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THIS

Hey did you hear about Vladimir Putin’s shirtless fishing trip? I bet you did, if you were following some of America’s biggest media outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post, or TIME magazine! Yes, because Putin apparently doesn’t have a big enough PR apparatus of his own, the same publications that are currently zeroing in on every single perceived connection between Russia and Donald Trump decided to pitch in and give Russia’s president some free publicity. Great job, guys!

Personally I was holding off on my criticism of the Western media for perpetuating Putin’s bullshit macho image, so as to avoid drawing more attention to it. But it seems the cat is already out of the bag. Luckily, Leonid Bershidsky already wrote an article on the topic and I basically agree wholeheartedly. I recommend you read it too.

In the mean time I’ll be working on my latest Youtube video.

 

RT and Sputnik Are On Notice!

Look out, Margarita and Kiselyov- there’s a new counter-propaganda project in town and it has vowed to protect “Western values” from Russian attempts to undermine them. That’s right, RT, Sputnik, get ready to face the wrath of…Nick and Mauro! Yeah…Seriously.

I stumbled across this site for the first time when someone shared this article, in which the authors decide that it’s time to “retaliate” against Russia because we have been “bombarded” with their propaganda. Let’s look at a few choice excerpts:

“It was the Kremlin’s toxic propaganda, with R.T at the forefront, that for years instigated the unprecedented anti-European sentiment which lead to Brexit.”

Errr…No. Only someone who has never met any Brits would say something like this. Brits have been complaining about the EU, often comically so, for many years. Before Sputnik, before RT, before Putin even. Britain has a world-infamous tabloid press that has been stoking anti-EU, anti-immigrant sentiment all this time. Seeing as how these publications are not state-financed and they’re still in business somehow, I’d say they have a much larger audience in the UK than RT or Sputnik.

“It was fake articles, sponsored by the Kremlin, that prompted the rise of radical groups throughout Europe by purposely brewing hatred towards immigrant communities.”

Oh really? Which ones, exactly? Last time I checked, far right parties have been a thing for decades. In fact, one could reasonably argue that far right groups and figures from Europe and America had an impact on Russia first, and then the Kremlin merely adopted their rhetoric for its own political purposes. If the entire Russian propaganda machine simply disappeared overnight, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment would still be just as much of a problem, and Western domestic media would be guilty of stoking it as well.

“During the 2016 election, Kremlin media targeted and exploited the grief felt by those on the fringes of the left as well, by shamelessly promoting Green party candidate Jill Stein as the only ethical choice. Although she did not win, Stein served her purpose by helping Russia achieve its aims. Her vote totals in the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan were all greater than Clinton’s margin of defeat, and arguably denied Clinton an Electoral College victory.”

Well that’s a bold claim. The author must present some serious evidence for it, right? Well no. All we get is this tweet:

Let’s see…What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. There’s no evidence these people would have voted for Hillary.
  2. They might have been swayed to Hillary if she had campaigned in their states.
  3. TST’s implication is that these people were somehow influenced to vote for Stein thanks to RT. No evidence is provided to support that.

Moving on…

“It is finally time for some reciprocity.”

Nah. I think it’s time for some GAME THEORY!

“The U.S. could launch a counter-propaganda campaign and hit the Kremlin where it hurts most by sowing dissent and distrust between Putin and his small but loyal oligarchy.”

Okay how is this supposed to work, exactly? Do we start a special news network that broadcasts fake stories claiming, for example, that Igor Sechin is complaining about Putin behind his back? Show your work.

“If successful, this initiative will mark the first centralized counter-propaganda push-back against the Russians since the 1990s.”

What counter-propaganda campaign was used in the 1990s? Maybe he means since the Cold War, which effectively ended in the 1990s? Who knows?

“Yet as grim at it might all seem, there is a silver lining to our new commander in chief . Before the Trump phenomenon, this ever-encroaching Russian propaganda was receiving nowhere close to the attention it deserved. In the US that meant none at all. The recent election of a suspected Kremlin puppet however, is bringing a new level of awareness to this issue. This is key because merely recognizing the networks used to peddle Russian falsehoods is half of the battle, and right now more Westerners understand that RT stands for Russia Today. And for that we thank you Mr. President.”

Russian propaganda received little attention in the United States because very few Americans actually consume it, at least directly. And much of what they do consume is simply rehashed material from the American political fringes. If we speak about propaganda undermining American values, the biggest threat comes from Fox News and AM talk radio. Freakin’ millennials think this is all novel.

“When I say we are fighting a war I don’t mean that as some sort of figure of speech. The threat is real and the stakes couldn’t be higher. And they should, as the eventual victor will decide which values are preserved, and whose ideology ends up on the wrong side of history.”

Russia’s ruling class doesn’t have an ideology, beyond boundless greed and sheer survival. Incidentally, boundless greed is the closest thing the United States has to an ideology these days. The US, as it is, will surely win this “New Cold War” for reasons that ought to be obvious to any honest observer, but the problem that led to this will still be there.

“The good news is that we’ve faced this same opponent before and won. The bad news is that we seemed much more united when we did so.”

Okay first no, we haven’t. The Soviet Union can’t be compared to Putin’s Russia. The differences are extreme. Second, what do you mean we were more united? Look I graduated from high school in 2000 so I understand a lot’s changed, but did they really stop teaching about the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-War movement, McCarthyism, the Counter-Culture movement, all of that stuff? There was a time when people with actual authority were going around accusing people of being Soviet agents; it wasn’t like now when the people doing that are just mental cases on Twitter.

If you think this is as bad as it gets, think again. This ride is far from over. In another article, the author laments the death of the “Tear Down This Wall Republican.” Yes, the problem with Republicans isn’t that they’ll gleefully try to deprive people of healthcare in order to shovel more money into the gaping maw of America’s richest- it’s that they don’t recognize Russian propaganda as the biggest threat to the United States. Seriously- they wrote that:

“It used to be that the pursuit of basic birthrights around the World was a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. And although a bipartisan issue, Republicans always seemed to champion an active role around the world more vocally that their democratic counterparts.”

Again how old is this guy? How could anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history even write that without irony? When did this used to be the case? When the CIA helped overthrow Allende to install the dictator Pinochet, or was it earlier, when the US was dropping more ordnance in the former Indochina than they did in the entire Second World War? It’s often said, and quite rightly so, that Russia’s current leadership views human rights as nothing but a cynical ploy for achieving geopolitical goals. They are not entirely correct, and they use this interpretation to justify horribly immoral actions, but it’s also painfully clear that they did not simply pluck this notion out of thin air.

Of course the author isn’t unaware of this either, but their understanding is rather limited, as this paragraph indicates:

“The big elephant in the room, of course, always being our relationship to Saudi Arabia. How can we, with a straight face, stress human rights while maintaining a close alliance with a literal authoritarian monarchy?”

These days Saudi Arabia probably is the biggest elephant in the room, but it’s not nearly the only one. Let’s just say the US once had enough elephants in the room to run its own circus. Also these days it’s important to understand just how immoral the US relationship with Saudi Arabia is. Taking into account what the Kingdom has been doing in Yemen, it is basically the equivalent to Russia’s relationship with Assad (no, it doesn’t cancel out Russia’s actions in Syria- they’re both wrong).

Then there’s this hyperbolic statement:

“I’ve said this before (yes even before the Trump phenomenon): Russian propaganda is the single biggest threat facing Western society today.

Not the Russian military. Not the political discourse in the USA. No. Our biggest threat is non-countered propaganda spewed by our enemies designed to seed doubt in our American institution, and career professionals, while simultaneously spreading false news.”

Um…No. No it is not the biggest threat. The biggest threat in America today is the fact that the entire federal government, along with many of the state governments, is controlled by a party that openly and almost enthusiastically declares that it is unconcerned with the suffering and potential death of millions of American citizens. It is the same party that engineered what may be the worst American foreign policy disaster of the 21st century, namely the invasion of Iraq, which has thus far been responsible for untold death and suffering far beyond the borders of that small country. This party, often with the collusion of their so-called opponents, has literally killed thousands of Americans via their policies. Excuse me if I find that just a tad more threatening than a foreign network whose most watched video is about a homeless guy who sings really well.

As further proof of ignorance, take a look at this next part:

“I don’t believe that the solution should be to censor RT, Sputnik, or any of the many channels peddling Putin’s garbage. The solution instead, should be to counter misinformation with facts.

The Baltic countries have been leading on this front:
In Lithuania a small army of bloggers of who’ve dubbed themselves “elves” — patrol social media, coordinating their actions through Facebook or Skype to expose fake accounts.
Latvia, intends to launch independent quality media in Russian, which could include a Russian-language TV channel to counter Kremlin propaganda.”

Okay in another article he said that the US should “retaliate” by creating a network that would sow dissent among Putin’s ruling class. I’d imagine that somewhere in that operation you’d have to lie, simply because the people behind such a network would not be privy to the internal dialog within the Kremlin and Russia’s elite. But never mind that- why is he saying that the Baltic countries took the lead in this effort without ever once mentioning Ukraine’s StopFake, which has been all over the media in the past few months?

 

Bear with me, but I’m going to quote from one more piece on the site to complete our sampler for today.

In a piece which carries the bizarre headline Projecting The Russian Federation’s Soft-Power Abroad Via Its Visa Program, we learn some interesting things about the author and their possible motivations. First, the author is basically implying that Russia’s “visa program” is somehow an incarnation of Russian soft power. “Russia’s visa program,” is the visa regime it maintains for foreigners- other countries decide their own policies when it comes to admitting Russian citizens. This cannot be considered a form of Russian soft power. You could argue that Russia maintaining a visa free regime for former Soviet nationalities like Ukrainians is a form of soft power, but in reality that has far more to do with economics and cheap labor. But let’s get to the red flags in this piece:

“If you’re a citizen of the Russian Federation and want to jaunt off anywhere across the globe, it’s common knowledge that many popular and regularly visited places you choose as your destination will require you to obtain a visa. Annoying, time-consuming, and on a broader state level, a political game of chess. It’s a way to irritate the folks over at The Kremlin and to tell Vladimir Putin that he’s not so welcome in their backyard, and if he really wants his citizenry to travel there, they have to shoulder this bit of extra burden.”

This is exactly what Putin wants. For one thing, several million Russians are already banned from traveling abroad for security reasons. Second, when conditions in Russia did improve during the 2000’s and thousands of Russians went abroad, what happened? They saw how much more modern and functional the West was in comparison to Russia, and then they started protesting. Putin no doubt wishes he could be dealing with the Soviet population, little of which had ever visited the West and thus could not make comparisons. Anything that makes it harder for Russians to travel to Europe or the United States would be a gain for Putin.

But the article gets even more bizarre because in the next paragraph you can’t even tell who the author is talking to. Are they making recommendations to the West or to Putin?

“So what better way to stick a thumb in the eye of the United States, NATO members and others, while at the same time exercising a projection of Russian power on a global scale? Slap these countries with visa requirements of their own and one-up them by making the process as onerous as possible, requiring sponsorship from an organization inside the Russian Federation, strict limits on the days one can remain traveling, and also adding transit visas to the mix to make it even more burdensome. Even meeting this exceedingly strict series of measures will not guarantee an automatic approval and more often than not, those applying are denied and must start the process all over again, meaning more money, time, and resources wasted.”

Russia has strict visa rules, but they’re by no means the worst. Keep in mind there are countries where American citizens, or in some cases anyone, must book a guided tour just to visit. It is, as I’m told, rather easy for an American to get a visa to Iran, for example, but you won’t just be able to wander around as you please. Also, these rules have been in place for quite some time, yet the author acts like they were implemented as some kind of “soft power” by Putin. If that’s the case, it would suit Putin to relax visa laws so as to bring in more tourists and potentially, useful idiots. And indeed, the Russian government has relaxed visa laws over the years. They have done it for special events like the UEFA Championship, and they signed an agreement with the United States which allows US citizens to get a three year multi-exit tourist visa.

Confused yet? Read on:

“Following the splintering of the USSR back in 1991, Russia wasted no time in crafting together a bulwark to NATO in its own backyard with the creation of the CIS, or Commonwealth of Independent States. This association is comprised of countries that were once part of the Soviet Union; I like to think of this group as a “mini Warsaw Pact”. These countries also enjoy visa free entry into the Russian Federation and this along with the very existence of the CIS further serves to poke a stick in NATO’s direction.”

The CIS was not a “mini Warsaw Pact” and countries joined and left freely of their own accord. It does involve visa free travel and free trade agreements but how is this “poking a stick in NATO’s direction?” Please, explain the threat that is posed to NATO when Russia allows Uzbek citizens free travel into their country.

This is where the author really loses the plot, and goes off the rails with a personal anecdote:

“From experience, this author has seen first-hand just how exhausting it can be to enter Russia if you don’t enjoy the benefit of being a citizen of any of the aforementioned countries. While on a trip throughout Scandinavia back in the summer of 2012, I entered Russia by way of Finland, utilizing my Nicaraguan passport in order to avoid the migraine that obtaining an entry visa would have entailed; and even then, things did not go smoothly. If you’ve ever seen a movie featuring a gulag, or Siberia full of pine trees, with the occasional outpost filled with barbed wire fence and Russian security forces walking around with attack dogs, then you’re picturing the VERY remote border crossing between Finland and Russia that I encountered. The hour spent there seemed like the very definition of eternity, with confused and clearly untrained officials looking at my passport every which way while sounding out “N-i-c-a-r-a-g-u-aaaaaaaaa?” in a mix of bemusement and disbelief. To play devil’s advocate, I’m sure that these Russians stationed in the most remote of outposts had probably never heard or even known the existence of a Central American country located thousands of miles away. After being peppered with endless questions about why I wanted to enter Russia, what my business and purpose(s) for doing so were – all while having uniformed KGB-like officers with trained attack dogs at their side looming over me – I was coldly told “Da”, “Yes”, and allowed to enter.”

Notice how the author claims to have entered via a remote border post. How many Westerners (discounting Finns, who might have business on the other side of the border) do you think they encounter out there? When you go to a remote border post like that, expect to be asked questions. Also, while the border guards are certainly aware of the existence of Nicaragua, I doubt they were aware of the fact that Nicaraguan citizens do not require visas for entry to Russia (up to 90 days). Random border guards don’t have a database in their head detailing the visa policies for every nationality on the planet- they often have to look them up.

Also I don’t see on what grounds the officers were “KGB-like.” Was that simply because they were Russian? They had attack dogs? Again- you’re at a remote border post. Dogs are used to patrol the borders, and certainly not only in Russia. Need I remind you that the President of the United States campaigned on building a giant wall?

“Talk about a first impression entering the Russian Federation, and this while holding a passport of a place where both countries enjoy very warm relations. Had I dared use my US passport, I’d be spending my remaining days in some even more remote part of Siberia.”

No, you would have been refused entry for not having a visa- it’s that simple. Just last year an American tried to enter Russia via Kazakhstan without a visa. He was in a car and was turned around at the border. He then tried to drive around the border post and was, naturally, caught. So was he packed off to Siberia? No- he was fined about $107 and then flown to New York at the Russian government’s expense.

If the author had used his American passport and had a visa to Russia, he probably would have gotten through the border crossing more easily.

Moral of the story is really simple here, folks- get a visa before entering Russia, and if you don’t want undue hassle just enter at an airport instead of trekking across the wilderness to some remote border post.

Also, the author might want to consider the US’ requirements for Nicaraguan citizens (who are not fortunate enough to also have US citizenship) to enter the country.

 

With all that out of the way, I think it’s time for a general evaluation. First, on the page’s “about” section it says that the site’s sole purpose is defending Western values. Yet I only had to scroll down to the bottom of the second page to see an article about Harambe the gorilla.  Not terribly disturbing but a possible clue that the site was originally launched as some kind of blog project and then maybe was refashioned as an “anti-propaganda” effort later. Later, as in when it started to look like one could profit off of this Russian propaganda bandwagon.

Next I found this article by one of the site’s co-founders, Mauro, who is apparently an “International Relations, Political Science & Tech/gadget guy.” In it, the author compares America to…*drumroll* the Roman Empire! Congratulations- this is one of the laziest attempts at a political analogy the world has produced, and I’m already wondering how much Mauro spent on a degree in International Relations and Political Science to produce something that a bookish high school senior could have written. The problem with Roman collapse analogies is that they often peddled by people who don’t properly understand why the Roman Empire collapsed (HINT: It’s really complicated), who then go on to creatively interpret modern American history until the United States is suddenly threatened by the same one factor that just happened to be Rome’s downfall.

Look, I’m not trying to be a dick to these two guys, but looking at their bios I don’t see any evidence that either of them have any special insight into Russia, nor do they seem to speak the language. The lack of historical knowledge (American, Russian, Saudi, Cold War, etc.) is incredibly conspicuous. None of this makes them bad people, but it certainly disqualifies them from being taken seriously in regards to Russia and it especially disqualifies them from taking on Russian propaganda. The truth is that Putin’s fanboys just love amateurish efforts like this, and they’ll pick this low-hanging fruit clean and then claim that it’s representative of “Western journalism” about Russia.

There is an unspoken rule among some people that discourages policing people “on our side,” with “our side” being the “anti-Kremlin” one. I’m sorry but I don’t play that game and I never will. For me the struggle against the Kremlin regime is a struggle against reactionary fascism, a struggle for the independence of Ukraine and for the future of the peoples of Russia. It is also a struggle against what I see as a by-product of a global capitalist mode of production which consistently ignores human rights in favor of private profit, and which cannot but do otherwise. So-called “counter-propaganda” which is poorly produced or which advances bad politics is not helpful in this struggle; on the contrary it is often more harmful than anything the Kremlin’s propaganda masters could cook up.

But hey what do I know? I’m sure these fine lads are just days away from getting a massive grant from the State Department or cushy jobs with some major think tank. On both sides, the system loves team players.

Fake News!

If you read the intro to this site, you’ll see it mentions how I often use humor and satire. Typically, the latter involves writing Onion-style articles which I deliberately make as absurd as possible so people will hopefully recognize them as satire. Alas, sometimes that doesn’t happen.

A couple days ago I posted a satirical article about Russia unveiling a monument to Ukrainian nationalist leader Roman Shukhevych in Moscow as a retaliation against Poland’s destruction of Soviet WWII monuments. I thought the idea of Russia erecting such a monument would be sufficiently absurd as to mark the article as satire, but turns out I was wrong. As it happens, some people mistook it for a real story, especially after it was accidentally reposted on StopFake with no disclaimer that it was satire. I won’t name which country I’m talking about, but I will only say that it borders Lithuania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Germany, and it has a bi-color flag.

Just for the record, Russia did not erect a 10 meter tall statue of Roman Shukhevych.*

In the future I’ll put the satire disclaimers on such articles, but as a rule of thumb if you see something on this site which is written as a news article- that’s satirical. I’m not Paul Goble, who for some reason inexplicably puts locators (the same locator every time) in his blog posts. If anyone wants to see all of my satirical posts, there’s a category for that on the right-hand side.

Thanks and I apologize for the mix-up, Po- er…uh…unnamed Slavic country.

 

 

*The monument is actually 15 meters tall.

Moscow Unveils Ukrainian Nationalist Monument in Response to Poland’s Removal of Soviet Memorials

MOSCOW- A 10-meter tall statue of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA in Ukrainian) leader Roman Shukhevych was unveiled in Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin on Monday. According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the new monument is just one of the many “asymmetrical measures” his government promised in response to the Polish government, which recently announced its intention to remove Soviet WWII memorials on Polish territory.

“The Polish Second Republic, which occupied Ukrainian territory prior to the war, oppressed its ethnic minorities,” Lavrov said at a press briefing in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.

“This monument shows our respect for a resistance leader who stood up to Polish chauvinism, the same way we are now standing up to Polish chauvinism today.”

However, critics say the move is controversial, pointing out that Roman Shukhevych served Nazi Germany’s military from 1941 till 1943, first in an army battalion known as “Nachtigal” and later in an Auxiliary Police battalion engaged in anti-partisan warfare in Belarus. Both units have been accused of committing atrocities against Jews and other civilians in occupied territory. In 1943 the UPA engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Poles from the region of Volyn. Shukhevych was nominally in command of the insurgent movement at the time, and the event has been a source of controversy between Poland and Ukraine in recent years.

roman

Roman Shukhevych, commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)

Lavrov responded to critics of the new monument by dismissing all accusations against Shukhevych and his men as “Soviet propaganda,” and alleging the existence of a decades-long international conspiracy to slander Roman Shukhevych and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, of which he was a member.

“I believe every people has a right to its own heroes,” Lavrov told reporters.

“Brutal times called for brutal measures. I won’t get into specifics of what those brutal measures were, but if anyone does they’re probably lying and repeating Soviet propaganda. Also what about Jozef Pilsudski, Michael Collins, or Menachem Begin? Were they angels? I don’t think so.”

Lavrov also dismissed the issue of Shukhevych’s collaboration with Nazi Germany by pointing out that the Soviet Union had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, which he called an alliance between the two states. When one reporter pointed out that unlike Shukhevych’s movement, the USSR had a history of opposing Nazi Germany with force prior to the pact and after the German invasion it went on to destroy the Third Reich, Lavrov said such details were “Ukrainophobic” and called the reporter a “sovok.”

Reactions in Ukraine have been noticeably sparse, although the move was greeted with great enthusiasm from the head of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory, Volodymyr Viatrovych.

“This shows that Russia has finally broken with its Soviet past,” Viatrovych said.

“Russia has long insisted, like I do, that all Ukrainians idolize Shukhevych and the UPA. On that we were always in agreement, but until now the Russians had never given my- er…our heroes the respect they deserve.”

Viatrovych said that he was most pleased with the size of the monument, noting that Ukraine has nothing comparable. He also added that every attempt to memorialize Shukhevych and other Ukrainian nationalist leaders in Ukraine has typically been met with controversy and opposition. By contrast, the decision to erect a monument was made within a few days, by President Vladimir Putin’s personal decree. According to Viatrovych, this shows the Russian president’s system is far more efficient.

“I now see the wisdom and true leadership ability of Vladimir Putin, I recognize the superiority of the Russian World, and I will assist in any way that I can,” Viatrovych said.

When asked why he would embrace the nation that annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and started a war that has so far killed over 10,000 Ukrainian citizens, Viatrovych said such questions were “Ukrainophobic.”

So far the Polish Foreign Ministry has declined to comment on the new memorial. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov promised that his country’s retaliatory measures would continue until Poland halts its destruction of Soviet WWII memorials.

“This is only the beginning,” Lavrov said. “We’re already talking about renaming Tverskoy Boulevard after Stepan Bandera, and we might even name one of our upcoming metro stations after Roman Shukhevych as well. We’ve even got a monument to the Ukrainian Insurgent Navy planned for St. Petersburg. GLORY TO UKRAINE! GLORY TO THE HEROES!”

However, when Lavrov was asked if he felt any solidarity with authorities in Kyiv who recently proposed renaming a major street after Roman Shukhevych, he strongly condemned the move and said that Ukraine was under the control of “Nazis.”

Trump Can’t Deal: The Problem of Improving US/Russian Relations

Long before he got elected, Trump talked about having better relations with Russia. Of course he also talked about shooting down Russian planes for buzzing US Navy ships, but generally his attitude was “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” Many people on both sides of the political spectrum and with little knowledge of Russia or its ruling class have asked the same question. Is it really so bad to want better relations with Russia? Honestly the answer is no, it’s not bad at all, but the devil is in the details.

First of all, people who tend to advance this argument tend to put all the blame and responsibility on the United States for the breakdown in relations. NATO expansion was “provocative” to Russia, they often say. More brazen defenders of Putin *COUGH*MARK AMES*COUGH* claim that the US was responsible for the Maidan “revolution” in Ukraine which “sparked a civil war.” All of this betrays the mentality that the Kremlin is promoting. All of this is hypocritical and wrong, as well.

For one thing, whatever you think about NATO (and I have my complaints as well), Russia long since recognized the rights of sovereign nations (including those which were in the former Eastern Bloc) to join whatever international alliances or organizations they wanted. It is indeed interesting how these non-interventionists are quick to jump on any example of the US violating the sovereignty of foreign nations, yet they never consider that joining NATO or the EU is also exercising a nations sovereignty. Maybe, just maybe, a better question to ask is why nations like the Baltic states (the only NATO members which actually share a border with the bulk of Russia) wanted to join NATO in the first place. In any case, if you look at NATO spending and US military deployments in Europe up till about 2015, you’ll see how ludicrous it is to claim that NATO was somehow threatening Russia, so much so that it justified invading Ukraine and annexing a part of it just because a corrupt would-be dictator pissed off his own people and then ran instead of abiding by the agreement he signed.

There’s also the argument that the West screwed over Russia during the Yeltsin years. There are certainly real grievances here, particularly economic advice that emphasized free market dogma at the expense of human lives, and looking the other way while Boris Yeltsin illegally and violently constructed an authoritarian system which he would later hand over to Vladimir Putin. But this also ignores the other side of the coin. For one thing, Western governments also provided humanitarian aid during this period. Could they have done more? Definitely. But it’s simply a lie to assert that all the West did was send free market missionaries and sex tourists. Second, this argument about the 90’s totally removes all agency from Russians. The United States didn’t force dishonest people to form organized crime gangs (some of which dated back to late Soviet times), nor did it force people to rob and cheat their fellow citizens so they could become unbelievable rich. The West was, at worst, an enabler in this business. It was not the initiator.

The West did not “humiliate” Russia. In fact it was quite the opposite. It looked the other way as Russia helped create pseudo-states in Moldova and Georgia. It helped negotiate a deal with Ukraine, whereby that country gave up its nuclear weapons and entrusted them to Russia. It acknowledged Russia as the successor to the Soviet Union, thus allowing Russia to take over the USSR’s permanent position on the UN Security Council. Over my long time in Russia, I learned that what many Russians considered humiliating about the 90’s wasn’t what I considered humiliating. If you asked me what was humiliating about that period I would have said the poverty, the crime, and most of all the sexual exploitation, which became so widespread it led to the name “Natasha” becoming a slang term for prostitute in many countries. But the humiliation that many Russians think about today largely ignores that, and instead focuses on the loss of their empire. It was humiliating to have to acknowledge the independence of countries like Kazakhstan or Ukraine. It was humiliating that Russians would have to start learning the language of the titular nationality instead of the latter having to use Russian all the time. If that’s humiliation, then the West is under no obligation to alleviate it.

Lastly there’s the idea that Putin made overtures toward the West, only to be snubbed. I’d say there’s some truth to this argument. I believe that at least in the beginning, Putin did have a sincere desire to bring stability and prosperity to Russia, as well as closely integrate it into the West. You could argue about the Chechen war or the crackdown on media (whose owners were not necessarily objective nor innocent) that took place in the early Putin presidency, but I would say that literally anyone taking over from Yeltsin in that period would have been forced to make tough decisions. The system was already corrupt and authoritarian. I still believe that Putin could have taken a different route in the early 2000s, then if he left power he could have retired as true modernizer and savior of Russia, albeit with controversy. We would look at him the way we look at figures like Pilsudski or Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Yet not only did Western leaders, after a brief flirtation, give Putin the cold shoulder, but this was also the time when Western media seemed to criticize everything Putin did. Things that were ignored under Yeltsin, who was portrayed as the father of Russian democracy, were suddenly controversial and ominous under Putin. And of course, the press almost never failed to identify Putin as the “former KGB officer.”

At the same time, Putin came of age if you will, during the beginning of the War on Terror and more specifically, the war on Iraq. The latter, and especially the Bush doctrine behind it, had huge implications for Putin. For one thing, it ignited massive anti-American sentiment throughout the world, which would remain fresh for exploitation long after the initial invasion. Second, he learned that if you have the ability to project military power, you can do it so long as you make up some supposedly humanitarian pre-text. Bush had WMDs, whereas Putin would later use the excuse of protecting Russian speakers in the Crimea. Lastly, it confirmed a view held by Putin and many of his generation, that the United States doesn’t really believe in human rights or national sovereignty, but that it simply invokes these things as it pleases in order to serve its own interests. While Putin and others who believe this are wrong to think that the United States hasn’t grown and evolved from the monster that it was in the Gilded Age or during the Cold War, there are still plenty of examples of American hypocrisy when it comes to human rights- most notably the war in Yemen.

But the argument that Putin was snubbed by the West can’t totally explain away his own actions and decisions since that time. So Western leaders didn’t accept him as he wanted- did that mean he needed to construct an authoritarian, centralized system of kleptocracy? Wouldn’t it have been better for Putin to simply brush off the cold responses and busy himself with modernizing Russia, creating stable democratic institutions, and establishing rule of law? What better way to get back at leaders like Blair and Bush than by turning Russia into an economic powerhouse, one which actually stood by the principle of respecting national sovereignty? That, sadly, is not what Putin chose to do, of course. He and his cronies decided to use Russia’s natural wealth to enrich themselves at the expense of the country’s future, and rather than build a stable democratic system he created a cult of personality that revolves around him personally. And while Putin would love to point fingers at the West, the whole time he and his pals were robbing Russia, the West was more than happy to accept the dirty money and even invest massive amounts of capital into Russia. So in the end, the argument that Putin became Putin because he was rejected by the West ultimately fails.

Having gotten those arguments out of the way, there’s the ultimate obstacle to better US/Russia relations, which is Putin and his system. They want bad relations with the West and they need bad relations with the West, because the oil boom is over, their gas leverage is waning, and they squandered much of the wealth Russia produced over roughly a decade- the West is the scapegoat. The West, its dastardly fifth column and ultra-secret sixth column is necessary to explain why, in spite of being one of the richest nations in the world in terms of natural resources, Russia has only managed to achieve the economic power of Italy or Spain, but with much lower living standards, salaries, pensions, etc. People have been angry since 2011, and they need to be suppressed, ergo the must be labeled as Western-backed agents of revolution. Putin is literally fighting for survival, and the cult of personality built up around him doesn’t allow him to blink or make concessions. There’s nothing he can really offer in any negotiations.

This is why in the past I have criticized the so-called “realists” who say that the West needs to negotiate with Russia, yet never articulate what exactly Russia is going to give the West in exchange. Vague promises of cooperation are useless. Likewise Russia has shown that its word on treaties is essentially worthless (ask Ukraine). If the Kremlin is really so eager to engage with its “Western partners,” it needs to explain what it can offer in concrete terms.

Since the reality is that Putin will not and cannot actually offer anything of value to the West, and US president wishing to improve relations would have to talk over his head, to the Russian people. This would require a US president with actual knowledge of Russia, its history, and its culture. Ideally it would be a presidential candidate who can actually speak some Russian. But most of all it would have to be a president who is ready to acknowledge the many bad foreign policy choices of the United States so as to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy and head off the Kremlin’s attempts to use its favorite weapon whataboutism.

This US president needs to be sincere, and explain how the United States, over the years, has had to acknowledge the reality of sovereign states, and how it has often failed to be consistent in its application of human rights. They would have to stress that if Russia is serious about being a partner with other leading nations, it must abandon dreams of empire and spheres of influence and join those other nations in securing a world that respects international law and sovereignty. Of course these words must also be backed with action, for example in regards to Saudi Arabia and its war in Yemen. This president could invoke that example to show how the United States is ready to change and isn’t just trying to trick Russia into unilateral concession, as many Russians no doubt suspect. This hypothetical president would have to do all this and more, while also remaining firm about what the West demands of Russia- that it take responsibility for its own condition and stop undermining its neighbors like Ukraine.

Do I even need to point out at this point that Donald Trump is not the president who can do any of that, ever? Hell, I can’t imagine anyone in DC that I know of who could possibly do that. Hillary wouldn’t have been able to do it. Bernie couldn’t have done it. Anyone that has those skills and that knowledge probably has no shot of ever being elected president (I’m not announcing my candidacy at this time).

Therefore someone like Trump has no choice but to accept the same “deal” that the Kremlin has been offering for years now- let us do what we want, and we give you nothing but vague cooperation on “terrorism” and maybe something involving plutonium or missile quantities. Knowing Trump, the master deal-maker, it’s easy to see why his handlers in the White House, State Department, and intelligence communities are careful to limit and monitor his contacts with Putin and other Russians. Not only would he easily be manipulated by a far more intelligent individual like Putin or Lavrov, but he’d probably throw in Alaska if they gave him a gold fidget spinner or something. Then he’d go tweet about how the fake news media and the Dems are criticizing his master deal just because they’re still upset about his big electoral college win.

So to reiterate. Better relations with Russia are just fine, but actually achieving that goal is easier said than done. It would take a very special kind of negotiator, a rare type of politician. It would also require the Russian side to accept responsibility for the deterioration of relations. The West didn’t invade Ukraine and start a war- Russia did that, period. Repairing relations between countries is a two-way street.

 

Soros Can’t Revolution

You’ve got to hand it to George Soros. Not because he got so rich, but because he’s now considered to be behind virtually every nefarious plot worldwide, from Hungary, to Ukraine, to the United States. Depending on who you’re talking to, Soros is funding Islamic fundamentalists, fascists, or Communists. The latter conspiracy, the Communist conspiracy, is most popular in the US among the far right and has always been rather amusing to me. After all, Soros is a billionaire who made his money largely in unproductive financial chicanery- not the type of person who should be funding Communist revolutions anywhere, suffice to say.

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But what I find really funny about the Soros conspiracy is that when you look at the NGOs and projects Soros actually funds, they’re actually rather innocuous or in many cases helpful or necessary. In many countries, NGOs take care of services that corrupt governments can’t provide. Open Democracy, a publication I’ve written for, has received some funding from one of Soros’ organizations and at least when it comes to Ukraine it’s far more objective than RFERL, plus it’s more in-depth than the coverage of most major Western news outlets.

None of this is to say that Soros’ funding of various projects can’t be problematic. There are serious flaws in a system where billionaires are allowed to use their wealth to shape societies according to their own views, especially those they do not personally live in. The fact that the billionaire in question is George Soros and not, say, the Koch brothers, is irrelevant here. Even if the causes seem progressive, would someone like Soros allow for more permanent solutions to problems like global poverty, especially if those solutions challenged his own wealth and privilege? Moreover the fact that we live in a world with billionaires is one of the root causes for much of the problems people like Soros target; billionaires are a product of inequality and improper wealth distribution. But if you thought I’m going to get on my socialist soap box for this post, you might be pleased to know I have something else in mind.

My problem with the Soros conspiracy is this- we’re told that he’s behind all manner of revolution, chaos, anarchy, etc. He’s obviously not squeamish about violence because he’s willing to fund any group that’s allegedly trying to destroy Western society because…uh…reasons. The problem is, however, that we have zero evidence tying Soros to actual violent groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Azov National Corps or whatever they’re calling themselves this week… What we do see is that he funds a lot of these NGOs, none of which seem to have anything to do with violent revolution and whose employees, and I’m generalizing here, probably wouldn’t make the best guerrilla fighters.

So I start thinking. What would I do if I had Soros’ money, and I wanted to bring down some governments with a Communist revolution? I definitely wouldn’t be doing what Soros does, that’s for sure. No, I’d be the Osama bin Laden of a leftist global revolutionary movement- you know, a movement that would actually have something to do with revolutions. Of course I’m not speaking only about Bin Laden here- there are hundreds of wealthy donors, often Saudi Arabian, who have for years paid what has often been likened to protection money to jihadist groups. The money goes not only to media, the only thing that even compares with Soros’ work, but it also goes toward things like arms and training camps. Of course Al Qaeda’s model isn’t really revolutionary and in spite of its huge impact on the world it has had a piss poor record of achieving its goals apart from generally terrorizing people (most of them Muslim, incidentally). But that is a failing of the Sunni Wahhabi ideology and the founders and strategists of Al Qaeda; it’s not because they’re wasting money on the wrong things.

Sure, I’d fund a massive internet-based propaganda machine with my newfound money, but apart from some front groups or social relief organizations (winning of hearts and minds), the bulk of it would go into investments for making more money, arms, training camps, safe houses, slush funds for operatives- standard revolutionary stuff. Needle exchanges for drug addicts are great, but I’ve got a revolution to run, unlike Mr. Soros who apparently couldn’t revolution his way out of a paper bag.

There’s also the matter of Soros’ initiatives all being totally above board and known to the public. Soros isn’t a recluse and information about his initiatives is easily found. If I were trying to instigate a socialist revolution, I wouldn’t be making highly publicized appearances talking about it. I’d be more reclusive and anonymous that most of history’s actual Communist leaders. That’s not only tactical either. I think that remaining largely anonymous also helps work against the cult of personality that plagued socialism from 1917 onward. With no name, no face, there is only the message. Apparently the brilliant mastermind George Soros never considered that.

Soros’ Color Revolutions are pretty pathetic as well. The Color Revolution that has ever really had huge, measurable success was Georgia’s Rose Revolution. And even that ended with its leader, Mikhail Saakashvili being more or less ejected from his own country. If I were the nefarious Soros, I’d just have those politicians I don’t like killed. Why bother with mass protests and occupations of public squares when you can just turn political enemies into amateur astronauts using car bombs?

It is indeed strange that Soros, who is allegedly trying to cause global chaos in order to set up some kind of socialist world order that is friendly to billionaire speculators, doesn’t seem to be aware of any of these tactics. Why it’s almost like he’s not a revolutionary at all, but rather more like some self-righteous billionaire who wants to secure his legacy as a philanthropist while getting massive tax breaks thanks to his charitable donations. What a disappointment.

Rest assured if I had that kind of money and such nefarious plans, I’d do things totally differently from Soros. Of course the point is totally moot because I don’t have even a fraction of his massive wealth. Unless…

The Competition

I’ve spent a lot of time making fun of Russian propaganda on this blog, but you don’t really get the full picture if you don’t set the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in its proper context, that is to compare it to the propaganda of other countries. Advances in social media have made it possible for governments which are either minor players or barely players at all to disseminate their own propaganda. For example, this video exposes the dastardly lies Fake News Vice has spread about the small country of Eritrea:

I’ve watched some of the Vice documentary they’re talking about and while I’m not in any way qualified to comment on the state of human rights in Eritrea, I do think the country’s information ministry or whoever probably would have done better to ignore Vice News’ documentary so as to avoid the so-called Streisand effect.

This case brings up an interesting point about Russian propaganda- it’s logical, in the sense that Russia has a very good reason to run a state propaganda machine. Despite having an economy roughly on par with Italy or Spain but with much lower standards of living, nobody can deny that Russia is a major regional geopolitical power and it can project its influence far beyond its borders. So far, in fact, that it is able to cause mental breakdowns in people living on the other side of the world:

Given Russia’s global position and its domestic situation, you can totally understand why it needs to think about projecting soft power worldwide. There is no reason why the government of Eritrea should waste money on soft power. Even countries that are up and coming regional powers are probably wasting money on their global soft power initiatives. For example, take a look at this pro-Turkey flashmob that took place in New York’s Times Square:

What was the point of that, you ask? Apparently it was to reconcile Turkish-Armenian relations regarding remembrance of the Armenian Genocide, that thing which the Turkish government still denies ever happened. To be sure, it was apparently organized by an NGO, but it’s an NGO whose activities just happen to line up with the interests of the Turkish government.

Whatever the case, I can’t imagine how this is going to have even the slightest impact on Americans. It took Russian interference in the presidential election just to make a significant amount of Americans actually care about Russia, and that’s a country with a huge nuclear arsenal and a 40-year historic rivalry during the Cold War. Turkey has zero chance of making any kind of significant impact on the thinking of a significant percentage of Americans. It might as well be Eritrea.

Secondly, waving any flag with a crescent moon and star on it in Times Square is most likely to piss off a large segment of the American population, known as the “Afraid of their own shadow” demographic. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were comments about this video claiming that “THESE MUSLIMS ARE CELEBRATING BLOWING UP THE TOWERS!!! HAVE WE FORGOTEN?!” No, if Turkey wants to have an impact they ought to try something more effective, like slipping their message into popular culture venues. The Avengers: Infinity War is going to be in two parts, so there’s still probably time to hand over a shipload of money for some subtle messaging in the film. Here’s a hypothetical example:

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA

Hey Tony, you look pretty preoccupied with something over there.

TONY STARK

Oh hey Cap, I’m sorry I was just thinking about what happened in the eastern Ottoman Empire around 1915.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

You mean the Armenian geno…

TONY STARK

…cide? That’s just it. I’m not sure genocide is the best word. After all, many Muslim civilians living in the area also suffered atrocities at the hands of Armenian nationalists.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

I get what you’re saying. A real hero has to see both sides of the story.

This teaches us a second lesson about Russian propaganda. As easy as it is to make fun of, in comparison to what else is out there it’s actually pretty well-constructed. The best equivalent to Russia in terms of geopolitical power is China, and their soft power is laughably bad. In case you haven’t caught it here before, I present to you a case study:

 

Just so I’m not being unfair, here’s another video from the same channel I’m including because it’s the top video on the channel’s page and it appears to be using part of the soundtrack from The Rock (I’m totally sure they paid Hans Zimmer to use it).

 

There’s also CCTV, a channel I have only actually watched while in a hotel in…China. To CCTV’s credit, they did produce a very interesting series of documentaries about the major African independence leaders, or at least the idea seemed interesting before I actually started watching them.

I’m not an expert in documentary film making, but as a long-time viewer I have to say these were some of the most boring ones I’ve ever seen. One of them also has a rather hilarious title:

 

By comparison. Russia’s foreign-language propaganda is far more logical and effective. Logical in the sense that it has a clear goal and it works towards it, effective in the sense that it reaches a certain audience, even if that audience is in fact very small. The Russian strategy is incredibly simple- find out what extremists in various nations are talking about, then regurgitate and amplify the signal. They give a platform to fringe elements and produce content that said elements will happily cite to bolster their own credentials.

We can argue about the overall effectiveness of Russian propaganda in terms of achieving the Kremlin’s goals, and we can certainly note how much money the Kremlin spends for so little in return, but one thing is for sure- they’re not totally pissing money away on nothing like China, Turkey, or Eritrea.

It makes you wonder how much more effective they would be if they ever learned from the US or the UK and granted editorial independence as they once did to a few select outlets like The Moscow News or RIA Novosti’s English service (the former was part of the latter). I doubt we’ll see this happening any time soon however. In the minds of the people at the top in the Kremlin, there is no editorial independence with the BBC, VOA, or RFERL. As always, they make an a priori assumption that their opponents already do the morally-questionable thing they want to do so as to justify it to themselves.

Still, when we step back and look at the wider picture, we see two things. The first is that Russian propaganda, as amateurish as it seems some times, is probably one of the best-produced forms of soft power in the world today when viewed in comparison to the rest. We also see that more and more countries are getting into the soft power game, and it’s interesting to think who might be inundating Youtube with pro-regime propaganda. Zimbabwe? Equatorial Guinea? Myanmar?