Media

Winning and Losing

Looking at some recent media opinion on the Ukraine conflict it’s easy to discern a number of tendencies, one or two of which coincide while others are beginning to diverge in a pattern that to some extent mirrors the divisions and differences currently being played out on the international scene. By examining this pattern it may be possible to obtain some idea of where Western policy on the crisis really lies: after all, the policy of national governments is not usually produced in a vacuum and often comes into being as a fusion of official discussion, “think tanks”, and public media debate.

In the National Interest, Steven Pifer sees the crux of the present standoff in Russia’s denial of involvement in the conflict, a denial for which he seeks the reason. It may, he suggests, have its roots in the anxious desire of the Kremlin authorities to conceal from the Russian public the steadily rising level of Russian casualties:

If Mr. Putin continues or deepens his military involvement in Ukraine, and the casualties mount, what will that do to the support that his Ukraine policy has enjoyed from the Russian public? And could the potential erosion of public support finally lead him to a different course?

Here the outlined position is fairly clear: the West should wait and see if tensions caused by issues of domestic public opinion may bring Russia’s leadership to soften or modify its stance. On the other hand, it might be wondered whether a U-turn of this kind can really be expected from a Kremlin that is prepared to turn a blind eye to the downing of a civilian airliner, or convinced that the humiliation of Ukrainian prisoners of war on the streets of Donetsk does not represent a violation of human rights.

For Anatol Lieven, writing in the New York Times, the matter is simple and straightforward: in view of the fact that the Kremlin will not allow the Donbass separatists to be crushed, the West must take realistic steps:

The choice today is not between a united Ukraine fully in the Western camp, or a Ukraine which has lost part of its territory to Russia. As recent military developments have demonstrated, the first outcome is simply not going to happen. The choice is between a Ukraine with an autonomous Donbass region, along with a real chance of developing the country’s democracy and economy in a Western direction, or a Ukraine which will be mired in a half-frozen conflict that will undermine all hopes of progress. The way out of this disaster is obvious — if only Western governments have the statesmanship and courage to take it.

This is essentially an argument for appeasement, which the author makes little or no attempt to conceal. Meanwhile, in  another NYT opinion article, Ben Judah puts the West’s dilemma in a slightly different light: Russia and Ukraine are now at war and Putin, he tells us, has presented the West with “two dire choices”:

Either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of “frozen conflict.”

While Judah’s sympathies undoubtedly lie more with Ukraine than with Russia, his real concern is apparently to confront Western Europe and America with the nightmare scenario of what he believes will happen if both elements of the choice turn out to be disastrous. Since arming Ukraine will be only a part of the solution – the arming will have to be backed up by the dispatch of American and British special forces, and even by a readiness “to deploy NATO troops if Russian tanks roll toward Crimea” to secure the building of a land bridge to the mainland – there is much doubt as to whether the West will be prepared to take this route. The alternative, then, is to make Ukraine surrender:

But we must not let thousands of Ukrainians die because we dithered. We must be honest with them if we are not willing to fight a new Cold War with Russia over Ukrainians’ independence. But if we force Ukraine to surrender, rather than sacrifice lives in a fight for which we have no stomach, then we must accept that it is a surrender, too, for NATO, for Europe and liberal democracy, and for American global leadership. That is the choice before us.

In response to this it might be argued that to put the matter in such stark and apocalyptic terms is an unproductive oversimplification: after all, the resolution of the present conflict is, by its very nature, bound to involve a number of factors that cannot be predicted with any certainty right now. There is also some confusion in Judah’s use here of the term “Cold War” – given the context of the article, it seems more probable that the author really means “hot war”, but for some reason holds back from this. The real intention of the piece appears to be to cast the West as weak, indecisive and hypocritical.

Another recent article on the Ukraine crisis in which the West appears in an unflattering light is Keith Gessen’s report in the London Review of Books on a visit to Donetsk. This is a lively, autobiographical piece which seeks to portray the human reality of South Eastern Ukraine in closeup, including interviews with members of the anti-Maidan movement and the armed Moscow-backed  insurgency. The general drift of the article is to demonstrate that “these are people, too”; that however misguided their views and actions, they deserve a public hearing. Admirable and vivid though the character portrayal and description are (“But among the young professionals I also met a journalist from Lviv. She wasn’t just dressed better than anyone in Donetsk, she was dressed differently, as if on a civilisational level. She looked like she was from France.”), the reader may be somewhat taken aback at Gessen’s  summary of what he claims to have been told by “respectable people in Kiev” in response to the armed separatist threat:

Wouldn’t it be a better long-term solution just to kill as many as you could and scare the shit out of the rest of them, for ever? This is what I heard from respectable people in Kiev. Not from the nationalists, but from liberals, from professionals and journalists. All the bad people were in one place – why not kill them all?

At best, this seems like selective reporting – at worst, like a not too sophisticated attempt to blacken the name of all the Ukrainian people who support the Maidan and are trying to save their country.

By contrast, Timothy Snyder takes a passionately supportive view of Ukraine’s democratic independence movement. In Politico he perceives the origins of Putin’s foreign policy in a twentieth century English novel:

In Orwell’s 1984, one of the world powers is called Eurasia. Interestingly enough, Eurasia is the name of Russia’s major foreign policy doctrine. In Orwell’s dystopia, Eurasia is a repressive, warmongering state that “comprises the whole of the northern part of the European and Asiatic land-mass, from Portugal to the Bering Strait.” In Russian foreign policy, Eurasia is a plan for the integration of all the lands from—you guessed it—Portugal to the Bering Strait. Orwell’s Eurasia practices “neo-Bolshevism”; Russia’s leading Eurasian theorist once called himself a “national Bolshevik.” This man, the influential Alexander Dugin, has long advocated that the Ukrainian state be destroyed, and has very recently proposed that Russia exterminate Ukrainians.

Of all the articles reviewed here, Snyder’s is perhaps both the most succinct and the most receptive to what Ukraine’s Maidan movement is trying to achieve:  above all, to break away from ways of perceiving the world that amount to “doublethink” and are characterized by the output of the Moscow propaganda machine, which simultaneously presents Ukraine as a “repressive state” and as a “state that does not exist”.

Perhaps the most puzzling recent article on the topic is one by Edward Lucas. Although a large part of it is devoted to a dissection and analysis of what the author calls “Russian revisionism” –new rules of international security that Russia is trying to impose on the rest of the world – its title is “Russia Is Winning”, a sentence that recurs in the body of the piece. The author’s vehement insistence that in spite of its obvious failure to persuade the world community of even a small part of its blustering claims  Russia is stronger and tougher than the West, tends to make the rest of the article seems somehow irrelevant: the lengthy and detailed suggestions on how to bolster Western security and the security of the Baltic States, the calls for the rebooting of NATO , the attack on the ‘Snowdenistas’ are like the a suddenly  deflated balloon when the reader is told that

Russia is an integrated part of the world economy and of international decision-making on everything from space to sub-sea minerals. It cannot be simply isolated and ignored. But that does not mean that we cannot raise the cost of doing business for the Putin regime.

If isolating Russia is too difficult to achieve, and the West must “do business” with Moscow, albeit at an increased price, it’s hard to see how the rest of the author’s prescriptions can be fulfilled. One has the sense of a deep anger behind the extended paragraphs, and an intimation if not of despair, then of resignation. Since Russia is winning, the article seems to say, then the West will have to make the best of a bad job – the proposed measures are needed, but because of the West’s weakness of will and the “withering of transatlantic ties” many of them will not be implemented, and the West itself will ultimately suffer defeat.  It reads like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and its pessimism is not calculated to help and support either Ukraine or the West itself.

Perhaps this is a misreading, and I hope that is so – but I can only give my personal reaction.

The Interpreter vs. RT

The Interpreter‘s James Miller, on RT’s sudden interest in his magazine:

It is curious…that The Interpreter – a magazine which is barely a year old (RT was established in 2005), has an extremely small staff (RT has over 2,000 staffers), and runs on a tight budget… — should increasingly come under attack by some of the network’s staff members and television guests.

Voices of Ukraine

Daniella Peled of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) has interviewed the English-language editor of Voice of Ukraine, a volunteer-run translation project that is proving to be a vital resource in the Ukraine crisis, providing cross-checked reports and in-depth analysis:

It started in early December 2013 as a social network project when Euromaidan SOS put out a call to translate a text for the OSCE, and the Euro-Maidan As It Is Facebook page was created by one founder to post such texts to, and very soon after a MaidanNeedsTranslators Facebook page was started by the other founder in Ukraine as a companion, so translators could take on articles posted there for translation.

At the beginning, there were two or three people working on the project. Now there is a core group of 15 coordinators and editors, with between eight and 11 doing most of the daily work. Beyond this core are many translators who are not coordinators but who put in a lot of time translating on a regular basis.

Russia Today and Britain’s Far Right

In Searchlight on April 16, Gerry Gable noted that

A film crew from Russia’s RT Documentaries TV channel is coming to London on 19 April. Headed by producer Eldar Kazakov, they plan to interview representatives of as many far-right groups as possible for a long programme.

They approached Searchlight as they hoped we could give them contact details for some of these groups.

The article also mentions groups that RT don’t want to take part in the programme – these include the Traditional Britain Group and the Iona London Forum, which apparently have links with Vladimir Putin’s propagandist Alexander Dugin. As Gable observed:

Dugin is a close friend of Putin. I suggested Kazakov investigate Iona’s links not only with Dugin but with extreme right groups in Russia, Syria and Ukraine. Such a programme would be far more relevant than the one he was planning.

Putin has cultivated European extreme-right organisations and even invited their representatives to observe last month’s illegal referendum in Crimea.

The Russia Watchers

kremlin

When I started this blog almost ten years ago, I had no earlier experience of blogging: in those days not that many people did. My original plan was to present a kind of informal diary, a conversational, subjective and honest appraisal of current affairs in Britain, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. I’m embarrassed to read some of my early posts – among other things, they show how hard it was for me to establish a political compass-bearing in the post-9/11 debate about terror, Islamism, U.S.-Russia relations and European security. Yet some of the conflicts I discussed  – the clash, for example, between the views of the anti-jihadist historians Spencer and Pipes and those of Western onlookers concerned about Russia’s abuse of human rights in Chechnya  – are still actual today, and have if anything increased their topicality.

Ten years ago my blog was a collection of the thoughts of a 59-year-old observer of current affairs with an academic training in Russian language, history and literature who also worked in the field of literary translation from Russian and the Nordic languages, including Finnish. My experience of travel in Russia and Eastern Europe, my visits to Estonia during the 1990s and my contacts with members of Estonia’s Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit), as well as with literary figures there, gave me  – I thought –  a way into the discussion about the future of Europe. In particular, I was concerned with the question of Russia’s role vis-à-vis Europe , of whether Russia would finally make the transition to  formal de-Sovietization  and European-style democracy that many hoped for, or whether it would remain tied to its Soviet past –  superficially modern, but inwardly hidebound and backward-looking.  

I soon discovered that airing views on Russia-related topics, even on a tiny, low-traffic blog, was not without its hazards – the presence of a large and seemingly well-organized pro-Kremlin lobby  was conspicuous on the Web even back in 2004. The voicing of any criticism of Russia’s foreign policy, however mild, tended to attract hostile comments in the boxes, and at times these became intolerably shrill. From my earlier participation on several Internet forums, I was familiar with these attacks , which were nearly always destructive and ad hominem. A particular animus seemed to exist among Russian-speaking posters with a commitment to the new version of Balkan – especially Serbian – nationalism. But I soldiered on, tending to post less and less of my own personal thoughts, and more and more of news items and op-ed commentaries gathered from both Western and Russian-language media. To guard against hacker attacks, I backed up the original Blogger blog with a facsimile version on WordPress. I covered the Beslan school hostage crisis of September 2004 as well as the Ukraine crisis and Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, and later followed this up with translations of related Russian-language documentary material and interviews. However, in late 2005 I began to translate articles for the Prague Watchdog website, which monitored the human rights situation in Chechnya, and in 2007 I started to work with PW more or less full time, as an editor and translator in the site’s English-language section. This meant I had less time to devote to the blog, and in fact it’s only recently that I’ve been able to give it some proper attention again.

What I’ve discovered, looking round at the English-language Russia-watching blogosphere in 2014, is that in many respects the spectrum of opinion and analysis has hardened to an extent that was probably not the case even five years ago. The more reflective, wide-ranging blogs, like Siberian LightScraps of Moscow  and Neeka’s Backlog, seem to have changed their character,  becoming either more personal or less frequently updated, while  polemical blogs, like La Russophobe (Dying Russia) and Da Russophile, have become more strident and prominent. There are some more recent blogs like Catherine Fitzpatrick’s Minding Russia, which break away from the polarized Russia debate and strike out into new territory, looking beyond the surface of Russian life. Above all, however,  there appears to have been a huge increase in the amount of academic blogging, with numerous U.S. college professors and Russian studies “experts” – a relatively new phenomenon, this –  dominating the landscape. While some of these academic blogs are long-established – Sean’s Russia Blog is an example, providing useful, if somewhat cautious background to the  news – others have materialized only in the last few years. The global affairs analyst Mark Galeotti writes a blog called In Moscow’s Shadows about crime and security in Russia. In addition to several titles mainly  concerned with crime, security and the Russian military, Galeotti  has also written a book about  the Chechen wars of 1994-2009 – yet in his posts on North Caucasus-related events like the recent Volgograd bombings he tends to take an almost ahistorical view, concentrating on issues of tactics and security, as well as on the Kremlin’s ongoing narrative, rather than on the roots of the crisis. 

Among the academic bloggers there’s a tendency to take that Kremlin narrative at face value as the expression of policies that  don’t differ essentially from those of other governments in the world. The peculiar and unique nature of Russian governance – its connection with irrational, spontaneous forces that lie just under the surface of an apparently normal exterior – does not feature in their analyses. Although they perceive the networks of corruption and manipulation that drive the political process, they do not stop to unravel them in the context of the Russian past. For a group blog like Global Voices Online, Russia is just one more region of the world to be considered like any other – and in fact it is treated more or less in isolation from the rest of the world, in a periodic collection of posts about “RuNet” – the Russian Internet which, again following the Kremlin narrative, is assumed to exist separately from the Internet that functions in the rest of the globe. Whether this inclination to follow, if not the bias, then the structure of Russian official thinking is caused by a reluctance to offend the authorities and a desire to retain visiting rights to the Russian Federation, one can only speculate.

What is lacking in the blogosphere’s coverage of Russia is an all-round picture that includes not only the issues of government, society, security,  business and crime, but also the historical and cultural background, a knowledge of which instantly renders the country and its leaders less opaque. While there are some excellent blogs on Russian literature – Sarah J. Young’s is an example – there appear to be very few that link that literature to an understanding of current events in Russia.  Though not a blog, Radio Liberty’s Russian-language site is the only one I know of that fulfills this function, including along with its output of news and analysis, features like its series on the work of the great Russian philosopher, historian and cultural anthropologist Alexander Pyatigorsky, including his taped lectures. Something of this kind is badly needed in English. 

History Lessons

In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, most of the commentary in Western media has focused on the likelihood that the explosions were the work of forces controlled by Doku Umarov and his “Caucasus Emirate”. In the Interpreter magazine, Andrew Bowen writes that

it is still a safe bet that the bombings can be attributed to the Caucasus Emirate, Russia’s homegrown Islamist insurgency. With that, and the upcoming Olympic Games, in mind, we can analyze the threat and potential for further attacks in the region and in Sochi by attempting to understand who the terrorists are and what they are capable of

and he says that

Rightly, the Russian authorities consider the threat as high enough to warrant the impressive security efforts.

Nearly all of the commentators persist in viewing the recent bombings and their social and political context from a Western perspective. Although the Caucasus Emirate is said to be “homegrown”, it is regarded in much the same light as Al Qaeda, while the Russian “authorities” (by which are meant counter terrorist and counter intelligence forces) and their efforts to control the situation are seen as equivalents to security and intelligence services in the West. In other words, the Volgograd bombings are viewed essentially in essentially the same light as terrorist attacks in the West, and the perpetrators are considered to be the equivalent of Islamist groups in London, Madrid or other Western capitals.

The analyses by observers like Andrew Bowen, Mark Galeotti and others tend to focus heavily on listings of Russia’s security preparations for the Olympics, together with a rundown of the assumed structure of the Islamist cells in Dagestan and Ingushetia. with much emphasis on “suicide bombers” and their “psychological preparation”. Very many such analyses look ahead to the Sochi Olympics, and link the atrocities to a desire by the Islamists to disrupt the Games. What is almost entirely missing from these articles is any attempt to set the recent events in a historical perspective, and particularly in the context of the long and shadowy relationship between the growth of Islamism in the North Caucasus and the activities of Russia’s security services. Although Bowen mentions “the gradual transformation of a Chechen nationalist/independence inspired resistance to a more regional Islamist insurgency”, he does not follow this up with a consideration of why the transformation took place, or of the agencies, including the Russian state authorities, that helped to make it possible. In particular, he fails to set the recent bombings in the historical context of other, similar bombings in the past, some of which were attributed by Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya to special operations by Russian secret services.

This lack of historical analysis and awareness is all the more striking as some of the commentators, like Galeotti, have been researching Russian history and security issues since at least the late 1980s.

The narrative of “suicide bombings” to “disrupt the Olympics” makes good headlines for Western media, but it does not do a great deal to help our understanding of events that go far beyond Sochi and may have much wider repercussions for global politics as a whole. In the context of Volgograd the Syrian conflict, and Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad, is one area that deserves much closer scrutiny. It’s time that Western defence correspondents and analysts broadened their approach to such events to include some historical depth, a consciousness of the details of the Chechen conflict, and the story of Chechen independence, for it is there that the roots of the present troubles can be found. In Russia’s brutal and mindless suppression of dissent in the North Caucasus, and its attempts to destroy it by every possible means, whether it be military force, propaganda, or subversion, lies the answer to the questions many are raising now.