One of my more popular pieces on this blog is the Russia Watcher’s Field Guide, which is why it occupies a permanent position as a page rather than a post. Today I’d like to induct a few new concepts into the parlance, though rather than just add them to the field guide I’d like to describe them at length. So, without further ado…
The Gerasimov Gambit
“I see the Team Deza is deploying all its active measures against my recent Tweet, where I called out Medicare-for-all as a Kremlin ploy to divide America. You always get the most flak over the target!” -Some imbecile on Twitter
So there’s this logical fallacy often invoked by morons called the “Galileo Gambit.” This is a technique whereby some crank uses the fact that their theories are ignored and/or ridiculed by “the establishment” as proof that they are right. “After all, they laughed at Galileo, did they not?”
Naturally this is dumb, and people who use this formulation are dumb. You know what’s also dumb? When you’re some 2016-minted “Russia expert” whose response to any criticism or question about credentials is to accuse your critics of being agents of the Kremlin, or at best, useful idiots.
There are people who attract hostility from paid Twitter trolls and Kremlin media because their work is actually a threat to the regime’s agenda (e.g. Bellingcat), and then there are people who attract the same hostility and harassment simply because they are low-hanging fruit, and when you’re a propagandist defending an indefensible regime you need that fruit to be as low as possible.
So yeah, maybe you get the most flak over the target, but that might not necessarily be the best military metaphor to describe what it is you’re doing. Are you really a B17 pilot flying on a mission to bomb a torpedo factory? Or are you an infantryman running towards a hardened machine-gun nest waving your arms and screaming?
Dictatorship Tourist Syndrome (DTS)
“Our mainstream media is constantly telling us that this country is an authoritarian dictatorship where nobody has any human rights. But I, an American, have been here for a whole week, speaking to teachers, policemen, and workers in state-owned enterprises with the help of my government-provided interpreter and I don’t feel oppressed at all! In fact I feel as free if not freer than I do at home, and for that I’m overwhelmingly grateful to the government organization that invited me on this press junket they organized!”
I’ve seen many examples of this over the years, but lately there was a bit of a cluster of such cases during the recent World Cup in Russia. In fact, this isn’t at all exclusive to Russia. You see examples of this shit all the time in countries run by differing degrees of dictatorships.
Some time ago I wrote an article about expat privilege, but this goes way beyond that. Expats are often aware of the problems in the country they live in, even if they don’t face the consequences or at least not to the extent that natives do. If you’re a tourist in a country, you probably don’t know dick about real life there. This goes double if you’re on some state-organized press junket like those that Russia and Syria have offered in the past.
Back in 2011 I went to China and I can still say it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. Yes, I was a bit shocked by things like the lack of central heating and doors (seriously what is the deal with that?), but in general everything was great. I can’t honestly tell you I saw signs of authoritarian oppression or corruption. The thing is, though, I’m smart enough to realize that just because I don’t personally witness something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
The fact is that dictatorships, even some of the most authoritarian ones, have never been incapable of showing some guests a good time. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany pulled it off all the time (Nazi Germany even dressed up one of its concentration camps to make it seem like a veritable spa resort). Modern dictatorships like Russia are nowhere near as restricted, and thus it’s even easier for visitors to get the idea that all this talk of human rights violations and repression is “just propaganda from the mainstream media.” Don’t do this. Don’t think “everything you’ve heard is a lie” just because you weren’t arrested and shot in the face after two days in the country.
Kremlin Koncern Troll
“This new Cold War is ever so awful! It’s so terrible how there’s so much misunderstanding between the West and Russia now, and it’s really dangerous too! If only more Westerners knew the truth about Russia. The West is really spreading so much Russophobic propaganda! Such a terrible misunderstanding!”
-The Kremlin Koncern Troll
I want to clarify something about this term. When I use the term Kremlin here I am only implying that these people promote a certain kind of Kremlin narrative with their rhetoric. I do not mean to imply that these people work for the Kremlin or the Russian state in any way. Most of these people hold sincere beliefs and a lot of times they fall for such narratives because they have personal relationships with ordinary Russians so it’s only natural to acquire some biases.
With that out of the way, one must understand the concept of a “concern troll.” This is an old internet term for someone who shows up in online discussions and pretends to be on the same side as the majority of the posters. They typically couch their rhetoric as constructive criticism or playing Devil’s advocate. However, over time it becomes clear that the concern troll seems to take more issue with the ideas of their supposed allies than their perceived opponents. Concern trolling can often be expressed via things like false equivalencies or “both sides” arguments, constant worrying about “our methods,” etc. In any movement, groupthink and cult-like behavior is bad, naturally, but when it seems someone takes more issue with the group than anyone else, it’s fair to ask whether they’re actually supporting the same cause or the opposite.
From time to time I encounter these would-be peacemakers, Westerners, who assure us that they just want to clear up all the misunderstandings we see between the West and Russia right now. First of all this is kind of disingenuous because the fact is that the number one reason for the breakdown in Russian-Western relations is neither the West nor Russian people but the Putin regime, plain and simple. The truth is that apart from some tough talk and the extremely limited Magnitsky Act, the West was more than happy to look the other way and defer to the Kremlin while Putin and his cronies robbed Russia’s citizens and stashed the money away in Western banks and luxury real estate. Hell, when Bashar al-Assad launched a major chemical weapons attack, Putin took credit for the proposal to work with the US in disposing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, and the supposedly hell-bent-on-regime-change US government went right along with it. And of course after that Assad never used chemical weapons again. Oh wait. Shit. What was the thing that led to a real breakdown in relations? The annexation of Crimea by Russia. And even then, the really serious sanctions didn’t come until Russia’s proxy forces shot down a civilian airliner killing 298 people. So no, this wasn’t exactly mutual.
Look, I have no problem examining the West’s blunders toward Russia, whether in the 90’s or the early Putin era. But that only goes so far. Of course Russia is allowed to have security interests, but if those interests including getting a privileged sphere of influence where it gets to approve the presidents of other countries and determine their constitutional order (as they clearly have wanted to do with Ukraine), well I’m sorry that just can’t be accommodated. Still, while there are many Russians who agree with these policies and narratives, I must reiterate that the problem is the actual policies of the Kremlin, and the people had no say in that.
Of course the KKT doesn’t stop at “both sides” when it comes to clearing up this horrible misunderstanding they call the New Cold War. No it always seems to turn out that the problem is Westerners not knowing anything about Russians and never the other way around. They start off acting like there’s this mutual misunderstanding, but they end up explicitly or implicitly telling you that it’s the West’s fault for not being understanding enough. Realistically, Russia is a rather xenophobic country (caveat- it seems every country has been getting more xenophobic as of late). Russians have just as many inaccurate stereotypes about Westerners as Westerners have about them. But this is somewhat irrelevant because the situation we see in terms of bilateral relations with Russia isn’t because Americans think Russians sit around drinking vodka with bears or because Russians think Americans can’t find anything on a map and think they won the Second World War singlehandedly. It happened because of specific actions either ordered or condoned by the Russian government, actions which are hostile to the West and its citizens. And again let me reinforce the point that the Kremlin took those actions because it sees them as conducive to remaining in power, and remaining in power means continuing to rob and pillage the peoples of the Russian Federation.
As I said before, I don’t think all of the people who engage in this behavior are active or conscious supporters of the Putin regime. Yes, such people do use similar rhetoric, but they also tend to be far more open about which side they support. The people I’m talking about seem to do it out of a concern for balance, or more often than not, a certain flaw in reasoning that is often common among people on the left. Here I’m referring to the idea that only the U.S. or West acts, while other countries only react to those actions. So when someone on American TV slams the Kremlin for interfering in our election, this gets portrayed as hysteria, “McCarthyism,” or “Russophobia,” while no attention is paid to the fact that Russia’s state media is almost constantly running blatantly anti-Western narratives almost round the clock. Louise Mensch? Eric Garland? On Russian state TV people with that level of credibility are often regular guests on talk shows. And if you think some US pundit criticizing the Russian election hacking is aggressive and dangerous, maybe do a little research to see how often Russian state media openly talks about nuking the West.
This isn’t a mutual misunderstanding. The current state of relations between the West and Russia can be blamed largely on one side, one man, in fact- Vladimir Putin.