Tag Archives: 2016

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.

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Trump & Putin: Final Summary

As you might have imagined, I’m getting real sick of writing about the supposed Trump/Putin love affair. The Hillary campaign is making it such a focal point that I’m starting to come off as a Trump supporter to those whose brains cannot function beyond 140 characters. As such, I’m going to wrap this up so I can say I put the information out there while Hillary’s campaign made a conscious decision to give this election to an orange abomination.

Yes, I said she’s handing him the election. If this race has taught us anything so far, it’s that Trump’s tactics have been effective. Trump spends virtually all his time talking about domestic issues. This is kind of important in a country where a significant portion of the population has never even had a passport. Regardless of how you feel about documentary producer Michael Moore, at least read point one in this article of his and tell me if you honestly think that the rust belt voters Trump’s concentrating on give two shits about Russia and the Baltic NATO members.

Sure, there was a Democratic candidate who talked about issues which were important to such people, and without attributing the problems they face to Mexicans and Muslims. We had such a candidate, but the geniuses within the Democratic party considered pro-worker politics to be the utopian pipe-dream of aging hippies and naive young people. They knew what’s best for us, which of course is more of the same. Oblivious to the world outside of their clique, they are quite possibly driving their own campaign off a cliff, and the worst thing about it is that after they hand Trump a victory they’ll naturally blame everybody but themselves. “It couldn’t have been our fault! We all have advanced degrees in political science and marketing! It must be those stupid rednecks and unrealistic radicals voting for Jill Stein! It was Putin! Nothing is ever our fault!”

I am so fatigued by all this that I’m going to do two things here. First I provide the reader with a list of all the articles where I have written about Trump’s alleged Kremlin connections and why they are not what people seem. Thereafter I shall provide some final insight with a plea for people to use critical thinking and perhaps urge the Democrats to return the focus of their campaign to domestic issues so as to have a chance against Trump this November.

Trumpapalooza

STOP…DOING…THIS…NOW!

One-Trick Ponies

Not Gonna Happen

Now onto some of the key arguments about Trump and Putin. Some of these were covered in detail in the links above, but I guess some people need them broken down even further. This is as simple as I can explain it without the use of puppet theater.

But Trump said he wouldn’t honor NATO’s Article 5!

No, actually he didn’t say that. What he said was characteristically stupid, but just look at his statement through the lens of things he’s said in the past whenever he’s asked a question about something he knows nothing about (in other words most topics). They ask if Trump will honor obligations to dirty foreigners with strange names, and Trump says he’ll do so if they honor their obligations to America, the country beset upon by parasites the world over. That’s the gist of the worldview there. That’s what he was expressing.

Trump said nice things about Putin! 

Yes he’s said things about building a wall, making Mexico pay for it, and of course he’s going to make US military personnel commit war crimes and they won’t refuse. I’ve said before that Trump’s praise for Putin is part of a strategy, part of his character. Both Trump and the Kremlin choose whatever position is seen as the opposite of the “establishment.” If Hillary had made the foreign policy side of her campaign about the so-called “reset” and called for better relations with Russia, Trump would go after her as a quisling of the “Commies.” Keep in mind this guy heads a party with a significant amount of voters who believe that Russia is still “Communist.” Some don’t know that the Soviet Union hasn’t existed since 1991. There was football on, dammit!

People keep focusing on the friendly things Trump says about Putin, while ignoring the negative things he’s said about Russia. In the article above entitled “Not Gonna Happen,” we see a Trump ad that clearly casts Russia and Putin as America’s enemy, on par with ISIS. The message is that Hillary is weak, so America’s “enemies” will laugh at her.

This isn’t the only example. Trump said the US should shoot down Russian planes if diplomacy fails. Here are the key excerpts:

“It just shows how low we’ve gone where they can toy with us like that,” Trump said, describing such scenarios as “terrible.” He insisted that the problem is Russia’s lack of respect for U.S. President Barack Obama.”

See? The problem is that Russia doesn’t respect (i.e. fear in Trump’s mind) America and it’s Obama’s fault. So what do you do?

“Normally, an Obama—let’s say a president, because you want to make at least a call or two—but normally Obama would call up Putin and say, ‘Listen, do us a favor, don’t do that, get that maniac, just stop it.’ But we don’t have that kind of a president. He’s gonna be out playing golf or something,” Trump said. “But I don’t know, at a certain point, you can’t take it.” (emphasis mine)

See that? You “can’t take it.” You can’t back down. This is the underlying foundation of the worldview Trump is appealing to. America is weak; make it great again. As such, the idea that Trump would actually put up with Russia’s trolling is ludicrous. If anything, Trump would inevitably turn more hawkish toward Russia than Hillary ever would, and if the Kremlin hacks believe otherwise they clearly don’t understand the mentality Trump is tapping into.

Okay but what about Ukraine? Trump has actually removed support for Ukraine from the GOP party platform!

As troubling as this is, what exactly has the Obama administration been doing to truly support Ukraine? For the most part they’ve been sending old equipment they no longer want and non-lethal aid. Democrats have been just as if not more worried about “escalation” of the conflict by providing Ukraine or even letting Ukraine buy higher-quality weapons. Meanwhile Russia’s clearly not concerned about escalation as their proxies in the Donbas routinely launch dozens of attacks on Ukrainian positions, killing and wounding Ukrainian servicemen on an almost daily basis. Let’s also not forget that Russia had to accidentally shoot down a passenger liner full of 298 civilians for the US and EU to step up and slap Russia with some real sanctions, and since then all the talk is about when the sanctions will be removed or weakened- nothing about additional sanctions.

Has Hillary said anything at all that would give us reason to believe that her behavior on this matter will be significantly different in any way? I don’t think so. Knowing the Kremlin’s propensity toward holding grudges over the smallest slight, their support for Trump could be little more than “revenge” on Hillary for the time they accused her of meddling in their “election.”

And speaking of Hillary’s relationship with Russia…

Trump has business interests in Russia! 

Yes, as do many other Americans, including those who support Hillary. Goldman Sachs, for example. In fact, Hillary herself has done a bit of business with Russia. The “Manchurian candidate” crowd also forgets that John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008 was Rick Davis of Davis-Manafort. Yeah…That Manafort. One of Romney’s top campaign advisers was also a lobbyist for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

Basically what’s going on here with talking points and connections is an example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Everyone is scrambling to find evidence to confirm the Trump-as-Putin’s proxy hypothesis that they’re ignoring contrary evidence on one hand, and on the other hand ignoring all the other business that American companies are doing with Russia in spite of the sanctions. Perhaps it’s comforting to some to believe that it’s just Trump doing business with dictators.

Are you denying that Russia is trying to influence the election?

No, they almost certainly are. But how effective their efforts will be really depends on the reaction from the Democrats. First on the matter of the emails- while they don’t contain anything terribly scandalous, the fact is that they were written. They might have been exposed by dirty means, but that does not make them squeaky clean themselves. The Democrats chose to favor someone with a poor reputation amid voters, someone who comes off as feeling entitled to the presidency and who does not feel accountable for her actions. Now they are choosing to make this election about Russia and Putin instead of pressing domestic issues. Russia can’t make them lose the election; only they can do that.

And that seems to be what they’re doing. In the wake of the email attack, the best response would have been to publicly say something like: “Awww isn’t that cute? They think they’re a superpower!” Then move on. Get back on message. The Kremlin relies on being seen as more powerful, more dangerous than it is. The only tactics it has against the vastly superior forces opposing it are passive-aggressive trolling, hysterical ranting about WWII and nuclear weapons, and pathetic stunts like this email hack. They want attention, they want to be seen as a great power, and nothing makes them angrier than aiming a salvo right at their raging inferiority complex. Conversely, panicking and acting as though Putin is secretly manipulating the US is something that will make every Kremlin propagandist positively orgasmic.

I suspect this advice will fall on deaf ears though. We’re not talking about a campaign that is known for accountability, and more importantly, focusing on Putin and foreign policy is a great way to distract from the fact that Clinton has no plan for America. The best reason to vote for her is that she is not Trump, period.

 

Year-end Extravaganza

It’s been quite a year. I wanted to do a sort of year-end summary, highlighting some of the most important events and articles of 2015, and make some predictions for 2016. I’m naturally going to be busy on the 31st, so I’m posting this early. It’s long so you can just read part of it and save the rest for later. Without further ado…

State of the Blog

If 2014 is when Russia Without BS actually became, as they say, a thing, 2015 is the year it really took off. This year was the first time I got outside of Russia since September of 2013. I visited Ukraine another three times for a grand total of seven visits, with two visits to the Donetsk oblast. Thanks to Robert Evans of Cracked.com, I was able to witness the reality of war from the front lines. I also owe a debt of gratitude to all the people at Stopfake.org for letting me host one of their episodes and reprinting some of my material from this blog. Russia! Magazine, of course, has always been good to me. Even the folks at RT who contacted me about the blog have been totally courteous and they were good sports.

Of course things haven’t always gone so well here. The podcast thing didn’t pan out, though there’s a good chance of reviving it next year. The Youtube channel is still pretty dormant, but again,there may be some hope for that in the coming year. In fact I’ve been deliberating using vlogging as an easier and more efficient way to cover the news, since these days it seems there are so many stories to cover.

As has always been the case, nearly all the feedback I’ve received has been positive, and those who comment are among the best on the internet. Specific thanks to you who comment here. There were times this year when things were hard and I was close to throwing in the towel. But the support of my readers, even some of my detractors, kept this humble project going in this, the beginning of my tenth year in Russia.

Worst “Western media” article of the Year! 

Yeah I’ll be honest, my selection wasn’t very scientific. I know there were a few choice samples from the usual suspects like Alexander Motyl or Anne Applebaum, but I ended up choosing The Daily Mail for this gem by Andrew Malone.

Want to know a news industry secret? If you want to write a bullshit story, use a headline that is phrased as a question. For example, this one from the story:

“Did Putin plant the holiday jet bomb that killed 224 Russians?”

Uh yeah, let me answer your incredibly poignant question for you: No, he did not.

Oh what’s that? You want a more detailed answer? Alright, let’s start by looking at the rest of that headline:

“Ex-KGB agent claims this dossier proves the Kremlin orchestrated the atrocity to justify waging war on Syria”

First of all, we find in the article that the “dossier” was compiled by the ex-KGB agent himself. But more importantly, the line about Putin needing to “justify waging war on Syria” tells us everything we need to understand that this article is crap.

Putin is not “waging war on Syria,” he is supporting the government faction in a civil war. That difference is kind of important. What’s more important than that is that Putin doesn’t have to justify anything. He still enjoys high approval ratings and even if he didn’t, what would Russians do about it? Elect someone else?  Nobody’s been able to show any evidence of significant opposition to this military campaign. On the contrary, the campaign was ready to go before Putin and his press even announced it, and the viewers at home accepted it.

Of course the most idiotic thing about this claim that Putin needed to justify his war in Syria is that the bombing campaign was already underway at the end of September, whereas the terrorist attack that brought down Metrojet over the Sinai occurred on 31 October. Was Russian support for the campaign waning by then? There’s no sign of that, and again it doesn’t really matter if it was waning.

The coup de grace in this idiotic hypothesis is that Russia continued to deny that a terrorist act caused the crash long after British and American experts suggested that it was. If you need a terrorist attack to justify going to war, first you engineer the attack before the war is supposed to start, and when the attack occurs, you don’t deny that it was a terrorist attack. Standard false flag conspiracy know-how here, folks.

Congratulations, Malone, this means that you actually managed to make an argument less logical than that of the 9/11 Truthers. I never thought I’d see the day.

Some readers might say: “Hey, it’s The Daily Mail, you should expect that.” Yes, I’m aware of their journalistic standards or lack thereof. The problem is that some RT or Russia Insider writer will pick that article up, present it as representative of “the Western mainstream media,” and then smear all “Western” journalists by extension. This is a standard pro-Kremlin foreigner tactic. Pick on some low-hanging fruit and pretend that it represents all “Western media.”

Runner up: David Brooks.

Second runner up: “Gunslingergaitgate.” (See second half of the article.)

 

Frightening moment of the year!

Yeah again I’m going with something recent, though I think it has a strong case. Think of it as an Oscar Bait film that gets released in mid-December.

So it turns out that a man in Tomsk named Vadim Tyumentsev has been sentenced to five years in a labor colony for two Facebook posts. Yeah, you read that correctly. Once again, the excuse is “extremism,” but there was an interesting twist in this case.

At first I had read that the extremism charge was characterized as “inciting hatred against residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.” This initially made me think that he was writing pro-Ukrainian posts which criticized the rebels or those who supported them. That would have been weird indeed because in fact the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are not entirely under separatist control and therefore expressing any hatred against Ukrainians as a group could be considered to be the same thing this guy was charged with.

Interestingly enough, however, it turns out that he was criticizing Ukrainian refugees who had been resettled in Tomsk, allegedly calling for violent actions against them and for them to be deported. Mr. Tyumentsev’s attitude towards Ukrainian refugees is actually quite common among vatniks, many of whom show nothing but disdain for the poor “brotherly people” who were supposedly forced to flee to Russia to escape Ukrainian nationalism-fueled genocide. Much like the case with Westerners, Russia only has a use for Ukrainians who act as propagandists or objects of propaganda. Tyumentsev also criticized Russian intervention in Ukraine, but not because he was a supporter of Ukraine or Ukrainian territorial integrity. It’s just that his hatred for Ukrainians, including those who fled to Russia’s side, was such that he didn’t think it was worth spilling Russian blood for the sake of people in the Donbas.

Of course the other charge against Tyumentsev was a call to “overthrow the authorities.” However, when we examine this call it turns out he was urging people to go to a protest against a hike in bus fares. Keep in mind this is in Tomsk. Not too revolutionary there.

Make no mistake, Tyumentsev’s sentence is ridiculously excessive, especially in light of the fact that it was due to a couple Facebook posts. This case really illustrates something that Russian people had better get used to very soon. Tyumentsev doesn’t appear to be an opposition supporter. His disdain for Ukrainian refugees makes it almost certain that he had no love for the Ukrainian government or Ukraine’s territorial integrity. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he was opposed to Putin either. What happened was the bus fares went up, he didn’t like it, and he criticized the authorities he believed to be responsible while urging people to protest their actions. This fits well within the usual, tolerable “Good tsar vs. bad boyars” narrative. And in spite of all that, he got 5 years for a couple of Facebook posts.

These days many Russians ignore cases like these because they always assume that the defendant must be a guilty traitor. But all it takes to become a traitor these days is to voice your disagreement with a policy, and policies can change on a dime in Russia. Judging by his disdain for Ukrainians, it’s very likely that Mr. Tyumentsev initially supported his government’s actions in Ukraine like a good Russian “patriot.” Then one day he became a traitor. That’s how easy it is now.

If I can point out one more thing about this “extremism” law in Russia, it’s always interesting to note that the only people who ever get charged with “inciting hatred against nationalities” are people who are opposed to the government’s policies. Pro-government people post all kinds of heinous material demonizing Jews, Ukrainians, Americans, Europeans, Turks, etc. without getting charged with extremism or inciting ethnic hatred. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence though.

Don’t Question at all moment of the year! 

Hey you know how every time the US gets accused of killing civilians with drones or in airstrikes, the official spokespeople will try to spin the stories by using terms like collateral damage or human shields? Well that’s not good enough for the Russian Ministry of Defense, which claims they have never hit civilians in Syria with their airstrikes. Note the RT headline:

“Russian warplanes never hit civilian targets in Syria – Air Force chief”

Maybe I’m being nitpicky here, but wouldn’t it be a bit more honest if it said “Russian Air Force chief?” Or perhaps “Russian air force chief claims no civilians have been killed in airstrikes?” Since people often tend to skim headlines it’s often important that we know who is making this claim. So what’s the lead say?

“The head of the Russian Air and Space Forces denied reports that Russian warplanes had hit civilian targets during its two-month counter-terrorism campaign in Syria. The allegations were previously voiced by some rights groups.”

Okay that’s a little better, but “counter-terrorism” campaign? These are people who get upset at the Ukrainian term “Anti-Terrorism Operation” because it allegedly labels all Donbas residents “terrorists”(HINT: It doesn’t). Of course when it comes to the Russian military, every bullet, bomb, or fragment always hits a terrorist or a fascist. Then there’s that line “some rights groups.” While the article does later mention one of the groups, Amnesty International, this would have been a good place to name them.

To be fair, it’s almost a proper objective article, except when they start playing devil’s advocate against Amnesty. The funny thing is that when it comes to the evidence that RT is suddenly so concerned about, a lot of Amnesty’s evidence is no different from the evidence pro-Kremlin people have provided when it comes to civilian deaths due to Ukrainian shelling in the Donbas. Namely, there are videos and photos of people killed by shelling and ruined civilian targets (yes, there are genuine examples). But when Amnesty relies on basically the same sort of evidence from Syria, we’re supposed to believe that either the video is somehow faked, the people were actually killed by ISIS or Syrian rebels, or everyone in the video is actually a terrorist pretending to be a civilian after surviving an airstrike.

Incidentally, Amnesty has a report on war crimes in Ukraine and says that both sides have been guilty of indiscriminate shelling of residential areas. This statement can be divided into two parts. The part that implicates Ukrainians shelling separatist civilians is 100% genuine and accurate, while the part about separatists shelling civilians on the other side, nearly all of whom were formerly residents of the separatist territories before the Ukrainian army rolled back their borders, this is nothing but Amnesty International carrying out its direct orders from Langley. This is entirely plausible.

They also tried to slip in another unsubstantiated claim here:

“Allegations of civilians being killed by the strikes surfaced even before the operation actually started.”

Interesting that they don’t give us a link so we can learn who made this claim, but even if someone did it in no way disproves any allegations about civilian casualties due to airstrikes. First of all, airstrikes are going to have civilian casualties, period. If the US can monitor someone for literally days at a time with a drone and then still managed to kill innocent bystanders using Hellfire missiles with an 8kg warhead, you’d better believe that running hundreds of sorties dropping bombs on cities like Aleppo or Homs will cause civilian casualties.

Second, it’s not hard to see how civilian casualties could be incorrectly attributed to Russian airstrikes before they actually began. The regime, which is backed by Russia, uses Russian-made equipment. There had been rumors and info about Russian air power in the region prior to the government’s official recognition. If the regime bombed a particular area harder than usual one day, it’s entirely plausible that some people might assume it was the Russians. Nice try, though.

Oh and one more thing:

“Amnesty’s report was based on witness accounts and footage and pictures published online, but the group didn’t sent its own investigators to Syria.”

That should read: “…didn’t send its own investigators to Syria.”

No charge.

UPDATE: About two hours after publishing this post, I found a link to a Foreign Policy article which shows that some US officials are apparently trying their hand at doubling down on collateral damage claims. Note that this “Western press” piece, which is definitely “Western mainstream media” because the publication conflicts with the Kremlin’s narrative of events, is challenging the ridiculous claims coming from the Pentagon on the topic of civilian casualties.

Free market capitalism- Putin’s best friend

Yeah it’s not an “of the year” section, but this is something definitely worth reading. It’s about PR firms in the US which lobby on behalf of human rights abusing countries. No surprise, Russia is among them. Yet while Russia takes plenty of heat from Washington, another, even more notorious human rights abuser and probable state sponsor of terrorism still gets DC’s approval on regular basis, and that of course is Saudi Arabia.

Another reason to read this article is to learn more about the law on which Russia’s foreign agent law is supposedly based. Yes, indeed the US has a foreign agent law, but don’t let the whataboutery fool you. For one thing, the US law is rarely enforced even when it is clear that an organization is lobbying on behalf of a foreign government. Secondly, that’s just it- an organization has to be lobbying on behalf of a foreign government, not merely receiving some funding from a foreign government.

For example, suppose the British government gives a grant to an American NGO that helps American citizens learn about their constitutional rights, particularly in regards to dealing with police. This could certainly be seen as “political activity,” but it is certainly not lobbying on behalf of Her Majesty’s government.

In Russia, by contrast, it doesn’t take much to get put on the foreign agent list, even for something as innocuous as a scientific foundation. And of course when a group is put on the list, they are presumed guilty until they prove they are innocent.

Getting back to the issue of PR, I’ve long maintained that Putin’s Russia, like many other authoritarian or at least less savory regimes, is a product of triumphal free market capitalism. Russia’s human rights record could be largely ignored when Western capitalists were making money hand over fist by investing in Russia. And by the same token, Western banks and realtors were only too happy to take Russian money, much of it stolen, laundering it via their banks or via property.

And taking that into consideration, who can criticize Russian media like RT or Sputnik when Western PR firms have shown themselves to be more than willing to be Kremlin propagandists for the right price? It’s all about the bottom line, isn’t it?

Fake news images of the year!

A short but good one. If you thought Russia and Ukraine are the only source of faked photographs and news stories, think again.

Paywall article of the year!

Luckily a reader gifted me access to this article on Western journalists in Ukraine by Keith Gessen. There are a number of things I liked about this article.

First of all it’s interesting to note how, according to the author, many of the pro-Kremlin “journalists” had no background knowledge of Russia or Ukraine. They ended up in either country due to some coincidence or some assignment. This actually happens on both sides, to the point where it seems that a journalist, whether legit or not, might have become pro-Kremlin or pro-Maidan based on things like geography, i.e. where they happened to be during certain events, or personal contacts.

What he says about Graham Phillips’ origin story confirms a lot of suspicions that I and other observers had about him and his personality. Supposedly part of his disdain for Maidan was due to the presence of nationalists, but for a man so ignorant of Ukrainian and Russian history and who was basically a typical sexpat, this is doubtful. His girlfriend dumping him and siding with Maidan probably had more to do with it. A lot of women took part in Maidan and they were protesting against a corrupt government in a movement for which “dignity” was an important theme. This is very frightening to sexpats, whether they are in Russia or Ukraine. They know that significant improvements in living standards can lead to an increase in self-esteem, which in turn can lead to more and more women telling them to piss off, just like the women in their home countries.

This is why, for example, you often hear sexpats or wannabe sexpats complaining about certain Eastern European women becoming “Westernized” and thus “spoiled.” What’s really happened is that in many Eastern European counties, including Russia to some extent, improvements in living standards have given women far better options. No doubt when Russia does hit 1991 all over again, someone like Phillips will find himself in paradise. It’s amazing that his Russian handlers still haven’t figured that out. Wait. Scratch that. I’m not amazed at all.

Before moving on I just want to point out that I am in no way suggesting that journalists or activists who are pro-Ukrainian or pro-Russian opposition are upstanding moral warriors who cannot possibly be sexpats. Believe me, they’re out there. I think part of the reason you meet these people who express profound love and concern for another nationality in the abstract while treating its women so poorly is because some of these people have a sort of colonialist, paternal mindset, but that’s a topic for another article.

Gessen mentions that the correspondents from Moscow were very different, very interested in Russia and highly educated on the subject. This may be true, but the sad fact is that highly educated on Russia and ignorant of Ukraine are not mutually exclusive. This is why you have such professional Russian correspondents who can’t take a side on topics like Stepan Bandera. Regardless of whether they are pro-Kremlin or pro-Ukraine, there are a lot of people who are using that name far too readily when they only just heard it for the first time in late 2013 if not 2014. In my case I had an advantage- an obsession with obscure WWII collaborationist formations and organizations from my late teens to my early 20’s. The money spent on rare, often out of print books was well worth it. This was coupled with a strong personal interest in Russia and the Soviet Union that literally stretched back to my early childhood.

One of my criticisms of the article is where the author goes off on a tangent about “Western expansion.” This term is often used by the pro-Kremlin media and its fellow travelers, and yes, I was guilty of buying into this worldview myself for many years if not most of my adult life. Calling it expansion implies that dozens of countries have no agency and shouldn’t be allowed to make their own decisions about international agreements, foreign policy, and alliances with other countries. The Kremlin, steeped in its 19th century Great Power politics, believes that Western meddling is fine, so long as they consult Moscow first and get their okay when inviting countries to join the NATO, the EU, or even just to sign a trade deal with the latter.

That being said, maybe people wouldn’t so easily fall for this narrative if Western countries had been more open and honest about it in the past. For example, all these years Russia has been screaming about NATO encirclement and aggressive moves towards their border? During that time the US was actively reducing personnel and closing bases. They’re still doing that today in spite of everything that’s happened since 2014. It was this year when they discussed bringing armored units back into Europe. Russian media naturally seizes on such moves while ignoring the question as to where these armored units were before. Right now some politicians in Poland and the Baltic countries are calling for permanent NATO bases in their countries. Again, where were these permanent garrisons and American forces before?

Much of the information about defense cutbacks and troop reductions tends to be the stuff of defense journals or short columns far removed from the front pages of the newspaper. By generally ignoring this issue, even when Russian leaders brought it up, the Western press essentially ceded to the Russian narrative. The discourse on NATO expansion was theirs to dominate.

This brings me to another good point Gessen brings up. Kremlin media has consistently portrayed Maidan as an American-organized coup. This is ultimately untrue, but to use Gessen’s phrasing, there were other not untrue stories about Maidan which the “Western” media largely ignored. Take the topic of American and European involvement in Ukrainian politics. The Russian side says they organized everything and controlled the protests till Yanukovych  gave up. What did the “Western” side have to say about the US and EU role in Maidan? Well not much, as it is. So because the other side remained largely silent, the side that was willing to talk about this topic came to dominate that narrative. It would have been better for Maidan-sympathetic journalists to actually investigate the extent and nature of foreign intervention in Maidan, if only so they would be able to counter the conspiracy theories and lies coming from the other side.

Ironically this scenario reminds me of the way far right Ukrainian nationalists came to own the history of Bandera, the OUN, and the UPA, so that they could force it on the rest of Ukraine. The Soviets preferred to remain silent and suppress that history, while the nationalist emigres were free to write this obscure history on their own. Though the Soviets certainly spread false information about the OUN and UPA, they also suppressed the truth as well. Thus when the nationalist narrative returned to Ukraine, its proponents had the advantage of dominating the discourse.

Perhaps in this case more Western journalists, instead of simply dismissing Russian claims, should instead listen to them, and then test them through investigation. While the Kremlin’s media and political technologists are certainly more than willing to fabricate a story out of thin air, many of their narratives are simply based on a distortion of facts. By investigating these questions Western journalists can dispel the idea that they are deliberately covering up inconvenient facts.

Stupid Ukrainian government move of the year!

This one is hard for me to decide. I hate the decommunization law the most, if only because it is so far-reaching, more deeply entrenched, and basically a very Duma-like attempt to legislate history while pandering to right-wing nationalists who still refused to stop screaming “ZRADA!” and generally causing mayhem in the rear.

On the other hand, one of the laws which is arguably more destructive in the short term, and which affects me personally, is the flight and airspace ban on Russian airlines. I expected the reaction to this would be so loud that ex-Chechen guerrilla leader/Turkish ISIS recruiter Yatsenyuk would be forced to relent. So far it looks like I was wrong.

Oh well, at least this happened to him:

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In order to prevent a scene like this from ever happening again, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is to be fitted with special folding carrying handles for ease of transport.

Analysis of the Year!

Here we have a tie between this Carnegie Report, and this cautionary article about the pitfalls of Russia analysis. I like the first because it kind of vindicates some predictions I’ve made. When you’re not an academic with a Phd, it really helps the old self esteem to see that people with more conventional credentials and who do this sort of analysis as a profession seem to be coming to similar conclusions.

I like the second article because it is a good warning to those Paul Goble-like Russia watchers who keep predicting the regime’s immanent collapse. That and I like any analysis that points out the continuity and commonality between the regime of Yeltsin and that of Putin, his handpicked heir.

That’s not to say I don’t have my criticisms. For one thing, a lot of it consists of: “You say this bad thing is going to happen, but something like this happened before and Russia didn’t collapse from that.” It also makes what I consider poor comparisons with Pakistan and especially North Korea in terms of the regime’s ability to hold onto power.

I think one of the biggest problems in Russia analysis is that everyone opens up the history textbooks without taking a dialectical approach. What I mean is that they seem to assume that Russia is bound by historical precedents, and that if such a precedent exists then we must assume this can happen again. By this logic, Putin’s regime could last as long as the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union endured for such a long time in spite of far worse conditions such as those brought on by WWII.

What this analysis fails to take into account is all the changes that have happened since then, and how no scenario is an exact copy of the one before it. When it comes to enduring hardship, Putin has one major disadvantage compared to the Tsarist and Soviet regimes- his people have too much information and experience, and he cannot shove this genie back into the bottle. This is to say that too many Russians either know how people live in the rest of the world, or they can easily find out what they are missing. This is why the Kremlin’s media works so hard to paint the rest of the world, particularly the West, as degenerate and evil. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t a good substitute for a populace that is overwhelming ignorant of the outside world.

Now, however bad things get, Russians will be keenly aware that people in the West and other liberal democracies live better than them. Sure, the media will keep telling them that those countries are on the point of collapse, but as they somehow trudge on while the situation in Russia becomes ever worse, skepticism and eventually anger will rise. After all, who wants to believe that a bunch of limp-wristed Western degenerates are living it up while Russians suffer?

I could go on, but the basic point I’m making here is that instead of trying to find historical examples to determine the probability of something happening, we should ask ourselves what changed since those historical events. What is different?

Predictions for 2016

First of all, any of you Goble fans expecting a regime collapse or massive protest movement are likely to be disappointed. It’s not that things are going to turn around for the Kremlin in 2016. I’ve seen some analysis that predicts modest improvements but the general trend is downward. The issue is, however, that the downward slide isn’t steep enough to cause mass unrest, at least in my opinion.

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STAUNTON- Is this malfunctioning TV in a Moscow underground passage a sign that Putin’s regime will get the blue screen of death in 2016? A random Russian academic nobody’s ever heard of says, “Yes, definitely.”

I just don’t see the widespread discontent, at least not discontent that is attributed to the system, including Putin, and not phantoms like Obama or the 6th or 7th columns. Lots of people in many countries protest about economic issues without connecting those issues to the government and the system as a whole. I think this is the case with the kind of economically-driven protests in Russia at the moment.

For people to get revolutionary, they need to consciously connect their economic woes with their system, and they have to believe in change. Russians generally don’t have this faith in themselves, no doubt in part because they don’t have faith in the official opposition parties and they have consistently endured years of propaganda telling them that change and democracy will lead to instability like in the 90’s. Back in 2011-2012, many protesters knew what they were against, but the discourse on what to replace the “managed democracy” with was, in my experience, paltry.

Far more effective than jingoistic propaganda is the idea of the “Russian mentality,” which says that Russians are inherently too backward, savage, and corrupt to have a functioning democratic system like that of the US or some other developed liberal democracy. Any movement to change the system will have to defeat this myth, and not the patriotic rhetoric in order to succeed. I just don’t see that on the horizon anywhere.

What I also don’t see is widespread generalized suffering where it counts. Sure, millions of Russian families are rapidly sinking into poverty according to the state’s own figures, but I suspect that the first to go underwater are mostly those who are far from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Sure the truckers are upset because of the Platon road tax system, but Russia is a very atomized society where it’s all too easy for non-truckers to say: “It’s not my problem.”

Suppose more non-trucker citizens risk dissent and support the truck drivers until by some miracle, Putin relents and cancels the system. Then what? The truckers got what they wanted and will probably go back to praising Putin, but what’s in it for all those non-truckers who supported them? Nothing. If some new law negatively affects their business or profession in a negative way, will the truckers come to their aid? This is the problem I can see with these isolated causes. In the case of Maidan, you had a lot of people who were either really disappointed by the prospect of Yanukovych possibly calling off the Eurointegration deal he had initially conceived, the heavy-handed authoritarian tactics he resorted to in response to the initial protest, out of control corruption, or a combination of any of those. The causes were general and complimentary. You don’t have that in Russia.

Now naturally you could have those general causes if things get worse economically. But if there is a possibility of some recovery and the downward trend is gradual rather than sharp, where will those grievances come from? I can’t say for sure but I wouldn’t  rule out the possibility of what I’ll dub “quickeners.” These are unforeseen events or consequences which can influence than downward trend and speed it up. The initial cause may be completely out of the Kremlin’s control, such as a wave of natural disasters. On the other hand it could be another knee-jerk response of the Kremlin to some event it couldn’t foresee.

Keep in mind that a quickener is not the same as a black swan event. It’s not something that has never happened before but could theoretically happen. Some of them might be very predictable, but they just haven’t happened yet. For example, Turkey could close the Bosphorus around the same time a Syrian rebel counteroffensive rolls back the Syrian army and besieges a Russian base. Residents in the separatist areas of the Donbas could run out of patience with the lawless regime and rise up against the local governments, possibly with arms. Kadyrov could commit some new outrage against the FSB that they won’t let slide no matter what Putin tells them. Returning volunteers from the Donbas could start a terror campaign against the government that “betrayed” them at the same time the FSB is bogged down in the search for ISIS-sympathetic jihadis.

In short, think of it as Murphy’s Law, where each thing that goes wrong can accelerate the country on its path towards 1991 Version 2.0. It’s hard to say exactly when that new 1991 will come, but I really don’t see 2016 as being the year. Whenever it happens, however, I would call on all those who actually care to pitch in and make sure the mistakes of the original 1991, which left Russia languishing in poverty, crime, and humiliation and left it ripe for demagogues like Putin and his crew, are never repeated. Letting Russia down in another moment of vulnerability like that will only bring more problems to the country and the region.

To conclude the topic of predictions I should say that if you’re a Russia watcher, you always have to be monitoring yourself for wishful thinking. If you’re a Putin-lover, you might want to consider how readily you seize upon any predictions about economic recovery. If you’re pro-Ukraine or pro-Russian opposition, you might want to be a bit more skeptical about whatever protest movement is being billed as the next Maidan. Either way, you’re only going to set yourself up for disappointment, as reality has a way of defying people’s wishes.

 

Now 2016 is almost upon us. Why are you still watching Russia? Escape while you still have many years ahead of you! Save yourself!

Seriously though,

Happy New Year

weirdman

It’s party time! Drink up!