Rise of the Russia Grifter Class

If you ever need a quick example of how capitalism does not, in fact, direct resources to the best possible uses, you need look no further than the massive self-help or management consulting industries. Largely unregulated, any silver-tongued charlatan can hawk some kind of psychological snake oil and millionaires if not billionaires will bury them in piles of money. Product development is pretty easy. Just come up with deep-sounding platitudes, common sense advice repacked in your own unique way, folksy wisdom, and of course, counter-intuitive “facts.” The efficacy of what you’re selling cannot be easily measured, so the only way you’re going to fail is if your audience gets bored.

Those who peddle this bullshit may go by many names- consultant, guru, therapist, pundit, lobbyist. But there is a much more appropriate term for such people- grifters. We live in a world that is rife with inequality and arbitrary or unjust authority. As such, those with power require the services of those who help justify something that cannot be justified with logic or concrete evidence. They need people to reassure them that they are wise, politically savvy, and morally upright. They need these people as much as they need lawyers, courts, the police, etc., and for the same reason- they perpetuate and sustain the conditions of capitalism. Of course when we speak about the grifters this way it is a bit of an oversimplification. After all, the grifters themselves have agency and they are basically entrepreneurs trying to survive in a market society. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are peddling bullshit because the market actually demands, nay requires, a lot of bullshit to keep running.

Since 2016 we’ve seen the rise of a new grifter class, the “Russia expert” grifter. To be sure, they started to appear around 2014, when Western politicians suddenly realized that the Kremlin is hostile to their interests (because there was literally no way to notice this prior to the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas). However, 2016’s big story about Russian meddling in the US presidential election signaled to grifters everywhere that there was money to be made in the Cold War 2.0.  Enter the instant Russia expert.

Probably the best examples of this would be Eric “Game Theory” Garland and Louise Mensch. The latter, being a politician, is a natural grifter. As for Garland, he’s some kind of management consultant, which means he’s definitely skilled in the art of bullshit. But for every big-name grifter you already know, there seem to be new ones popping up left and right. What are they after? Grants? Cushy think-tank jobs? More media exposure to hawk their services? And what services, specifically?

It seems that one new mutation of the instant Russia expert (often identified by a total lack of Russian language knowledge and/or significant experience in Russia) is the Russian propaganda expert. This is someone who claims to have special insight or expertise into Russian “information warfare” techniques. Since the US and EU both seem interested in some kind of counter-propaganda (because it’s relatively cheaper than actually fixing the problems that make them vulnerable to that propaganda in the first place), there’s definitely money on the table.

How do you know you’re dealing with one of the new Russia grifters? Well one thing to look for is an utter lack of new insight or revelation in their writing. Most of the time they are just rehashing others’ work. There’s never any meat to their explanations- it’s just safe predictions or blatantly obvious observations. For a case study look no further than this piece by Brett Bruen, for The Hill.

The first thing we need to look at is Bruen’s bio, which I quote in full here:

“Brett Bruen is president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Global Situation Room, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He served as director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and as a diplomat for 12 years in Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq, and Madagascar.”

Hmmm… Solid academic credentials no doubt. But notice anything missing there? Russia? Eastern Europe? Europe? Now apparently he has diplomatic experience, but given that Obama’s foreign policy was not much better than previous administrations, I’m not going to be automatically cowed by that CV. The biggest warning sign is “D.C.-based consulting firm.” I smell a lobbyist. But let’s not judge too quickly. Let’s see what insight this guy can give us into Russian information war in the near future.

“Last year was just the start. Next year, Russia’s intelligence and information operations will kick it into high gear. There are several reasons I am making this prediction.”

What does kicking it into high gear even mean in this context? When exactly was it in low-gear? How do we even measure this? While Russian election meddling has had very mixed results, we can only assume that those responsible for Russia’s information war prefer to keep their lucrative positions, and will thus continue to fight for funding. Does this mean they’ll increase their activities? Maybe not. They may decide to use more subtle, efficient tactics. They may jettison a lot of poorly-performing propaganda techniques to focus on those which get more attention. Basically this prediction is meaningless.

“First, the congressional races are an even easier target.”

Are they, though? First of all America’s House of Representatives is largely the product of massive gerrymandering back in 2010. In general, Congress as a whole has a very low turnover rate. If actual American candidates have such a hard time challenging incumbents, how will the Russians challenge them? There’s also the question of why Russia would even attempt to influence the outcome, but of course Brett has an answer for this.

“Second, their outcome will largely determine whether current sanctions stay in place or if even stronger ones are enacted.”

Oh right! The Senate passed that bill to increase sanctions on Russia and require congressional review for any presidential proposal to remove or ease the sanctions! That’s it! The Russians will want to influence the midterm elections in order to get people into Congress that would approve of Agent Trump’s efforts to remove sanctions! It’s so simple!

Oh wait a minute…That recent sanctions bill passed the Senate with a vote of 98-2. Looks pretty bipartisan to me. The Magnitsky Act, arguably the first sanctions against Russia, was also a bipartisan move. The majority of Republicans seem more than happy to pass sanctions on Russia, and you know the Democrats are game since the party’s elite is still convinced that Russia is totally responsible for ruining last year’s planned coronation.

Now given these obvious facts plus everything I’ve already pointed out about incumbents, low midterm turnouts, and gerrymandering, tell me exactly who Russia is going to back in 2018. They’re not going to have a pool of Dana Rohrabachers and David Dukes on whose behalf they can intervene.

Let’s also not forget that apart from this new sanctions bill, foreign policy is typically the domain of the president. Therefore it would be extremely difficult for the Russians to even figure out who they should support, assuming they could even find a significant number of useful candidates (and they won’t).

Moving on…

“Finally, last year was an unmitigated success for Russia. Doubt and division across America’s democracy was pushed to new heights. If I’m sitting in the Kremlin, 2018 offers me the chance to continue to stir the pot and further undermine confidence in Western democracy.”

There’s a lot of people in high-up Russian circles who would definitely, if not publicly, dispute that “unmitigated success” characterization. For one thing, Americans were clearly capable of making American democracy look like a circus- just look at the Republican primaries alone. But while the Russians have definitely scored from the outcome of the election (and keep in mind nobody has come up with convincing proof that Russian meddling had more impact than poor campaigning or other domestic factors), they also stand to lose a lot. As Mark Galeotti has pointed out time and time again, Trump is unpredictable, and Russia’s biggest advantage was the predictability of its opponents. The continuation of sanctions and the surprise cruise missile strike on Syria were just two examples of how Trump’s unpredictability is a major headache for the Kremlin.

“The first element in this plan is for Congress and the American public to continue straight on our current path. Democrats crying foul, Republicans largely feigning concern and defending their wins. President Trump creating daily distractions. Most importantly, no real action being undertaken to manage or mitigate our country’s exposure to version 2.0. This allows Moscow to prepare mostly unfettered, an even bigger assault on much smaller targets next year.”

Oh hey, why am I quoting this paragraph? No reason other than to show that it is utterly superfluous. There is nothing of value in it whatsoever.

“The vulnerability of the congressional elections is seemingly obvious.”

Eeeehhhh…No. It’s actually quite the opposite for the reasons I pointed out above. See the Kremlin has to have candidates it wants to win in order to properly interfere in the election. See Wilders, Le Pen, etc.

“Instead of manipulating national and international media, you can focus on a few local outlets where voters in those districts get most of their news.”

Huh? Who assumes that people in small towns get most of their news only from local outlets? Big cities have local outlets, and people in smaller towns and cities still have internet, cable TV, etc.

“The key races aren’t fought in the cities. Journalists in small towns are often less experienced and more easily manipulated.”

What exactly is this based on? Local journalists have often uncovered serious scandals, often better than those working for big corporations with no local expertise and a shoestring budget.

More importantly, manipulating the news at this level might arguably be much harder, because smaller locales have a more tightly-knit community. Pizzagate, a ridiculous conspiracy theory that was cooked up by American morons on the internet, got traction because it centered around a restaurant in a hipster-ish (or so I’ve read) area of DC, a major city where many Americans have never been (I, for example, have only been to the airport for a short layover). Now just imagine someone trying to manipulate the local Smallville Weekly Examiner with a story claiming Ma and Pa Walton’s Country Home Family Diner is running a secret child sex-trafficking ring. As stupid as the Pizzagate conspiracy was, it’s much easier to believe terrible things about people when they are faceless others living far away in places you’ve never been.

There’s another problem with trying to manipulate local media and interfere in congressional races- first of all there’s a lot of them, and second, there are a lot of local issues to learn about. One thing we’ve seen with Russian trolling efforts is that they are often laughably poor. Casey Michel on Twitter has often provided numerous examples of the hilariously bad English seen on a pro-Russian “Texas separatist” Facebook page, for example.

 

“Moreover, just a handful of races can tip the balance of power. Russia will concentrate their power in those places. This also allows them avoid the exposure a national influence operation involves.”

Again I’m forced to ask how they’re supposed to get around the gerrymandering issue and who are they planning to back, because so far this looks like a pretty shit plan to me. It’s important for me to point out here that I’m not saying they won’t try to interfere in the congressional elections. I can even see the value in interfering simply to cause disputed elections and more domestic chaos. But the author is clearly implying that the Russians will try to interfere with a specific goal of achieving certain outcomes and he has ignored so many basic features of the 2018 elections that if I hadn’t read his bio, I’d assume he was a foreigner. Russian perhaps?!

So far what we have here is something that was clearly intended to sound like analysis, but which is utterly devoid of any real content and utterly lacking in any sort of insight. It would have been much better if he’d just written “They interfered in the last election and they’ll probably keep doing it because it causes a lot of problems.”

“Having coordinated America’s first modern campaign to counter Russian propaganda in Europe, I’m all too familiar with how they work.”

I feel like if this is what his background is, I should have at least heard of him so far. In any case, Europe and America were way behind Ukraine in countering this propaganda. Furthermore, much of the counter-propaganda effort has boiled down to nothing more than fact-checking. While this is useful, it doesn’t really do much to rollback the effects of the propaganda. The main reason for this is that the West has no suitable counter-narrative. They don’t even seem to think a counter-narrative is even necessary, beyond some platitudes about human rights, democracy, and a “rules-based order.” But that’s a topic for another article.

In any case, being in charge of such a new effort doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. In this case I’d actually argue that I have more expertise with such propaganda having been in several target audiences for Russian propaganda, plus my experience in Russia and my connections who work or used to work in the Russian state-run media.

“The potency of their tradecraft is found in its successful manipulation of facts.”

Tradecraft! One hundred intelligence points awarded!

Seriously though, is the successful manipulation of facts really an exclusively Russian propaganda feature? This is one of those cases where it is definitely not whataboutism to say that tons of actors, from politicians to pundits manipulate facts. If anything Russian propaganda, in certain contexts, is unique in the sense that it will often totally invent stories almost out of thing air, and then continually repackage them until you can’t easily determine the original source and thus can’t tell whether they are real or where they came from. Even this is not terribly original. I’d say the most unique thing about Russian propaganda is the fact that they will do this often with very poorly concocted stories which are easily debunked. They seem to believe there is some value in the continual use of such poorly constructed stories.

“They then use their own of affiliated media outlets to ensure the information gets traction. Yet, they don’t expect most voters to tune into Russia Today. Instead, they are betting a blogger, an activist group, or local journalist will report on it or share on their own networks. This tactic can be used independently or coupled to their intelligence work, as it was in the presidential race. “

Here there is some truth to this, but what is new or insightful here? What do we learn from this? It’s nothing that hasn’t been said by plenty of people for the past two or three years now. Also he’s ignoring how much of RT’s content actually comes from mining Western conspiracy theories. It seems zero effort has been made to attack homegrown propaganda. Gee, I wonder why that might be…

“There will be hacks. Yet, the damage won’t come from the information their intelligence service will expose on campaign plans or questionable stuff staff were saying and sharing. The new danger comes from that ability to manufacture seemingly authentic material. Emails you didn’t write that insult key constituencies will suddenly appear on Wikileaks. How can you disprove them? Even if you do, time and credibility will be lost. More importantly for the Russians, confusion will be created.”

So the country that has acquired a reputation for cyber-attacks will keep doing them. Okay. Could have saved some words there. Also, earlier he points out that important races will be decided in smaller towns where people get their news from local sources (his assertion). Now we’re supposed to believe these people will be browsing Wikileaks? Will local reporters see the material on Wikileaks and report on them? That’s possible. But it’s also possible that for the reasons I stated above, it will be easier for them to investigate and find out they are false.

“Many will say that we have seen this before. Yet just as in France this year and in our own presidential campaign last year, the size, scale, and sophistication of this information operation will be unprecedented. Its potency will be far greater in 2018.”

Did someone forget to tell him that Russia’s efforts to do this in France failed miserably this year? In fact, Macron’s team even found a way to play the hackers at their own game.

“Having refined their tools and tactics, we can expect a much more dangerous version to emerge. They will be firing from their asymmetric arsenal of influence at small town and suburban America, where the key races will take place.”

Again. Gerrymandering. Candidates hostile to Russia. How are they going to deal with any of that? Are they going to somehow get voters to write in some local Putin-loving defective en masse? What’s the plan here?

“It will be like the Cold War era movie I remember watching as a kid, “Red Dawn.” Except this time, it will be massive armies of Russian propagandists landing in Middle America. We will need more than the spunk of a teenage Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen to defeat them.”

Um no, it will be nothing like Red Dawn, especially since even if this did actually happen as you say, the Russian propagandists don’t literally come to America at all. The only sense in which this analogy works is that this article is analogous to the kind of right-wing paranoia that inspired Red Dawn.

“So where are the preparations for this new Russian assault? Why are the government, political parties, and the news media not preparing more countermeasures?”

Gee, Brett, I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I bet you do, and you’ll happily tell our government what to do, for a modest fee of course!

I’m going to leave Brett for a bit and just say that this Russia grifter class is not just a group of harmless wannabe spies. Apart from the money and resources they suck from governments, they actually aid Russian propaganda efforts in two ways. One way is by portraying Putin as being more powerful and influential than he actually is. Putin’s domestic propaganda, which is the propaganda most important for his survival, incidentally, is almost entirely dedicated to portraying the Dear Leader as a defender against Western encroachment. Not only does he stubbornly oppose them, but he trolls them while doing it. Another way is by the propagation of Garland/Mensch-like conspiracy theories. These tend to generate a lot of low hanging fruit that can easily be picked off by pro-Russian writers. A favorite tactic of the RT Op-Edge is to pick on the easily debunked claims of some Western journalist, and then imply that all Western coverage of Russia can be dismissed for its Russophobia.

The other way it helps Russian propaganda is by securing and increasing funding for outlets like RT and Sputnik. As Alexei Kovalev has pointed out many times in the past, Western government hysteria about these outlets has become a kind of performance metric for them. They collect quotes of Western leaders angrily railing against RT and Sputnik and then use them as proof that they are doing something. This, of course, is basically just scamming the Russian government, but in terms of information war the effect helps the Russian propaganda machine.

So if they don’t actually turn back Russian propaganda and basically help it both indirectly and directly, why are these grifters the darlings of the Western establishment these days? Why can’t someone like me get in on this Russian propaganda-debunking business, given my experience?

The draw for the grifters lies in the fact that they tell Western leaders what they want to hear. “All those social problems you refuse to deal with? That’s not your fault. It’s Russia. They’re exploiting those problems.” This is particularly pleasing because it means that people who keep talking about those problems, activists, for example, can be tarred as Russian propagandists, doing the bidding of the Kremlin. You know, that almost reminds me of this other government I know, but I digress.

 

Bullshit self-help gurus succeed because they tell their clients something they want to hear. Sometimes, the therapy works. Many times it doesn’t. Most of the time it’s impossible to measure.

So it is with the Russia grifters. They’ll keep spitting out lots of intel-speak like “tradecraft” and “active measures” and they’ll keep raking in the dough until there’s a new big threat on the horizon. We’re witnessing the decline of the phony Islamic terrorism expert (see Sebastian Gorka)  and the ascendancy of the phony Russian propaganda expert. I’d imagine the next incarnation will most likely be the phony Chinese propaganda expert, but looking at Chinese foreign-language propaganda so far, it looks like it will take a while before Western politicians can be successfully duped into seeing it as an existential threat.

 

UPDATE: I’ve updated the piece regarding the Senate vote, as a source I read today said it was 98-2 and not 97-2 (I’d seen the figure somewhere before and assumed someone abstained). Also it appears the new sanctions bill discussed in this article is floundering in the House, with the opposition coming from Republicans. They’re claiming that it’s a constitutional issue, but I think it’s pretty clear what’s really going on- all House Republicans are compromised Russian agents!

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6 thoughts on “Rise of the Russia Grifter Class

  1. AndyT

    Nowadays, Faking is Making.

    And Vladimir Putin can boast a great result indeed: he’s at the center of a brand-new industry – I can imagine part of the 2018 Class enrolling at some phony “Russian Propaganda Studies” course.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I think Mark Galeotti points out the most dangerous thing about this trend when he says that pinning everything on Russia risks pinning nothing on Russia.

      Remember that the goal of Russia’s propaganda is not to say “We’re telling the truth, this is what happened.” It’s more like “You can’t really know what happened, so you can’t point the finger at us!” They promote this by constantly promoting endless alternative explanations of everything, some of them laughably poor.

      By creating anti-Russian conspiracy theories, the grifters are just contributing to this gross stupidity and anti-critical thinking atmosphere. Russia’s propagandists can say things like “How can you trust what the West reports about MH17 when Mensch accused them of killing Andrew Breitbart?”

      Reply
      1. AndyT

        Also, putting all the blame on the Stategist Extraordinaire, Skillful Chess Player, Evil Russian Boogeyman is a great way to divert people’s attention from our governments’ shortcomings.

  2. Jim Kovpak Post author

    The worst outcome is a near future where every election, every referendum, all turns around what Russia supposedly wants or doesn’t want. If things get this way, it would be as if Russia literally controls Western politics. Rather than backing single politicians that are openly pro-Kremlin or Kremlin leaning, they can feign support for all candidates who might be challenging the establishment, technocratic centrist candidates who are typically responsible for the same shitty policies that make populations vulnerable to Kremlin prop in the first place. Look at how some Democrats still act as though the very fact that Hillary was forced to compete against anyone was an affront to Democracy and nothing more than an opportunity for Russian meddling.

    Essentially these insta-intel experts and New Cold Warriors would hand Putin the very victory he could not possibly achieve via his own methods- in the name of “fighting the Kremlin,” Western establishments would rally more strongly around centrist candidates and their shitty policies, which deepens the degradation of Western societies and community. What is more, these politicians knowing that they can tar all their opponents with the Kremlin candidate brush, will not feel any need to change their policy directions in order to meet demands. Popular demands will just be dismissed as Kremlin-induced “populism.” Hence more shitty policies. Apart from the destabilization and degeneration, Putin’s media wins again because it would “prove” to his domestic audience that Western democracy is a joke.

    Reply
    1. AndyT

      Yes, a new Witch Hunt – in the 50s it was the “Commie” label, today’s is the “Putin’s candidate” one.

      On the other hand, some anti-establishment politicians DO show support for the Kremlin (in the name of “opposing American Imperialism”, or because of that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend crap) – which only makes things more messy for any voter dissatisfied with the establishment’s policies..

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Double Feature | Russia Without BS

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