaster to ever befall the people of the Former Soviet Union. It’s as if those responsible want the whole country to understand this war like a child- without critical thought or a full understanding of why it happened and what it entailed.

Back to the video, where our ghost kid says “What’s important is that we won.” This is the message the Russian government wants everyone to grasp. All that’s important is that “they won.” Don’t ask at what cost or question the wisdom of turning a national tragedy into a festive, commercialized celebration. Don’t actually learn about what the fascists believed or why they attacked the Soviet Union and behaved the way they did- what’s important is that anyone who goes against Russia is a fascist. Otherwise you might note an inconvenient similarity between the beliefs of the Nazis and the ideals that are preached by the current Russian government and its paid ideologues. Whatever you do, never ask why it is the case that in a nation that supposedly “won” the war, the people experience living standards far below those of Germany and Japan, two countries that lost the war. Never question as to why the veterans of the losing Wehrmacht better off than those of the victorious Red Army. Do not inquire as to what happened to the riches from the sale of Russia’s vast resources in the past quarter century, or more importantly, in the past 16 years.

No. What’s important is that “they won.” Don’t think. Adopt the mindset of a child, someone who cannot possibly understand war in general, let alone the worst war in human history. Pin on the tsarist black and orange ribbons, watch the parades of military vehicles paid for at the expense of education, healthcare, and pensions, and drink yourself stupid on the street. Go ahead and put obscene window decals that liken the war to anal rape on your car. Pay no attention to the fact that “you” didn’t do jack shit to win the war and your grandpa might not appreciate such a vulgar metaphor.

None of that is important. What’s important is that “we” won.

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How would grandpa feel? Who cares? You WON! 

 

 

Harmless?

Here’s this week’s crash course in the politics of Putinism. Meduza reports on draft legislation in the State Duma which, if passed without any change to the text, might conceivably make it possible to label any non-profit organization, including charities, as “foreign agents.” That’s right- organizations dealing with issues like cancer treatment or hospice care could one day be labeled as foreign agents and face the consequences associated with that label.

This might seem confusing to some outside observers, seeing that such organizations are not only obviously apolitical, but entirely dedicated to improving the lives of Russian citizens. Alas, my confused reader, you do not know the Kremlin’s ways.

Recently I’ve been reading Marc Bennetts’ book I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition. I’m going to write a full review later, but suffice to say for now that I am quite pleased with what I’ve read so far. In one part of the book, Bennetts calls attention to the way the Kremlin tightened the rules on volunteer organizations after 2010, even those that were not political at all. Again it might seem confusing, but it makes perfect sense from the point of view of Russia’s leadership. In order to understand why, you have to come back with me to the good old days of the mid-2000’s, right around the time I showed up.

This was the heyday of Putin’s unique social contract with his people, written oil that was fetching lofty prices. The deal was simple- go and enrich yourselves however you can, but don’t rock the boat or question the system. Consumer goods for political freedom. When I arrived, it appeared the system worked. Anyone you talked to would tell you about the corruption and other political problems of the country, but only if you pressed, because in truth nobody wanted to discuss politics. They had come to see is as nothing but a circus, and in the meantime why bother with politics when you can own foreign products and vacation in Turkey, Egypt, or in those days, Europe and the United States? The consumerist 90’s mentality was alive and well, but it worked out for Putin and the elite because more people could take part. As long as the people were obsessed with BMW, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, and other luxuries, and insofar as they had some hope of acquiring these treasures, they weren’t interested in higher values or the future sustainability of the system.

The stereotype about Russia is that it is a very “collectivist” society, but in truth it is the opposite- it is highly atomized.I also wouldn’t necessarily say this started with the fall of the Soviet Union or even the era of perestroika. Whatever the case, an atomized society is very beneficial for a dictator wishing to remain in power. The more people come to see each other as competitors and potential marks to take advantage of, the less likely they are to find common interests and unite to stand up for them. It also becomes easy for those in power to divide any movements that do start to form, or to find spies among them. This is also helped by relative poverty- the price of betrayal is much lower in poorer countries.

Volunteer organizations are dangerous to the authorities for several reasons, even if they are supposedly apolitical. First of all, remaining apolitical is actually more difficult than it looks, as I learned when I attempted to do some volunteer work for a Russian organization that fights women trafficking. Or I should say “fought” against women trafficking, seeing as how I notice their site is now defunct and might have been so for several years. I say this because one thing I immediately learned upon talking to some of the group’s employees was that they received virtually no help or funding from the state, even though they worked with local law enforcement. I was told that they once operated nine shelters for rescued women and girls, but that they would soon have to close a number of them (as many as six if I remember correctly). Here we see that in spite of the group’s insistence that it was non-political, the governments lack of concern and cooperation automatically raised a political issue. This can also happen when a non-profit’s activities step on the toes of corrupt bureaucrats, officials, or just businessmen with close ties to either. If we are speaking of women trafficking and prostitution, for example, one may easily run afoul of club owners and other businessmen, corrupt law enforcement officials, and local politicians who might have a hand in the business or at least have friends or family members that do.

Well then what about those charities that deal with cancer patients? That can’t possibly be political, right? Wrong. When you look at the problems cancer patients face in Russia, the questions become political. Why are the hospitals so backward or poorly equipped? Why does the state make it so hard for cancer patients to obtain much-needed painkillers? Where did all this money from roughly 15 years of high oil prices go? If you follow the question to its logical conclusion, you’re going to end up looking at the state, i.e. the political system. Even by simply highlighting the problems of cancer patients or exploited children without any reference to the government can still be an embarrassment to the state, which would prefer to keep its skeletons safely locked in the closet.

The other reason why volunteer organizations represent a threat to the state is because you have people organizing on their own, usually out of belief in some abstract values as opposed to little handouts of money. Once again, non-political organizations can turn political within a short time. First the organization is dedicated to solving some ordinary social problem. Then after a while members of the group stop and ask why they need to organize an sacrifice their time, effort, and money for something that is traditionally the responsibility of the state. The state’s supposed to have more resources anyway- why isn’t it doing its job? At this point the organization becomes less about fixing that apolitical problem and more about demanding that the state live up to its social obligations. The practical becomes something higher, overarching.

It would seem that from the point of view of Putin and his cronies, self-organization and civil society inevitably lead to the dreaded “color revolutions.” They’re not entirely wrong either. When people start caring about society as a whole and not simply their personal well-being or enrichment, when they start to acquire a measure of dignity, they become less pliant, less willing to put up with poor treatment. And unfortunately for Putin, “just shut up and buy shit” is no longer a viable policy.

This being the case, the system has to turn to other methods to keep people divided. Demonizing LGBT people, “liberals,” atheists, foreigners or those with ties to foreigners, and anyone else who questions the system seems to be the replacement tactic as of late. It has been more or less effective so far, but who can say how long it will last? After all, if you rely on an atomized society, it can be hard to unite people behind something when their support is needed. So far the Russian government covers that by paying people to protest, to troll the internet, and to write poorly fabricated news. Yet almost every time we see people abandon their pre-prepared placards as soon as its time to pick up their 350 rubles to participate in a pro-government march. We see more and more people becoming aware of the comment trolls and taking measures against them. And the staggering lack of quality in some Kremlin propaganda in recent months seriously suggests that internal, deliberate sabotage might be taking place.

There’s a lot you can do with money, and when people are in dire straits money can make them dance to your tune. But sooner or later you need higher ideals, and the Kremlin cannot manufacture these simply because it is filled with career criminals and thieves who have no ideals or morals of their own. What is more, they look upon those with ideals, such as the people who dedicate their lives to charity and helping their fellow human beings, with great suspicion and mistrust. And once you come to understand this, you’ll understand why the government may very well seek to hamper if not destroy all non-profit organizations in Russia, including charities.

 

 

 

The content of their character

One of the most common tactics of the Kremlin supporter is to impugn a source of information based on where they supposedly get their funding. It is also rather ironic, considering the fact that these same people often either work for or commonly site media that is entirely owned and paid for by the Russian government. But dealing with Kremlin fans inevitably means dealing with the most brazen hypocrisy.

In an age of PR-gone-wild, it makes sense to ask questions about funding. As the saying goes: He who pays the piper calls the tune. The problem is, however, that folk wisdom doesn’t really get you very far in the real world, where governments and individuals often have very complex, sometimes seemingly contradictory motives for funding initiatives or donating to non-profit organizations. Let us explore that a little deeper.

While this is a topic I’ve been wanting to address for a long time now, once again you have Anatoly “Da Russophile” Karlin to thank as a sort of catalyst for this post. He was apparently upset that Russia Without BS has some kind of “syndication” agreement with Stopfake.

First of all for the new readers out there, yes, there is a sort of “agreement” with Stopfake; I gave them permission to repost my work as they see fit. I am personally acquainted with the founders and many of the workers at Stopfake and I see no reason to apologize for this because Stopfake provides a much-needed service and on a personal level I find them to be dedicated, sincere individuals.

As for Karlin’s figure of 100,080 pounds per year, I’m not sure where that comes from (see update on this at the bottom of the post -JK). I was under the impression that they go grant-by-grant, somewhat like Hromadske.tv. In any case this is totally irrelevant. What matters above all is the content an outlet produces, not who funds it.

In this case, we may look back at the Russian media backlash against the Panama Papers for another example. As is typically the case, the super sleuths at RT and other affiliated blogs draw a line between the ICIJ, the Center for Public Integrity, and then yet another organization, and another, until they find funding from…THE US GOVERNMENT! Well then, the CPI might as well be Air America! Of course the CPI also gets some money from George Soros, but as it turns out they also covered Soros’ donations in their investigation of campaign financing.

So how do we judge if the CPI is just a US government front for information warfare, or an honest organization dedicated to real investigative journalism and questioning those in power. Well let’s just pop on over to their front page.

cpi

Hmmm…Nothing about Russia or Putin there. In fact nothing about any foreign country. And look! There’s a story about the dealings of Pierre Omidyar, the guy that Putin fanboy Mark Ames is obsessed with. And what of that article about the US prosecutor opening an investigation into the Panama Papers? Doesn’t even mention Putin or Russia. Today the front page looks a little hard on Sanders, but scroll down a bit and we get this story about defense contractors donating the most money to Hillary.

As I’ve mentioned before plenty of times, Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, is featured heavily in this documentary that deals with the topic of media manipulation and consolidation in the US:

 

I have also pointed out before how the CPI maintains an archive of over 900 false statements that led to the Iraq War, but hey- Soros! State Department! BLLLLEARGH!!!

And what about Stopfake? Well if someone really wants to attack Stopfake they could start by showing which stories they claimed were fakes turned out to be real. It’s also worth noting that Stopfake does debunk fake stories from the Ukrainian media as well. They probably would do so a lot more if it weren’t for a much larger, consolidated propaganda machine deliberately and explicitly waging “information war” against Ukraine. And this also gets right to the heart of the matter about grants and funding for organizations like Stopfake or Hromadske.tv. The programs which fund such organizations are dedicated to building up a functioning free press in nations where such a thing hasn’t existed before. As in Russia, Ukraine’s media doesn’t have stringent standards of journalism. In fact, many of the fake stories coming out of Russia aren’t deliberately concocted out of thin air- they are just repeated with no fact-checking whatsoever. If foreign-based Kremlin fanboys would actually bother to talk to the people who work at organizations like Stopfake or Hromadske, they’d probably learn that these are people who sincerely believe in good journalism and have no interest in being puppets of some foreign government.

Now one might ask why then should RT or Sputnik be dismissed as propaganda bullhorns due to their funding. My answer is they shouldn’t. While they are entirely owned by the Kremlin and managed by well-known supporters of Putin, we must always look at the content first and foremost. For one thing, RIA Novosti was entirely Kremlin-owned in the past, yet it managed to produce objective material. The Moscow News, which was under RIA Novosti, was also known for providing a diverse, pluralistic viewpoint that often criticized or questioned the Kremlin. Russia Behind the Headlines still clearly maintains more objectivity than the other state-run outlets.

By contrast RT and Sputnik, from what I’ve seen, have never challenged the Kremlin line on anything. When Putin said there were no troops in the Crimea, they said so. When he admitted it, they admitted it but said it was justified. When it comes to foreign policy they have carefully and dutifully stuck to the president and foreign ministry’s line on virtually every point. Moreover, as I’ve said in the past we never see any attempt to seriously challenge Putin or the foreign ministry’s statement on anything. There are no “fact checks” of his speeches, the sort of which we see all the time from Western media outlets about Western leaders. We are not given the opportunity to hear a variety of views from different Maidan participants to better understand what that event was really about. We don’t get to see how the Donbas “rebels” shell the very same people they claimed they were trying to protect from the “junta.” We get “analysis” on Ukraine and Russia from people who have very little prior background on either topic, if any at all. And what is more, we see a consistent pattern of cowardly, anonymous attacks on any journalists who challenge the Kremlin line in the Op-Edge section.

Now you add to that the Kremlin ownership and management by Putin fanatics and you see precisely why RT and Sputnik can be readily dismissed as propaganda outlets. It’s not just on the basis of those two facts; they behave precisely as you’d expect propaganda outlets to behave. I don’t have any problem finding material from the BBC that criticizes the British government or otherwise portrays it in a bad light. If I did have such problems, and if they seemed to be on a warpath against any outlet or individual who questions them, then I’d label them a propaganda outlet too.

And if you’re an RT fan or employee who’s reading this, keep in mind that it didn’t have to be this way. RT and Sputnik could have carried on the traditions of RIA-Novosti or The Moscow News, providing objective reporting with better coverage of the Russian government’s POV. But alas, that’s not what Ms. Simonyan and Mr. Kiselyov wanted to do. They wanted to wage “information war,” because they just told themselves that all media works the same way without every questioning this assumption. So what you ended up with is a propaganda machine that is increasingly becoming a global laughing stock.

Getting back on topic the point is simple. There’s nothing wrong with questioning who funds whom, but ultimately what matters is the content that gets produced. Moreover, the Kremlin fanboy tactic of guilt by association, no matter how stretched and tenuous the connections are, is getting real old, as old as their “whataboutery.” But hey, when you can’t be bothered to actually answer the accusations, investigations, and difficult questions, whataboutery, guilt by association, and poisoning the well might be the only tools in the box.

UPDATE: Karlin was kind enough to provide the source of that figure here. Nice of the UK government to be so transparent. As I suspected, it is not funded on a yearly basis but rather this was a one-year grant. Here is how the UK government site describes Stopfake:

“The purpose of this project is to help the StopFake project increase its impact in Ukraine and other countries targeted by disinformation campaigns. It focuses on improving reporting in Ukraine and abroad; promoting tools for fact-checking; easing tensions instigated by propaganda and misinformation; and enlarging the scope of true news spreading in social networks.”

As you can see, this is obviously a dastardly information warfare campaign aimed at expanding NATO and destroying Russia. In their Russophobic logic, it’s perfectly fine to label pro-Kremlin stories “fake” just because they happened to be untrue. Is there no end to Albion’s perfidy?!

RT America journalist under investigation

WASHINGTON DC- FBI officials raided the house of RT (Russia Today) America journalist Adam Peterson on Monday morning. Peterson, 34, lives with his parents in Rockville, Maryland. Federal authorities stated that he is under investigation for “extremism” and “conspiring to undermine the Constitution and territorial integrity of the United States.”

Critics of the move charged the FBI with violating the First Amendment, but a Justice Department spokesperson denied that any of Peterson’s rights had been infringed upon.

“What if he had been going on cable TV and criticizing the government of Iran, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea?” the spokesperson said at a post-raid press conference.

“North Korea gave on of our citizens fifteen years in a labor camp just for taking down a poster.”

When asked what events in North Korea had to do with this specific case and the question of Constitutional rights, the spokesperson responded by claiming that such cases “happen everywhere.”

According to authorities, Peterson is being investigated over comments he made when speaking as a guest on a news broadcast. Specifically, it is alleged that some comments he made regarding the 2003 invasion of Iraq may be in violation of a law against “harming or defaming the integrity and reputation of the US military and its commander-in-chief.” The law forbids “public statements or published material which questions, challenges, or otherwise denies the necessity, wisdom, or moral correctness of US military campaigns, as well as the decision makers who planned and/or executed said military campaigns.” It is believed that Peterson’s on-air statement that “Weapons of Mass Destruction were not found in Iraq” may constitute a violation of this law.

Peterson’s arrest is one more high profile example of what human rights activists call a “tightening crackdown” by the US  authorities against dissent. Experts suggest that economic troubles in the wake of 2008’s crisis coupled with the strain imposed by foreign military conflicts may have led the administration to see itself as more vulnerable.

In March of this year, White House press secretary Josh Earnest caused concern among America-watchers due to his remarks about foreign influence and the need for more “vigilance.”

“Our Eastern partners still finance their agents in our country. They launch information attacks against our president, in an election year no less. They are hoping our vigilance will fail so that they can start another Occupy Wall Street and overthrow the Constitutional order,” Earnest told reporters  at the White House.

The major American media networks, recently consolidated under state control and put under the management of several men with close friendship ties to the president’s administration, have also recently joined the “information war” against dissidents.

A recent NBC Nightly News broadcast aired an investigative piece claiming that Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is working as an agent of the Russian intelligence services. Critics quickly pointed out that the so-called “SVR internal documents,” which purport to show electronic correspondence between Sanders and Russian president Vladimir Putin,” are rife with Russian grammatical and stylistic mistakes. When asked for comment, NBC’s producer told our correspondent that it was the responsibility of the critics to show that the correspondence did not take place. Some supporters of the Obama regime have even suggested that the Russian intelligence agents deliberately put the language mistakes in the document, so that they could claim it was forged.

Martin Galtieri, an expert on America’s military and intelligence establishment, suggests caution when dealing with such rhetoric from the regime.

“Well, you have to remember that the administration often floats these trail balloons to see how people will react,” Galtieri explained. “Even if the president isn’t really behind this sort of rhetoric, it’s in his interest to make the opposition think that there’s greater repression hanging over their heads like the Sword of Damocles.”

In any case, it would appear such tactics are having an effect, as Obama’s approval ratings have skyrocketed in spite of rumors that he might be considering canceling the elections. On the streets of America, polls show little concern over the loss of democracy. The response of Edna Raffery, 72, a florist and former member of her local Tea Party organization in Humble, Texas, might explain why.

“Sure, I have complaints, but now I realize I have to support my president. He needs all the help he can get. Otherwise the Russians will make us all slaves”
UPDATE: It has been brought to our attention that none of this happened, and according to our in-house experts, none of this could even possibly happen in the US.We hope our readers will be happy with this real story instead. 

Russia’s Best and Brightest

Recently I’ve been reading the fascinating book The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam by James William Gibson. Technowar, far from being a type of all-out DJ battle, is how the author describes the concept of war which evolved in the minds of America’s military and political elite at the beginning of the Cold War, and in particular shaped America’s strategy in Vietnam. When it came to understanding the US defeat in Vietnam, in the past I read books such as A Bright Shining Lie* by Neil Sheehan, along with biographies of Vo Nguyen Giap and some of that illustrious general’s own works. While the so-called “liberal” explanation of defeat, that America’s leaders held a number of incorrect assumptions and mistaken ideas which led to a big misunderstanding that killed well over a million people, has always been closer to the truth than the conservative tale of self-imposed restraints and a stab-in-the-back myth in regards to the home front, Gibson set out to expose both explanations as mythology, fairy tales that different segments of America told themselves.

Gibson digs deeper, past basic political misconceptions and the idea that the US military simply didn’t know how to fight a proper counter-insurgency campaign. No, according to the dominant beliefs among the generals and political elites of the time, they knew exactly what they were doing. They weren’t perplexed by the intricacies of winning hearts and minds or fighting against guerrilla tactics. They had a strategy, which Gibson dubs Technowar, and not only did they know it would succeed, but the very idea that it could possibly fail was simply unthinkable. The US war machine was far more technologically advanced than that of the National Liberation Front, AKA the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese military. American industry was far more developed than that of Vietnam, and even the Chinese and Soviets who were supplying them. This would turn into a battle of attrition, but unlike WWI where the idea was to effect a breakthrough and capture territory, Vietnam strategy boiled down to two words- body counts. The idea was to kill enough VC and NVA until both the NLF and North Vietnam were convinced that they could not win their war. To see how this strategy played out on the ground, as well as its nuts and bolts, you’ll just have to read the book.

It would be nice if that were the last time America’s leaders succumbed to a delusion disconnected from military reality. Members of the Bush administration found a unique way of dealing with counter-insurgency in the modern world- just pretend it won’t be an issue. They picked a conventional opponent, knocked it out using America’s insurmountable advantage in conventional warfare, and then expected the troops to be showered with roses by a grateful population, just before the latter buzzed off to design a Western-style liberal democracy wherein entrepreneurship and the free market decide everything. To some extent, the US and its allies showed that they had learned from past mistakes in Vietnam. At least they seemed to have stopped measuring success in body counts, more body counts, and nothing but body counts. Holding territory and at least attempting to build functioning governments and institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to have played a more central role. Still in the run up to the Iraq invasion Bush and his advisers constructed an echo chamber for themselves and thus fell victim to a delusion just like the “best and brightest” who got the country into Vietnam.

One cannot help but to find parallels with Putin’s post-2014 imperial adventure. In fact, in many ways the delusion is even more destructive than it was for the US in Vietnam. A fundamental pillar of Technowar was the irrefutable fact that America’s military-industrial complex was superior to that of the Vietnamese and their insurgent organization in the South. As the US was getting increasingly involved in Vietnam (something its leaders did quite deliberately for the most part), it was simultaneously experiencing its biggest economic boom. That the US could produce more helicopters, more small arms ammunition, more shells, more rockets, more bombs, etc. was not up for debate, and given the accomplishments of US industry during WWII and the period thereafter, you can almost forgive some of the country’s leaders for succumbing to the delusion that this ability would convince the Communist Vietnamese that they couldn’t win.

Putin, of course, has embarked upon a branching warpath with nothing like the kind of economy the US had prior to 9/11, let alone that of 1950’s-1960’s America. Worse still, while Putin did at least start a massive military overhaul prior to his superpower play, it’s difficult to determine the extent to which the Kremlin gets its money’s worth. When it comes to contractor corruption and questionable budget items, the Pentagon is by no means a virgin. But in Russia corruption permeates every level of society, including the military. Who can say for sure what the Ministry of Defense actually gets for the money it’s spending?

Besides this we can see that the Kremlin, itself not particularly known for waging terribly successful counter-insurgency warfare (paying tribute to a Chechen ex-rebel is hardly victory), has obviously succumbed to a number of Technowar-like delusions in its wars.

In Ukraine there’s  lot of evidence suggesting that the Russian government intended to take a much larger swath of land in the East; at the very least we know they wanted the whole of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. There’s also a very good possibility that in the beginning, they believed they could effect this without much costs, just as they did in the Crimea. It’s also quite possible that they merely let their proxies think this would be the case, letting them take the walk through the minefield. However, one must remember that prior to the mobilization of 2014, Ukraine had at best a token military, one which had disarmed quite a bit with the help of the United States, incidentally. As such, the idea of a two-day drive to Kyiv might not have seemed to far fetched to anyone familiar with the military capabilities of Ukraine and Russia.

Yet despite a government plagued with infighting and corruption, the new Ukrainian army has managed to hold the line in the East. Perhaps showing slightly more regard for reality than the Bush administration or those of the Vietnam War era, the Kremlin radically revised its line toward the “rebellion” in the East, from giving up any plans for taking cities like Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk to scrapping the whole “Novorossiya” project and declaring what’s left of the rebel territories to be part of Ukraine.

Syria, has turned out to be another matter, and another possible source of delusion. It began with the idea that Russia would pretend to lead a crusade against ISIS, and in the process, Western nations would have to work with Moscow to obtain a resolution in Syria. It is highly likely that the “destroy ISIS” pretext was never seriously believed by the Russian Ministry of Defense, but it’s hard to tell because the system here isn’t known for brooking dissent. If Putin says destroying ISIS is the goal, then that’s the goal, even as you’re bombing almost everyone but ISIS in the beginning.

Of course Putin and company were mistaken on other aspects of Syria. The West didn’t exactly jump at the chance to effect reconciliation with Russia, as Putin had apparently hoped when he inaccurately likened the struggle to that of the Grand Alliance of WWII. The sanctions are still in place and there’s no real sign that this will change anytime soon. It is very possible that Western leaders have finally started to understand the interests behind Putin’s sabre-rattling, and if so they might have figured out that any concession they make will not be appreciated, nor will their be reciprocity. Western countries can afford to play the long game in this case.

The Kremlin got a bucket of ice water over the head last November, when one of their fighter-bombers in Syria was easily shot down by Turkish F16’s. This of course was followed by all manner of economic threats against Turkey, but Ankara doesn’t seem to show signs of folding. Erdogan, like Putin, is also an authoritarian steeped in delusions, and he won’t back down in his own backyard. Yet in spite of this, the recent “simulated attack” on the USS Donald Cook (Yes, again) shows that the Russian government hasn’t learned its lesson about what actually happens when they go toe to toe with NATO forces.

There is also, of course, the overarching problem of having no direction or easily-defined objectives, both in Ukraine and Syria. In Ukraine it’s fairly clear that the goal was propaganda aimed at preserving the regime in Moscow. Conditions in Ukraine must ever be worse than those in Russia, so that millions of viewers can always say “At least this isn’t as bad as Ukraine!” It’s also dangerous to have so many Russian-speaking people, and indeed the Kremlin’s propagandists and even Putin himself all insist that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, creating a fully-functioning democratic society that can hold its leaders accountable. If they don’t need a “strong” hand to keep them in line in Sumy or Kharkiv, why do they need it in Kursk, Voronezh, or Moscow?

Of course the problem here is that “troll Ukraine” isn’t really a goal. It costs tons of money and has done nothing but hurt Russia’s image while proving to be a major boon for NATO and the Western military-industrial complex. When it comes to strengthening NATO and getting the US back into Europe, Lucas and Applebaum are amateurs compared to Vladimir Putin. This, incidentally, is probably one of the arguments you’ll hear from conspiracy theorists after the fall of Putin’s regime, when he is inevitably labeled an agent of the State Department (Because fuck the CIA, apparently).

In Syria it would appear there’s more of a concrete goal- defeat ISIS. Whether Assad stays or goes, kicking ISIS back across the border is a coherent, achievable goal. The problem is that it’s clear that more and more of the fighting is falling on the shoulders of Iranians, Russians, and Hizbollah. Russia has the most military resources out of these groups, which means it would be very easy for them to get drawn further in and end up shouldering more of the burden. But let’s say for the sake of argument that they kick ISIS out of Syria- what do they get for this? Sure they’ll gain some propaganda points, perhaps justifiably so this time, but they’ll most likely get stuck with the task of keeping Assad afloat, and there’s always the remaining threat of other rebel groups plus possible ISIS stay-behind forces who could go over to unconventional warfare. You know, that warfare that Russia is really bad at?

When we read the Russian state and pro-Kremlin press on Syria, we don’t really see much discussion about possible failure. In fact, one writer for Russia Insider published a piece that criticized Putin’s move, quite reasonably pointing out that it could put Russia in a difficult lose-lose scenario. The response from other Russia Insider Putin fanboys was harsh. The very idea that Putin’s plans in Syria could possibly fail is “anti-Russian.”

The delusions of the Kremlin regime don’t stop in the realm of military adventures. We see it in their so-called “information war” as well, particularly every time they release another laughably phony video or story. It’s not that Russia doesn’t have plenty of past mistakes to learn from; it’s just that unlike the US, Germany, Japan, or the UK, the powers that be basically nullified those mistakes, and in more recent times they have sought to make their official narrative the only one. All past shocks in Russian society are simply attributed to spies and foreign agents, and thus preventing the next one is simply a matter of finding and stopping the spies and foreign agents. It’s almost like those body counts in Vietnam.

Reality is a harsh mistress. Regimes can ignore her only for a limited time until she kicks in the door and stabs you repeatedly in the gut with a steak knife. It’s clear that the delusions of the Kremlin aren’t quite identical to the meticulously constructed pseudo-science of Gibson’s Technowar, but parallels do exist, and in fact the Kremlin has actually fallen further from reality in some respects. Far from despising force, Putin and his cronies looked with awe and envy at America’s military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If only they could send troops and planes around the world to violate other nations’ sovereignty! Now, at the expense of millions of Russian citizens they believe they have achieved this capability, one which is by no means a sign of true national greatness. Believing themselves to have achieved parity, the Kremlin appears to have devoted zero attention to understanding the foundations of US military might, and they certainly never considered the staggering costs America has paid thanks to the delusions of the original neocons (really good point on that from ex-ambassador McFaul).

Indeed it is ironic that the regime has spent so much on propaganda that gloats over the decline of the American empire when it is traveling down that same road in a much worse condition. Just up that road, slightly off to the side, there’s someone hiding in the brush clutching a Kalashnikov and waiting to spring an ambush. But it’s no Victor Charlie. It’s Lady Reality.

*A Bright Shining Lie is an extremely thick book, but if you don’t have the time or just want to get the gist first, it was made into an HBO original movie back in the 90’s and the whole thing can be found in four part here on Youtube. It’s definitely worth watching.

Balance

I don’t usually post on weekends, but there’s something that came up recently that I have to comment on. Yesterday I was in an impromptu “debate” with Anatoliy “Da Russophile” Karlin on Twitter, and one thing that stood out to me is that he raised an argument about media bias that was nearly identical to something I had been saying in 2011-2012. In fact, I actually made this argument face-to-face with ex-VOA Moscow bureau chief Jim Brooke after a lecture he gave here. Basically the question is why the “Western” media focuses so much attention on the small opposition while virtually ignoring the “official opposition,” which is of course much bigger.

When I was pointing this out, my understanding of politics in Putin’s Russia wasn’t yet fully formed. I’d had a lot of interactions with people from the KPRF or affiliated organizations and to me their opposition to the government, at least in the ranks, seemed genuine enough. And indeed, you will find actual competition among parties at lower levels. My suspicion was that the outside media was focusing their attention on figures like Kasparov and Navalny because they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that Russia’s biggest opposition party, which was heavily represented in the protest marches I’d attended, is a “Communist” party. The radical conservative LDPR party is the next largest opposition party, and it is also less savory to Western eyes.

Later on, however, the falseness of these opposition parties became clearer to me, especially in 2014. In case you weren’t sure, on one occasion Vladimir Zhirinovsky publicly declared that elections should be done away with and Putin should be given the title of Supreme Commander. Keep in mind this is supposed to be Putin’s presidential rival. Given the utter lack of real political struggle at the federal level, is it any wonder that the outside media is attracted to opposition figures, especially when they end up getting harassed, jailed, or in the case of Nemtsov- killed?

Furthermore, I’m quite certain that if either major opposition party did mount significant opposition to one of the president’s initiatives, the foreign media would be all over it. After all, this would be a rare case. Imagine that- Putin puts forth a new law and finds his initiative blocked by staunch united opposition from KPRF and LDPR, something on par with the GOP resistance to Obama’s healthcare bill. That’s definitely newsworthy.

On the other hand, sometimes Western media bias can come in the form of undue attention to these parties or their actions. For example, LDPR leaders and deputies constantly make bombastic public statements. Russians typically ignore these statements because well…it’s LDPR. This is what they do. But what impression does a non-Russia watching reader get when they see a headline saying something like: RUSSIAN POLITICIAN PROPOSES ANNEXING FINLAND. Sure, the article might mention his party affiliation, but how likely is the reader to know how much influence this person actually has? They probably have no idea what the ruling party in Russia is called, if they can name any parties at all.

Another example of this is all those stories you hear about some town in Russia putting up a bust of Stalin or some other Stalin-related material. Many times these are initiatives undertaken by local KPRF officials, not the ruling party and certainly not Putin. But most readers outside Russia understand its politics in an oversimplified way. Putin is in charge of Russia. Government officials put up a bust of Stalin. Ergo Putin is bringing Stalin back! Well no, he isn’t really. It’s actually an opposition party doing those things.

Lastly, we see that even in the West, media likes to focus on extreme groups. When we think about mainstream media coverage of conservative Republicans, for example, what do we tend to see? Do we see the moderates, the secular Republicans who don’t give a damn about gay marriage but just believe in tax cuts and cutting spending? Or did the media focus on the Tea Parties back when they were popular? From a news point of view, things from the fringes are interesting. Protests are interesting.

Discussions like this one remind me of an interesting type of cognitive bias I recently read about called the Hostile Media Effect. Naturally this is of great interest to me. In short, it’s this tendency to perceive that the bulk of the media is opposed to your views. I think we’ve all had this feeling at some point, if not most of our lives. This why you get people asking questions like “Why doesn’t the mainstream Western media ever criticize their governments,” to which the best response is usually “Why can’t you use Google?

When it comes to people complaining about anti-Russia bias, I often wonder why they don’t leap to defend the reputation of dozens of other countries for which most news tends to be negative. There are plenty of negative stories about African countries, many of which contain incorrect information. Meanwhile the warriors against media bias will scream about a negative but true story about Russia, insisting that it is deliberate propaganda or information war.

This is not to say that the bias is only in our heads. There is always going to be bias in news. Media awareness helps us not only correctly identify it, but also navigate around it to find the truth.  In this case, I think two important points are:

-Understand how news is actually made to see where bias becomes a factor. If people understand the commonly accepted methods of journalism and style, they’ll understand why some articles appear more or less biased than they actually are.

-Understand that a lot of bias is not intentional. It can be unintentional or even out of the hands of the journalist or the editor. Or it can be driven by bigger, structural problems that don’t point to some kind of specific agenda.

Whatever we do, the Russian “alternative,” whereby we replace structural and unintentional biases with deliberate bias and propaganda is not an alternative. It doesn’t help us counter-balance the biases we see in our own media, rather it just means fewer and fewer people actually tackle the problem and instead open their mind to propaganda whose production value and quality rapidly degrades over time. This is that “menace of unreality” people like Pomerantsev warn us about. It’s attractive because it’s easy and doesn’t require a lot of thought, but in the long run we become cynical to the point of total inactivity.