Tag Archives: Russia

Another day, another “realist”

What is it with all these Russia “realists” popping up everywhere? I’m sorry but I prefer my Kremlin apologetics open and honest as opposed to these supposedly moderate, level-headed types who assure us they only want both sides to get along, only to insist that the only way to achieve this is to give Russia whatever it wants with nothing in return.

The inspiration for today’s piece comes from this article published in Foreign Policy by Clinton Ehrlich, an individual claiming to be the only Westerner at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, known as MGIMO in Russian. For those who don’t know, MGIMO is a very elite institution in Russia. If you’re a Russian oligarch and you failed to get your kid into Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford, etc., you’ve still got MGIMO. That being said, there is one major caveat. Even top officials in the Kremlin insist that Russia is surrounded by enemies, and that the United States is picking away all its potential allies. Accepting this common claim at face value, we might reasonably conclude that Russia’s training in international relations and diplomacy seriously sucks.

In the article, Ehrlich claims to give us an insider view of how the Russian elite view the US presidential election. There is nothing wrong with this; people should be aware of how Russians at different levels of society view the world and politics outside their country. The problem is that very early on in the article, Clinton forgets to report on Kremlin views and quickly starts peddling them from his own pocket. In the process, he demonstrates stunning ignorance of Russian politics and culture and advances nonsensical conspiracy theories sourced to an American expat pseudo-expert. Before proceeding I should point out that this morning an article about Mr. Ehrlich was published by Buzzfeed, which I will link to near the end of this post. Suffice it to say that once you read it, Ehrlich’s bait and switch routine in Foreign Policy suddenly makes a lot more sense. Having got that out of the way, onward to the article.

For me things started to get weird early on, in this passage:

“To Russian ears, Clinton seemed determined in her speech to provide this missing ingredient for bipolar enmity, painting Moscow as the vanguard for racism, intolerance, and misogyny around the globe.

The nation Clinton described was unrecognizable to its citizens. Anti-woman? Putin’s government provides working mothers with three years of subsidized family leave. Intolerant? The president personally attended the opening of Moscow’s great mosque. Racist? Putin often touts Russia’s ethnic diversity. To Russians, it appeared that Clinton was straining to fabricate a rationale for hostilities.”

Here the author made it very apparent that he is still quite unfamiliar with the particulars of Russian politics and culture. Starting with the family leave, it’s not subsidized for the full three years, assuming you want to take that much time. I could quibble about it more, but this is really a minor issue. Russia actually does beat the US hands-down in some women’s issues, such as reproductive rights for example, but on the other hand the government is infamous for ignoring domestic violence, a major killer of Russian women. Not only do some top officials actually deny the existence of domestic violence, but recently “family values” Duma deputy Yelena Mizulina proposed decriminalizing it, because beating your wife and kids is apparently a good family value or something. By contrast, a Russian Youtuber who photographed himself catching a Pokemon in a church (without disrupting any services) was recently facing a criminal charge that carried the threat of jail time (so far he’s under house arrest). Just for good measure we could also throw in former children’s ombudsman Pavel Astakhov standing up for polygamous marriage between a 17-year-old girl and a man old enough to be her father, and female genital mutilation in Dagestan (to their credit, the Duma appears to be drafting a bill to make this a criminal offense).

In truth, however, Russia is not really much more misogynistic than many industrialized nations, in fact I find some Western countries to be even more misogynistic in some ways, but it’s certainly not terribly progressive either. What gets me is his comments about intolerance and racism in Russia. Ehrlich “debunks” Hillary’s comments with isolated facts about Putin, yet he betrays a very curious ignorance about the culture and society that Putin has built in the past 16 years.

First there’s the matter of attending a mosque opening. Indeed, he did this. And for years now, state run media, which is closely in contact with the presidential administration, has put out a constant stream of anti-Muslim propaganda of the sorts you see from Western European far right parties. The narrative is as follows: “Look at the degenerate West? They’re so tolerant that they’re being overtaken by the Muslim horde from North Africa and the Middle East.” That Mr. Ehrlich has never encountered such views expressed either in the media or from ordinary citizens speaks volumes about his connection to Russian society.

On the matter of tolerance and intolerance, I’d urge Mr. Ehrlich to ask Russians what they think of tolerance as a value and see what they say. Tolerance in Russia is a dirty word. To them it means you want to let homosexuals teach your boy how to dress like a girl while an Arab refugee rapes your daughter. Where did people get this idea about tolerance? Who controls the education system, the state-run media that constantly puts out this message?

In case this still seems like some kind of unhappy coincidence, I remind the reader that the Putin regime has long had ties to far-right and neo-Nazi parties across Europe, such as Jobbik, Golden Dawn, Vlaams Belang, Front Nationale, etc. In the past the connections were more indirect, with state-sanctioned conferences being held in Russia. In recent years, however, there’s been more open cooperation between the Russian state and these parties. It’s worth noting that no Kremlin apologist I’ve seen has ever tried to deny these links. Indeed it seems many of them agree at least in part with the worldview of these neo-fascist organizations.

Indeed, Putin has from time to time stressed ethnic unity in Russia, but his administration has taken another route. It is no secret that the Kremlin has long used far-right nationalists as muscle to do its bidding. Occasionally, these groups have got out of hand, as in the case of BORN (Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists, more detailed link here). By the time of the protests in 2011-2012, many far-right nationalists had become soured on the Kremlin, and in particular its submissive posture toward Chechnya and its leader Ramzan Kadyrov. When the war in Ukraine started, however, many nationalists and neo-Nazis were happy to embrace the Kremlin’s cause and take out their frustrations on an approved target- Ukrainians. Putin can stress national unity in public all he wants, but in reality he presides over a society that normalizes far-right nationalism. Again, I can’t understand how a supposed researcher at such an institute could be so out of touch with Russian society.

Moving on from this, we get to a lot of claims regarding Hillary Clinton. Once again it seems he goes from reporting what Russians think, which is totally fine, to basically advancing their claims without challenge. Take a look at this, for example:

“Given the ongoing Russian operations, a “no-fly zone” is a polite euphemism for shooting down Russia’s planes unless it agrees to ground them. Clinton is aware of this fact. When asked in a debate whether she would shoot down Russian planes, she responded, “I do not think it would come to that.” In other words, if she backs Putin into a corner, she is confident he will flinch before the United States starts a shooting war with Russia.

That is a dubious assumption; the stakes are much higher for Moscow than they are for the White House. Syria has long been Russia’s strongest ally in the Middle East, hosting its only military installation outside the former Soviet Union. As relations with Turkey fray, the naval garrison at Tartus is of more strategic value than ever, because it enables Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to operate in the Mediterranean without transiting the Turkish Straits.”

For starters, he seems to forget that Donald Trump said he would shoot down Russian planes just for mostly harmless things like passive-aggressively buzzing US ships in the Black Sea. I think what a lot of people forget about Trump’s attitude toward Russia is that he does tacitly accept Russia as an enemy of the United States, but blames its actions on Obama’s weakness. He says “our enemies don’t respect us.” The implication here is that tough guy Trump will make Putin respect US authority by blasting his planes out of the sky and who know’s what else.

Then there’s the matter of “the stakes” for Moscow. True, they have a naval base in Tartus. I’m sure they must have made some improvements since 2015, but according to a real expert, Mark Galeotti, the “base” was historically more like a few docks and warehouses. As for transiting the Turkish straits, the base will have to be supplied one way or another. Syria, in peacetime, could obviously provide food, water, and maybe fuel, but not the necessary spare parts or munitions for modern Russian vessels. Without delving into the nuts and bolts, this is a really stupid reason to piss away Russia’s reserve fund and pensions. Assad cannot possibly survive this war without massive Russian and Iranian help. They’re basically betting on a losing horse and Russia’s squandering its wealth doing so. But this is going to come up again later, so stay tuned. For now, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of the article. This is the part where Ehrlich becomes the “realist.”

“Moscow prefers Trump not because it sees him as easily manipulated, but because his “America First” agenda coincides with its view of international relations. Russia seeks a return to classical international law, in which states negotiate with one another based on mutually understood self-interests untainted by ideology. To Moscow, only the predictability of realpolitik can provide the coherence and stability necessary for a durable peace.”

Oh that sounds so rational, so realist! But let’s break down what that really means with a little bullshit-to-English translation:

“Moscow wants to return to an outdated, imperialist mode of international relations where great powers divide up the world into spheres of influence and decide the fate of smaller nations without those nations’ consent. And oh yeah…Russia is a great power by the way.”

But if you think that’s a straw man, by all means let’s examine the boilerplate as is, starting with this “America First” agenda and “self-interests.”

When people say “America First,” it’s typically associated with American isolationism in the interwar period. It’s obvious why the Kremlin likes the idea of American isolationism, and it’s not because they like the idea of America focusing on its own problems instead of global ones, which happens to be the best argument in favor of such a policy. It has to do with this question of self-interests that he brings up.

What the “realists” won’t tell you, is that while America’s self-interests are supposedly domestic, thus necessitating an isolationist foreign policy, it’s perfectly okay by them if Russia’s “self-interests” happen to exist outside Russia’s borders. In this very article the author makes the case for Russia’s involvement in Syria, all to save a small military base so it can operate in the Mediterranean (to what end?). Is that truly in Russia’s self-interest? Looking at Russia’s ongoing economic decline, I think it’s fair to say that if anyone needs to look inward and focus its efforts at home, it’s Russia.

Another point about interests is who gets to decide what is in the best interests of the country? Who is the Kremlin to claim that intervention in Kosovo or the invasion of Iraq weren’t in the best interests of the US? Certainly American administrations apparently thought they were. Suppose for a moment the US agrees on a sphere of influence division of the world with Russia. Does that then make it right for the US to annex part or all of Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, or Canada? Would RT and Sputnik report on the annexation with dispassionate objectivity and remind the audience that these countries are, after all, in the American orbit? If the pro-Kremlin types object to such actions in America’s supposed national interests, they are simply hypocrites. If they would grant the United States such leeway, they are simply horrible, immoral people.

Now let’s tackle the matter of realpolitik and its alleged stability and predictability. Contrary to common belief, the Kremlin is far more inclined toward the Russian Empire rather than the Soviet Union, insofar as ideology even matters to a gang of thieves. Now looking at 19th and early 20th century geopolitics, what do we see in terms of predictability and stability? OH NO! GOD NO! WHAT IS THAT?! 

 

Yep, old-school realpolitik led to a bloody world war which would leave four empires, i.e. great powers, in ruins. Can you feel that stability? And as for predictability well, the catalyst was a Bosnian Serb shooting a couple of people.

100_2496

Sure, your .45 ACP’s got the stopping power to drop one target, but a few shots from one of these little babies killed 17 million people.

Now some may say that what Russia is really seeking is something akin to the post-Yalta, Cold War world, which is often portrayed as being more stable than what we have seen post-1989. At face value it might appear that the world has become a more unstable, dangerous place. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia certainly did lead to ethnic conflict and the proliferation of weapons that would find their way into the hands of insurgents around the globe. The problem is, however, that Cold War predictability and stability is largely a myth.

For one thing, people tend to have a really superficial understanding of the Cold War; they see it as a conflict between two superpowers, the United States on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. In reality it started that way but then rapidly became much more complicated. You had the US and its allies, you had the Soviet Union and its camp, then you had Red China, the non-aligned movement, you had Albania eventually declaring that every side could go eat a bag of dicks as far as it was concerned, and near the end you had the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which believed that after defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan it could go on to defeat the United States and its allies.

Just to give you an idea of how insane this period was, look at the conflict between the People’s Republic of Vietnam (Soviet-aligned) and Democratic Kampuchea (China-aligned, “democratic” results may vary considerably). Vietnam responded to Khmer Rouge incursions with an invasion that drove that organization from power. China wasn’t too happy with this and thus backed the Khmer Rouge, which by this point had reverted back to a guerrilla insurgent movement. China invaded Vietnam in 1979 and promptly got its ass kicked, mostly by home guard forces. Meanwhile, the US got interested in supporting the insurgency against the Vietnam-backed puppet government in Phnom Penh, leading to what I’ve once seen termed as “Vietnam’s Vietnam.” To this day, there are still credible allegations that US support via Thailand reached the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who were fighting against the Vietnamese and their allies in Cambodia. Simpler times, right?

If you’d like to see a more thorough debunking of Cold War stability I recommend watching this lecture, but for now we must move on. Ehrlich really shows his realist colors in this next passage:

“For example, the situation on the ground demonstrates that Crimea has, in fact, become part of Russia. Offering to officially recognize that fact is the most powerful bargaining chip the next president can play in future negotiations with Russia. Yet Clinton has castigated Trump for so much as putting the option on the table. For ideological reasons, she prefers to pretend that Crimea will someday be returned to Ukraine — even as Moscow builds a $4 billion bridge connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland.”

So recognition of the Crimean annexation is a “bargaining chip,” according to Ehrlich. Very well then, if we’re going to hand out parts of other countries without their consent, please tell us what we’re supposed to bargain for. This is the most irritating thing about these “realists.” They act like they’re all about finding common ground and negotiating and yet in the end it always ends up with one side giving Russia whatever it wants with no promise of anything in return. President Trump recognizes the Crimea as part of Russia and the Russians then…fill in the blank. Please.

They can’t even articulate what Russia’s supposed to concede to the West. I don’t blame them- what can Russia possibly offer? In their invasion of Ukraine they broke two international agreements, the Budapest Memorandum and the Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty. Hell we could throw in the Helsinki Accords just for good measure. So assuming we do the immoral thing and hand a piece of a country to another without so much as consulting that country, what do we get in return? Will they leave the Donbas and promise not to violate Ukrainian territorial integrity again? They already made that promise twice and look what happened. As an aside, do you see why I’m a bit skeptical of MGIMO’s international relations education?

I might also ask why he doesn’t apply the same logic the other way. Hillary’s supposedly being ideologically motivated into thinking that Crimea will one day be returned to Ukraine? Is the Kremlin not being ideologically motivated when they harbor the belief that Kosovo will some day be returned to Serbia? Quite hilariously, the Russian government used Kosovo’s independence to justify the Crimean annexation, which implicitly argues that both are not in accordance with international law. I wonder if whoever formulated that argument went to the prestigious MGIMO. In fact I wonder if MGIMO actually has a course in whataboutism.

But why should we stop at recognizing the Crimean annexation? Obviously Turkey is an important ally on both sides in the Syrian conflict. Perhaps it is time to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. After all, this state came into being because an actual coup put an actual right-wing junta in charge, which then overthrew the legitimate Cypriot government and threatened Turkish Cypriots. Sound familiar? Oh no wait, I forgot we’re only supposed to hand Russia everything the Kremlin wants on a silver platter. We’re not supposed to be consistent or anything. Besides, Russian businessmen love to hide money in government-controlled Cyprus and recognizing the TRNC might jeopardize that.

Moving on, we find a little confusion as to America’s best interests.

“Moscow believes that Crimea and other major points of bipolar tension will evaporate if America simply elects a leader who will pursue the nation’s best interest, from supporting Assad against the Islamic State to shrinking NATO by ejecting free riders. Russia respects Trump for taking these realist positions on his own initiative, even though they were not politically expedient.”

Here the author substitutes the Kremlin’s best interests for those of the United States. While the US government’s improvised, Mickey Mouse approach to Syria is by no means in America’s best interest, neither is supporting Assad, which is also not in Russia’s best interests. One thing that’s important to understand about pro-Kremlin Russians is that they don’t give a shit about what is in your country’s best interests. They’re not hoping that a future American government will bring paid maternity leave, raise the minimum wage, institute universal healthcare, or make higher education free or mostly-subsidized. If a US administration ever accomplished even half of that, the Kremlin propaganda machine would struggle to find more alienated Americans to put on the airwaves and tell their own people how terrible it is to live in America.

And on the topic of those NATO “free riders,” let’s get down to the truth about why Trump says pro-Russian talking points about NATO and the Crimea. Are you ready to hear the secret? He’s a fucking idiot, that’s why. Look at how he answers those questions about fulfilling our obligations to Baltic NATO members or recognizing the Crimea and you can clearly see this is a man who has never considered these issues struggling to come up with an answer. Beyond that, he says the “pro-Russian” answer because if he knows anything at all, he knows such answers sound “anti-establishment,” and that’s how he’s trying to portray himself.

When it comes to NATO “free-riders,” it’s helpful to keep a few things in mind. First, NATO’s Article 5 was actually triggered due to 9/11. In fact that’s the only time it’s ever been triggered. NATO allies could have played semantics and claimed that Al Qaeda wasn’t a state, but they didn’t. What is more, even smaller member states like Estonia and the Czech Republic have sent contingents to Afghanistan– Albania even sent a special forces unit that participated in combat alongside US forces. Many of these states know that they’re far from being top priority targets for Afghan-trained terrorists, yet they put themselves in harms way to fulfill their NATO obligations.

While it is true that prior to 2014 many NATO states were spending far less than the 2% of GDP encouraged by NATO leaders, this doesn’t mean the US was picking up the tab. In fact, the pre-2014, really pre-2015 situation was exactly what the Kremlin wanted. The US was rapidly decreasing its presence in Europe, countries weren’t spending 2% of their GDP on NATO-related defense, and Ukraine, Sweden, and Finland were officially neutral countries. Then something happened, and by 2015 the US is timidly moving combat-ready forces into Europe, Ukraine cancelled its non-bloc status after roughly eight months of war, and Sweden and Finland seriously contemplate joining NATO. Just more proof that the ultimate advocate for NATO expansion is in fact the ultimate neocon- Vladimir Putin.

Near the end of the article it seems that Ehrlich totally forgot he was pretending to just report the Russian POV and pretty much starts giving the talking points directly:

“Clinton also has financial ties to George Soros, whose Open Society Foundations are considered the foremost threat to Russia’s internal stability, based on their alleged involvement in Eastern Europe’s prior “Color Revolutions.”

Here’s a tip: If your foremost threat is George Soros and his NGO’s, you’re not a superpower, great power, or whatever. You’re a goddamned basketcase. What is more, this kind of negates all the Kremlin’s claims about a conventional threat from NATO. You can’t claim that NATO is going to invade your territory, and then when people point out ridiculous this is given NATO deployments, switch over to claiming they’re going to use protest movements to overthrow your government. Moreover, you can’t claim to be a superpower when you’re absolutely terrified of NGO’s, including those who have no ties to Soros and may not be involved with political causes.

Are you ready to see Ehrlich really slip up? Check this out:

“Russia’s security apparatus is certain that Soros aspires to overthrow Putin’s government using the same methods that felled President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine: covertly orchestrated mass protests concealing armed provocateurs. The Kremlin’s only question is whether Clinton is reckless enough to back those plans.”

On one part he is telling the truth- there are people in Russia’s security apparatus who believe that. But his explanation of Euromaidan displays a hilarious level of ignorance. Where could he have got such an idea that Euromaidan began with “covertly orchestrated mass protests concealing armed provocateurs?” Luckily he provides a link…to an ad for a book by wunderkind insta-expert Andrew Korybko. After a short time in Moscow, Korybko’s ability to regurgitate Kremlin and Eurasianist talking points as a Westerner has led to a meteoric rise in Kremlin-linked think tanks, where he’s now touted as an expert in “color revolutions.”

Obviously I don’t have time to read Korybko’s doorstop, which is offered for the low low price of $0.00,  but thankfully the description does provide a little detail on Korybko’s version of the events surrounding Euromaidan in Ukraine. Guess what sources he relies on. Interviews with Maidan participants and organizers? Leaked internal documents from the US government or NGOs? Nope. According to the description it was:

“In the case of EuroMaidan, Andrew cites Western news sources such as Newsweek magazine, the Guardian, and Reuters in reminding everyone that in the days immediately prior to the coup’s successful completion, Western Ukraine was in full-scale rebellion against the central government and the stage was set for an Unconventional Syrian-esque War in the heart of Eastern Europe. Had it not been for the sudden overthrow of President Yanukovich, the US was prepared to take the country down the path of the Syrian scenario, which would have been its second full-fledged application of Hybrid War.”

Whoa, hold on there, Andrew! Western mainstream news sources? I thought we couldn’t trust those! I guess we can when they appear to say what you want. In fairness to Korybko’s, several Western media outlets did erroneously report that Western Ukrainian cities were threatening to break away from the center near the end of Maidan. Here’s a story about it from The Guardian. The problem is that these were not in fact declarations of independence (comparable to the uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk), but rather local governments saying they would not carry out orders of a government they no longer saw as legitimate after things got out of hand and dozen of people had been killed. They were certainly not in “full-scale rebellion.” I myself have seen Ukrainians expressing utter puzzlement on seeing such reporting. And if you don’t believe that the Western media could get a story so wrong, just look at the map they provide in the article and tell me if you notice anything unusual:

ukrainemap

If it just had something about Bandera being a “controversial figure,” I’d have gotten “Western media failures in Ukraine coverage” bingo.

 

And do I really have to point out that Yanukovych wasn’t “overthrown” on 22 February, but rather he left on his own accord. Even if he had seriously feared for his life, it makes little sense that he ultimately fled to Russia instead of holding out in one of his strongholds like Donetsk or the Crimea.

While the “political analysts” and “geopolitical experts”haven’t managed to provide any concrete evidence of a planned coup in Ukraine since 2014, we do have hard evidence that the Yanukovych government financed the far right-wing Svoboda party to the tune of $200,000, with a smaller amount being earmarked for one of Ukraine’s oldest nationalist organizations the UNA-UNSO. That might sound shocking outside of Ukraine, but Ukrainians themselves have long suspected ties between Yanukovych and far-right nationalist organizations, which helped scare votes toward his Party of Regions. And when we consider that Maidan started over Yanukovych suspending the signing of an EU trade agreement that was his own project, the real culprit of the Maidan “coup” becomes clear. It was Yanukovych!

I’ve dealt with Korybko’s work in the past, but if you need any reason to question his expertise in “color revolutions,” take a look at his articles in response to last year’s Electro-Yerevan in Armenia. Basically people were upset about a large hike in electricity rates, and then later an initially brutal reaction to the protests by police. Naturally, pro-Kremlin pundits, expert Korybko included, rushed to declare the protest movement a US-backed Maidan-like color revolution, because the idea that people might willingly protest their government’s actions on their own is simply ridiculous…except Occupy Wall Street of course.

Actual protesters were offended by the Maidan comparisons, as they saw there movement as nothing of the sort, but that didn’t bother Korybko, who went right along calling it an attempted color revolution. Luckily for Armenia, the government responded rather competently and a settlement was arranged that saw the end of the protests. I guess the State Department agents and Soros must have forgot to keep paying those protesters or something. Later on Korybko has happily admitted this attempted color revolution failed, but he doesn’t seem to provide any good explanation as to why. It certainly isn’t because the Armenian government cracked down harder. As it turns out, Korybko also saw an attempted color revolution in Armenia once again, in this year. This ought to tell you how useful these “color revolution experts” really are. They use the flimsy, Texas Sharpshooter technique to “connect the dots” without ever actually providing any hard evidence of a true coup d’etat. If the “revolution” is successful, it turns out Soros and the State Department perfectly executed everything, just like Euromaidan. If it fizzles like in Armenia or Belarus, the authorities somehow managed to defeat the evil Western grandmasters. That Ehrlich would refer to this source and advance that claim is very telling.

The article ends on an awkward note in this paragraph:

“That fear was heightened when Clinton surrogate Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, recently accused Putin of attempting to rig the U.S. election through cyberattacks. That is a grave allegation — the very kind of thing a President Clinton might repeat to justify war with Russia.”

There have been numerous cyber-attack allegations against not only Russia, but China in the past decade or so. If the “neocons” didn’t go to war then, they won’t do it now. Once again, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people Ehrlich was talking to seriously believe this, but he makes no attempt to challenge or question it. This technique reminds me of that used by anti-Putin blogger Paul Goble, the favorite low-hanging fruit for the Western Putin fanboy. Goble says he’s just letting his source “speak for themselves,” but there’s no fact-checking, challenging, or questioning. It’s usually some obscure academic predicting immanent civil war or economic collapse for Russia.

As I said in the beginning, a recent Buzzfeed article gives us a little more information about the author, and it was indeed enlightening. From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like a familiar story:

“Ehrlich described an unusual path, laced with descriptions of grandeur, that brought him to Moscow. The son of one of California’s top lawyers, he dropped out of high school and did not go to college. Instead, he says, he landed an internship at the age of 16 at the Claremont Institute working on a project on missile defense.”

That sounds a bit suspicious at face value, but with a father who’s apparently a top California lawyer, it’s not entirely unbelievable.

But I think the real answer lies here:

“Through the years he’s been to Moscow several times, he says, but it’s all been self-funded and more in the pursuit of the women he’d come in contact with while attempting to practice his Russian. “I have multiple exes who are Russian and I came to Moscow in March [2015] to visit a girl. A lot of what you see on my Facebook is related to my search for a soulmate, not anything policy related,” he said by Facebook Messenger.”

Look, Clinton, if you just want to date Russian girls, that’s fine. I don’t see why you have to become a rabid supporter of the regime in the process. If you think that impresses Russian women I can see why you haven’t found that soulmate yet.

When I read something like this, I wonder what would happen if instead of Russia he’d gone to Ukraine instead. Maybe Mr. Erlich would be one of those Western Warriors for Ukraine, accusing everyone who disagrees with him of being a paid Russian troll, insisting that Bandera did nothing wrong, and explaining how we other Westerners who “don’t get” Ukraine should stop wagging our hypocritical fingers at Kyiv and appreciate how Ukraine died multiple times for our sins. In other words, he could have been this guy.

In any case this also helps explain why he seems to lack a lot of knowledge on Russian politics and culture. When you’re only talking to potential dates, these things don’t often come up. Most Russians actually hate talking about politics.

And of course like all realists, he insists that he’s not a Putin supporter:

“Ehrlich denies that he was prompted to write the piece by foreign ministry officials, listing several ways where he disagrees with the Russian government. “One argument in defense of Crimea is idea of self-determination, and I think both Moscow and Washington are hypocritical,” he said, pointing to Russia’s brutal quelling of Chechen independence and the US refusing to let the South secede during the Civil War.”

This is one of the weirdest comparisons I’ve ever seen. The United States government made the case that states did not have the right of secession, and while people have disputed this the case is not only pretty solid, but the United States was undeniably better off for preserving the Union. By contrast, Chechnya didn’t just declare independence- Yeltsin had told local leaders to “take as much sovereignty as you like.” Chechnya was not the only former-ASSR to take him up on that offer. The other, Tatarstan, eventually gave up on independence.

In any case, Clinton, if you’re reading this, be careful about bringing up Chechen independence in the future, because whereas America is home to a large number of openly neo-Confederate secessionists who are allowed to publish and disseminate their materials, in Russia public calls for independence or even more autonomy for regions is actually  a criminal offense.

When it comes to the accusation that Ehrlich is some kind of paid propagandist or “active measures” as the diligent “information warriors” love to call it, I’m sorry but my opinion is no. This is a much more mundane, familiar story. Young man feels alienated, down on his luck, goes to Russia and is suddenly the center of attention. These days if you’re willing to publicly regurgitate Kremlin talking points and spend time denigrating the US you will be handsomely rewarded. It can get you on TV or a position in some state-sponsored think tank. This generally doesn’t happen on the “other side.” Contrary to what some readers might think, I don’t have think tanks like Legatum or the Atlantic Council filling up my inbox and requesting articles or lectures. Ditto for those shadowy Soros NGOs. Western think tanks and NGOs value connections and more importantly, academic credentials, and besides that, I’m not exactly “on message.”

The Kremlin’s practice of handing out titles and positions like candy to any foreigner who will spread its message has had a lot of success. A lot of true believers who have come to Moscow in recent years don’t realize that all this talk about opposing intervention, global stability, or alternatives to globalization is nothing but bullshit to cover up the ugly truth- Russia is run by thieving parasites who want to hoard their wealth in the West and surround themselves with Western luxury without ever being held accountable to their people. Putin isn’t a James Bond villain with some personal ideology and a vision of an ideal world. He’s Hans Gruber from Die Hard, a thief who carries out his heist by posing as an ideologically-driven terrorist. You can’t negotiate with him because he’s got nothing to offer.

Ehrlich, at least thus far, isn’t really a malicious propagandist in my opinion. He just came in late in the film and doesn’t know the backstory as I alluded to above. If my experiences had been slightly different, if I hadn’t met certain people, you might see me hosting my own show on RT right now. I hope they’d pay me at least as much as they do Peter Lavelle.

Of course Ehrlich has his own statement about accusations that he is a propagandist:

“I think part of the problem is this idea of propaganda,” he said. “If I were Russian and I was taking positions that lined up with official positions of the US that would be propaganda in Russia. If I express my sincere convictions and that lines up with things Moscow believes, I’m a propagandist.”

I find that line about “sincere convictions” rather hypocritical after what he said about Maidan. See in the minds of people like his source Korybko, people involved in protests the Kremlin doesn’t like don’t have sincere convictions. They’re just being paid or drugged, yes drugged, by the US State Department. Rational people are supposed to tolerate their government being totally corrupt or hiking up fees. I have no doubt that Mr. Ehrlich sincerely believes what he’s saying, but I wish he’d extend the same courtesy to protesters in Ukraine or Russian opposition supporters.

And on that note, I’m very sorry but it doesn’t follow that someone taking positions that happen to line up with those of a government are engaging in propaganda. One very good argument against Russian involvement in Syria, for example, is that it is a colossal waste of money that will ultimately fail to benefit Russia. This isn’t a US government position; I’m not even sure the US government even knows what it wants in Syria. Yet expressing open opposition to the Kremlin’s activities in Russia, even on those grounds, is good enough to get you labeled a traitor or a supporter of terrorists.

The statement is also rather dishonest because as I pointed out before, in the Foreign Policy article it is implied that he’s only reporting what the Kremlin believes. Now he admits that his own “sincere convictions” line up with Moscow’s talking points? That does kind of make you a propagandist, if only an unwitting one.

I sincerely hope that Mr. Ehrlich will be a bit more skeptical towards his new friends, who are always happy to praise Western “dissidents” while declaring their own to be traitors and foreign agents. They’ll pay you, they’ll give you titles and instant credentials, and they’ll put you on the air. Hell, I myself have had two major networks trying to interview me just because I wrote about Western stereotypes about Russians. But what you need to understand is that you’ll never be one of them. These people don’t believe that dissent is healthy for a country. Your country is your team and you support it unquestioningly, at least in public. Otherwise you’re a traitor. You may be a useful traitor, but a traitor nonetheless, and such people have no respect for traitors.

UPDATE: A reader took a screen cap of Clinton Erlich’s Linkedin profile and there are some very unusual discrepancies. For example, he’s 26 now, so this means he would have been a “missile defense researcher” when he was about 16. Then he’s a “debate coach” for two years and a “national champion.” That sounds like a high school or college activity yet he claims he dropped out of high school and never went to college. Then he becomes the “senior fellow/director of post-Soviet studies at something called the Hegemonic Affairs Institute at the young age of about 18, again with no high school or college diploma. And what about the Hegemonic Affairs Institute? A Google research reveals nothing whatsoever. This is precisely why I’m convinced this guy isn’t some kind of Russian agent. An agent would have a much better cover story.

Clinton, if you’re reading this, give it up. Nobody’s buying. You can still chase your soulmate in Russia without being a Putin tool.

UPDATE: Russian security expert Mark Galeotti, who has actually taught at MGIMO, has apparently weighed in on this topic, delivering what by now can best be described as a coup de grace:

tweets

 

UPDATE: Clinton has contacted me and wanted to explain some of the discrepancies in his background. He was able to name past employers at the Claremont Institute and other places he claimed to work for (such as the internship regarding missile defense). He said that he was coaching the debate team at his former high school. As for the Hegemonic Affairs Institute, he says he founded it when 17 or 18 as a sort of “poor man’s version of the Council on Foreign Relations.” I did some checking and Hegemonic Affairs was registered as an LLC back in 2007, but unfortunately it has no website and I haven’t managed to find any published works from the institute. He also said that a rebuttal to Sam Harris’ moral theory, along with Harris’ response, can be found in the appendix of the print version of Harris’ book Lying.

Ehrlich explains that his position is in the faculty of international law at MGIMO and his research is in regards to the Status-6 torpedo. He insists that he is the only Westerner with the title of researcher at the institute, but also says he did not claim to be the only Westerner “embedded” there, and blames Buzzfeed for this misunderstanding. He also says that the story of how he ended up at MGIMO will be the subject of an upcoming NBC prime time news special, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Obviously questions may remain, but Clinton has made a sincere effort to try to clear things up. I’ve certainly encountered Westerners with stranger work histories in Moscow.

Anyway, I provided this update because I hope this will remove the focus from the person and put it back on the arguments themselves.

 

 

How Kremlin propaganda (doesn’t) work

Many readers no doubt remember the massive volcano of buttrage that erupted in Russia after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su24 that had allegedly violated Turkey’s airspace (this turned out to be highly specious). Almost immediately thereafter, Russia’s consumer watchdogs suddenly “discovered” contamination in Turkish chicken imports. Russia’s media made even more shocking “discoveries.” For example, they suddenly found out that the Turkish government had been collaborating with ISIS, something that had been well-known in many circles for at least a year, including December of 2014 when Putin visited Turkey and announced the construction of a new gas pipeline (which promptly fell flat). Barely a month after the shoot-down Sputnik News “discovered” that there were at least 100 Turkish mercenaries fighting on the Ukrainian side in the Donbas. Their source? The ever trustworthy “Donetsk People’s Republic” press secretary Basurin, whose word is apparently good enough for Sputnik.

Among the many passive-aggressive means used to get revenge on Turkey was a ban on package tours to the country. For those who don’t know, along with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Turkey has long been one of the most popular tourist destinations for Russians, so much so that one resort in Antalya actually as a mock-up of St. Basil’s Cathedral next to its swimming pool. In better times, such package tours were widely accessible. After a recent reconciliation of sorts between Russian fun-size dictator Putin and Turkish litigious dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the ban on package tours to Turkey was lifted.

Of course the Russian public wasn’t going to buy into this. They would not soon forget Turkey’s “stab in the back,” the latest in a series of slights and crimes dating back centuries. No, Russia’s public doesn’t trade national pride and patriotism for a cheap package tour. That’s why the bulk of Russia’s tourists chose to visit the Crimea instead…

Just kidding! Three days after the ban on Turkish package tours was been lifted, Russians made Turkey the number one Russian tourist destination.  Sales are reported to have started immediately after Putin approved the lifting of the ban. I’m sure the Turkish tourism industry is happy to take Russian money, but on the flip side it means they’ll once again have to deal with more of this:

If you don’t speak Russian, well, let’s just say the general tone of the conversation was not good.

Back to the topic at hand, I noticed some fellow writers on Twitter seemed a bit perplexed by the 180 on Turkey. One of them considered it a tribute to the Russian state media that it can apparently make people who previously loved Turkey hate it, then forgive it and fork over their money to the Turks by the wheelbarrow. While acknowledging that there is indeed a lesson about Russian media efficacy here, I must respectfully disagree. It’s not that the media manipulated Russians into thinking one way and then another, but rather Russians never fully bought into the anti-Turkish hate to begin with, or at least not enough to actually modify their behavior accordingly. That is to say that had there been no ban on Turkish package tours this whole time, Russian tourists would probably have continued to visit the country without any noticeable changes. This, in spite of what many of them might say about Turkey when asked about politics.

Supposedly a holdover from the Soviet era, many Russians have mastered the art of saying one thing and doing another. For example, you say you are a patriot and then use your state position to skim off wealth for yourself, which you then turn around and hand over to Western corporations or real estate agents. Or if you’re an ordinary person, it might mean cursing Turkey in public while taking your entire family there on a package tour. Personally I don’t buy into this being an exclusively Russian trait, but it’s just that some folks here seem to have refined it into an art form.

Another thing to consider is that when you see public outpourings of rage against a certain country or group, the participants are often paid and the event is organized by someone with ties to the state. If you’re reading Russian-language commentary on social media, there’s a chance you could be reading the words of a troll farm worker. You can certainly hear many of the media’s talking points regurgitated by people on the street, but it’s typically not as widespread as you might think it is if you were looking at the internet. The fact is that most Russians actually don’t care about politics at all. I doubt any were totally unfazed by the destruction of a Russian jet and the killing of one of its pilots, but few get upset enough to deny themselves one of the few pleasures left to many Russians today.

So when considering the role of the media in Russian society, while it certainly is true that propaganda shapes politics and public opinion, if the regime wants action from anybody it needs to pay. More importantly, one shouldn’t assume that Russians actually believe the kind of nonsense their TV puts out. If anything it’s the opposite- they don’t believe any media at all. Sometimes you’ll hear Russian media figures tacitly admit to making propaganda, but then they’ll say the “Western media” does it too. Only those Russians who can access that foreign media are able to dispute that. Overall, “you can’t really know what’s true” isn’t a great slogan to mobilize people to action, but it certainly works when you want to keep people confused, cynical, and generally non-trusting towards each other.

 

 

BREAKING: Batman fights drug dealers in Moscow suburb!

I don’t normally do breaking news here but what I have just learned is unprecedented. Prepare to witness the greatest thing in 21st century Russian history. This may very well be the salvation of Russia. Today he fights minor criminals on the streets. Tomorrow he may go after the criminals in the Kremlin. He is vengeance. He is the night. He is…BATMAN! 

No I’m serious. There’s a guy beating up drug dealers in the Moscow suburb of Khimki and he’s dressed as Batman. Here’s an excerpt from Meduza:

“Law enforcement officers told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that, earlier this month, a taxi driver in the Khimki area witnessed a man dressed as Batman exit a building that later proved to be a drug den. The taxi driver says the Batman threw some kind of fire bomb at the ground and then disappeared into the shadows (see the video below). Police officers soon arrived, entered the building, and soon walked out escorting two men in handcuffs.”

He even uses smoke bombs, as you can see in the video:

 

This is simply awesome. In fact, on this occasion it might be good to talk about Batman’s relations with Russia. First of all, Batman in Russia is approximated as Бэтмен, which would sound something like “betmen” in  English. This is interesting because the actual word for “bat” in Russian is летучая мышь (lyetuchaya mysh’), meaning literally “flying mouse.” Obviously they went with “Betmen” because it sounds better than saying “Flying Mouse Man” in Russian, whereas Spider-Man is known as Человек-паук (Chelovek pauk) or “Man spider.”

The prospects of a real Russian Batman are quite interesting indeed. After all, in the past few years the kind of crime once associated with Russia’s “Wild 90’s” has started to rear its ugly head once again. Not only that, Russia has a perfect rogue’s gallery of supervillains for Batman to battle on a regular basis. Here’s a few I just thought of off the top of my head:

Mr. Big: His nickname being a subtle joke about his tiny stature, Mr. Big is the head of the Kremlin Kriminal Krew (KKK). His skills in judo more than make up for his lack of social skills and generally bizarre demeanor. Over the years Mr. Big has become more and more disconnected from material reality, blaming all his problems on gremlins he calls “foreign agents.” Often unable to appear in public for unknown reasons, Mr. Big often prefers to speak through his press secretary Dmitry “The Mustache” Peskov.

The Joker: Originally a TV host named Dmitry  Kiselyov, working for Putin’s regime caused him to undergo a psychotic breakdown. Now he is obsessed with fighting what he calls an “information war,” and to that end every week he assaults Russia’s television audiences with lies so ridiculously hilarious they can actually cause rational people to laugh themselves to death.

The Rotenberg Gang: Two brothers, two partners in crime. Thanks to their relationship with the biggest crime boss in Russia, these two oligarchs are able to rob the whole country blind without jimmying open a single door or pulling a gun.

Mesmerizer: The secret alter-ego of ex-railroad magnate Vladimir Yakunin, the Mesmerizer can stun and totally disable people by lecturing them about convoluted Western conspiracies against Russia.

Ms. Two-Face: The Joker’s female sidekick with a passion for culinary arts and whataboutery. She runs Russia’s foreign language media empire with the help of her gang of ludicrously overpaid expats. Flips a coin to decide whether to claim her TV channel is “no different from Western networks” or “more objective than the mainstream media.” Her only weaknesses are accurate TV ratings reports and financial accountability.

The Worst Person in the World: Born Pavel Astakhov, The Worst Person in the World AKA Captain Cocksplat defends domestic abusers, condemns disabled orphans to woefully underfunded facilities rife with abuse and exploitation, and defends polygamous marriage of teenage girls to middle-aged men.

The Mountain Wolf: The only man in Russia that strikes fear into the heart of Mr. Big. So much fear, in fact, that Mr. Big routinely pays the Wolf millions of dollars from the state budget. The Mountain Wolf is a flamboyant villain, sporting gold-plated pistols, flashy cars, and an incredibly expensive cat.

Gummy Bear: By day he’s mild mannered Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. By night he…sleeps. Sometimes he plays badminton. He likes his iPhone.

As you can clearly see just from this preliminary brainstorming session, Russian Batman will have his hands full with these and dozens of other villains who belong in Arkham Asylum, or failing that, the bottom of an abandoned mine somewhere near Vorkuta.

I’m sorry but I just can’t go on writing anymore- this is simply too awesome.

Russian Batman. He’s the hero Russia needs.

 

 

Bullshit kills

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was one of the most important events in modern Chinese history. The rebellion pitted a secret organization known as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists against Western and Japanese colonists who had been gradually forcing more and more concessions out of the ruling Manchu Qing dynasty. As the name of the secret society implies, members practiced traditional martial arts and thus Western observers labeled them the “boxers.”

One naturally wonders why so many young men would be attracted to a movement which planned to take on the most advanced arms of the day with traditional, often hand-to-hand modes of combat. The answer, as it so happens, lies in belief. The boxers were told that once they rebelled against the foreign devils, they would be joined by millions of spirit warriors from heaven. Yeah, just like in LOTR: Return of the King. More than that, they were taught that through diet, rituals, and martial arts practice, they would be invincible to the modern weapons of the Westerners and Japanese. One reported recruitment method involved a boxer teacher firing a musket loaded with a blank at one of his pupils. The audience of ignorant peasants would be awed by the pupil’s miraculous ability to withstand bullets. Sadly for those who bought into that little demo, the Germans, Austrians, Russians, Americans, Italians, French, British, and Japanese all elected to use live ammunition as opposed to blanks, and the results were predictable.

The moral of the story? Bullshit kills. Yeah sure, sometimes it’s just harmless wishful thinking, but there are times when the failure to think critically has real, concrete, and sometimes lethal consequences. Take the various conspiracy theories and misconceptions related to the HIV virus and AIDS. AIDS has ravaged many populations in Africa, for example, largely due to a lack of education and understanding about the disease. Determined not to be shown up by Africa, Russian “experts” have concocted their own way to exacerbate Russia’s long-standing problem with HIV.

A group of Kremlin-backed think tank wonks have recently declared that the HIV epidemic in Russia is part of…get ready for it…the information war against Russia! Yup, everything is an information attack nowadays, even the indisputable fact that Russia has had and still has a serious problem with HIV. Oh yes, let me deliver you the highlights…

“She defined the Western method of fighting HIV as made of “neoliberal ideological content, insensitivity towards national sensitivities and over-focus of certain at-risk groups such as drug addicts and LGBT people,” Kommersant reported.”

Does this moron even know what the word “neoliberal” is supposed to mean? How is medical knowledge based on years of study “insensitive” towards national sensitivities? Sounds like political correctness to me! And what kind of utter cretin would state that the best way to fight a disease is to ignore the most at-risk groups? It’s not like Russians deny these groups are at risk for HIV.

“The Russian model “takes into account the cultural, historical, and psychological characteristics of the Russian population, and is based on a conservative ideology and traditional values,” Guzenkova said.”

Gee, thanks for admitting from the get-go that your approach has an ideological basis and isn’t rooted in objective science.

“Study co-author Igor Beloborodov claimed that condoms were one of the factors causing the spread of the disease.

“The contraceptive industry is interested in selling their products and encouraging under-aged people to engage in sex,” he said.”

There it is, folks- the killing bullshit. The same kind of nonsense the Catholic church preaches to Africa and Latin America with disastrous results. Condoms don’t encourage under-age people, or anyone for that matter, to engage in sex. People engage in sex; it’s what they do. They’ve been doing it for a while now, and chances are in that time period when you think everyone was so prudish and upright they were actually engaged in acts dirtier than you can imagine. Condoms encourage responsibility.

This might be a good time to have a look at the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed world. Russia has steadily refused to teach sex education on the grounds that it will encourage teenagers to have sex (because there’s absolutely no way to find out about sex in a country where many people live in small quarters with thin walls). Naturally this plus Russia’s “strong traditional values” must surely mean that teen pregnancy in Russia is pretty low. Oh…waaaaait…noooo. In fact, as of 2014, 40% of girls in Russia lose their virginity by 15, one year before the age of consent. Must be another information attack!

So what is the secret of the conservative, national, patriotic, spiritual, Russian soul-filled solution to the HIV epidemic?

“Beloborodov said that the best form of protection against HIV was to “be in a heterosexual family where both partners are loyal to each other.”

Well let’s see, the first part of that solution might be problematic for people who are say, gay, or perhaps people who live in locales where there is an obvious lack of quality mates. As for the part about loyalty I’m sorry, what country do you live in? There’s a reason why Russian women have to specify “no married men” on their dating site profiles. And I can also tell you that plenty of ladies in this country are getting side action as well. I strongly suspect that Russia isn’t far removed from many other European countries in this respect, but the point is that it’s hardly the land of marital bliss and unshakable monogamy.

Just once I’d like to see Mr. Beloborodov have the balls to go on Russian TV and try to convince Russians, both male and female, to abstain from all sex until marriage. See that shit will play in the US where you have fundamentalist Christians who believe that faith entails a little more than wearing a cross around your neck, but it’s not going to fly here. Heterosexual family? No condoms? How will the Russian ruling class maintain their sanity if they don’t have their mistresses and call girls?

All joking aside, this kind of shit drives me up the wall because these hypocrites and dilettantes claim to represent Russia, to speak for Russia, and of course they are always “patriots.” Meanwhile they are engaging in activities which literally harm and in this case, potentially kill Russian citizens. Sex, underage or otherwise, will not increase in Russia just because schools start teaching kids about the risks and how to protect themselves. We have plenty of data from the US and various European countries to prove this. By contrast, the promotion of pseudoscience and the unwillingness to talk about the problem openly literally kills people. How do you call yourself a patriot while you not only lie to your own people, but your lies actually physically harm them, and what is more you get funding from wealth that ought to belong to them? Hell, the outrage doesn’t even stop there, because if any Russians get upset about these dipshits killing their fellow citizens, they’ll be branded traitors and agents of the State Department.

This particular story took place in Russia, but don’t think for a second that your country is safe from bullshit. The anti-vaccine movement in the US has led to a reemergence of diseases that had been all but eradicated decades ago. Pseudo-history helps sustain and legitimize far right movements not only in Russia or Ukraine, but also Croatia, Serbia, Poland, and many other countries. Donald Trump is now a serious contender, if not a favorite, for the White House, largely because of the boundless proliferation of paranoid, conspiratorial bullshit.

In many cases our hardwired mental biases, the product of millions of years of evolution, no longer serve us in the modern world and in many cases work against us. Now we can suggest a new evolutionary imperative- learn to think critically or die. In the modern world, bullshit kills, and if we don’t adapt it could one day end up killing off our entire species.

 

THIS IS WHAT THEY ACTUALLY BELIEVE

Well here’s a big shock- Russia’s most prestigious Sunday news program just ran a completely fabricated story, using hilariously bad fake documents as “proof.” In this case, phony leaked “CIA” documents are supposed to show a conversation between businessman Bill Browder and Alexei Navalny, wherein in the former personally asks the latter to organize some kind of color revolution and undermine the Russian government.

As the reader has no doubt guessed, the English text, supposedly written by CIA employees, contains numerous mistakes in grammar and syntax, leading some to suggest that it was most likely done with Google translate and then checked by a non-native speaker of English. In my cursory examination I found stylistic features consistent with the writing of a Russian native speaker, which are all easy to spot when you spend years proofreading all manner of Russian-to-English translations. And as you might have guessed, Navalny hasn’t been arrested for treason.

But do I really need to point any of that out? Do I really need to debunk any of this story? If you were reading the autobiography of a man claiming to be a trained ninja who got 300 confirmed kills in Afghanistan and saved earth from an ancient demon that had been awakened by an evil sorcerer, would you feel the need to pick out all the inconsistencies in the man’s story or would you just dismiss it off hand? Sure, sometimes it can be fun to point out errors in fake news stories just as it can be fun to do so with a really awful film. Then again, sometimes it isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s work. Therefore when I saw this story, I figured there was another angle I should cover. I want to tell you the real reason they did this story- it’s their answer to the Panama Papers leak.

“Now wait just a darn minute,” you say, talking like a character in a 1940’s anti-Communist propaganda film. “How can you compare this nonsensical made up story to the Panama Papers, a massive leak of documents that took dozens of journalists from many different countries over a year to investigate?” Well dear reader, look at the timing. It’s Kiselyov’s first Sunday program since the leak. It’s about a leak as well.

“Well alright but hold on one minute there,” you say, still in your 1940’s voice. “You may be right about the timing and the subjects are similar, but as I said before, the Panama Papers were part of a major international investigation and this story seems like they just pulled it out of their ass!” Ah but that’s just it, dear reader. To them there is no difference.

Obviously there are people working throughout the Russian state media and the state itself who are fully aware that they produce bullshit. Same goes for the audience. But in all those groups you have people who actually believe in this “information war” idiocy, and to them there’s no difference between the Panama Papers and their made-up, bullshit story about Browder and Navalny. Let me make something clear- it’s not that these people believe that their story is real. They know it’s bullshit. The thing is that they think the Panama Papers are also bullshit that someone just pulled out of their ass, and this justifies them making up their own stories.

One has to realize that none of the people who work in the Russian media have ever really lived under a free press. The Tsarist press was controlled and censored. We all know the Soviet press was. The 90’s Russian press was largely controlled by various oligarchs and there were no journalistic standards. As such, much of the Russian media, including foreign language outlets like RT, is now run by favored bureaucrats who don’t understand anything about journalism. They look at the rest of the world’s media and try to emulate what they think it is. The problem is that they also tell themselves that it’s really the same as their own media, and they’re waging information warfare against Russia- ergo their own media must answer back in kind.

I remember one writer used the term “cargo cult” to refer to RT and the rest of the Russian state media. This is very apt. Like a real cargo cult, they watch something they don’t understand (free press in other countries), and then emulate them without actually understand what they’re doing. The original cargo cults believed that the US and Japanese military personnel they observed were engaged in strange and elaborate rituals which brought favors from flying gods. When it comes to the Russian media it seems at times they literally believe that some Western journalists can just get together and cook up a story about Putin’s friends and offshore accounts with no actual investigation or evidence, and their bosses will sign off on the story with no questions. Either that, or they think CIA agents order these journalists, many of whom work for private corporations, to publish mean things about the Dear Leader. They do this, and nothing happens and nobody comes out and exposes it.

So the next time there’s a major story that’s got the Russian media in hysterics, keep it in mind. If you see a really hilarious or outlandish fake story in the major Russian media shortly thereafter, it’s probably their “answer.” In their mind, the other story was made up, so they can make up their own story. They tell themselves this and dissent is apparently not tolerated, otherwise we should have seen an improvement in their propaganda techniques over the past two years instead of a very noticeable decline. In 2014 they said Russia had weaponized information, but that weapon is starting to look really rusty now.

“Information attacks”

Lately Kremlin spokespeople and supporters have been hysterically screaming about impending “information attacks” that are being prepared by the evil Western media against the Glorious Leader Vladimir Putin. Whereas in the past they used to wait for negative stories to break, now they are denying them in advance. In fact they’re not even really denying them. They’ve got to a point where you just point your finger and say something like “State Department” and that’s enough for the domestic audience.

Apart from this shift to preemptive denial, none of this is particularly surprising behavior coming from the Kremlin. Their media machine literally does cook up phony stories about other countries and governments, and in their cargo cult-like mentality they assume they’re just doing what the “Western media” does. Of course this isn’t how it works in reality. When “Western media,” AKA any media outlet that fails to report the Kremlin’s version of events, actually gets something incorrect about Russia, it’s almost always due to flaws inherent in the system. Journalists or correspondents with little experience in the country, using the wrong fixers, etc. Occasionally you get a journalist or reporter with a strong confirmation bias who will take as gospel the words of any random opposition intellectual, no matter how sensational. But as I’ve said plenty of times, if you pitch a story to an editor, can’t explain or corroborate your sources, and your only defense is “Hey this makes Russia look bad and we are in an information war,” you’re going to be out of a job very quickly.

Long time followers have no doubt noticed that whenever the Kremlin supporters accuse others of doing something, they are the ones actually or most actively doing it. This is due to what seems to be their system of justification, whereby they tell themselves and one another that “The West does X. Everyone’s doing X. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do X?” Once everyone has agreed that this is the case in a process that apparently involves no dissent or devil’s advocacy, they go and do X, whether the other side does it or not. If you want to see a perfect example of this phenomenon when it comes to “information attacks,” look no further than the Russian media’s repeated smear campaigns against European countries, where they constantly inform their audience that Europe is not only full of gays and radical Muslim hordes, but also organized pedophiles.

Imagine the Russian reaction if the Western media ever responded in kind? Pedophiles supposedly organizing political parties in Europe (they didn’t, read the story in the link above)? What could you say about a country run by a guy who does this in public:

presidentchomo

DID YOU KNOW? Putin’s limousine has no windows and the words “FREE CANDY” in Russian are painted on the sides. 

Of course such a smear campaign wouldn’t be tolerated by any respectable media anywhere in the world. This simply isn’t the business they’re in. But if you’re a producer in the Russian media, it’s perfectly acceptable to smear Western countries as havens for organized pedophiles.

This topic really strikes a nerve with me because I’ve actually had a run-in with a Russian media employee who was involved in airing one of these sick smear stories. When I read the script and told her I couldn’t accept the job, she just disappeared, almost as though  she knew exactly why. She knew, and she still works there.

The background narrative behind all these stories is, as many readers already know, the juxtaposition between the “degenerate, amoral” West and Russia, the last bastion of true Christian values. Since few Russians actually go to church or make any effort to study their faith, we can forgive them for never reading such Bible commandments as “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” And what else can one call it when a nation’s media deliberately lies about such an inflammatory topic?

Yet whether it’s claiming the West is a paradise for pedophiles (ask Jared from Subway about that) or tall tales of Ukrainian Nazis crucifying little kids (presumably before their European masters can molest them), the Kremlin-owned media continues to manufacture bullshit while accusing the rest of the world’s media of launching “information attacks” against them. If that seems shocking to you in any way, you must be new here. Welcome to Russian politics.

BREAKING NEWS! Someone compares contemporary Russia to a non-Russian historical precedent!

I’m quite certain I’ve said this before at some point, but one of the most irritating cliches when it comes to Russia coverage is the unspoken rule that modern Russia can only be understood through its own history. We get inundated with articles debating whether Putin is a new Tsar and if so, which one. Is he Andropov? Is he like Brezhnev? Is Kadyrov following in the footsteps of Ivan the Terrible, or could he be a new Stalin-like figure on account of his Caucasian heritage? Is Russia’s current economic situation reminiscent of the 90’s, Perestroika, or the Brezhnev stagnation?

The same rule applies to potential solutions.  Russia needs a Peter the Great to re-open relations with the West! Who will be the “Gorbachev” that re-introduces “democracy” to Russia? And so forth. In fact, the rule is often adhered to not only by Western observers, but also pro-Kremlin people as well. After all, Russian chauvinists shudder at the idea that their country, so unique, esoteric, and utterly mysterious, could ever be compared to another nation at any point in history.

Well guess what- someone actually ventured to break the cycle, and how! In this article, Sumantra Maitra dares to compare Putin to Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor of India. You may disagree with the analysis, but they deserve credit for daring to suggest that no, Russia is not so ridiculously unique that we can’t find better explanations by looking at other historical precedents in other countries. Personally I’ve always found Putin to be more of a Mobutu than a Russian Tsar or Soviet premier.

Sometimes I wonder how people would react if we applied this rule to other countries, specifically Western European nations, the UK, or the United States. You say Trump is like Hitler or Mussolini? Preposterous! Go find an American analog. Off the top of my head I’d say George Lincoln Rockwell, assuming you’re married to the whole Nazi comparison. Comparison that liken the American experience in Afghanistan to the Soviet one? Impossible! You must choose something American, like the Seminole Wars. It doesn’t matter how different these situations actually are, all analysis of American politics must be based on American history and no other country is comparable!

I hope I’m not a lone voice suggesting that firstly, not all analysis of Russia should be based on finding alleged parallels in Russian history, and secondly, comparisons should be based on what really fits, not what happens to be the closest historical parallel in Russia’s history. Some might claim that since the Kremlin leadership seems to have a similar worldview, whereby history is used to explain every action, it makes sense to use the same technique. That’s credible for sure, but to be fair the historical knowledge of Putin, Lavrov, and other assorted Kremlin cronies is horribly incomplete. They focus on “Russian” victories of the past while ignoring the key defeats, and especially the reasons for those defeats. If observers do the same, I think there’s a danger that their analysis will inevitably suffer as the whole practice starts to resemble a trivia contest.

So just a humble suggestion- maybe it’s time for some journalists and analysts to follow in the footsteps of Maitra and expand their horizons, looking for parallels outside the narrow focus of Russian history.