Tag Archives: Putin

Double Feature

Potential Russia Grifter Foiled

How tragic it is when a young, budding Russia grifter attempts to leave the nest an falls like a stone. Jared Yates Sexton, a creative writing assistant professor with some work published in a handful of major publications, recently attempted his takeoff on the premier venue for instant-Russia experts, Twitter. Some of you may remember this tweet:

Oh the poor muckraker- all that work and then The Donald’s dumbass spawn scoops him by just tweeting out his emails. The life of an investigative journalist, am I right, folks?

Oh wait…No.

Turns out he’s just a fraud with a book to sell. Well that still managed to get him a mention on the Stephen Colbert show, which I’m sure is truly praise from Caesar for American liberals these days.

Well I guess Jared deserves at least a B+ for effort. Keep trying and don’t forget to spice up your Trump/Russia commentary with words like maskirovka and kompromat.

Russia Without Bullshido

As long-time readers might have guessed, I’m pretty much tired of Putin articles. Hell, I was tired of Putin articles in 2013 when I started this blog. But today I saw an article about the little man which piqued my interest as it concerns one of my hobbies. Apparently there’s a guy claiming that Putin may be a martial arts fraud. Sadly, the article fails to deliver on several counts.

Questioning Putin’s black belt credentials certainly has merit. Putin’s black belt is in judo, which is not only the origin of the belt-ranking system in modern martial arts but is also governed by highly centralized bodies. It did not take too long for me to find this article from 2012 about Putin receiving 8th dan level from the International Judo Federation. Reading the article, one gets the idea that this move was kind of political, but it’s an 8th dan, in other words- 8th degree black belt. This means he would have earned his actual black belt many years ago. I’ve also read that he has won competitions in the past, so there would be official records. The bottom line is that this is a very verifiable claim.

Rather than researching records and using the time-tested journalism technique of googling “judo,” the article relies on the blogger Benjamin Wittes, a martial arts practitioner himself who has apparently actually challenged Vladimir Putin to a fight. One would think Wittes would know what I already mentioned about judo and its regulating bodies, but rather than investigate that he seems to rely primarily on video evidence, or lack thereof.

According to Wittes, in every video of Putin doing judo, his opponents go down too easily. This is a bit ironic because one of Wittes’ martial arts is aikido, a very deadly art so long as your opponent is kind enough to give you their wrist and allow you to throw them. Perhaps Wittes has watched more Putin judo videos than I have, but in all the ones I’ve seen it appears that Putin is demonstrating some kind of technique. In other words, it is not randori, or free practice, where the opponent is actually resisting 100% and trying to win. When someone is just demonstrating or practice a technique, the opponent (uke is the Japanese term for the person being demonstrated on) should not resist at all. Sometimes, a person practicing or demonstrating may have the opponent give a certain amount of resistance to show the technique in a more realistic way, but they will still be compliant.

Is it possible that Russian media has produced videos of Putin supposedly doing real randori, and winning effortlessly? I can believe it. He certainly does this in his staged hockey matches. This does not mean he’s a complete martial arts fraud, however. Some of the techniques I’ve seen him demonstrate are rather advanced, requiring a good sense of timing and a feel for when the opponent is off balance. Such techniques would be hard to pull off even against a compliant opponent.

So is Wittes totally off the mark when he calls Putin a martial arts fraud? Maybe not entirely. He does point out that Putin has a lot of honorary diplomas in various martial arts. That 8th degree black belt I mentioned earlier was essentially honorary, but reading Wittes it seems that Putin has been given honorary rankings in martial arts he might not have actually practiced; they were given for his promotion of the sport instead. If Wittes didn’t come up with the smoking gun that proves Putin is a judo fraud, he certainly deflated Putin’s exaggerated image as a multiple-martial arts-practicing badass.

Furthermore, his point about the lack of video evidence of Putin’s judo prowess is valid if we’re evaluating his skill and not past accomplishments. Just when did Putin stop doing actual judo practice anyway? It does make a huge difference. Knowledge and practice in martial arts are hugely different things. Theoretically, I know how to do a helicopter arm bar in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Realistically, I’d never even attempt it in free practice even if I’d been training continuously for several years. Skill in martial arts, just like any sport, relies on muscle memory. If Putin hasn’t actually been practicing judo for 18 years or so, it’s possible that Mr. Wittes might be able to easily take him after all. Putin may also have been taught judo in a way that almost exclusively emphasizes throws, and thus he may have almost no ground game and he might have no experience dealing with striking. As such, someone trained in Muay Thai, for example, might easily front kick the little guy into a wall with no trouble. Basically, it’s entirely possible for Putin to be a legitimate judo black belt (which I believe is the case) and yet no longer be able to fight at that same skill level due to disuse.

Still, given the fact that Wittes’ martial arts are aikido and taekwondo, it might not be advisable to challenge Putin without more information on his judo skills. Otherwise, I’d say don’t wear a gi, use strikes, and practice countering harai goshi, which I’ve read is one of Putin’s favorite techniques:

 

A Primer on Russia’s Presidential Election

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! I’ve decided to write one more article about Russia-related stuff (for the foreseeable future) just because I recently saw another example of a trope that never seems to die and I don’t think I’ve ever actually dedicated a whole post to it. Before I proceed let me point out that I’m not trying to single out any particular author here. I’ve seen this trope and variations thereof many times over the years, and in my less-informed days I’d actually voiced similar arguments. With the disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump in.

Among Western Putin apologists there’s a grand tradition of smearing Western Russia correspondents by pedantically homing in on any mistakes, real or imagined, in their work. The idea is that they’re actually ignorant about Russia, that they have an axe to grind against poor wittle Putin. To be fair, some journalists, usually those not actually based in Russia, can display horrendous ignorance about the country. Case in point:

However, when attacking long-time Moscow correspondents, the grievances are typically unfair, inaccurate, nitpicky, or all three at the same time. When there’s a major election in Russia, Putin’s pedants rehash the same trope every time- they complain that the Western media gives so much attention to non-systemic opposition candidates who in fact are very unpopular and have no chance of winning.

In support of this claim they will provide plenty of legitimate opinion polls. Rest assured you can usually take these polls at face value; they’re typically correct. It’s no secret that opposition politicians in Russia are incredibly unpopular, indeed far less popular than the two leading systemic-opposition parties the “Communist” Party of the Russian Federation (I can’t put enough quotes around the word “Communist” in their name) and the equally inappropriately-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. So why does the Western media focus so much attention on politicians who have no chance of winning and are almost unheard of outside of Moscow? Apparently someone actually needs to explain this, so here goes…

First let me say that the inspiration for this comes from a tweet thread by David Filipov, Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, in which he addressed this very question.

In case that didn’t make it painfully clear to you, let me break it down to preschool level.

In an election, a real election, candidates are supposed to compete. That means they actually want to be president. Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky have no plans to be president of Russia. If you deny the existence of systemic opposition in Russia you are either ignorant or a liar- period. While there is sometimes opposition at the local level and in the Duma, none of the systemic opposition parties pose a threat to Putin and his favored United Russia party. None of them plan to do anything to change the system that basically lets Putin do what he pleases as long as he wants.

Those opposition candidates, in spite of their minimal popularity, actually do want to change the system in some way. They actually intend to be real politicians. It’s kind of the media’s job to interview candidates, ask them about their ideas, why they want to be president, a representative, or whatever. Unless we’re talking about the Russian state media, of course.

And speaking of state media, it might be time to ask why these politicians are so unpopular. Apart from occasionally appearing on talk shows while they are mercilessly shouted down by other guests, most major opposition figures in Russia almost never appear on TV unless it’s in a bullshit story alleging that they’re working for the CIA, Soros, the YMCA, or whatever other organization the Kremlin is scared shitless of this week. All the while they and their volunteers are routinely harassed and their offices searched or closed under suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile the perpetrators are either never found or are promptly released.

Remember that the Putin apologists who constantly whine about the Western media devoting so much attention to minimally-popular opposition candidates are at least tacitly asserting that Russia has a functioning democratic electoral system. If they aren’t, I don’t know why they even bother, but let’s assume for the moment that they do. If this is the case, why are Russian elections so bizarrely different from those in other democratic states? Why are the second and third most popular presidential candidates not even interested in actually becoming president? Hell, one of them (Zhirinovsky) actually called for elections to be abolished and for Putin to be given the title of “Supreme Commander.” Can anyone imagine a Republican in the US suggesting such a thing for Obama? Can you even imagine them just calling for Obama to be able to run for a third term? The scandal would be at least equal to the one surrounding the Trump administration at the moment.

So please, Putinist pedants- stop pretending Putin’s regime is just a little quirky or just as democratic as other states and wringing your hands while presenting polls to show how unpopular candidates like Navalny are. We all know they’re unpopular, and anyone who knows about Russia’s political an mass media system knows why. To para-phrase Filipov, if you think there’s another candidate Russia correspondents should be spending more time covering, please name them and explain why. What is newsworthy about them? And to extrapolate from that- if you’re not happy with the stories that Western journalists cover, maybe you should provide examples of the stories you think should be covered and again, say why. I’ve often written about my complaints about some of that coverage and I give my reasons.

Otherwise, I suggest you drop that trope and stick to your whataboutism. At least there you’re more likely to come up with a decent point from time to time.

I May Have to Retire

Indeed, my posts have been rather few and far between in recent months. Obviously moving to another country entails a lot of hassles, but aside from that there’s the fact that I’m in Ukraine and no longer in Russia. What is more, I’m in the process of changing professions. Does that mean I’m going away for good? No, not a chance. Now is the time to work on my book and explore other forms of media. That being said, I recently saw an article that made me think I could retire- it was that good.

The article in question is by Keith Gessen, and apart from a few comments I might add here and there it is spot on. It’s not just that it’s so right, it’s that it reminds me of a post that I did in the early days of this blog in 2013, when virtually no one read it.

Back in those days, several months before Maidan, this blog wasn’t intended to be political. I, in fact, had already largely given up on politics and retreated into my own world of traveling with my wife, movies, history, video games, all buttressed by that seductive but dangerous expat privilege that lulls you into complacency with its siren song. There will always be work. There’ll always be next month’s salary and your end-of-contract bonus. The blog was just catharsis, a late reaction to past years of poor Russia journalism which would rapidly improve in 2014.

One of those early posts was about Vladimir Putin, who had long been made the embodiment of Russia both by Western and Russian state media. My logic was that if people were going to be obsessively writing about Putin, they should write about the actual man, not the myth- be that myth one of the brave national leader standing up to Western hegemony or the evil KGB-agent Bond villain.

Looking back I think I got one major thing wrong (something which I’d write about in years since then), and unfortunately I didn’t see it mentioned in the article linked above so I’ll add it here. It is the myth of Putin the “moderate,” the idea that Putin is necessary because he is holding back dangerous nationalists who mustn’t be allowed to get control of Russia and its military arsenal. For me, this was the only myth about Putin that survived my conversations with emigres and expats just before moving to Russia.

It is important to understand the context of those days. This was 2006, the boom, the peak of collaboration between Russia and the West. While there were certainly some hiccups during those years, in general Western business was thrilled with Russia and vice versa. This is when all that bullshit you hear now about Russia opposing the West or rejecting material comfort for spiritual or ideological values would just provoke side-splitting laughter. The Russians, headed by Putin and theoretically by Medvedev, were enthusiastically inviting Western investment (and in a way, they still are, which is why they rail against the sanctions). Russia under Putin had become a sort of semi-colonial state, with Putin as the local collaborator extracting its resources and pimping out its population.Looking back on that relationship, I sometimes wonder what might have happened had the two lovers, the European Union and Russia, not had their historic falling out over Ukraine.

It is in that context that Putin-as-moderate seemed to make sense. After all, this was a man whose circle of close friends were exploiting their own people essentially for the sake of the West. As such it was only understandable that opposition to Putin would take on an anti-Western character. In those days, I wasn’t aware as to the extent much of this opposition was managed, sometimes even created by the Kremlin.Some of these opposition groups had politics so unsavory that you actually hoped they’d never succeed in overthrowing Putin as much as you hated him…and that was the whole point.

That’s also the problem with Putin-as-moderate. Sure, there are a lot of scary, supposedly ideologically-driven people in Russian politics who espouse dangerous and aggressive ideas, but none of those people would ever get into power. Probably the only one who could even conceivably hold a position of leadership would be Dmitry Rogozin, who at the moment is fiercely loyal to Putin and thus could only come to power upon his master’s absence. As for people like Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov, I highly doubt they ever seriously think about being president of Russia. That ship has long since sailed. And as for scary folks like Dugin, Kurginyan, Strelkov, et al, they’re even further from the circle of power. There’s no evidence that Dugin has even ever met Putin, and it’s hard to imagine the president having a serious meeting with a man who basically looks like a hobo who found some slightly better clothes. Many Russians, even ones who are quite politically-minded, don’t even know Dugin’s name (yes, I’ve checked). That being the case, I think it’s pretty obvious that we won’t be seeing President Dugin after Putin kicks the bucket.

But what if we imagine that there really is some extremist threat that Putin’s supposedly holding back, does that justify Putin-as-moderate? Well no, because the fact is that the presidential administration deliberately cultivates and manages many of these groups. Russian football hooligans and nationalists were once coddled by the Kremlin, especially when they were beating up opposition activists in the mid-2000s. Over the years, however, they started to become a liability. Putin’s apparent subservience to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov drove many far-rightists into the opposition around 2011 and 2012. The war in Ukraine created a split in Russia’s far-right, where many reactionaries again rallied to the Kremlin’s imperial colors, but those who failed to do so have once again faced a crackdown. It is pure fantasy to think that the Kremlin is done playing games with far-right nationalists, however. When they are necessary, the Kremlin will use them as it sees fit. Thus Putin is not holding them back- he’s basically keeping them alive.

The same can be said for every bombastic, aggressive figure in Russia’s political scene. Thus if Putin were somehow overthrown by a coup that puts worse people in power, it lesson wouldn’t be that Putin was a moderate holding back the tides- he created the tides. But that’s not the only problem with the Putin-as-moderate theme.

Let us imagine, for the moment, that all of the above was not the case. The far-right, aggressive forces in Russian politics came into existence naturally and organically, without being groomed by the Kremlin. Let us imagine that Putin really was trying to be a moderate, an internationalist, a liberal, or whatever. If this were the case, and if Putin were actually competent, why would he even be in such a situation? When we look at the horrors of the 90’s, it’s kind of understandable as to why Russia faced the threat of extremist groups coming to power. The Yeltsin government revealed itself to be rather extremist itself if you count what happened in 1993 and the 1999 apartment bombings. But what about the boom time? What about the Putin fanboys’ claim that he raised Russia from her knees, out of that 90’s torpor? Why would the extremist elements, whose existence was understandable in the context of the 90’s, still constitute the same threat more than a decade into Putin’s allegedly wise rule?

Of course that is just a hypothetical scenario, but it demonstrates how even when you accept a certain number of Putin apologist assumptions, you still come around to the same conclusion- Putin is incompetent.

These days one hardly hears the Putin-as-moderate defense. Since his annexation of the Crimea that load of bullshit has become harder to sell, particularly when Putin himself has taken to spouting the same rhetoric as the extremists who allegedly oppose him. To be sure, there is a threat that Putin may be replaced by a more reactionary, aggressive faction upon his death or should he be incapacitated and unable to rule, but if that happens it will be the fault of his administration. Through its state-run media, through the schools, and its many manipulated organizations and front groups, the Putin administration has fueled xenophobia, paranoia, and reactionary ideology. Democracy, human rights, and tolerance have been made dirty words. In such an environment, is it any surprise that the most likely successor to Putin or his regime might be someone who takes those reactionary values to heart and sincerely believes in them?

The Evidence is Piling Up

 

Last week it seemed like every morning I’d wake up to find that another member of the Trump administration or his campaign team has been linked to high-level officials in the Russian government. We’ve already had one resignation because of such connections. It’s hard to tell where the fire is, but there’s definitely smoke.

Readers will remember that when the topic of the so-called Trump-Putin “bromance” surfaced during the election, I urged caution. Talking about Trump and Putin is kind of like a spectrum where you don’t want to ignore the connections, but at the same time you don’t want to overstate them. On one hand, there are legitimate concerns about Russian meddling in the election (which nevertheless did not win it for Trump), but on the other if you go around connecting every possible “dot” you might end up going paranoid and inventing some kind of bizarre conspiracy where Trump became a Russian puppet long before the rise of Vladimir Putin. And that, of course, would be just plain nutty!

Oh. Uh…Okay then. Let’s move on.

As we tumble down Trump’s Russian rabbit hole it’s useful to listen to a voice of reason, which when it comes to Russia topics is typically Mark Galeotti. In a blog piece Mark points out the roots of this Russian influence:

“The steady drumbeat of Russian contacts with Trump’s team on one level should not surprise. The Russians – like most real and wannabe global powers – assiduously network, hoping to gather insights and make connections that can later be parlayed into access and impact. This is, however, a case study of the way that the dirty little vices of modern democracy, from the inter-connectivity of transnational and untransparent business interests to the use of money and flattery to buy a voice, all the ways in which democracy becomes distorted by money, serve as a force multiplier for predatory authoritarian kleptocracies.

In fact, my view is that for the West today, the greatest security threat is not Russian tanks or Russian disinformation, it is our own corruption – and the ways Russia seeks to use it.”

I for one am just thrilled to see Mark drawing ever nearer to the conclusion that we must overthrow the capitalist system, and welcome him as a comrade in the glorious struggle! Seriously though, Mark’s pointing out the thing a lot of these status-quo think tank liberals don’t want to admit. For them it would be lovely if this is all a sinister plot cooked up by former KGB officer Putin driven by his proto-fascist Ivan Ilyin-inspired ideology. Because if that were the case, there’d be no need to indict the “Free-market-uber-alles,” managed democratic capitalist system we live in for being so wonderfully accommodating to kleptocrats, dictators, and war criminals (or in Putin’s case, all three!). In that case, it would be only a matter of bad people with bad ideas, people who could theoretically by displaced by good capitalists and good liberals who play by the rules and maintain the status quo.

But if Trump’s Russia connections aren’t necessarily some sinister plot, and he’s not a puppet of Putin being held in check due to fear of blackmail (which I highly doubt- see previous post), does it make sense to keep digging deeper into the case? Will anything be found that warrants such scrutiny, will it be worth it? My answer is…Wait for it…Yes.

Yes, there are good reasons to get to the bottom of this case, and I will enumerate them below:

First, Trump has, perhaps mostly unwittingly, helped Putin advance his foreign policy goals with his refusal to seriously criticize Putin at almost every conceivable opportunity. He has helped Putin by being an incompetent moron, thus paralyzing the US government and public and keeping them too occupied cleaning up the domestic mess he has made to worry about what Putin is doing abroad. You know how the administration suddenly reverted to supporting the status quo on sanctions over Ukraine, and specifically the Crimea? I don’t think for second that this had anything to do with the administration finally recognizing the need to get tough on Putin. They simply reverted to the status quo because they’re too occupied with the grease fire they’ve started at home and that status quo was never that tough to begin with. Putin has engaged in several aggressive actions in the Donbas recently, no doubt feeling secure in the knowledge that Trump is unlikely to make any move against him for the foreseeable future.

Second, even if Trump never intended to make conciliatory deals with Russia, the way he talked no doubt told certain Russian officials that there would be a possibility of concessions. This would have emboldened them. Had Trump been as bellicose about Russia as he was about Mexico during the campaign, the Kremlin might have preferred a much more cautious approach.The fact that they haven’t been cautious at all suggests confidence.

Third, let us imagine for the moment that all of these connections we see, while unethical, never led to anything seriously illegal or compromising to national security. If that turns out to be the case, who’s to say the next administration doesn’t do the same thing with a foreign government, only that time they go further and cross the boundary from highly questionable to straight up illegal or even treasonous? If Trump’s Russia connections are nothing but smoke with no fire, the only way we’re going to know is after a thorough investigation. If that investigation never happens, it basically opens up such relations to both parties, and from there it’s only a matter of time before someone pushes the limit further. Coming down hard on the Trump administration is how we hopefully nip this kind of thing in the bud. We already have enough problems with our government carrying on friendly relations with unsavory regimes.

So yeah, this is definitely worth looking at. It is an investigation best left to professionals, both in and out of law enforcement. That means no journalists or “game theorists” connecting dots on Twitter, and yes, it rules out a serial shitposter such as myself.

You and I can do two things in this fight- push representatives, investigative journalists, etc. to keep digging, and then sit back with a big bowl of popcorn and watch the Trump administration go down in flames. If we’re really lucky, Trump’s clothes may one day match the color of his face. But if not, at least every American politician will be afraid to walk within ten meters of any Russian government official.*

 

*Except Dana Rohrabacher, because he’s an utter imbecile.

“They sow the wind…”

So in case you’re not a regular Russia-watcher (I envy you. Please tell me how it feels in the comments section) or you are but you’ve been living under a rock for the past two days, the Joint Investigative Team announced its conclusions from its investigation into the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. Surprise, surprise, they confirmed the basic story that most rational, sane people figured out long ago. The plane was shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile system from territory controlled by the Russian military and their proxies rebels. The investigation also found that the Buk system was moved back across the border into Russia so as to hide the evidence. Of course it doesn’t help the cover-up when your state run media forgets to take down the original article from the time when the “rebels” claimed they had shot down an AN-26 cargo plane that actually  turned out to be MH17. It’s still up there after more than two years.

At the same time Russia has been in the news a lot lately, from a string of malicious cyber-attacks on high profile Western targets to the bombing of a UN aid convoy. Naturally the Kremlin response to all of this is that it’s all lies and “provocations.” They do nothing but good, yet for some strange reason the United States and its puppets (i.e. any country that refuses to do what Moscow wants) have been engaging in this pointless, mean-spirited conspiracy against poor little Russia. But what Peskov and the Russian state media don’t seem to understand is that while they can continue their pathetic denial routine, the rest of the world isn’t buying into the bullshit. Even those who might have been willing to give Putin the benefit of the doubt are now waking up to the fact that he has nothing but contempt for them and thus cannot be reasoned or negotiated with.

Though I find it morally reprehensible, I think it’s fair to say that much of the Western world might have been willing to turn a blind eye to Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, particularly if MH17 had never happened. But Putin and his cronies, paranoid and delusional as they are, could not resist pretending that they are running a relevant superpower. Hence the propaganda attacks, including high profile fabrications like “Liza” in Germany, and hence the cyber-attacks on targets like the DNC and various Western media outlets. Now the FBI suspects that Russian hackers might be targeting American voter registration databases, possibly trying to take over the GOP’s job of disenfranchising minority voters. Who knows for sure? The point is that after the MH17 and the sanctions, Putin should have reined in his propagandists, agents, and hackers. He should have tread lightly. But for some reason he felt he couldn’t, and he didn’t. And he soon might pay the price.

The West has been ridiculously tolerant of Putin’s antics for quite some time now. In the past Russia was a good business opportunity as an emerging market, and Putin generally didn’t screw around with his Western “partners.” Now he’s started and he can’t stop, and eventually Western patience is going to wear thin. Once that happens, you’re going to see retaliation, and it’s not going to be pretty for Russia.

Professor Mark Galeotti has in the past written about numerous measures the West could easily implement against Russia that will do far more than sanctions. Many a Putin fanboy dreams of a shooting war between NATO and Russia (which is odd because Russia would be crushed), but if the West decides to up the ante none of those precious Topol-Ms or Ka-52s are going to do any good. They can cut Russia off from SWIFT, impose blanket travel bans and asset freezes on whole swathes of Russian government officials and their family members, mess with trade, and even launch cyber-attacks of their own. Given the situation Russia is in now, the effects of a coordinated all-out economic warfare campaign would be devastating. Color revolution? No need. The Russian people have shown plenty of times in the past that their patience with incompetent leadership is also limited.

Putin’s Russia has been dubbed a “troll state” in the recent past- it’s not a serious threat to the West but it can cause a lot of trouble. But just as the internet troll cowers when made to face his targets in real life,  Russia may face a painful humiliation when the West finally tires of Putin’s angsty teenager act.

Putin fan fiction

I’ve written in the past about how many viral news sites like to appropriate Putin in order to make him speak out in favor of whatever cause they happen to support. These are typically related to issues like vaccines or GMOs. Now, dear readers, this bizarre practice seems to have reached a new level of insanity.

Check out this story from a serial offender called Yournewswire.com. It claims that Putin recently survive an assassination attempt at the hands of the “New World Order.” Apparently the NWO is getting lazy these days because the best plan they could come up with was to ram the president’s apparently un-escorted car head on with another car. Not a car laden with explosives, mind you, but just a car. This was the plan to kill someone who would almost certainly be riding in the back seat…

Alright, yeah I know it’s stupid to even begin “debunking” a story that is so obviously bullshit. Had anything close to this actually happened, Moscow would probably be on lockdown and I would be packing my bags so as to escape before the the whole country goes completely bonkers. Still, it’s hard not to dissect this story. What I find fascinating about this story is how it has developed the bizarre practice of Putin appropriation.

In the past, you just pretend he represents whatever wacky political ideology you support. You’re a right wing Christian fundamentalist? So is Putin! You believe in absolute gun rights? So does Putin! You hate it when people slurp their coffee? Putin actually executed a guy for doing exactly that! This, folks, is not that. This is something different.

We have reached a point where Western Putin fanboys are now basically writing fan-fiction about their hero. I’m actually quite surprised that the author of this story didn’t include a scene where Putin, emerging from his totaled Mercedes, stands looking up at the sky and with fists clenched screams, “Is that the best you can do?! It’ll take more than that, New World Order!” If Russia is known for wacky alternative history novels, America might soon supplant it with alternative present news stories.

Some are naturally going to speculate that Yournewswire.com is some kind of Kremlin-linked Russian outlet. Personally I’m not so sure. The author with a blurry photo of himself in St. Petersburg is supposedly named Baxter Dmitry. It’s written as though Dmitry is his surname. My experience says that Russian paid trolls won’t use any Russian-sounding name or first name when they engage in their shenanigans. More importantly, I’ve never seen confirmed Russian propaganda outright fabricating Putin quotes or in this case, inventing scenarios for the president out of thin air. I suspect that such activity would be seen as potentially disloyal or harmful by the people who run such operations.

If you follow Russia news you might find Yournewswire.com “stories” popping up in your Facebook feed as related articles. Who knows what adventures they’ll cook up for the Russian president in the future? Let’s just hope they don’t take a dark turn into erotic fiction.

 

 

 

Brainstorming session

Although the article that inspired this post came out late last week, it’s rather appropriate that I’m writing it on 12 September. Before I give you the link (rejoice, Russophiles, for it is an Applebaum piece), let me set the context by taking us back to the months following 9/11. Insofar as I had access to TV at the time, it seemed a great deal of coverage was dedicated to brainstorming all the different ways terrorists could kill Americans in the US. It was as if they went to action screenwriters for expert opinions on terrorist tactics.

To be sure, the terrorists did get a bit creative around that time. After using planes as missiles, there was the infamous “shoe bomber,” for example. The anthrax letters turned out to be unrelated to Al Qaeda, but this wouldn’t become known until much later. Still, there were times when it seemed like they were just winging it in order to fill gaps in the news cycle. One example I remember was the “threat” of terrorists using emergency services vehicles in order to carry out their attacks a la Die Hard With a Vengeance. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 contains a short montage of news stories warning about exotic threats such as poison pen guns and model airplanes laden with explosives. It’s not that any of these threats were inconceivable, but they were just as possible before 9/11 as after.

This brings us to Applebaum, who apparently phoned in a piece about all the terrible things big bad Russia could do to upset or manipulate the US presidential election. At first I was thinking of answering it point-by-point, but really many of the claims are overlapping and thus I thought would be better to answer the main thrust of the piece. In general, everything centers around attempts to put the legitimacy of the US election in question via propaganda and/or hacking.

applebaum

Before I take on the article I must admit that I’m just a bit disappointed in the media establishment as of late. Just earlier last week we had open mic at Foreign Policy, and here we have an award-winning journalist who is taken very seriously in political circles introducing a piece by saying “Yes, I know it sounds insane.” And as for “If the USA were Ukraine,” well, I think this Italian chef put it best:

 

Alright enough joking around. So in case you still haven’t read the short article, Applebaum lists a number of ways Russia could try to sabotage the election so as to make it seem illegitimate, thus leading to a propaganda coup and perhaps extreme anger from one half of the population. Let’s get one thing clear, the idea that the Kremlin is trying to have an influence on the US election is very believable. The problem is how much of an influence they can actually have. The truth is that when it comes to Trump’s base, the Kremlin’s hackers and propagandists need not lift a finger nor utter a word for those angry people to declare the election rigged or illegitimate should their candidate lose in November. Trump himself already raised the idea that the election might be rigged weeks ago. If you think these people need Russia’s help to come up with a conspiracy that explains why they and their candidate failed, you simply don’t know these people, and you might be grossly out of touch with American political reality.

Once again I think we should back up again, back to 2000 in this case. When most people think of the stealing of the 2000 election, they think of George W. Bush and the Supreme Court’s decision that effectively made him president. However, if you were on the conservative side in those days, as I was, there were accusations that Gore was trying to steal the election as well. As I remember it, the accusation you’d hear from other Republicans was that Gore wanted to recount and recount until he won. Both before and after that election you’d hear rumors about illegal aliens being organized to vote Democrat, and I guarantee you’ll hear it come this election. Where was RT back then? Where was Sputnik News? How did AM radio hosts and ordinary conservatives come up with these conspiracy theories without Putin to help them?

Now for the biggest rebuttal, let’s look at the last administration and the so-called “Birthers.” I have a step-father who most likely went to his grave sincerely believing that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya, and by virtue of the latter illegitimate. Anyone who remembers the Birther movement knows that a number of its leaders attempted to file lawsuits essentially arguing that Barack Obama was not the the legitimate president of the United States. To my knowledge, every such suit has been thrown out of court. This means that anyone still believing that Barack Obama is not a natural born US citizen eligible to serve in the office of the president implicitly believes that for the past eight years the presidential administration has been legitimate even if it was legally elected, and what is more, the entire court system is almost certainly corrupt and thus illegitimate. Did anyone need RT to come up with that? My late step-father had probably never heard of RT.

The point I’m getting at here is that when you’re talking about Trump’s base and the far right, you don’t need any kind of special action to get them to dispute the legitimacy of an election that doesn’t go their way. These are people who already “know” what really happened, and all the Youtube videos or viral links they share thereafter to support their claims are just justification after the fact. Just take a look at how such people react whenever there’s a terrorist attack or mass shooting, for example. Typically they’ve already declared it to be a “false flag” carried out by the US government long before the blood has even dried. Media erroneously reports something in the first few minutes of the event? False flag! A person in the background of a photo doesn’t “look right?” False flag! In short, these people don’t really place a high value on concrete evidence and critical thinking, and as such, they don’t need any kind of Russian manipulation to make them question the legitimacy of the presidential election should they lose. If Zimbabwe had an English-language news service promotig a story about Hillary rigging the vote, they’d snatch that right up and have it on their news feed in seconds.

It’s here that I get to my main problem with this piece by Applebaum, or at least the problem apart from the fact that it looks as though the thought process behind it went something like: “Dammit! I’ve got to publish another article this week about how Russia’s going to screw us.” In a word, the problem is projection.

I, like most people used to think that psychological projection just means that you constantly accuse others of doing what you actually do, as if you’re the Russian foreign minister. As it turns out, it’s not quite that. In layman’s terms, it’s basically a way of coping with uncomfortable impulses or thoughts by denying them and instead attributing them to others.

You can see this in Russia in the statements and behavior of certain government officials and celebrities. They insist that Russia has this other civilization, a true European civilization, which embodies Christian traditional values and morals unlike the decadent, decaying West that always seems to have higher standards of living and more stability for some unknown reason. But when you observe Russian society as it is, it’s clear that this idea is laughably false. It’s not that Russia is actually worse or more immoral than many other countries out there (once we exclude the activities of the government and its bureaucracy), it’s just that Russians are basically like everyone else in the world. They sometimes get drunk and act stupid in public just like American college students (I must say Russians are a lot cooler about this than Americans). They like porn. They can be consumerists and put crass materialism ahead of higher values. But when confronted with the fact that Russia is by no means morally superior to other developed countries, the self-proclaimed patriots always have an excuse- these things exist in Russia because of the West. The West makes girls want to learn to twerk and it makes boys hungry or internet porn. To be sure, many fashion trends or ideas have spread into Russia from the West and other countries, but the fact is that if Russians were truly a civilization with higher morals and an inherent aversion to such “degeneracy,” these things wouldn’t take hold in Russian society; they’d be rejected. More importantly, they wouldn’t need laws or groups of violent thugs to suppress them or weed them out. Russia is what Russia does, not what some jackass in the Ministry of Culture or the State Duma imagines it is.

Now brace yourself, readers- the same thing I just wrote about projection in Russia also applies to the United States. Ever since political pundits and policy wonks suddenly woke up to the fact that there are these Russian foreign language news outlets, they seem to have become very eager to offload responsibility for our own political dumpster fire on the Russian propaganda apparatus. Here’s a tip, my punditchiki. See all those fringe guests they have on RT and Sputnik News? They’re Americans and other Westerners. Many of them have been peddling their conspiracy theories for decades. Alex Jones started his empire of conspiratorial bullshit circa 1996, four years before Putin became president of Russia. Oliver Stone’s conspiracy film JFK was released literally weeks after the Soviet Union fell. In case you haven’t heard, there’s been something of a conspiratorial streak in American society for some time now. One fellow even called it a “paranoid style.” In 1964.

I could go on for pages and pages about how the American establishment lovingly tilled the soil and made it fertile ground for right-wing extremism, but for now I’ll keep it brief. Russia didn’t inflict Trump on us. Russia didn’t create our far right. They’re not the reason why, should Hillary win, millions of perpetually enraged Americans will be screaming about rigged voting and possibly expressing their fury through violence. This cancer on American society was one of the few things the post-industrial United States manufactured entirely on its own.

The deregulation of media made it possible for one viewpoint to dominate the AM band. Conspiracy theories started to become mainstream. During the Bush administration it became acceptable political discourse to accuse dissenters of treason. From 2008 onward we saw a return of incoherent, nonsensical red-baiting that would make Joseph McCarthy cringe. In a sense, a large part of America, as much on the left as the right in some cases, has decided that reality simply does not matter. People make their own realities. All the while the establishment either did nothing to combat this trend, or at times they encouraged it because it was politically expedient. Trump, the “alt-right,” the neo-Nazis coming out into the mainstream spotlight- they’re all just the natural consequence of a society that puts the profits and power of its top elite ahead of public good and the mental health of society.

In this sense, there is nothing Russia can do to American politics that Americans haven’t done better. All the Kremlin is doing is gathering up our garbage and dumping it back through our kitchen window. When you start engaging in projection and blaming other countries for your problems, you’re on your way to Putopia.  I’m sorry, DC pundits, but Trump and his movement are an American mess, and Americans have to deal with it.

And Anne, if you need more ideas for columns just let me know. There’s always a story about someone saying something positive about Stalin somewhere in Russia, or something equally “ominous” to warn Western leaders about.