Author Archives: Jim Kovpak

About Jim Kovpak

Journalist, translator, actor, humorist

On Applebaum and the Holodomor

So last night I was reading a piece from The Nation reviewing Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine. You’d think it would be highly critical but in fact it is extremely balanced, acknowledging the genuine research Applebaum did on the subject of the Holodomor while pointing out its flaws (HINT: it has to do with Applebaum’s barely-concealed ideological biases). But just like with articles in other left-wing mags, it strays away from history and into the present, where it can’t help but regurgitate the Russian narrative.

In terms of the history, the author Sophie Pinkham is mostly dead on, though I’d have to dispute her claim that the Bolsheviks didn’t have a Russian imperialist view toward Ukraine. This issue is tackled in painstaking detail by Stephen Velychenko’s Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925. There is a very clear case that Lenin himself had a huge blindspot in regards to imperialism and colonialism when it came to Russia, and that his concessions toward Ukraine were more a matter of pragmatism than sincerely acknowledging his ideological mistake. The chauvinism shown by members of the Russian-dominated Communist Party of Ukraine was even more pronounced.

The idea that national chauvinism still existed in self-proclaimed socialist societies really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to modern leftists, many of whom acknowledge that the struggle for socialism goes beyond the core class struggle to encompass other forms of domination and hierarchy such as sexism, racism and national oppression, homophobia, etc. Also, Applebaum, like many anti-Communists, contradicts herself by acknowledging the Russian chauvinism of Bolshevik leaders. Anti-Communists typically want to claim that socialism always leads to authoritarianism, mass death, repression, etc. By the same token, they are fond of accusing historical socialists of being total hypocrites, not actually achieving or standing behind their stated beliefs, and so on. Thus there’s a bit of a conundrum here for the anti-Communist. If the Marxists of the 20th century betrayed their own values, then all the problems that occurred under those regimes really can’t be attributed to socialism or Marxism since they did not really implement either. If they actually did implement those values (which is a dubious assertion), then they cannot be accused of being cynical liars who would readily betray their stated goals and values just to maintain power. Yeah I know it’s a bit confusing, but blame the anti-Communists; they came up with it.

Apart from this minor flaw (many Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin, were more or less sincere about their beliefs in internationalism and Marxism; the Russian chauvinism was largely a blindspot), the historical aspect of the review is fairly solid. Where things go off the rails is when it comes to recent history, and I think the long-time reader knows where this is going to go- to Maidan.

There is good justification to discuss Applebaum’s bizarre admiration for nationalism, because this affects her analysis of the Holodomor in her book. But rather than tackling the flaws of Applebaum’s opinions on nationalism head-on, the author goes off on Ukraine with the old Russian narrative- “Maidan was a nationalist phenomenon, nationalists dominate the new government, bla bla bla.” Let us look at how she does this.

In an article in the New Republic in May 2014, when Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution had been followed by a war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern regions, Applebaum argued that nationalism offered Ukraine’s only hope of salvation.

Let’s be a bit clearer here- a war did not simply “follow” Maidan. A Russian invasion and annexation followed. Had Russia not acted as it did, there would be no war in the East- period. To speak about Russian-backed separatists is to pretend that there was some substantial separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine where there was not- even the early incarnation of a separatist movement (totally obscure and marginal prior to 2014) was the creation of Russian “political technologists” and groups like the Eurasianist movement of Alexander Dugin. The war was started by Russia, just as Russian citizen and “Novorossiya” armed forces commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin admitted.

Now since the quote above does touch on an article by Applebaum which the author thinks is relevant to her work in Red Famine, rest assured I will get to discussing Applebaum’s thoughts on nationalism because they are indeed extremely problematic. But bear with me for a bit while I tackle these nuggets of the Russian narrative that are used to refute Applebaum’s ideas.

Across Europe and around the world, stark economic inequality and the capture of political and legal systems by the ultra-rich have fed popular anger and resentment. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, this anger can be misdirected—often intentionally, by self-serving politicians—into a populist nationalism that encourages hatred and exclusion rather than economic and political reform. Instead of asking why power has been concentrated in the hands of a corrupt elite, nationalists put the blame for social problems on migrants, minorities, and foreign influence. Relatively small groups of extreme nationalists can help stymie political reform.

While all this is undoubtedly true in general, it really doesn’t apply to Ukraine. Even Ukraine’s weak nationalists typically aren’t peddling the usual anti-migrant or anti-Semitic scapegoats on a day-to-day basis. And for those who do, they are easily matched by Russian propaganda that also echoes the same claims, such as “Ukraine is controlled by Jews!” Given Ukraine’s specific and very obvious problems, it’s kind of hard to garner support with anti-immigrant rhetoric. It’s a lot easier to join the chorus of slogans against “oligarchs,” “treason,” etc.

By far the worst salvo is to be found here:

Over the years since the Maidan Revolution, it has come to light that right-wing nationalists not only physically attacked unarmed leftists at the protests, but helped to initiate the turn to violence that led to the deaths of some 100 protesters at Maidan Square. Since the revolution, right-wing nationalists have been able to take important positions in government, manipulate policy and the judicial process, push forward a blockade that helped cause a humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine, and harass minorities with impunity.

Lot to unpack here. First of all, a lot of people at Maidan had what could be called left-wing views. To date, I have heard one specific story of nationalists attacking left-wing protesters during the march. If the nationalists had been doing this on a large scale, eventually it would have caused a rupture in the camp. This does not seem to have happened throughout the movement. Whether it did or not, it’s important to note that there is evidence to show that Yanukovych and his party had a long history of supporting and even funding the far right in Ukraine as an electoral strategy.

The more egregious claim in the excerpt, however, is that it was the nationalists who sparked the violence during the revolution. In reality, it was the police who turned the protest violent with their brutal suppression of Euromaidan at the end of November. This movement consisted mainly of young students- not right-wing nationalists. Their is no concrete evidence to suggest that nationalists were behind the killing of protesters either (apart from one unconfirmed claim reported by the BBC).

The claim that the radical nationalists have important positions in government is also overstated. As for the blockade- I’m sorry but who started the war? These so-called “republics” declared themselves to be independent and essentially at war with Ukraine. Did they expect friendly trade relations? And if the author actually believes these to be genuine separatists as opposed to Russian puppets, why not spare a word about their nationalism? One could argue that their entire governments are dominated by “nationalists.”

As for harassing minorities with impunity, this is not nearly as frequent as the sentence implies. Ukraine has problems with racism just like any Eastern European country- perhaps a bit less than some other Eastern European countries, in fact (ahem). The problem of attacks with impunity has a lot more to do with shitty police than nationalists being in charge of anything. Just to give you an example, while doing a story on an agency that helps sex workers, the NGO employees told us that one of the worst enablers and beneficiaries of the human trafficking business in Ukraine is…get ready for it…the police anti-human trafficking unit.

And while I agree with the author’s sentiment in the next passage, I must remind the reader that no modern leftist piece on Ukraine seems complete without a reference to Azov.

Having witnessed a torchlight march of hundreds of balaclava-clad nationalists from the Azov Battalion in Kiev last year—their insignia was a modified Wolfsangel that, they claimed, represented the initials of the phrase “national idea”—I am not convinced that more nationalism is what Ukraine needs.

This, folks, is what I mean by regurgitating the Russian narrative, which demands that critiques of Ukraine always need some reference to the Azov battalion. The so-called “DNR/LNR” have battalions made up of Serbian nationalists, Greek neo-Nazis from Golden Dawn, Hungarian members of Jobbik, “cossacks,” Italian neo-fascists, and many other scumbags whose ideology does not significantly differ from that of the more political members of the Azov regiment or Pravy Sektor. Yet when we speak of the war in Ukraine, it seems that right-wing extremism is always made a feature of the Ukrainian side of the war and not the Russian side. The few positions that self-proclaimed nationalists have in Ukraine’s government are used to spread the narrative that post-Maidan Ukraine is dominated by nationalists, whereas people often totally miss the fact that Russia’s pro-Kremlin nationalists (imperialists, really) and their foreign allies are backed by a massive state that is a regional military power.

I really wish leftist publications like The Nation or Jacobin would stop falling for this trope again and again. It’s not that we should be ignoring the far right in Ukraine or pretending there is no problem. Rather it’s that we should talk about the far right when it’s appropriate because it’s the subject of the article rather than shoehorning it into other topics. Moreover, it would be grand if people could stop internalizing the Russian narrative that says any outward display of Ukrainian national or cultural identity goes hand-in-hand with right wing nationalism. Even many, if not most of the people you see waving red and black flags often have no idea what that flag is (I’ve had at least two people tell me they thought it was the “original” Ukrainian flag), and those who engage in apologetics for Bandera or the UPA typically have very little real knowledge about either and believe them to have been anti-Nazi fighters who did not subscribe to exclusionary, genocidal nationalism. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory doesn’t just engage in the glorification of the nationalist resistance; it has also spent a lot of time trying to convince people that it was anti-fascist and all-inclusive. Now none of this makes that narrative true or justifiable (it is, after all, lying), but you can’t pretend that people who believe these myths are right-wing exclusionary nationalists when their knowledge of the subject is extremely poor and consists of the anti-Nazi, diverse Disney-version of the UPA. That is a completely different issue.

Now to get to Applebaum, Pinkham’s criticisms are rightly damning. Applebaum is basically the darling of the amoral neoliberal community, and as such, she apparently sees nothing wrong with changing her beliefs to suit her needs. When nationalism threatens EU integration or centrist neoliberal politicians or their policies, it’s “populism” and bad. When it supports them, it’s great. The wording Applebaum uses is also curious.

Applebaum argued that nationalism offered Ukraine’s only hope of salvation. She blamed political apathy on the lack of “national identity” in post-Soviet Ukraine, a place where, for example, a half-Polish husband and his Russian-Jewish wife—two acquaintances who hosted Applebaum during a visit to Lviv—could look upon the removal of a statue of Lenin with a dismaying lack of enthusiasm. “Only people who feel some kind of allegiance to their society—people who celebrate their national language, literature, and history, people who sing national songs and repeat national legends—are going to work on that society’s behalf,” Applebaum claimed. Of war-torn eastern Ukraine, she wrote: It “is what a land without nationalism actually looks like”

And again:

Applebaum believes that the Soviet destruction of Ukrainian national identity has caused Ukrainians to have “mixed and confused loyalties,” which “can translate into cynicism and apathy.” She argues that ”[t]hose who do not care much or know much about their nation are not likely to work to make it a better place.” But “mixed loyalties”—which could also be called, less pejoratively, “multifaceted identities”—aren’t inherently bad; in fact, they are part of what has made Ukrainian culture so rich and, arguably, what has kept the country relatively open and democratic despite acute corruption and oligarchy.

Pinkham astutely points out that the kind of nationalism Applebaum is talking about fueled the rise of imperial nationalism in Russia, as well as things like Brexit, the Hungarian pro-Putin government, and other things Applebaum wouldn’t approve of. I would go even further.

A lot of the wording used by Applebaum in those quotes could just have easily come from a far right nationalist from any country. Rare is the far right activist who tells you they simply hate people who are different and they wish to subjugate or exclude them by force. No, they are almost to a man “just patriots,” defending their language, national tradition, and so forth. Applebaum, to the best of my knowledge, is no fan of Poland’s right wing Law and Justice party, and yet any Polish nationalist might, with some argument, claim that they are merely proud patriots without Applebaum’s hated “mixed and confused loyalties,” which incidentally is a charge often used against Jews by anti-Semites.

And while we speak about people without roots and loyalty to their native land, what of Applebaum herself? After all, she fled her country to live abroad and married a Polish ex-diplomat. Applebaum is a fierce supporter of international capital, for example when Greece had an outburst of populism due to its debt situation. And of course she is critical of “country first” politicians in both Europe and the US. It’s almost as if Applebaum’s position on right wing nationalism depends on the geopolitical goals she’s supporting rather than any set of concrete principles.

And that really shouldn’t be surprising because neoliberals and their shills don’t really have any principles. If promoting blood and soil nationalism is useful to your sponsors- go ahead and back it to the hilt until your words are indistinguishable from that of a European neo-Nazi. If the same nationalism suddenly becomes inconvenient because it leads to Brexit or the rise of a pro-Kremlin politician, you can suddenly switch back to your cosmopolitanism and pretend to be a defender of human rights and universal values. When you believe that your side has no ideology, just cold hard facts and data, morality or consistency go out the window.

The real lesson of the Holodomor has nothing to do with Communism or Marxism. Rather it was the inevitable result of any state which reduces human beings to a mere factor in its calculations. In the case of the USSR, collectivization was aimed at industrialization and modernization, and human costs were secondary at best. In other words, the USSR did the same thing that capitalist governments have done throughout time and continue doing to this day.  In the logic of Applebaum and her supporters, the Holodomor is also a utilitarian thing, to be used in service of what is essentially a system that also reduces humanity to numbers on a balance sheet. Applebaum’s anti-Communist rhetoric and praise for nationalism obscure this central fact. To her, the Holodomor is useful for achieving geopolitical goals in the present, when in reality it should be seen as a call to the action against any system that results in people starving when food is available. Today, that system is overwhelmingly the one that Applebaum enthusiastically defends.

At the end of the day, it’s a good and balanced review. Where I think it went off the rails is ironic, considering how Pinkham calls out Applebaum’s use of history to support political goals. I’ve often noticed in these Nation and Jacobin articles the authors tend to get the historical criticisms dead-on, while failing to grasp reality in the present when it comes to Ukraine. It’s as if the Applebaum’s and Snyder’s creatively interpret history to support their present political ideas, while many Western leftists get the present wrong because they’re critiquing bad history. Any way you slice it, it’s still doing the same thing- bending reality to fit a narrative instead of looking at all claims objectively and weighing the evidence.

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The Correction

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life and career. Like most people, this was due to a lack of adequate information. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, when the facts change, or in this case when more facts become available, I change my position. I know this is unfashionable, and that the trend today seems to favor doubling down on your assertion in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but I guess I’ll play the backward old curmudgeon in this case.

Long time readers know I have always hated The eXile. I saw it as a trashy newspaper that romanticized the “Wild 90’s” in Russia. At the same time, I’d started reading the work of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi before I’d even learned they were associated with that rag (in my early years in Russia I tended to avoid all trappings of the expat life like the plague). I have almost always enjoyed the independent work of Matt Taibbi and I even found myself agreeing with a lot of Ames’ work before he went full-on Putin defender. I’ve now read three of Taibbi’s books and found them to be both entertaining and informative. So naturally, having also been exposed to the accusations against both Ames and Taibbi, it created an awkward feeling for me.

It was easy to dismiss Ames, who continues to write smear jobs of Putin critics, constantly invoking the 90’s even where it has no bearing on the topic, but Taibbi, who took a different trajectory, was a little bit more disappointing. But now, especially in light of the new evidence I’ve seen in the past few months, I have to admit that I have been wrong about not only Taibbi, but also Mark Ames as well.

Based on two articles, one recently published and another by my friend Natalia Antonova, I think it’s safe to say that both Ames and Taibbi were telling the truth when they claimed the things they wrote about in The eXile and their book were in fact “satire,” or better said, they didn’t actually happen. It is not right to call either of them rapists or sexual harassers.

Having got that out of the way, it doesn’t mean we can’t make valid criticisms of The eXile. As Antonova points out in her article, the image promoted by The eXile was taken as fact by thousands of men who flocked to Russia in search of desperate, pliant women who would do anything for a ticket out of the country. Ames and Taibbi may have wanted their audience to react with disgust at the expat lifestyle, yet it seems the opposite occurred.

There are valid criticisms of the satire as well. First of all, if your satire causes people to believe you were literally rapists, you might have fucked up somewhere. Now granted, I think their book publisher also owns some responsibility for this by declaring the accounts to be authentic, but at the same time nobody thinks Sacha Baron Cohen is really from Kazakhstan. At the same time, The Onion is a satirical newspaper but you don’t see them constantly writing stories glamorizing rape, prostitution, and yes- sexually assaulting young girls. In short, if your “satire” causes people to think you were literally a kiddie rapist, well, bro, I think you suck at writing satire.

 

fieldguidetomoscow

From The eXile’s “Field Guide to Moscow. Many Russian youths graduate secondary school around the age of 16 (which is, for the record, the age of consent, but still). 

Another thing that is annoying about this claim of satire is that it is somewhat dishonest, and satire works best when it is truthful. Ames and Taibbi routinely characterize their work as satirizing the lifestyle of expats who came to Russia peddling neo-liberal advice, ostensibly to transform Russia into a prosperous democracy, but by night those same men were enjoying the benefits of the economic ruin their recommendations were inflicting on the country, usually in the form of prostitution. I totally get this too; in both Russia and Ukraine I’ve come into contact with people who in public are staunch defenders of the Russian or Ukrainian people, yet in private conversation you learn they have utter disdain for Russian or Ukrainian women. In the case of Russia this can describe both pro- and anti-Putin expats. But there’s something wrong with the way Ames and Taibbi treat the issue, as the more recent article I referenced shows:

“The paper was to be a mirror of the typical expatriate in ‘exile,’ who was a pig of the highest order,” Taibbi explained. “He was usually a Western consultant who made big bucks teaching Russians how to fire workers or privatize markets in the name of ‘progress,’ then at night banged hookers and blew coke and speed. The reality is most of the Westerners in town were there to turn Russia into a neoliberal puppet state by day, and get laid and shitfaced by night. So the paper was a kind of sarcastically over-enthusiastic celebration of this monstrous community’s values.”

This comes from Taibbi, but it could just as easily come from Ames, who also portrays the 90’s as some kind of colonial conquest of Russia by the evil West. There is no agency for Russians in this story. Yes, the West played the role of an enabler for Yeltsin and a lot of the corruption that occurred during the era, but if they really wanted to humiliate and destroy Russia there was a lot they could have done differently. They looked the other way as Russia set up puppet pseudo-states in Moldova and Georgia. They disarmed nuclear-armed republics like Ukraine and transferred those weapons to Russia. They never recognized the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and they let Yeltsin have a free pass to do as he pleased there. They also never lent any support to Tatarstan’s independence bid. As for the horrible economic advice they were pushing on Russia- it was the same bullshit economics they’d already been pushing in the West for years. Why expect them to say anything different in Russia?

But more importantly, this “colonial” narrative also ignores Russian agency, such as “red managers” stripping enterprises’ assets for cash, duping their fellow citizens out of their vouchers to take control of companies, etc. Black markets existed pretty much throughout the entire Soviet period, and they were quite active around the time of Perestroika- the simple fact is that there were plenty of Russians and other Soviet citizens who thought imported clothes and fancy foreign cars were worth exploiting and even killing their fellow citizens, and no Western consultant planted that idea in their heads. Another failure that can be laid at the feet of Russians is the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other authoritarian tendencies which became quite popular around the time of the Soviet collapse, especially among Yeltsin’s opponents. Many Russians could have chosen to rationally assess the problems facing their nations, but instead they chose to blame Jews or foreigners and thus they failed. No Western consultant made them do that.

Of course as I’ve said plenty of times, contrary to the claims of people like Ames and other Putin apologists, Putin never actually resolved any of these problems. He, or more accurately his “political technologists” just found ways to manage them, and the oil boom of the mid-2000s helped alleviate some of them or at least made them less in your face. Of course that has been starting to change in recent years. Things like gunfights in public and raiding on small businesses have gradually returned to Moscow. Poverty is rising. All these problems can and will come back in full force the more living standards drop toward 90’s levels. But this time, there won’t be any Western consultants to blame it on- no “neo-liberal colonial project.”

The “Wild 90’s” were a terrible time for Russia and many former Soviet Republics- this is indisputable. The West, while also sending needed aid, also dumped a lot of garbage in the form of neo-liberal economists and far-right losers like David Duke. But the 90’s were also a reckoning for the errors of the Soviet Union and the Russian colonial imperialist ideology, which we have seen fully revived under Putin. Trying to protect Russians from their own responsibility does them no favors. And I also find it hard to believe there wasn’t a much better way to satirize the Moscow expat lifestyle so that audiences got the right message- that it was horrible.

So that’s it- that’s my actual criticism. I still admire Taibbi’s post-eXile work and now I feel a little better about it because of what I’ve learned. Mark, if you hate read this blog regularly, I sincerely apologize for insinuating that you did those things you wrote about in The eXile, and I will try to correct whatever I wrote along that vein in the past wherever I should find it. I acknowledge that it was, as you both said, satire. Really fucked up satire to be sure, but satire and fictional nonetheless.

Sorting Out the Mess in Kyiv

I apologize for the long gap in blog posts. On the upside, I now have hosting for the podcast and I’ll be recording and hopefully releasing a new episode next week. I do plan to speak about the situation in Ukraine for part of that episode, so hopefully between that and this post, readers will have an idea of my stance on this.

I should point out that I’m going to try to keep this as brief and simplified as possible because as long-time readers and friends know, when it comes to Ukrainian politics I tend to get on my soapbox. And since my location prevents me from having a more hands on approach at the moment, I’ll save the stump speeches for another later.

So in case you’ve missed it, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship and who crossed the Ukrainian border illegally earlier this year, has been running around Kyiv trying to raise hell and calling for the impeachment of President Petro Poroshenko. There are arguments over the size of protest crowds and accusations of working for the Russians are flying like bullets at Gallipoli. Pro-Saakashvili people are trying to compare their movement to Maidan, while pro-Poroshenko people are starting to sound a lot like pro-Kremlin voices talking about Yanukovych during the actual Maidan revolution, right down to implying that the protesters are paid or duped without any agency.

vipertoad

A viper and a toad- the best descriptor for the Saakashvili-Poroshenko War of 2017.

Right from the start I must say that observing both sides (and I have friends and acquaintances on both sides of the barricades), I don’t think anyone sticking up for Saakashvili really puts much faith in him or even cares about him at all. Saakashvili seems to have made himself a rallying point around which opponents of the president can concentrate. Unlike the Russia-leaning Opposition Bloc, it’s kind of hard to pretend Saakashvili is really Russian when he, like Poroshenko, basically got into a shooting war with Moscow back in 2008. This means protesters can rally behind him while maintaining that all important “patriotism” that is so essential in Ukrainian politics these days.

For my part, I always felt bringing Saakashvili to Ukraine was a stupid gimmick, a feature of this idiotic idea that every country or individual who has some beef with the Kremlin must be a useful ally for that reason alone. That Saakashvili cleaned up corruption in Georgia and transformed that country is beyond question, something I’ve heard personally from Georgians who otherwise didn’t like the former president. Nonetheless, there was zero reason to believe that he could repeat that in the Odesa oblast or anywhere in Ukraine for that matter. I, like many Ukrainians, also have a problem with the way the Poroshenko government would hand out Ukrainian passports like candy to any semi-celebrity, including Russian Duma deputies who actually voted for the Crimean annexation, while people who have risked their lives fighting for Ukraine find themselves without residency or deported, in some cases back to Russia to face prosecution.

As ridiculous as Saakashvili’s “revolution” is, I’m more dismayed by the reactions coming from defenders of the status quo, be they openly pro-Poroshenko or not. For one thing, Poroshenko brought this on himself by first bringing Saakashvili in and then by stripping him of his citizenship when he became inconvenient.  I wonder how many of the status quo defenders were excited by Poroshenko’s decision to invite Saakashvili in the first place. But never mind that for now. I think the best way to handle this succinctly is to give an approximation of the arguments I’ve been seeing from the status-quo defenders and providing an explanation as to why they are bullshit.

We’re at war! 

No. Sorry, status quo defenders, but you don’t get to use this argument. Remember, you chose Minsk II, not victory. Any time you see this argument, push the person to say what Ukraine should do to end the war. They have no answers whatsoever. UN Peacekeepers? Won’t happen and would probably lead to a solidification of the phony “republics” if it did somehow happen. The West wins the war for Ukraine? Not going to happen. Obama had the perfect chance to crush and humiliate Putin in 2014, but he ruled out any military action from the get-go. Wait until Russia collapses? Forget it. Ukraine would suffer some sort of socio-economic collapse first, and even if it somehow didn’t, a collapse of the Russian Federation would have grave consequences for Ukraine, especially one still run by corrupt oligarchs. This is all fantasy.

Ukraine can in fact win a war against Russia, but the Poroshenko government clearly has no interest in doing so, and I’ve yet to see any of these “We’re at war” people put forth any plan for victory.

And it’s also worth noting that Ukraine has no shot at victory or even a favorable peace if its war effort is undermined by oligarchs and corrupt officials who put their personal luxury above Ukraine. Corruption in Ukraine not only exists in the arms industry, but even within the military itself.

This is helping Russian propagandists!

I find this objection rather amusing for several reasons. First of all, we know that Russian propagandists are perfectly content to just make shit up about Ukraine. Such made up stories include putting Hitler on a Ukrainian banknote, claims that the US is using Ukraine as a biological weapons testing site, and about 47 different alternative MH17 conspiracy theories, to cite just a few.

Another reason why this argument is funny is that it seems to be coming from the same side that supports things like the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory’s mission to whitewash the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and transform the Ukrainian Insurgent Army into a diverse, inclusive multi-cultural outfit that killed 12,000 Wehrmacht soldiers and never, ever killed any helpless civilians (but if they did, those people had it coming). When you try to point out that promoting the cult of literal fascists (yes, they fucking were by definition, fascists) like Stepan Bandera or Roman Shukhevych can alienate many Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, Western Europeans, and Americans while at the same time providing excellent propaganda material for the Kremlin’s agitprop mills, these people tend to tell you that they don’t care what anybody says- “Ukraine has a right to its own heroes! And we decide who those heroes will be and what their stories are!”

So in short- fuck people who do that and use this argument about airing dirty laundry in front of the Russians. Either you care about optics and values all the time, or you’re full of shit. And I also have little sympathy for chest-thumping patriots who claim not to give a fuck about what the Western world thinks of Ukraine, but then have their hand out, whining about why the US hasn’t sent them Javelins yet. Hey, partisan, why don’t you just defeat the Russian Federation the way your heroic UPA defeated the Soviet Union? Oh…Wait…That didn’t work out too well, did it? Well there’s no better strategy than glorifying failure and doing the same fucking thing over and over again no matter how many times its been shown not to work, right?

Now to be fair, it is true that Russia’s propaganda machine benefits from Saakashvili’s antics. It helps support their narrative that Ukraine is a chaotic basketcase and protesting never solves anything. On the other hand, however, it also casts doubt on the claim that Ukraine is run by this iron-fisted neo-Nazi junta as well as the claim that it poses some kind of threat to Russia.

Saakashvili’s pseudo-revolution is not the solution to Ukraine’s problems, obviously, but it’s a really bad idea to tailor one’s actions based on what the Russians might say about it. You cannot control what they will put out, so if you let them determine the limits of your discourse you’ve effectively let them control you. People say that Putin misunderstood Ukraine in 2014 and that’s why he failed to achieve all his goals there, but while I think there is some truth to that, the game really hasn’t changed so much that Putin and his strategists couldn’t rely on the bulk of their techniques in order to keep Ukraine pinned down and unable to move forward with progressive change. From cultural policy to Eurovision, we’ve seen how easily Moscow can still press Kyiv’s buttons because the game hasn’t really changed.

Anti-Corruption Activists are Full of Shit!

I’ve seen many variants of this argument, including one recently from a certain diaspora cheerleader so dense I half expect her to one day explode and create another universe. But that individual is just an extreme case. I know far smarter people who also react to the phrase “anti-corruption activist” with this:

reforms

Believe me, I get it. I realize that these people aren’t all angels and they don’t have all the answers to Ukraine’s corruption problems. If anything they’re also victims of an extremely narrow range of political discourse in Ukraine, where it seems you’re always faced with false dilemmas and viper-toad choices. I’ll get into why “anti-corruption” doesn’t work as a political strategy later, but for now let’s just say that if one side is demonstratively corrupt, as Poroshenko and his people appear to be, it’s really hard to go all out against anti-corruption organizations. The government has, in fact, brought a lot of this on themselves.

But there have been changes since Maidan!

Okay. Great. But not all these changes have been great, nor do they all matter to most people. This is a little like Donald Trump talking about how great the stock market is doing. If we just take one issue, such as salaries, you can kind of see where the problem lies.

Things like low salaries and corruption directly undermine the war effort because they support key points of the Russian narrative:

-Protesting does nothing; it only makes things worse

-Ukraine has become worse off after Maidan

-There’s no difference between living in “democratic” Ukraine or under Russian occupation

-Russia may be corrupt and less democratic, but salaries and pensions are higher

Without getting into too much detail here, rest assured that the only way Ukraine can hope to achieve victory or even a favorable peace against Russia is by reaching the people behind enemy lines. Those people would be taking an extreme risk taking part in an insurgency against the Russian occupiers. Would they do that for the promise of an average salary of 190 euros and the opportunity to pay bribes to patriotic Ukrainian officials as opposed to Russian-speaking ones? I doubt it.

Put simply, Ukraine must provide these people with convincing proof that they would have a better future in Ukraine, and that vision must be so real to them that they would be willing to risk death and torture to attain it. Visa free travel they can’t afford or vague talk about “reforms” just won’t cut it. Unfortunately I’ve seen many examples of the current Ukrainian intelligentsia not caring about this issue in the slightest. It seems only in Ukraine can you find “nationalists” who would happily give away swathes of their territory simply so they can have a safe space to build their fantasy version of Ukraine (even if that Ukraine might need to resemble a Russia-like authoritarian kleptocracy). That these people aren’t immediately dismissed as traitors shows us how much reform Ukrainian politics really needs.

Conclusion

It’s a clusterfuck. That’s about all I can say. Poroshenko and the status-quo defenders won’t defeat Russia if left alone, nor will they do anything about major corruption. Anti-corruption activists aren’t going to defeat it either. The only thing that’s going to have an impact is when you get a militant, well-trained left movement in Ukraine which demonstrates the ability to fight the war against the occupier while at the same time organizing against the corrupt officials and oligarchs. What the centrists, nationalists, and anti-corruption crusaders all lack is a coherent, realistic understanding of why there is corruption in the country in the first place, i.e. capitalism. Just as the American ruling class, perpetually at odds with the vast majority of Americans, is using its influence in government to appropriate a larger share of public wealth, Ukrainian oligarchs and officials use a more direct, less legalized form of doing the same. And for that matter, Russia’s ruling class is doing it as well.

Ukraine’s understanding of class struggle has been stunted by several factors. I’d say the most prominent would be the relatively late formation of Ukrainian statehood and the fact that when the former briefly became a reality, Ukraine had no Ukrainian capitalist class (individual Ukrainian capitalists existed, but they were typically Russified and disconnected from the peasant majority). The other obvious factor is the disdain for socialism that comes not only from the Soviet experience, but the abhorrent behavior of the so-called “Communist Party of Ukraine” since independence in 1991. To this we can also add those well-meaning leftists who still can’t help but regurgitate the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals or talking points about “peace.”

But whatever the popularity or lack thereof when it comes to class struggle, it is very real, and it is shaping the events that we see in Ukraine, from the Russian invasion (an act of neo-colonialism) to Mr. Saakashvili’s aborted “revolution.” The invasion and occupation must necessarily take precedence over all, but the idea that Ukraine could ever hope to defeat such a powerful opponent while it is ruled by criminals or even just self-interested businessmen whose goals clash with that of the majority of Ukrainians is simply ludicrous.

To put it another way, Ukraine can’t win until there’s a force that points out what ought to be obvious by now- not all Ukrainians are on the same side.

 

Damn. There I am on this soap box again. Sorry about that.

 

Don’t Do This

Did you know the US military is running its own troll factory? Well it’s not exactly a troll factory, because of course they don’t call it that.

Now before someone calls “whataboutism” or pulls the false equivalency card, let’s discuss exactly what this operation is before I explain why it’s still a bad idea.

First of all, this troll factory “online persona management service” is run by the government, whereas the St. Petersburg Troll Factory (officially the Internet Research Agency) is privately owned by one of Putin’s sycophants. The Russian operation actually focused more on domestic politics, while this US program is at least on paper forbidden from engaging in domestic propaganda. And of course the best defense proponents could have is that this is aimed at terrorists or potential terrorist recruits.

Now with all that out of the way, I still say this program should be canceled or at least heavily modified and regulated.

First of all, this will just be one more example of governments behaving in dishonest ways. When a foreign government, or any government, puts out some kind of propaganda no matter how true, people should know who is producing it. RFERL, VOA, and BBC are all known to be state-sponsored news agencies. Even RT basically admits that it is as well. That was part of the “logic” behind the rather toothless gesture of forcing RT America to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Sure, people who just plain hate America are likely to dismiss anything and everything that is put out by a state sponsored outlet, but at least you’re being honest that way.

When this kind of thing gets exposed, and if this article is any indication it’s already being exposed, recruiters from extremist groups will have a handy way to build trust and break down trust in the US or moderate voices by pointing out that those social media accounts criticizing the Al Qaeda or Islamic State ideology are just sock puppet accounts. Even if they happen to be lying about a particular individual, all they have to do is show that the US has done this and that will be enough to persuade many impressionable people that they cannot trust those voices criticizing the extremists. How many times have we seen a conspiracy theorist justify a particular theory by pointing out that something similar actually happened in the past?

Another good reason to shut down or at least massive overhaul this campaign is mission creep. Sure, today it sounds really agreeable because it’s supposedly aimed at radical religious extremists. But one would have to be extremely naive to think this might not be expanded to target other groups. You know- trade unions, left-wing movements, opponents of undemocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia.

There’s nothing wrong with the US helping to amplify the message of Sunni religious authorities who condemn Wahhabist violence and terrorism- but the actual voice needs to be that of the authorities. Fake accounts or bots will be less effective and, as I alluded to before, become “evidence” that jihadists can use to discredit anyone preaching against their ideology.

Since 2014 US authorities have been increasingly concerned with countering foreign propaganda. One of the best ways to do so is to first of all refuse to engage in the same activity. The US would regain a lot more credibility if it would be me open about its sins, put greater emphasis on living up to its professed values, and most of all not engage in dirty tactics that only increase paranoia and conspiratorial thinking. The best propaganda is practice.

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

Lucky you, another post in the vein of why leftists should be concerned with Russian influence operations. I guess I’ll make this the last piece on the topic for a while and we can call this a trilogy.

First of all there’s a good article about the leftist case for embracing the Russia investigation I want to include here. I use the term “embrace” here because that’s what the author used, though I think it requires some qualification. As the response to one of my posts on this topic demonstrated, there are some people on the left who seem eager to deliberately misinterpret this concept into an absurd strawman that they can knock down with ease. Embracing, or better yet acknowledging the significance of the Russian intervention in American politics doesn’t mean going down the rabbit hole into Eric Garland and Louise Mensch’s Wonderland of Drug-Fueled Insanity. It doesn’t mean we need to praise “never Trumpers” like John McCain, David Frum, or the gaggle of ex-CIA directors who have been online registering their horror and shock at Trump.  Believe it or not, you can exercise moderation, critical thinking, and time management to devote the proper amount of energy and attention to this subject while still carrying on the everyday struggle against injustice.

If that seems too difficult maybe you should have a look at what  neocon hawk Bernie Sanders had to say on the topic:

“While we rightly condemn Russian and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter in Syria, the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia’s destructive intervention in Yemen, which has killed many thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian crisis in one of the region’s poorest countries. Such policies dramatically undermine America’s ability to advance a human rights agenda around the world, and empowers authoritarian leaders who insist that our support for those rights and values is not serious.”

What’s that, Bernie? You’re talking about the bad things the US government does and acknowledging that Bashar al-Assad is a brutal tyrant? What are you doing?

“Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way. Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.”

What are you doing, Bernie? What the hell are you even talking about?! This speech is all the US government needs to justify a full-scale invasion of Russia, Syria, and Iran, simultaneously!

All joking aside, I’m not going to pretend like Bernie is some kind of Ayatollah and his word is holy writ. Rather I’m just pointing out that we can talk about this issue without turning into a fanatical Hillary Lost Causer or worse- Louise Mensch. And believe me, we do need more awareness about Russian propaganda.

As I’ve written plenty of times before, the idea that Russia’s “information war” can somehow wreck “Western democracy” or “the liberal order” is, indeed, hysteria. The extent to which the Kremlin has managed to reach its tentacles into that so-called liberal order is more the fault of free market, profits-over-people dogma than clever strategy and sophistication on the Russian side. And while that liberal order sanctions Putin for his violation of Ukraine’s borders, their promises to lift the sanctions should he return to the pre-2014 status quo strongly suggests that they will turn a blind eye to the brutalization of Russia’s citizens within the Federation’s inviolable borders. But while the propaganda machine is no real existential threat to the liberal order, it is a threat to the radical left seeking to replace that order.

I have already written about the ways in which accepting “help” from pro-Kremlin or Kremlin linked sources can de-legitimize or discredit the left, and lead us into awkward associations with our sworn enemies on the far right. Outdated prejudices have also led leftists into falling for Russian narratives about events like Maidan, thus preventing international solidarity and squandering a great opportunity for leftist demonstrators to learn from that event and the activists who drove it (who, contrary to the Russian propaganda, were not mostly radical right-wing nationalists or neo-Nazis). But if we’re going to talk worst case scenarios, some leftists could lose far more.

Recently we learned that the so-called St. Petersburg Troll Factory (actually known as the Internet Research Agency) actually managed to organize a few real-world protests from abroad. One of them was basically a dud, but another managed to draw a few thousand protesters. Both events targeted more or less polar opposites of the political spectrum- an anti-Muslim rally to appeal to right-wing Islamophobes and an anti-police/anti-Trump rally aimed at Black Lives Matter and their supporters. It is important at this point to note that the Internet Research Agency has no interest in actually advancing one cause or another. A survey of its foreign-audience propaganda in recent years show that it is dedicated to causing “chaos” more than anything. Moreover, it is not, in any way that we can see so far, directly controlled by the Russian government or security apparatus. It is the project of one of Putin’s lower-tier sycophants, Evgeny Prigozhin. It is unlikely to go away anytime soon and it’s not going to stop its ever-evolving campaign of trolling and manipulation.

Taking into account those protests and the fact that this operation will most likely continue, do I really need to explain why it might be bad for leftists to attend protests or events that have been organized by anonymous people in foreign countries with no connection to the local community, no concern for the attendees’ safety, and whose goals include causing as much chaos in the streets as possible? If this project continues, it’s certainly reasonable to expect them to try to combine left-wing and right-wing protests in the same location so as to cause violent clashes. People on our side could be duped into attending events where they are caught unawares of the right-wing presence and dangerously outnumbered. The fact that this is a realistic possibility warrants spreading awareness of such propaganda methods. We should remember that within our own borders there are legions of online cowards who also attempt to cause chaos in the real world, and thus anything that enhances awareness of threats and security culture among activists would be a net positive.

But we don’t need to talk about nightmare scenarios to justify avoiding anything Kremlin-linked like the plague. For me, long before I started blogging, the main reason was a matter of dignity. Why should we defend or accept anything from people who despise us and our politics? Make no mistake that the people behind networks like RT and Sputnik, the people in the Kremlin-linked think tanks- they all hate and revile you. You see yourself as a dissident standing up to the crimes of your government, but they see you as nothing but a dirty traitor. Your dissent to them is a defect. Many of them consciously hate your political beliefs too. They hate “multi-culturalism,” “tolerance,” and “non-traditional sexual orientations,” but they’re perfectly willing to provide you with a platform if it serves their government’s geopolitical goals. Why would you let yourself be used like that?

Again, anyone who thinks tackling the Russian propaganda issue entails adopting and/or embracing xenophobic rhetoric about “the Russian other,” the insane talking points of characters like Mensch, Garland, or Schindler, figures like John McCain, or the US national security apparatus either doesn’t understand the topic or is being deliberately obtuse and creating a strawman. This isn’t even about Russia; it’s about the current Russian government. It’s about international solidarity instead of hopelessly outdated, hypocritical, and unrealistic forms of “anti-imperialism” that have been nothing but a proven failure. It’s about moral consistency in a movement that is supposed to be about a moral imperative.

And if this isn’t the kind of topic you prefer to discuss because you’re using up all your activist energy on other issues- fine. That’s a totally justifiable position. It doesn’t mean you can’t at least educate yourself enough to understand how the issue effects you. More importantly, there are ways you can help by not talking. Specifically, don’t share stories or links from Russian government sources or outlets that do. Don’t regurgitate Kremlin talking points about issues like Ukraine, Syria, or Russia’s internal opposition (this is not the same as looking at those issues with a critical eye). And most of all, don’t attack people for criticizing the Putin regime or people who do choose to talk about this issue.

In short, we have to be aware that now, in addition to manipulation from the authorities in our own countries, there is also an added component of manipulation from abroad. The Kremlin is just one player with the most effective propaganda at the moment (unless you count ISIS as an international player). There will probably be more in the coming years, I’m sad to say. Accepting this reality isn’t watering down our message or putting us in league with our own authorities and their security apparatus. It is simply an inherent part of the ongoing struggle.

Some (Negative) Feedback

One of the worst things about the internet is that it has greatly magnified people’s ability to give an uninformed opinion…loudly. Youtube is a perfect example of this, where you have and endless parade of mostly white guys in their twenties to early thirties ranting about issues they clearly have no background knowledge in (typically feminism or gender issues). Each one of these figures will take some topic that happens to be in the media in recent times, e.g. trans issues, and then proceed to “debunk” someone’s statement or some policy using their “logic” and “reason.” The problem with formal logic is that it only works when you understand the issue you’re talking about, and take into account the whole context. Focusing on one particular detail while ignoring the whole picture makes it possible to “debunk” almost anything with “logic.” Holocaust deniers and 9/11 truthers have been doing it for years. Some people have coined the term “sea lioning” to describe a very similar practice, whereby a person asks really basic, entry level questions (“Do you have any evidence that sexism is real?”) in an attempt to derail the conversation.

I’m reminded of this phenomenon- that of loudly expressing and uninformed opinion, after I made the mistake of following a link to a response to the previous post on this blog. I’m featuring it here so as to give “equal time,” so to speak. Some of the concepts my last post raised are, unfortunately, foreign to many Western leftists, and so it’s only natural to assume there will have to be a struggle over this issue in the future. People like this do have valid reasons for concern, especially with a lot of the liberal paranoia about Russian influence operations out there. I just wish some people wouldn’t assume that just because something is unfamiliar to them, it must be nonsense.

 

Anyway let’s get on with it.

The author seems very scared of leftists repeating “Russian propaganda” but fails to point to any specific examples of leftists doing so. I would be somewhat less sceptical of this article if it identified what “Russian propaganda” is and how “we” are falling victim to it.

Let me translate this opening sentence. “I’ve never heard of this thing that someone who has far more experience and knowledge in this field is talking about, so this is highly suspicious!”

Now I will concede that I could have taken more time to list specific examples in order to break it down even further for the total newcomer. I’ve already updated the post in question with some links to examples of Russian support for the far right. If we want to talk about the far left? Where to start? We can start with Spanish Communists being duped into fighting alongside neo-Nazis in the Donbas, perhaps? But that’s an extreme case. We could talk about the problem with Jacobin, which I covered a bit in this post about the Ukrainian leftJacobin is still repeating Russian propaganda, such as the idea that the Ukrainian government was somehow responsible for the “Odesa Massacre” (which was in fact a riot that turned violent after pro-Russian demonstrators opened fire on a parade). We could look at how even Noam Chomsky seems to have trouble condemning Russia over the annexation of the Crimea, and even comes very close to articulating the Russian view that it has the right to determine Ukraine’s foreign policy. There’s MMA fighter Jeff Monson, formerly an IWW anarcho-syndicalist who was duped into thinking the “Communist Party of the Russian Federation” is actually socialist. I could also point to several episodes of the otherwise wonderful podcast Chapo Trap House when they repeat the meme about “Ukrainian Nazis.” I realize that as a comedy podcast, they engage in exaggeration for effect, but in one recent episode they not only repeated the meme several times, but it also came with a policy opinion not to send lethal arms to Ukraine. This clearly isn’t intentional and I doubt the guys at Chapo Trap House spend much time if any watching RT or reading Sputnik News. It just shows how certain knee-jerk responses and memes can influence people and shape a narrative, including ones the Russian government wants to popularize.

As for the demand that I “identify” Russian propaganda and give examples of leftists falling for it (hell I’ll throw in one more- Caleb Maupin), well that’s why the term “sea lioning” is useful. Do a little research first.

This article also employs the same patronising language that your average Twitter liberal conspiracy theorist uses, but as though it was coming from someone “on my side”.

I find that a bit odd considering I’m blocked by many of those people, and I’ve spent a lot of time on Twitter and this blog criticizing their behavior. If someone with experience and knowledge in a particular subject is trying to break it down for people who are new to the topic, does that make their language patronizing? Remember this person just demanded that I “identify” what Russian propaganda means, but now considers me to be patronizing. Okay. Sure.

It’s also operating under the implied assumption that leftists that reject the author’s beliefs may be “in a de facto alliance with the global Far Right”.

That’s your inference, not my implication, and it is incredibly wrong. If you associate with Russian propaganda organs like RT or Sputnik and promote the Russian government’s foreign policy talking points, you will find yourself in such a de facto alliance. I already mentioned the example of the Spanish volunteers in the Donbas as well as the “election observers” Russia rounded up for its referendums in Crimea and Donbas. If you were to appear on RT, you’d be appearing on a network that has given platforms to far right and even neo-Nazi figures including Richard Spencer.

 

Maybe you think this doesn’t matter, sharing a platform with neo-Nazis and conspiracy kooks, but believe me it will matter to your opponents, and they’ll be all too happy to use this to discredit you in the public eye. But if you want to be the leftist who manages to get dunked on by such a pathetic figure as Jamie Kirchick, by all means, do that interview I guess.

These paragraphs attempt to illustrate some Leftist cooperation with Russia but fails to present any evidence. What does it mean to “maintain contacts with the left”? Who is identifying with post-Soviet Russia? Who is accepting anything that “[Russia] has to offer?” What the fuck is this person talking about?

I’VE NEVER HEARD OF THIS THING HAPPENING!!! IT MUST NOT BE! WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS PERSON TALKING ABOUT?!

As if I haven’t demonstrated enough in the preceding paragraphs, here’s “what the fuck” I’m talking about. You want more? There’s more. Hell, even I am an example of a leftist who was duped by Russian propaganda when I thought I knew better. How did it happen? Thanks to personal contacts with a Ukrainian “leftist” organization that in fact was allied with the Russian government and…guess what…worked alongside pro-Russian far right organizations.

But yeah, this is all a bunch of crazy paranoid rambling, sure.

I could say the same for the American bourgeoisie, who profited greatly from the political and economic strife from the 2008 recession. What destabilisation American politics has already suffered through has been nothing but a boon for their elites, fostering a deeply pro-business fascist/nationalist ideology.

Did someone order a red herring? Nobody’s defending the American bourgeoisie. This is a reminder that they are in competition with ruling capitalists of other countries, and those capitalists don’t actually care about your leftist cause or how successful it is. Don’t think for a minute that the people at RT are secretly hoping a US protest movement like Occupy somehow grows so big and successful that it leads to actual reform that helps millions of working Americans- that would be the worst result from their point of view. It’s about the tension, not resolution.

 

The US government is staffed entirely by neo-conservative war hawks. Donald Trump threatens nuclear war regularly, without restraint or “candor”. The only time American media outlets like Trump is when he sends cruise missiles of “freedom” into Syrian air bases. The American government has dominated within and without its “sphere of influence” since World War 2. Don’t pretend that the US is better than Russia in this realm.

Oh look, another red herring, one which actually contradicts itself (on the neocon thing), and ends with a strawman. Way to miss the point there, buddy.

Also the idea that the US dominates everywhere today as much as it did in WWII is simply false. US power is weakening as regional powers increase and strengthen, and the US has seriously squandered much of its power and influence due to its “War on Terror.”

 

This is really weird speculation that doesn’t actually strike me as being anywhere close to reality. The idea that Russia is offering “cooperation” in exchange for concessions to “all of Russia’s demands” sounds extremely suspect, and even if it is true, it is not as though the US doesn’t do the same thing, especially when dealing with third world countries. The USA is doing the exact same thing that the author is complaining about right now to North Korea, for heaven’s sake.

Here’s helpful tip- maybe if something seems weird to you, consider first whether or not you’ve taken the time to research and understand the issue being discussed. I’ve written plenty of times about Russia’s offers of “compromise” and the “realists” who recommend them. They always require the US to meet the Russians half way by recognizing the Crimea as part of Russia, encouraging a Ukrainian recognition of the phony “republics” in the east, a removal of sanctions, in exchange for…uh…erm…something something counter-terrorism work? If there has been a concrete offer of concession from the Russians on one of their major foreign policy goals that I haven’t heard of to date, I’m all ears.

And the rest of this argument is all “whataboutism.” The point isn’t that the US doesn’t do stuff like this, it’s that there are other governments already doing the same thing and they will continue to do so should they get the chance. We live in a capitalist world that pits countries against one another. If one hegemon’s power begins to wane, it will be filled by other contenders. We will not resolve this problem by supporting the underdogs but rather by overthrowing the system as a whole.

Onto the actual meat of the quote, this dreamed up fantasy about Rojava fails to take into account the contradictions that the author points out within the same paragraph. The Department of Defense could decide to withdraw funding for the PKK and let their ally Turkey whittle them back down into an oppressed minority, or even agree with Turkey and designate them as a terrorist group (opening them up to surveillance and military action). Both of these hypothetical situations could happen without Russia having to lift a finger. It’s like the author is racking their brains, trying to think of something that socialists like that has a remote chance of being imperiled by some bilateral US-Russia pact that was never, ever on the cards anyway!

I figured this situation is pretty easy to understand, but I guess some people really do comment on things without reading about them first. In the case of Rojava, Russia has played a double role. In a draft constitution proposal written up by the Russians and presented in Astana (it was almost immediately rejected), the Russians did appear to recommend Kurdish autonomy. It’s not difficult to see why Russia would do this- they’re basically keeping Assad on life-support, the Kurds have shown themselves willing to work with the regime for the sake of peace, and therefore conceding to the Kurds is a big step forward to getting what Putin was looking for at the time- some kind of peace agreement in Syria. Since then, however, things have gone more favorably for Assad, and there are questions about what will happen between the SDF and the regime now that ISIS and most other rebel forces have been driven out or crushed (see what happened more recently in Iraq between the Kurds over Kirkuk). Since Russia’s priority is Assad and the US is far more likely to defer to a NATO member and regional power like Turkey over a rag-tag quasi-anarchist experiment, there’s nothing particularly far fetched about this scenario.

The next part is responding to my advice, supporting what that former Occupy leader wrote about internationalizing protest movements.

What the fuck is this person talking about? First of all, Occupy imploded for a reason. You couldn’t pay me to take advice from an “Occupy leader”.

I don’t remember implying that Occupy collapsed for any reason having to do with Russia. The reader can see here.

And while I had and still have plenty of criticism for the Occupy movement, I kind of try to go by this school of treating every claim or piece of advice on its own merit rather than dismissing it immediately because of who it came from.

Second, demanding that protesters change tactics in order to prevent “foreign government hijacking” is extremely paranoid and extremely arrogant.

Uh no, it’s not. What’s funny about this is that such leftists typically have no problem dismissing certain foreign protest movements as bought and paid for by the US government, yet the very idea that a foreign government might try to exploit or manipulate their movement is “paranoid.” We already know that domestic actors try to manipulate protest movements. Anyone remember “99% Spring?”

Showing up to a protest with some arbitrary shit about Russia sounds extremely suspect, and the idea of “signs and slogans comparing American wealth inequality with that of Russia” is a fascinating example of liberal chauvinism.

You know what’s funny is this person accuses me of being patronizing, but apparently could not conceive of any way to apply this concept of solidarity in a protest movement save for the clunkiest and most arbitrary one.

First of all, anyone who’s actually been to leftist protests, major ones that is, knows that they tend to be a cornucopia of many different broad left causes- feminist, anti-racism, environmental preservation, Palestinian rights, etc. Reasonably intelligent organizers can determine what messages are appropriate or not.

Second, if it is appropriate within the context, I’d say comparisons with Russia can be very useful if done correctly. After all, our politicians and our media are now constantly deriding Russia, and pop culture maintains numerous negative stereotypes about the society. So sometimes identifying similarities between that system and ours shows how our government is failing us on a daily basis. What is more, there are actually some areas where Russia actually beats the US, such as in healthcare (big asterisk here, but it certainly worked for me and other expats I know), paid vacation, and maternity leave.

People are out protesting for reasons that relate to their personal struggle, and trying to adjust their message so that Russian state media have less of a chance of, uh, “covering it”, sounds extremely counter productive.

Again I didn’t know I’d have to spell this out so simply; it would seem…patronizing. But I think most activists can determine whether an issue is too local to be part of some international solidarity action. Many protests actions will never be covered by Russian media anyway. The main thing is not to be manipulated.

And as someone who has been attacked in this way numerous times by the “info-warriors,” I do not believe in self-censorship for the sake of preventing my work or statements from being wrongly appropriated by pro-Russian sources. This has actually happened before on at least one occasion, but I feel that the weight of my work shows my independence. Anyone can cherry pick things  for their own purposes.

I don’t care for fortune telling about what working class people will and won’t relate to, but why would I, personally, show up to a local protest about any issue if it’ll get co-opted into some weird nationalist Russia shit? When another black kid gets murdered by cops, I think showing up with signs trying to flimsily tie pigs killing innocent people to Russia will be in pretty fucking poor taste!

And this person is accusing me of inventing far-fetched scenarios. Yeah it’s easy to make something look stupid when you purposely dream up the most ham-fisted implementation for it.

If we’re talking about the issue of police brutality, for example, one could compare the militarized police response in America to that in Russia, and also point out how they are both treated differently. In Russia (or Ukraine during Euromaidan), the media and US government are totally on the side of the protesters (not making moral judgments here, they just happen to pick the right side for different motives), but in the US the media flips out over a smashed Starbucks window or overturned trash can. This is a point that not only hits at the authorities, but also our media since they are often the enablers of this double standard.

For the next section I have to quote the part of my post that the critic responds to. My words are in italics.

Unfortunately, many American leftists subscribe to out-of-date, naive ideas about imperialism and how to oppose it. As such, they are prone to knee-jerk reactions to world events and end up regurgitating Kremlin talking points totally independently of any exposure to Russian-produced propaganda. The best you can do in this case is to point out the moral inconsistency of their positions and how such out of date views of the world are not only counter-productive, but they often actually aid the forces of reaction and are condescending to boot. So-called “anti-imperialists,” often with zero experience or background knowledge on the country in question, are typically more than happy to make loud pronouncements about which peoples deserve self-determination, and which do not, which protests are authentic, and which are nothing but paid dupes of the CIA or State Department. And yet how many of these same people would bristle with anger when the right says they’re “paid by George Soros?”

I feel like no matter their political views, anyone could be able to identify this paragraph as being wildly arrogant. Assuming that those who disagree with you have “out-of-date [and] naive ideas about imperialism” asserts that if only these people were smarter and more well-read, they wouldn’t hold the political stances that they hold; you don’t need me to tell you that that’s fallacious. Political stances can be informed by someone’s “intelligence” and the books that they read, but they’re never determined by them.

First of all, many leftists do have naive ideas about imperialism, as is evidenced by the way they treat information from foreign state media outlets or governments versus how skeptical they are of anything from their own government or “mainstream media.” One would think that at best, some people might decide to treat all sources with equal skepticism, but that’s simply not what happens and anyone who says otherwise clearly isn’t having enough interaction with the left as a whole.

As for the question of being more informed well, I’m very sorry but people should be more informed and modify their political beliefs as a result. I certainly have.

The fact is that much of the American left has never set foot in Russia, does not speak the language, and in many cases knows little about its history save for certain topics related to the Soviet Union. This lack of information puts the left in danger of being manipulated. I have already demonstrated many times (including with links in this post) how this leads to leftists taking really incorrect positions on Russia (among other issues).

And if you want to speak about arrogance, there’s nothing more arrogant than a Western-based leftist who’s never been to Russia or Ukraine lecturing on Putin’s alleged anti-imperialism or the “Nazi junta” in Kyiv. The funniest thing is that if someone like me just started lecturing a Palestinian activist about what’s going on in the place where they live and the struggle they are involved with, I’d be rightly called out and probably demonized. But leftists are doing this all the time with Ukraine, Russia, and Syria, to name a few places.

 

Quibbling aside, based on the discursive background of the modern left argument that boy, some anti-imperialists are just wackos!, this article is almost certainly about leftists who, I suppose, could be described best as “defending” the government of Syria, as well as the others who find themselves under the heavy gaze of the American empire (such as North Korea’s or Iran’s).

The fact is that many leftists do cross the line from opposing US regime change to defending governments in Libya, Syria, Russia, etc. I remember this very well with the Libyan case. I’d done some research about Libya and found that under Gaddafi it did certainly have very good living standards. But over time I noticed some of the people in the circles I frequented posting insane claims about how great the Gaddafi government supposedly was. Judging by those claims, you’d think Gaddafi had achieved full communism and built an almost utopian society. Makes you wonder why anyone would ever want to revolt against that, doesn’t it? Oh well- they must be Islamic fundamentalists paid by the CIA and Israel. There’s nothing arrogant or orientalist about that, right?

It’s often that these leftists are accused of, if not being on the take from Vladimir Putin, then falling for his dastardly talking points. But that fails to take into account the logic behind “supporting” these governments: constantly adding your voice to a chorus of right wing regime change fanatics, who hate nations solely for refusing to become American client states, serves solely to galvanise the bourgeoisie’s case for regime change in those nations.

Excuse me, but who’s been seriously pushing for regime change or war on Russia since the end of the Cold War? See this is the very opposite of what the critic talks about when it comes to protests. There, we shouldn’t be concerned with how Russian press might portray it (which is actually true in most cases), but now we have to censor ourselves lest this “right-wing chorus” somehow uses our statements to justify a war they’re not even planning.

As for countries other than Russia, I’m very sorry but I’m not going to stay silent about the Assad regime’s brutality just because someone else (I don’t know who) is pushing for a major US invasion of that country. If the ruling class decides to go to war, they’ll go to war, and thanks to their blunder in Iraq it will be a long time before public opinion gets on the side of any major military intervention (such as a regime change) whether it has any actual justification or not.

At the end of the day this is just arguing for self-censorship due to fears someone might misuse your statements. I’ve already said I’m against that. The trick is thinking about optics and not self-censorship.

Condemning American enemies that are under the crosshairs of American cruise missiles because they’re capitalists – just those that are outside of American hegemony – is, in execution, simply tacit approval.

No, it’s not. It’s called being honest and morally consistent. Most of these pariahs really aren’t in any military danger at all. Russia is not threatened militarily by NATO. They have worked with NATO in the past and could have had great relations were it not for Putin’s imperialist worldview. If Putin were so afraid of NATO, he wouldn’t have nearly opened a NATO military base in Ulyanovsk in 2010.

Hemming and hawing over how problematic a nation is when the American public consciousness is, aloud or not, mulling over actions against that nation will only harm that nation’s workers, is, in execution, staying silent!

Yes, because it’s totally impossible to condemn and oppose a war while at the same time acknowledging a certain regime’s crimes against humanity. What about pointing out how such military interventions have never (possibly with one small exception) actually achieved what they were intended to do? Intervention in Bosnia did not stop massive ethnic cleansing. Ditto with Kosovo. Iraq was…do I even need to explain? Syria has been an unmitigated disaster, and results in Libya are still in doubt.

The main point is that the liberal capitalist system likes to identify these dictators and criticize their human rights records, but at the same time they cannot and will not solve this problem militarily.

The rhetorical purity over correctly identifying every capitalist state as harmful to the proletariat means little when proletarians will suffer under whatever action America takes against their nation, be it military (drone strikes, invasion, funding of paramilitaries) or not (funding of right wing political figures, embargoes, diplomatic isolation).

Hey proletariat living under various dictatorships? Yeah I hate to do this to you but you need to give up your hopes and dreams and struggle because over here in America we’ve decided that America’s the worst government ever and we decided it wants to invade and overthrow that dictator you hate. Yeah I know he’s left you impoverished and his police torture you, but we’ve decided that he also opposes American imperialism, so you’re going to just have to sit there and take it because even though we’ve been predicting that US invasion for years, we’re pretty sure it’s right around the corner. Just shut up and sit tight. You’re probably all paid by the CIA or Al Qaeda or something anyway.

Yeah. Not arrogant at all.

We mustn’t stay silent when America’s knife is at anybody’s throat, because history tells us whatever happens, working people will be worse off after she’s done her dirty work.

freedmen

Are you sure about that?

dachausurvivors

Are you really sure about that?

I’m not sure exactly who this anthropomorphized female America has her knife pointed at, but I think maybe a better idea is to just condemn attacking countries with metaphorical knives in general.

Perhaps more importantly- this age-old “America is the worst thing since Hitler” attitude that still permeates the left is beyond stale and simply doesn’t fucking work. Look at it this way- you can spend your life going to rallies and burning American flags, or you can come up with better talking points and organizing tactics so that your movement actually achieves real power and then, one day, can actually prevent the US from doing bad things around the globe. And if you think that’s not possible you’re basically admitting you have no real goal in leftist politics at all and you might as well go ask Peter Daou for an unpaid internship or something.

 

 

Again, this is about moral consistency, and being realistic so your opponents don’t destroy you in public debate. When it comes to threatening wars, I can tell you about how back in 2004 radical left pundits on the radio were warning us of the impending invasion of Iran. One popular theory was that Bush would initiate the invasion and use it as an excuse to call off the 2004 presidential election (turns out voter suppression is a much better way to get reelected). Of course that invasion never came, and it’s unlikely to come because if you actually…I apologize in advance for the arrogance, learn about Iran’s defense capabilities, you’d see that they can literally throw the entire globe into economic crisis within a matter of hours using conventional munitions in the Persian Gulf. That’s why the hysteria over an Iranian nuclear weapon is just that- Iran doesn’t need a nuclear weapon to bring much of the world to its knees thanks to our dependency on oil. In fact you might say that when it comes to defending themselves…they’ve got the world over a barrel. The idea that the US and NATO plan to invade Russia is beyond laughable.

If you want to see an example of a real-world attempt to apply moral consistency to anti-imperialism and the anti-war movement, I suggest checking out the Revive the Peace Movement initiative, which was mentioned to me by a reader. Here are a couple excerpts from their page:

“We resolutely oppose the wars of the U.S., its allies and clients, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and U.S. support for repressive regimes such as Honduras and Bahrain. We call for an end to U.S. support for Israel and for justice for Palestinians, in all of historic Palestine and in their places of refuge.”

That should please any “anti-imperialist,” but then it’s followed by this:

“We also recognize that there are other oppressors in the world, from ISIS to Russia, from Iran to China, from North Korea to the Assad regime. We won’t hesitate to oppose their wars, interventions and cruelties.”

What? There are other bad governments out there besides America? You actually published this online?! Clearly these people are nothing but CIA shills or dupes of the neocons! What “cruelties” are they talking about in China? I’ve never heard anything about these? What the fuck are these people even talking about?! This is so patronizing!

 

Well that’s been fun. I realize that my original piece may not have been clear enough for people not familiar with these issues, and the critic has some valid concerns. I hope this answers them. I know I might have been a little harsh, but I think it’s proportional to the way the critic responded.

UPDATE: I just found an interesting transcript of a speech from well-known imperialist neocon CIA shill Bernie Sanders. Here’s an interesting excerpt:

Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way. Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.

I guess Sanders needs to be totally discarded by the American left. If he keeps saying things like that, it’s only a matter of time before the American public gets on board for an invasion of Russia or something. 

 

An American Leftist Guide to Russian Soft Power

I’m writing this guide to help American leftists understand the nature of Putin’s Russia and more specifically its attempts to influence politics in other countries. Just a few years ago this wasn’t much of an issue- now it is, however, and we must adapt to this new reality not with panic and fear-mongering, but with sober analysis.

While the actual abilities of Russia to shape politics in countries like the United States are in fact quite limited, their activities can have a profound impact on the theory and praxis of leftists, and specifically a very negative impact. Put simply, working with Russia or its allies on anything is like talking to the police- you have everything to lose and nothing to gain. More importantly, leftist ignorance about Russia makes them more vulnerable to manipulation, and worst of all, it makes one morally inconsistent, either by putting them in a de facto alliance with the global far right, or just by contradicting our stated values in ways which can be easily exploited by right wing hacks.

This is intended to be a very rough guide, for people not too familiar with the subject. I encourage readers who want to know more to ask questions in the comments section.

Q. Why should I care about Russia?

Maybe you shouldn’t, especially if you’re engaged in productive activism or organization in your community. If that’s the case- good for you. But there are certain people in Russia who care about you, specifically they want to use and manipulate you to further their foreign policy goals. Lacking the soft power infrastructure of the United States or even the Soviet Union, they have resorted to asymmetrical, if not terribly effective, methods. The general aim of these methods can be seen in the recommendations of a book called Foundations of Geopolitics by Alexander Dugin. Here’s a relevant passage from a summary of the book:

“Within the United States itself, there is a need for the Russian special services and their allies “to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States (it is possible to make use of the political forces of Afro-American racists)” (248). “It is especially important,” Dugin adds, “to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements– extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S. It
would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics” (367)”

Dugin, arguably a fascist by the most accepted definition, is often overrated by the Western media; he is not as some claim, “Putin’s ideologue.” But Foundations of Geopolitics was and is taken seriously in powerful circles in Moscow, particularly in the military. More importantly, this strategy is apparent in many of Moscow’s foreign policy activities, such as fake “election observations” in Donbas or Crimea, the sponsoring or assistance of far right and far left organizations in the West, and internet trolling operations that have tried (and to some degree succeed) to stir up real life conflict within the US and other countries.

In terms of concrete support, Russia has almost exclusively helped the far right, as far right ideas the closest thing Russia has to an official ideology.  However, they still maintain contacts with the left and use symbolism, often Soviet or “Communist,” to dupe leftists into identifying with Russia. Accepting anything they offer gains you nothing. Your right-wing opponents will seize on any opportunity to attack you as a “useful idiot” and dismiss you. It’s not fair, but politics is war by other means, and all’s fair in love and war.

Q. But isn’t my government the worst threat to world peace? 

Possibly, but how does regurgitating Russian propaganda help alleviate that? If Russia seems like less of a threat than the US, it is only because it is far weaker economically and militarily. We have seen since 2014 that to the extent Russia has the ability to project military force, it has done so, and with far less restraint or even candor than the US. More over, its media and politicians continually threaten nuclear war against nations which object to its activities. The Russian government promotes the idea that Russia is a “natural empire” and that it has the right to have a “sphere of influence” around it. Would you tolerate the US or any of its allies doing something like this? I’d hope not. So don’t tolerate it from Russia.

Q. Okay I get that, but for me, my own government is my main problem. I don’t think I’ll ever go to Russia or Ukraine anyway. 

This is a totally acceptable position- just don’t adopt Russian talking points on those issues if they don’t concern you enough. If you don’t know, say so and move on- nothing wrong with that. It’s a lot better than becoming a shill for a regime that not only doesn’t care about your cause, but by all counts probably hates you and hopes you experience more political and economic strife because from their point of view, destabilization in your country is good for them.

Q. But my country’s leaders and our mainstream media are criticizing Putin and Russia all the time. Doesn’t that mean he stands in the way of their imperial machinations?

To some degree yes, but that doesn’t make Putin’s motives pure or positive. Putin doesn’t want to “oppose imperialism” or something of the sort. If anything it’s just the opposite- he wants to basically codify imperialism, divide the world among self-appointed “great powers,” one of which should be Russia. All the smaller and weaker nations of the world can be nothing more than vassals of one regional empire or another. This belief can often be gleaned from statements by Russia’s Foreign Ministry directed at other countries such as Ukraine and EU member states.

In reality, Putin was for some time an admirer of George W. Bush and tried diligently to come to some kind of partnership with the US and UK. Even to this day Russia keeps offering “cooperation” with the West, so long as the West unilaterally concedes to all of Russia’s demands. How would that fare, for example, for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (formerly known as Rojava)? Russia’s all in for Assad’s government, while the US, though supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces now, is still in an alliance with NATO member Turkey. An agreement between Russia, Turkey, and the US, could sweep one of the world’s most progressive projects in decades away in a bloodbath.

Bottom line is- leftists are supposed to think more critically. Our epistemology needs to be a bit more sophisticated than “Let’s support whoever our government seems to hate!”

Q. But won’t I run the risk of regurgitating American government propaganda?

Not if you think critically and check your sources. You don’t need to oppose something just because the US government seems to be supporting it. They have their reasons, and you can have yours.

The reverse is also true- you shouldn’t necessarily shy away from speaking the truth (key word: truth) just because Russia or someone pro-Kremlin appears to be supporting the same side. For one thing, we’ve already established that part of Russia’s influence operations entails supporting both sides of polarizing issues. But for a case study, take the recent attempt at Catalonian independence. Personally I didn’t support the move based on some background information I read, but that didn’t stop me from condemning the violence that was used against the referendum. I couldn’t care less which side Russia supposedly supported (they actually changed their position on this). Every case needs to be considered on its own merit. Movements and initiatives cannot decide who endorses them, be they Russia or the US government.

Q. What’s something I can do to protect my cause or organization from Russian manipulation? 

One former Occupy Leader came up with a good strategy for deterring this sort of manipulation- international solidarity for protest movements. Basically by linking protests, it makes it harder for foreign governments on both sides to hijack any one movement. For example, if there’s a big protest in the US, find ways to link it to global protests in countries like Russia. If protesters used signs and slogans comparing American wealth inequality with that of Russia, it is unlikely that Russian state media would want to give it much coverage. This can be done on other topics as well, from separation of church and state issues to militarism and war. Just like the US government, Putin spends vast amounts of wealth on military modernization and war to the detriment of his own people. When protesters make this a part of their rhetoric, it makes it harder for Russian soft power organizations to capitalize on their movement. And of course, expressing solidarity with Russian opposition figures is another major turn off for Kremlin media.

Q. How can I tell if I’m being approached by someone working for the Kremlin in some way?

In the previous answer I link to a post (here it is again if you hate scrolling) that has a rough guide for determining whether or not you’re dealing with a pro-Kremlin agent. I use the word “agent” very loosely here; I do not mean a spy or government operative. They could very well be an independent individual who just has a pro-Kremlin POV and rather informal links. But remember- if they get you to regurgitate the Kremlin’s foreign policy talking points in public, they’ve basically subordinated you to their cause.

Also realize you should relax and not become too paranoid about this kind of thing. Unfortunately, many American leftists subscribe to out-of-date, naive ideas about imperialism and how to oppose it. As such, they are prone to knee-jerk reactions to world events and end up regurgitating Kremlin talking points totally independently of any exposure to Russian-produced propaganda. The best you can do in this case is to point out the moral inconsistency of their positions and how such out of date views of the world are not only counter-productive, but they often actually aid the forces of reaction and are condescending to boot. So-called “anti-imperialists,” often with zero experience or background knowledge on the country in question, are typically more than happy to make loud pronouncements about which peoples deserve self-determination, and which do not, which protests are authentic, and which are nothing but paid dupes of the CIA or State Department. And yet how many of these same people would bristle with anger when the right says they’re “paid by George Soros?”

 

Some Final Advice

There is no such thing as a “socialist camp” in the modern world today. There is no “anti-imperialist camp” either. The world is, with few exceptions (and not necessarily positive ones by any stretch), entirely capitalist and integrated. Foreign propaganda projects try to entice you with leftish symbolism or by talking about the issues you care about, which are often underreported by our own major media outlets. But this is just a scam. It’s not about actually doing anything to address those issues- it’s about you to identify with a regime and hopefully echo its talking points. In the end, your credibility gets destroyed and they get another butt-ton of funding from their government. Who wins? American leftists need to be aware of Russian and other foreign soft power in the same way that Ukrainians and Russians need to be aware of Western soft power attempts to co-opt their grassroots movements. This is the world we are living in.

Maintain your principles. Maintain your independence. Maintain your moral consistency and integrity. Act locally, think globally, and don’t become a pawn.