Fools 10, Wise Men 0

Author’s note, July 2015: I wrote this in Spring 2008 for a website that has since disappeared. Someone asked me for a copy the other day and I decided to re-print it on RI. The main interest today, I think, is as an example of how the anti-Russia diatribe has hardly changed over the years: Putin remains defined by his time in the KGB, he’s still vaguely responsible for mysterious deaths, actions that are benign when the West does them are hostile when Russia does and so on. And, of course, as a finally cherry on the sundae, the misquotation.

As I say, these things take very little effort to write – just string together the usual accusations, add the twist of the day – but they can be quite time-consuming to contradiction.

I have changed nothing but repaired all the hyperlinks.


There is a popular saying: “A fool can ask more questions than ten wise men can answer”. What the expression means is that it is much easier to assert something than it is to refute it. A great deal of the commentary on Russia these days is little more than a brief for the prosecution: a list of easily made assertions that can only be refuted with difficulty. A recent piece provides a good example. I will not identify the author of this jeremiad except to say that he is an academic (X, we’ll call him or her) and the piece was published by a respected institution and an earlier version was published in a major newspaper. In any case, anyone who knows his way around Google can find the original quite easily. The piece is a cascade of easily-made accusations, many of which do not stand up to scrutiny. But, refutations of X’s throw-away lines are difficult and time-consuming.

Russia is important. It’s not the most important thing there is, but it’s important enough. It has been a major player in the world for a couple of centuries and there is every indication that it will continue to be. It is therefore of considerable importance to discuss it without clichés and without writing either briefs for the prosecution or briefs for the defence. It would be a grave disservice to ourselves and our descendents to make policy towards Russia based on “bumper sticker” analysis: loaded and imprecise words (all taken from X’s piece) like “belligerence”, “self-righteousness”, “authoritarian”, “cunning”, “menace”, “brutally” are poor preparations for actually dealing with the real Russia.

Perhaps X’s key assumption is shown in the concluding sentence: “Once a Chekist, always a Chekist.” We do hear this one a lot. All you need to know is that Putin was in the KGB and, therefore, thanks to this apparent iron law of Russian analysis, he still is. But, amusingly – and we saw this in the Litvinenko case – people who are prone to say this nevertheless take it for granted that some ex-Chekists, like Litvinenko himself, or Oleg Gordievskiy, or Vassiliy Mitrokhin, or Oleg Kalugin, actually are ex-Chekists and what they say can be relied upon. Despite the silliness of this assertion as a basis for serious argument, X is so pleased with it that he quotes it twice.

X mentions the “sequence of murders of reporters” under Putin. The clear assumption is that a lot of reporters have died in Russia and Putin is responsible. But how accurate is the charge? Fedia Kriukov has analysed the list as given by the Committee to Protect Journalists. His piece is here. It should be read in full but the conclusion is this: “Examination of each case found that out of 17 claims, only 5 were correct, 8 were complete falsification, and 4 were partial falsifications.” In no case does Kriukov find anything to suggest that the government was involved. How long did it take X to write that one sentence and how long did it take Kriukov to research and write his piece? A few seconds on the one hand and several hours on the other.

Here’s another of X’s charges: “His submariners have planted Russia’s flag on the Arctic ocean bed, signalling a determination to secure national rights to oil and gas exploitation there.” Perfectly true, of course but why make it sound so sinister? Here’s the calm and contextual take on the subject by the former Canadian Ambassador to Russia: “In the Arctic, for a start, Mr. Putin is playing by the same Law of the Sea rules we endorse. The truth is that if we could have, we would have, long ago done much the same thing the Russians have just done. We were not amused, but Russia’s gambit was an entirely legitimate use of an impressive technology that we wish we had to highlight a claim.”

Mr X says “Russian warplanes recently infringed upon British airspace and had to be escorted out of it by Royal Air Force fighters.” Did they? I doubt it and I never saw that reported. They probably flew into the UK’s air defence warning zone. But that’s not the same thing at all. Again, it would take much more time to refute this than it took X to write.

“[Putin] has threatened to permanently suspend his country’s observance of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty if the United States refuses to back down.” That’s one way to put it, another is to at least give some slight consideration to the reasons that Moscow has given. “All 30 of the original treaty’s states-parties must ratify the adapted treaty for it to take effect, but only four have done so.” But it’s much easier to write what X wrote than to take the time to discover just what Moscow has said. And it makes a better case for the prosecution.

“When Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London in November 2006, Putin took umbrage at foreign suspicions that his security agencies were behind the crime”. Perhaps his umbrage was because he had nothing to do with it; false accusations are irritating. While the case is certainly not solved, to believe that Putin ordered it is to believe that the Cheka decided to kill someone using a rare (but not as rare as all that) and highly lethal poison. Then, despite the fact that polonium-210 is easily shielded, the crack KGB assassins were clumsy enough to contaminate half of central London. There must be easier ways to do it. Edward Jay Epstein went to Russia and was shown the evidence the British prosecutor passed to Moscow and was not convinced. Epstein spent more time waiting for his flight to Moscow than X spent writing his whole attack.

I could go on but won’t except for this last one: “Putin has referred to the dismantling of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 as ‘the greatest political catastrophe’ of the twentieth century.” X presumably reads Russian. The actual statement made by Putin was this “что крушение Советского Союза было крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века” “a major geopolitical disaster of the century”. Well, that’s an opinion and X may disagree with it, but Putin did not say “the greatest”. And, of course, finding the speech on the website and reading it took me a much longer than it took X to write the misquotation in the first place.

Altogether a sloppy, context-free brief for the prosecution masquerading as serious analysis. And typical of so much that is written about Russia today.

But I have already taken longer to write this than X took to write his piece so I will stop.