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A World of BS: Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Denial

So by now we’re all aware that the Saudi government almost certainly killed and dismembered a famous Saudi journalist in their consulate in Istanbul. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has provoked an outrage among U.S. politicians, typically deferential to Riyadh, that is almost unprecedented. Naturally, instead of using this as a potential last straw to finally start shifting the American public’s attention to our country’s morally reprehensible relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Western left is fumbling the ball by saying things like “Saudi Arabia did 9/11!” and “What about Yemen?!” The latter is of course referring to the bloody, criminal war carried out in that country by Saudi Arabia and the UAE with military support the US and UK, a war that no major Western media outlet reports on, except for Washington PostNY TimesGuardianCNN, NBC, ABC, Vox, Voice of America, and BBC.

Of course since I’m taking a break from US left politics at the moment, I wanted to highlight another interesting phenomenon that we’ve seen in the wake of the Khashoggi case. Looking at the response from both the Kingdom’s Foreign Ministry as well as its media, one cannot help but notice eerie parallels with Russia’s response to scandals such as the Skripal poisoning, interference in the 2016 election, and the downing of MH17. To be fair, Russia has a bit more experience in this field, and as laughable as their denials can be at times, they have at least developed a certain style that is less awkward than that of the Saudis.

Compare:

demise

“Demise is the outcome of these weak endeavors” needs to be the next “Your industry can burn!

 

As you can see, there are some stylistic differences. What is curious, however, is the similarities. For example, note the expression of concern for the victim.

Remember how much the Russian government complained about not being granted access to Sergei and Yulia Skripal (after her recovery Yulia said she was aware of the Russian consulate’s offers, but declined to meet with them)?

Also, note the Saudi use of the classic Russian tactic- “Let’s not point fingers and wait for the investigation to be finished!”

To be fair, advising everyone to hold their judgment until an investigation is finished is not in itself a terrible thing, except in cases where all the evidence almost immediately points to one particular culprit and there are no other suspects to logically consider. More importantly, it is pointless to demand people wait until the investigation is complete if you’re just going to claim the results were biased after the fact, as Russia has done in the case of MH17, several chemical attacks by the Assad regime in Syria, and the Skripal poisoning case. If an objective investigation is carried out, and all its findings point directly to Saudi Arabian government officials, it seems almost inevitable that they will declare the investigation to be politically motivated and thus void.

Saudi-owned media like Al Arabiya is also running interference. Here we can see editorializing right in the first paragraph of this article, which also shares a similarity with Russian state media by starting its headline with “US media expert.” The article’s lede refers to “rumors” about Khashoggi’s disappearance, and contains the term “doubtful information” and “wrongful accusations.” This is even more egregious than some recent RT articles which do things like refer to “staged chemical attacks” in Syria, as though they’ve ever managed to show any evidence of a staged chemical attack there.

There are even closer parallels in some cases. After a Turkish newspaper released photos of 15 men believed to be Saudi government operatives suspected of being involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance, Al Arabiya claimed they were just tourists, prompting one Twitter user to say they were “pulling a Putin.” Also, much like with the Russian playbook, the Saudis have already started to suggest alternative explanations, one of which is that the killing might have been carried out by rogue agents in its intelligence service either intentionally or during an interrogation gone wrong. This half-admission resembles Putin’s talk about “patriotic hackers” amid flat denials about interfering in the US election in 2016. And just like with Putin’s denials about interfering in the U.S. election, Donald Trump seems totally ready to buy the Saudi King’s story.

This is the world we’re living in today. The Kremlin, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Bashar al-Assad, Brexit, China, TPUSA- all of these regimes, politicians, movements, etc. have all come to power, survived, or advanced their interests by propagating unreality. Unreality is beyond lies or propaganda; it’s dependent on a receptive audience. Unreality is the idea that you no longer have to live in material reality at all, and instead can just make up your own narrative to explain everything. Living in unreality is like a being an adult who still believes in Santa Claus. Nothing you were taught in school about physics or anything you observed for at least a quarter of a century can convince you that Santa Claus doesn’t fly around the entire globe on 25 December and deliver presents to good Christian children- that he in fact does not exist at all. You know he exists. You want him to exist. So he exists, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise or even bring up any facts which might contradict your belief is a dupe, a shill, or a paid agent of the anti-Christmas lobby (Bet George Soros doesn’t celebrate Christmas, does he?).

In similar fashion, many people want to believe that Assad doesn’t gas people or that Russia didn’t shoot down MH17, so they will go through the most Olympic Gold Medal-winning mental gymnastics to explain why they’re dismissing all manner of concrete evidence while never applying the same skepticism to other claims that they either agree with or just don’t care about. Either that, or they just dismiss something offhand based on claims about the funding of its source, be it a media outlet, think tank, or NGO. And because it’s unreality, that same outlet, think tank, or NGO can be presented as totally legitimate any time it releases a information that supports or seems to support the unreality-dweller’s worldview.

When pondering on this topic I’m reminded of the words of one of my personal role models, James Randi, who described a particular type of person he often encountered in his lifelong struggle against con artists and quacks.

“There exists in society a very special class of persons that I have always referred to as the Believers. These are folks who have chosen to accept a certain religion, philosophy, theory, idea or notion and cling to that belief regardless of any evidence that might, for anyone else, bring it into doubt. They are the ones who encourage and support the fanatics and the frauds of any given age. No amount of evidence, no matter how strong, will bring them any enlightenment. They are the sheep who beg to be fleeced and butchered, and who will battle fiercely to preserve their right to be victimized… the U.S. Patent Office handles an endless succession of inventors who still produce perpetual-motion machines that don’t work, but no number of idle flywheels will convince these zealots of their folly; dozens of these patent applications flow in every year. In ashrams all over the world, hopping devotees of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi will never abandon their goal of blissful levitation of their bodies by mind power, despite bruises and sprains aplenty suffered as they bounce about on gym mats like demented (though smiling) frogs, trying to get airborne. Absolutely nothing will discourage them.”

Of course as the above quote shows, Randi was referring to believers in various spiritual doctrines, pseudo-scientific claims, and the paranormal. But in our age, unreality has become…dare I say it…weaponized by governments and politicians, and now we have perpetual believers in these secular cults.

No doubt the Saudi Kingdom will have its own share of believers around the world, although in the West I suspect most of them will simply be lobbyists on the payroll. Apart from Donald Trump and his entourage, most Westerners find Saudi Arabia too alienating and its soft power too awkward to be attracted to it the way they have been attracted to propaganda from, say, Russia.

Whatever the case, we are as a species stumbling further into unreality- perhaps because we can no longer face reality. Basically, we’re living in a world of bullshit.

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If I Did It…

So as some of you may have heard, Bellingcat, or for you RT fans out there, “Soros/State Department-funded regime-change SmellingCIAt,” blew the lid on the second Skripal suspect. SPOILERS: He’s not “Alexander Petrov,” the totally unassuming fitness supplement salesman and church spire enthusiast who might be secretly gay. Turns out he’s actually Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor with the GRU, and like his colleague Anatoly Chepiga, a winner of the easily-traceable Hero of the Russian Federation award. What more can you say except:

Where did they go so wrong? Journalist Andrew Roth put it succinctly on Twitter today:

This sentiment, which I too expressed in my earlier post about Chepiga, is confirmed by Bellingcat in their expose of Mishkin.

“The starting point for our research was a passport photograph of “Alexander Petrov,”as well as security camera photos and video footage from this person’s interview on RT.”  

Some might suggest that the interview was just another example of Kremlin trolling, like when Putin spoke about “local” self-defense militias in Crimea shortly before openly acknowledging they were Russian soldiers (the military vehicles and latest Russian uniforms and kit were a dead giveaway), or when he denied any involvement in the U.S. election but then made a quip about “patriotic hackers.” I can agree that perhaps this was the initial intent behind the RT interview, but it seems they were phoning it in from the beginning and everyone could see it. It’s almost as if they just ran out of energy to lie, even in the typical unconvincing way that they do. It’s almost as if they’re going to stop trying to conduct counter-narratives where MI6/CIA/Russian liberals/Pravy Sektor/White Helmets are possible culprits and instead just continually repeat “PROOFS! SHOW US PROOFS!” incessantly until you go away.

 

Seriously though, this is too big a screw up to attribute to trolling. If they were smart, they never would have let these men give an interview, and certainly not with Margarita Simonyan, who is the editor-in-chief of RT. As I suggested in a previous post, the smartest thing to do, if you can call their usual approach smart, is to continue putting out the endless alternative narratives while publicly announcing that the FSB and Investigative Committee are interviewing the two men to get to the bottom of these “totally boundless accusations from our British colleagues!”

There’s precedent for this as well. In December 2014 the Investigative Committee announced that it had an anonymous witness who was former Ukrainian military and stationed at an air base at the time of the downing of MH17 (i.e. 17 July 2014). Somehow this witness saw a Ukrainian Su-25 pilot (Captain Vladislav Voloshin, who committed suicide earlier this year) take off from the base and return with one air-to-air missile gone. Much later on, the Investigative Committee later revealed the name of this witness, but of course this was around the time Russia switched to swearing that their “investigation” (carried out mainly by Buk SAM manufacturer Almaz-Antey) conclusively determined that a Buk missile shot down the airliner. Of course if you missed those latest Russian claims which are totally true and accurate, RT and Sputnik got you and any other fans of the idiotic Su-25 theory covered, because in the end all that matters is that you believe anyone but Russia was responsible for this tragedy.

Something similar could have been done with Chepiga and Mishkin, AKA Boshirov and Petrov. The Clown Committee could release a typical boilerplate statement about how it is opening a criminal investigation into the matter of Boshirov and Petrov, and Putin could have said he was ordering them to take the matter under “special control.” Basic elements of the story we saw in the RT interview could have been published in a “report” a week or two later, without all that bullshit about the spire and the roads choked with snow.  Maybe, a very short, much better-rehearsed interview could have been shot with an ordinary employee of Rossiya 1 or First Channel.

And with that- you’re done. It’s still largely bullshit, it’s still not exonerating anything, but just enough plausible deniability that you won’t force the Kremlin apologists who still give a shit about appearing to have a shred of credibility to wear themselves out doing mental gymnastics.

Damn. It really tells you how badly Russia’s intelligence and propaganda agencies have screwed up when I’m the one practically giving them free advice on how to do their jobs.

Anatoly Chepizdyets

Anatoly Chepiga, AKA Ruslan Boshirov, just can’t get a break it seems. Ever since Bellingcat identified the self-proclaimed small businessman/tourist as a probable decorated GRU agent, things have just spiraled from there. While Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov and Russian Foreign Ministry officials sound completely dumbstruck, multiple international news outlets (BBC, WaPo, Kommersant,)    have found several individuals from Chepiga’s past, openly identifying him and in some cases confirming that he worked in some kind of covert ops. Recently, some info has surfaced suggesting he might have had a hand in helping Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yushchenko escape to Russia. While there’s no corroboration for the latest story yet, what evidence exists does suggest that Chepiga was at least involved in some kind of covert activity in Ukraine in 2014.

Honestly I’m kind of surprised by how badly the Kremlin screwed up in this case. From the beginning of the Salisbury scandal, they seemed to outdo their past attempts at damage control by kicking it into high gear and putting out a rapid-fire stream of alternative explanations. Estimates range from around 37-38 different alternative narratives, all pointing in every direction except Russia, within the first few weeks of the initial poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. This, incidentally, was some of the best evidence pointing to Russian involvement prior to the revelation of “Ruslan Boshirov” and his accomplice “Alexander Petrov” (Petrov hasn’t been identified yet, though his documents show some key similarities to Chepiga’s). Had the Kremlin and its media just shut the fuck up and kept demanding some hard evidence, they might have got the benefit of the doubt from more people outside the online conspiracy theorist/St. Petersburg troll demographics.

But if they didn’t screw things up by flooding the information space with too many alternative narratives too quickly, the reveal of Boshirov and Petrov in their disastrous RT interview was just icing on the stupid cake.

Had the Kremlin’s information warriors not been complete morons who owe their positions to loyalty and not talent, they might have come up with a far better cover story for these two. For example, they might have claimed that they were being interviewed by the FSB or Investigative Committee, and some of the answers they gave in the actual interview could have been included in a partial report published by Russian authorities. But instead we were told that these guys just rang up RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on her personal cell phone and then in their interview they told the world of their dream to see the 123-meter spire of Salisbury cathedral.

Even Russia’s own propagandists couldn’t avoid showing their own disdain for this idiotic narrative. Several of them, including Margarita herself, subtly implied that Boshirov and Petrov were a gay couple trying to hide a very unusually-booked European getaway (apparently the way it works with assassinations is if you succeed, you become a Duma deputy, and if you fail, you may be protected from extradition but you will be labeled a homosexual). Even Graham Fucking Phillips couldn’t accept the story as told in the RT interview.

Needless to say, the extra visibility provided by the interview no doubt helped Bellingcat and The Insider track down details on the two alleged assassins, and by extension helped them discover the identity of Mr. Chepiga. What I have found most amusing about all this is that Russian officials, and more hilariously foreign Kremlin supporters, have been contorting themselves in ever-more extravagant mental gymnastics in an attempt to explain away all the inconsistencies in their narrative. And yet now it has never been easier for the Kremlin to totally discredit Bellingcat for good.

After all, this Anatoly Chepiga is a Hero of the Russian Federation winner. Although Putin’s regime hands out medals like candy, the title of Hero of the Russian Federation is still rarely bestowed. Plus Chepiga’s name appears on a monument to Heroes of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation. Therefore all Russia has to do to totally destroy this narrative and take Bellingcat’s reputation down at the same time is produce the real Anatoly Chepiga and provide a few details about his award and military career. It could also provide proof of “Petrov” and “Boshirov’s” fitness/supplements business (many Russians run online stores if they don’t own brick and mortar shops). At least some of this could have been accomplished literally within hours of Bellingcat’s Chepiga story breaking, and yet now it has been several days and we have seen nothing of the sort. In fact, Russian official PR flacks like Peskov and Zakharova have been unusually evasive on this issue, leaving foreign Putin fanboys with the burden of having to come up with some kind of plausible explanation.

And to think, all of this happened because they just didn’t know when to shut up.

 

 

Finally!

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about this New Yorker article about a new book called Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Unfortunately due to time constraints I wasn’t able to get around to reading it for a while and only now have I got the time to actually give my take on it. While I haven’t been able to examine the book’s arguments in detail, I have to say that this seems to be the first time I’ve seen anyone actually try to attempt to measure the influence of Russian propaganda on the 2016 election with some semblance of scientific rigor. Those of you who follow this blog know that I have often complained about how many of those pundits and politicians who express such confidence that Russia swung the election to Trump seem to avoid expending even minimal effort to try to substantiate their claims. Specifically, nobody seemed to be interested in going out to those key battleground states to survey voters who changed their votes to Trump, a third party, or who decided not to vote at all, and then try to determine the extent to which these people had been exposed to Russian propaganda, e.g. via Facebook.

To be fair, it doesn’t seem like Jamieson’s book does that specific thing, but it does present an interesting case. For one thing, it points out that in those key Midwestern states where Hillary lost unexpectedly, the deck was stacked against Hillary when it came to getting votes. Anyone trying to influence the election against her had an advantage because they didn’t need to push people to vote for her opponent or a third party but rather they could just as easily convince people not to vote at all. This is reminiscent of an old axiom about guerrilla warfare- the insurgent doesn’t need to win; they just need to not lose.

If you look at a lot of Russian propaganda surrounding the election, you’ll notice that a good deal of it is aimed at people who are either left wing or at least left enough to reject Trump. But the Russian propaganda on Facebook, for example, seems to be aimed at keeping those people from voting for Hillary. Some stuff could be construed as anti-GOP or even anti-Trump, but I’ve yet to see anything from that period which is pro-Hillary, or more accurately, anything that would support the idea that as bad a candidate as she is, she’s at least better than Trump.

Now before anyone suggests that this is setting up an excuse for the Hillary campaign, take note that if Russian influence played a decisive role, it could only do so because the election was so close, far closer than it should have been. Judging from the article, one of the main factors in swinging the election was the hacking of the DNC emails, which contained a lot of material relating to Hillary’s political baggage. In other words, a candidate without such baggage would have been harder to bring down. So there’s no letting the Democratic party off the hook even if this book is 100% correct in its hypothesis. If Russian influence swung the campaign it was almost certainly because the weakness of the party and its candidate made it vulnerable to such influence in the first place.

Like I’ve said about Kremlin propaganda dozens of times before- it is effective only where vulnerabilities exist. Corruption, lack of accountability, inequality, and a refusal by politicians to address any of those problems inevitably spreads the rot in which the bullshit of RT, Sputnik, and the Internet Research Agency take root and sprout. Address those aforementioned problems, and people will see the propaganda for what it is- nonsensical fringe crap from a corrupt, authoritarian, desperate regime that has nothing of value to offer the outside world.

And am I sold on the idea that Russia swung the 2016 election, after all this? Well I haven’t read the book so I can’t say for sure. In fact, I’m not sure we’ll ever know exactly what happened. Too much time has already passed and we have much bigger issues to deal with. What I will say is that the idea that it had an impact can no longer be discounted.

The Ties That Bind

If there’s one common theme we hear from grifters narrative architects about Russian influence operations, it’s that the object is to “divide” American society in order to weaken it. The proof, we’re told, is in the fact that much of the material put out by Russian soft power organs like RT and Sputnik, as well as the social media content from the St. Petersburg “troll factory,” is aimed at both far-right and far-left audiences. This allegedly means the Russians want to divide society by promoting polarized narratives. I’m sorry to say, but this is bullshit.

This delusion lives on because it is pleasing to certain people among the political class. It speaks to their unrealistic vision of an America where people may disagree on a few core issues, but at heart share much in common. In other words it’s Obama’s “there’s no red or blue America” speech. In reality, America has been very divided for quite some time, and while it may seem like Russian propaganda is aimed at further polarizing society, I’d say it’s more about unifying certain elements more than anything.

Over the past few years, regular readers have noted my increasing concern over red-brown activity, i.e. the coordination, both witting and unwitting, between the far-left and far-right. Historically the far-right has always tried to appropriate concepts from the left and co-opt leftists movements, but since the end of the Cold War certain actors have strove to embrace and advance this convergence for a number of aims. Where Russia is concerned, the neo-fascist Alexander Dugin appears to have made red-brown organizing a conscious strategy, one that has become a pillar of Russian soft power.

In short, Russian influence operations do not, in fact, aim to divide society in other countries, but rather unify certain elements against others. Where it cannot create actual alliances, it aims to get disparate groups to agree on certain talking points even if they may espouse them for different reasons and with different intentions. The fact that the propaganda being put out has polarizing messages is beside the point; it is designed that way simply to find a loyal audience. The main goal, once people of certain political views are hooked, is to turn them toward the Kremlin’s position on certain foreign policy goals.

We see this constantly not only in America but in other countries as well, such as Germany. Whether far-right or far-left, even in those countries where such people are often involved in bloody streetfighting, we see curious uniformity when it comes to certain issues that are near and dear to the Kremlin. Supporting Ukraine is a “proxy war,” brought on by a NATO-inspired “coup.” It matters little whether the person receiving and hopefully regurgitating the message believes that Ukraine has been taken over by neo-Nazis or liberal crypto-Jews; all that matters is that the audience is hostile to Ukrainian independence, identity, and territorial integrity. Similarly, it is irrelevant whether the same person supports Russia’s claims on that country because they identify it with the Soviet Union or as a champion resisting the neoliberal hegemony or because they see it as the last hope for the “white race” and “Western civilization.” What is important to the Kremlin is unity- unity around that key point.

No doubt the best example of this unity is in the case of Syria, where many leftists have so easily bought into the Kremlin/Assadist narrative that they find themselves in bed with literal fascist parties and even neo-Nazi icons such as David Duke. Again, from the Kremlin point of view it is utterly unimportant whether the reason for backing Assad or at least opposing his removal is “anti-imperialism” or the belief that he fights against a “Zionist New World Order.” All that matters is that the talking points are repeated- Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria. The rebels are either all al Qaeda-linked Salafist jihadists or at least such people would surely dominate any future Syria without Assad.

Of course when it comes to the extreme right and left in many countries, they will often come close to such positions on their own, typically due to reasons inherent in their respective ideologies. But without direction, these groups might not always find their way to positions that benefit the Kremlin’s foreign policy aims. For example, while Russia clearly won the battle for hearts and minds when it comes to neo-Nazis and Ukraine, easily wooing more far-rightists to fight for their pseudo-states in the Donbas than the Ukrainian far-right was able to win to their side, the latter did manage to get some recruits. Were it not for the Russian propaganda machine, the split might have been more even. The same goes for recruitment of the far-left, as many more open-minded leftists around the world were supportive of Maidan for its revolutionary, anti-corruption aspects. Russian propaganda aimed at both ends of the spectrum helps guide disparate, even diametrically opposed sides to the same conclusions on key issues, though they may take different paths.

So in the future let’s put aside the idea that the aim of Russian disinformation is to divide society- our societies are divided and in many cases for very good reasons. After all, we cannot have unity with political groupings or tendencies that seek to strip away the civil rights of others. The key to understanding Russian influence operations (and doubtless those of other countries), is to understand their unifying aim. What are they trying to get disparate political tendencies to agree on, one way or another?

Russia Clickbait

So given the fact that today’s Russia news cycle has been dominated by the positively insane interview between RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan and the two suspects in the Salisbury poisoning case, you probably missed the story about Russia targeting the Boy Scouts of America.

“Wait,” you say. “The Russians are trying to ‘hack’ the Boy Scouts?”

Well no. Not yet at least. But they could! And so someone had to write an entire article about it.

Ordinarily when I see one of these articles, I do a CTRL-F and search for the word “Hamilton.” If I get a hit on the so-called Hamilton 68 dashboard, I close the tab, secure in the knowledge that this article is unlikely to offer any real insight. In this case, however, I didn’t do the search. As I scrolled through the article, I saw a bunch of stuff we’ve all been aware of for at least a year now. Yeah, we know Russia has orchestrated information warfare campaigns. We know they target wedge issues. I kept wondering when this article would get to the Boy Scouts. Was there some kind of specific information campaign being aimed at the Scouts?

Nope. The author tells us that due to all the various controversies that have plagued the Boy Scouts for many years now, the Russians might tailor some disinformation campaigns targeting those issues. Seriously- that’s it. The whole article doesn’t get to the actual topic of the headline until the second to last paragraph, which I am quoting here in its entirety.

“In the U.S., the Boy Scouts could be a tempting target for Russians seeking to inflame social discord. Over the past 50 years, the organization has been embroiled in various controversies over social values. The organization has internally – and publicly – debated allowing women to serve in leadership roles, whether to let gay men and boys join and lead scout troops, whether transgender boys could join and, most recently, including girls in Cub Scout and Boy Scout groups.

All of those changes, raising legitimate questions about equality and humanity, involved heated discussions in the scouting community and the wider society. Now imagine that an outside group – one whose only goal was discord – jumped in to deliberately inflame the debate.”

Think about that for a second. No fake Russian Facebook pages about Boy Scout controversies were found. No hacking attempts on their website or computer systems. No fake astroturfed campaigns with Russian links. They literally just thought about an organization that has been at the center of some controversies and said “the Russians could try to make decisive propaganda about this.” They could have written this article about literally dozens of different topics, and more importantly, the article doesn’t deliver on the headline’s promise. This was published on a site which boasts “academic rigor, journalist flair.”

This, folks, is clickbait. Literally anyone can skim the news about past Russian disinfo campaigns, then brainstorm until you find the latest bullshit culture war battle so you can declare that the Russians might target this issue for future disinformation campaigns. Do this often enough and open up a Patreon account, and you might be able to quit your day job.

 

 

Devil’s Dictionary

One of my more popular pieces on this blog is the Russia Watcher’s Field Guide, which is why it occupies a permanent position as a page rather than a post. Today I’d like to induct a few new concepts into the parlance, though rather than just add them to the field guide I’d like to describe them at length. So, without further ado…

The Gerasimov Gambit

“I see the Team Deza is deploying all its active measures against my recent Tweet, where I called out Medicare-for-all as a Kremlin ploy to divide America. You always get the most flak over the target!”  -Some imbecile on Twitter

So there’s this logical fallacy often invoked by morons called the “Galileo Gambit.” This is a technique whereby some crank uses the fact that their theories are ignored and/or ridiculed by “the establishment” as proof that they are right. “After all, they laughed at Galileo, did they not?” 

Naturally this is dumb, and people who use this formulation are dumb. You know what’s also dumb? When you’re some 2016-minted “Russia expert” whose response to any criticism or question about credentials is to accuse your critics of being agents of the Kremlin, or at best, useful idiots.

There are people who attract hostility from paid Twitter trolls and Kremlin media because their work is actually a threat to the regime’s agenda (e.g. Bellingcat), and then there are people who attract the same hostility and harassment simply because they are low-hanging fruit, and when you’re a propagandist defending an indefensible regime you need that fruit to be as low as possible.

So yeah, maybe you get the most flak over the target, but that might not necessarily be the best military metaphor to describe what it is you’re doing. Are you really a B17 pilot flying on a mission to bomb a torpedo factory? Or are you an infantryman running towards a hardened machine-gun nest waving your arms and screaming?

gerasimov2

He is everywhere! He is watching you, hybridly!

Dictatorship Tourist Syndrome (DTS)

“Our mainstream media is constantly telling us that this country is an authoritarian dictatorship where nobody has any human rights. But I, an American, have been here for a whole week, speaking to teachers, policemen, and workers in state-owned enterprises with the help of my government-provided interpreter and I don’t feel oppressed at all! In fact I feel as free if not freer than I do at home, and for that I’m overwhelmingly grateful to the government organization that invited me on this press junket they organized!”

-Useful idiot

I’ve seen many examples of this over the years, but lately there was a bit of a cluster of such cases during the recent World Cup in Russia. In fact, this isn’t at all exclusive to Russia. You see examples of this shit all the time in countries run by differing degrees of dictatorships.

Some time ago I wrote an article about expat privilege, but this goes way beyond that. Expats are often aware of the problems in the country they live in, even if they don’t face the consequences or at least not to the extent that natives do. If you’re a tourist in a country, you probably don’t know dick about real life there. This goes double if you’re on some state-organized press junket like those that Russia and Syria have offered in the past.

Back in 2011 I went to China and I can still say it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. Yes, I was a bit shocked by things like the lack of central heating and doors (seriously what is the deal with that?), but in general everything was great. I can’t honestly tell you I saw signs of authoritarian oppression or corruption. The thing is, though, I’m smart enough to realize that just because I don’t personally witness something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

The fact is that dictatorships, even some of the most authoritarian ones, have never been incapable of showing some guests a good time. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany pulled it off all the time (Nazi Germany even dressed up one of its concentration camps to make it seem like a veritable spa resort). Modern dictatorships like Russia are nowhere near as restricted, and thus it’s even easier for visitors to get the idea that all this talk of human rights violations and repression is “just propaganda from the mainstream media.” Don’t do this. Don’t think “everything you’ve heard is a lie” just because you weren’t arrested and shot in the face after two days in the country.

Kremlin Koncern Troll

“This new Cold War is ever so awful! It’s so terrible how there’s so much misunderstanding between the West and Russia now, and it’s really dangerous too! If only more Westerners knew the truth about Russia. The West is really spreading so much Russophobic propaganda! Such a terrible misunderstanding!” 

-The Kremlin Koncern Troll

I want to clarify something about this term. When I use the term Kremlin here I am only implying that these people promote a certain kind of Kremlin narrative with their rhetoric. I do not mean to imply that these people work for the Kremlin or the Russian state in any way. Most of these people hold sincere beliefs and a lot of times they fall for such narratives because they have personal relationships with ordinary Russians so it’s only natural to acquire some biases.

With that out of the way, one must understand the concept of a “concern troll.” This is an old internet term for someone who shows up in online discussions and pretends to be on the same side as the majority of the posters. They typically couch their rhetoric as constructive criticism or playing Devil’s advocate. However, over time it becomes clear that the concern troll seems to take more issue with the ideas of their supposed allies than their perceived opponents. Concern trolling can often be expressed via things like false equivalencies or “both sides” arguments, constant worrying about “our methods,” etc. In any movement, groupthink and cult-like behavior is bad, naturally, but when it seems someone takes more issue with the group than anyone else, it’s fair to ask whether they’re actually supporting the same cause or the opposite.

From time to time I encounter these would-be peacemakers, Westerners, who assure us that they just want to clear up all the misunderstandings we see between the West and Russia right now. First of all this is kind of disingenuous because the fact is that the number one reason for the breakdown in Russian-Western relations is neither the West nor Russian people but the Putin regime, plain and simple. The truth is that apart from some tough talk and the extremely limited Magnitsky Act, the West was more than happy to look the other way and defer to the Kremlin while Putin and his cronies robbed Russia’s citizens and stashed the money away in Western banks and luxury real estate. Hell, when Bashar al-Assad launched a major chemical weapons attack, Putin took credit for the proposal to work with the US in disposing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, and the supposedly hell-bent-on-regime-change US government went right along with it. And of course after that Assad never used chemical weapons again. Oh wait. Shit. What was the thing that led to a real breakdown in relations? The annexation of Crimea by Russia. And even then, the really serious sanctions didn’t come until Russia’s proxy forces shot down a civilian airliner killing 298 people. So no, this wasn’t exactly mutual.

Look, I have no problem examining the West’s blunders toward Russia, whether in the 90’s or the early Putin era. But that only goes so far. Of course Russia is allowed to have security interests, but if those interests including getting a privileged sphere of influence where it gets to approve the presidents of other countries and determine their constitutional order (as they clearly have wanted to do with Ukraine), well I’m sorry that just can’t be accommodated. Still, while there are many Russians who agree with these policies and narratives, I must reiterate that the problem is the actual policies of the Kremlin, and the people had no say in that.

Of course the KKT doesn’t stop at “both sides” when it comes to clearing up this horrible misunderstanding they call the New Cold War. No it always seems to turn out that the problem is Westerners not knowing anything about Russians and never the other way around. They start off acting like there’s this mutual misunderstanding, but they end up explicitly or implicitly telling you that it’s the West’s fault for not being understanding enough. Realistically, Russia is a rather xenophobic country (caveat- it seems every country has been getting more xenophobic as of late). Russians have just as many inaccurate stereotypes about Westerners as Westerners have about them. But this is somewhat irrelevant because the situation we see in terms of bilateral relations with Russia isn’t because Americans think Russians sit around drinking vodka with bears or because Russians think Americans can’t find anything on a map and think they won the Second World War singlehandedly. It happened because of specific actions either ordered or condoned by the Russian government, actions which are hostile to the West and its citizens. And again let me reinforce the point that the Kremlin took those actions because it sees them as conducive to remaining in power, and remaining in power means continuing to rob and pillage the peoples of the Russian Federation.

As I said before, I don’t think all of the people who engage in this behavior are active or conscious supporters of the Putin regime. Yes, such people do use similar rhetoric, but they also tend to be far more open about which side they support. The people I’m talking about seem to do it out of a concern for balance, or more often than not, a certain flaw in reasoning that is often common among people on the left. Here I’m referring to the idea that only the U.S. or West acts, while other countries only react to those actions. So when someone on American TV slams the Kremlin for interfering in our election, this gets portrayed as hysteria, “McCarthyism,” or “Russophobia,” while no attention is paid to the fact that Russia’s state media is almost constantly running blatantly anti-Western narratives almost round the clock. Louise Mensch? Eric Garland? On Russian state TV people with that level of credibility are often regular guests on talk shows. And if you think some US pundit criticizing the Russian election hacking is aggressive and dangerous, maybe do a little research to see how often Russian state media openly talks about nuking the West.

This isn’t a mutual misunderstanding. The current state of relations between the West and Russia can be blamed largely on one side, one man, in fact- Vladimir Putin.