THE GREAT AMERICAN DELUSION – JUST THAT ONE GUY

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

In my career I used to participate in regular meetings with an American intelligence agency. I – we – were always fascinated by their obsession with individuals. One time they proudly presented each of our group with a chart showing the Boss’ associates distributed into three groups. I’m sure creating this had cost a lot of time and money, but what use was it? Did it allow us to predict better, understand better? Of course it didn’t. Quite apart from the absurdity of thinking that an individual was 100% in one group and 0% in the other two – least one fitted two groups equally well – the truth was that they were a team which made decisions and outsiders had no idea what went on inside the process. The three-group division just led to more ungrounded speculation – if some decision were imagined to be to the benefit of one group, then a flurry of speculation about who was up and who was down would erupt. Theorising in the absence of data: a labour of crackpots. Lots of money, time and promotions but very little understanding. On another occasion their predictions at a leadership change were entirely personal – if X, then this, if Y, then that. (And the person who actually did succeed wasn’t on their list.) My group’s approach was to try and describe what constraints the as-yet-unknown successor would have to deal with. We were trying to work out the context; they were talking personalities. But there is an objective reality: and the most powerful and strong-willed individual can only shape the future within the existing possibilities. The American assumption seemed to be that the boss had unconstrained choices. Now it’s true that they thought of the country as a “dictatorship” but never even in the greatest tyranny has the ruler been able to do anything he wanted to. No wonder they have, over the ensuing twenty years, been invariably wrong. The simple-minded and ignorant obsession with personalities leads nowhere.

Did it begin with the Calvinists of Plymouth Rock and their division of humanity into the saved and the damned? Was it reinforced a century and a half later by the conviction that King George single-handedly caused “repeated Injuries and Usurpations” and urged on “the merciless Indian Savages”? Or is it of more recent origin? Hollywood’s rugged individuals saving the day at the end of the movie? Who can say, but it seems to be hard-wired into the American view of the world – or at least their view of the rest of the world. And the news media play along every time: the problem is Leader X, if we replace him, all will be better.

I have just finished a book about the CIA which mentions the Kennedy Administration’s obsession about Fidel Castro. “‘We were hysterical about Castro,’ Defense Secretary Robert McNamara acknowledged”; there were innumerable assassination plots. The missile crisis seems to have brought Kennedy to his senses and, a couple of months before his assassination, the CIA principal had to tell the mobster he had picked to organise it that the plot to kill Castro had been terminated. None of it amounted to anything and, in the words of one player “so much of the goddamn stuff was really juvenile.” Sixty years later, Fidel Castro is gone but Cuba remains – still defiant.

Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran was a problem; after he was overthrown Iran was not a problem for a while but today it’s an even bigger problem; and they still resent his overthrow. Ngô Đình Diệm in Vietnam was a problem; but his death just led to more war. Mohamed Farrah Aidid of Somalia was another who had to go, but after the Battle Of Mogadishu it was the Americans and NATO who went; Somalia, much now as it was then, has faded from the news. Slobodan Milošević was the Butcher of the Balkans until a court found that he wasn’t so guilty after all. Saddam Hussein was a pretty comprehensive problem, the NYT informed us; now he’s gone and Iraq is still a problem – can’t win it, can’t leave it. Kims in North Korea come and go; it remains the same. And so on and on – Assad, Maduro, Qaddafi, Arafat, Daniel Ortega and Yanukovych; all individuals who were imagined to be the single roadblock in the path of… The Better, Progress, Democracy and all other Good Things.

But the two biggest are Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinpeng. I have written enough about the crazy American obsession with Putin: five years ago I wrote A Brief Compendium of Nonsense About Putin. Since then he has grown in monstrosity: election rigger, computer hacker, serial poisoner, “Russia under Putin poses an existential threat to the United States and other countries of the West, Russia’s neighbors, and his own people” is a typical effusion. Note the personalism: the “existential threat” is “Russia under Putin”, not “Russia”. If only Putin could be got rid of…

The author of this piece goes on: “China will be at the top of the to-do list”. And the Atlantic Council has emitted The Longer Telegram: Toward A New American China Strategy written by Anonymous. Clearly it is supposed to echo Mr X’s (George Kennan’s) Long Telegram. But some differences: this is longer – much longer, grinding on for seven times the length of Kennan’s essay. Secondly, Kennan himself didn’t think that his recommendations had been well followed and was utterly opposed to NATO expansion and Western triumphantasies. I will certainly not waste my time reading this midden of prolixity (one wishes an ex-PFC Wintergreen had binned it), the summary is more than enough – and it’s longer than Kennan’s essay. The very first sentence puts us on familiar ground

The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.

“China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping”, “Russia under Putin”. Back to personalities.

…Xi has returned China… quasi-Maoist personality cult… systematic elimination of his political opponents…. Xi has used ethnonationalism… Xi’s China… Xi has demonstrated… China under… Xi is no longer just a problem for US primacy. He now presents a serious problem for the whole of the democratic world…

He is the problem and “All US political and policy responses to China therefore should be focused through the principal lens of Xi himself.” No Xi, no problem; no Putin, no problem; no Saddam, no problem; no Qaddafi, no problem. Away we go again.

Better informed people point out that Xi Jinpeng’s policies have a context: we start with Deng Xiaoping’s strategic guideline “hide capabilities and bide time”. Once capabilities could no longer be hidden, they moved to Hu Jintao’s “Actively Accomplish Something”. That something – or rather, those many somethings – are being actively accomplished by Xi Jinpeng. Far from a polity captured by a personality, China has a collective leadership focussed on a long-term strategy.

But that is only one voice in the background and the personality-obsessed (Very Much) Longer Telegram comes from the Atlantic Council which has a far greater influence on US and NATO activities. As it is engummed in personalism, so are they.

What do the personality-obsessed suggest be done to get rid of Xi? Well, this is a little more difficult than other cases: bombing got rid of Saddam and Qaddafi but China is too strong. Economic measures, as even someone as dim as Anonymous realises, might hurt the USA more than China. Stripped of nostalgianism (the US must “retain collective economic and technological superiority”), delusion (“Dividing Russia from China in the future is equally [critical]”) and degraded touchstones (“current rules-based liberal international order and, critically, its ideological underpinnings, including core democratic values”), the strategy offered is pitiful.

We are invited to be “laser focused” on the assumption that Xi’s so-called one man rule is resented by many in China; if a wedge can be driven into the leadership, Beijing will return to the happy pre-Xi state when

China, under all five of its post-Mao leaders prior to Xi, was able to work with the United States. Under them, China aimed to join the existing international order, not to remake it in China’s own image. Now, however, the mission for US China strategy should be to see China return to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo.

One is reminded of Napoleon’s delusion that Russia’s nobles could be wedged away from Alexander and the undying conviction that one more targetted sanction will make Putin’s henchmen kick him out. But, enough of Anonymous’ fancies – they have no base in reality: the USA out-sourced its manufacturing to China long ago and won’t be getting it back, wokeism is killing its education system, its politics are broken, its military is losing everywhere and doesn’t realise it, a tsunami of debt has built up. Most absurd of all, after years of needless hostility to Russia, Washington has no hope of separating Moscow from Beijing. And Xi Jinpeng is not some rogue who seized control – he is the top of a robust pyramid.

The only significance of this paltry effort is that it gives us another – and depressingly influential – example of the curious American obsession with personalities – everything in Chinese-US relations was going along swimmingly until Xi. But actually, as anyone capable of seeing reality knows, China is much, much more than one man.

China/Russia/Iran/Iraq/insert-name-of-country was happy to accept its place in the Rules-Based International Order until that nasty Xi/Putin/Ayatollah/Saddam/insert-name changed everything; get rid of him and it will all fix itself.

When are they going to understand that it’s a whole country, not just one guy?

RUSSIA THE ETERNAL ENEMY QUOTATIONS

Fascinating to watch the world of disinformation at work. The Trump campaign last year was the first to disseminate the idea that Biden is senile. That was picked up by Russian disinformation and amplified by its bots, RT, and state media. Now that Putin is giving it more fuel by challenging Biden to a debate (even though Putin refuses to participate in political debates at home in Russia) the information operation has come full circle with Fox News now amplifying Russian propaganda. It’s a small world, isn’t it?

From someone who pretends to be a friend to Russians but hates their political choice.

Any disagreement with the proposition that Biden is as sharp as a tack has to be the work of a Putinbot, doesn’t it? BTW, half of Americans don’t think he’s running things. I guess they’re all Putinbots too.

COMMENTS FROM THE LOCKED WARD

(Miscellaneous comments from pieces dealing with Russia I’ve collected. Most of them anonymous or with pseudonyms. They are chosen to illustrate either rabid hostility to everything Russian or stone-dead ignorance of present reality. I post from time to time when I have enough, spelling mistakes and all.)

Russia stole the AstraZeneca formula to make the Sputnik vaccine so it’s weird that the EU thinks Sputnik would be better than AstraZeneca.

Some twit on Twitter 15 March 2021

REALLY STUPID THINGS SAID ABOUT RUSSIA

There are at least two reasons for Putin to be thinking about similar big and bold actions today. One is strategic and abiding: glory for himself and his Russia, the two by now entwined in his mind. The other motive is tactical: He is working toward a lifetime presidency—a six-year term in 2024, at 72, and perhaps another in 2030— in a country where the economy and incomes have stagnated for over a decade and the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic has left deep scars. What’s more, the arrest of pro-democracy leader Alexei Navalny has ignited waves of protest rallies in over 100 Russian cities for the first time since anti-Putin demonstrations in the winter of 2011-12.


Could Putin Launch Another Invasion? By Leon Aron Politico, 15 March 2021

The very first words are: “A trained KGB agent…” and it goes on in the same vein.

Of course, the reason why people like myself are talking about another war in Ukraine are because of things Kiev and NATO are doing; not because of trite imaginings about what goes on in Putin’s head.

COMMENTS FROM THE LOCKED WARD

(Miscellaneous comments from pieces dealing with Russia I’ve collected. Most of them anonymous or with pseudonyms, they illustrate either rabid hostility to everything Russian or stone-dead ignorance of reality. I post from time to time when I see them, spelling mistakes and all.)

Libyans ousted a dictator, but an ensuing civil war has
drawn in Russia, Turkey and others with a thirst for control

Washington Post

NAVALNIY AND TREASON

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

(Thanks to John Helmer who, as far as I know, was the first to suggest that Moscow is preparing a treason accusation against him.)

On 1 February RT published a video taken by the FSB of a meeting between Second Secretary Ford of the British Embassy in Moscow, identified by the FSB as an SIS officer, and Vladimir Ashurkov at a restaurant in Moscow. The video was filmed some time in 2012. Ashurkov is the Executive Director of Navalniy’s Anti-Corruption Foundation; he is presently living in the UK where he sought refuge after being charged with embezzlement. In the video he is making a pitch for financial support to the tune of “10, 20 million dollars a year” not, he assures Ford, “a big amount of money for people who have billions at stake”. In short, invest in us us and, when we take over, we’ll pay you back. With interest. Big interest. In the meantime, perhaps Ford could get him some kompromat for use inside Russia. In a word, he’s trying to sell Russia to a foreign power. Which, by any standards, is treason. Ford is non-committal and merely suggests that Ashurkov look to one of the foreign NGOs that the British fund. (It should be understood that the “N” in “NGO”, is silent like the “p” in “pseudo”.). But, given that the video was made six or seven years ago, we don’t know whether the British or others took up Ashurkov on his offer. But we can be reasonably sure that the FSB knows the answer to the question.

I believe that the publication of this video marks a major step towards the Russian government charging Navalniy and his organisation with treason. Note that RT attached to its report a discussion of the famous “spy rock”. Utter nonsense: “alleged… allegedly… allegations”, a “fabrication”, more “pressure against Russian NGOs” RFE/RL assured us in 2006; “they had us bang to rights” admitted a British official in 2012. The FSB has cleverly disarmed the expected cries of fake! setup! lies! and other denials from the West by reminding everyone that it was the FSB that told the truth that time.

Security services hate revealing anything. Their unvarying intention is to hang onto information because a little bit of information can be nursed into a lot of information: a seed revealed is just a seed, but a seed kept and nurtured can grow into a forest. I recommend Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America to show how the ancestors of Russia’s security organisations nurtured every little seed until they grew so big a network in the American government that they were probably better informed than the White House. So, to get them to give up a seed is a big step. It doesn’t happen, as they say, by accident.

Consider what seeds and seedlings the FSB gave up with this video.

The video exposed a man the FSB had identified as British intelligence. They could have marked him, followed his career, noticed with whom he associated, where he went, whom he met. Fed him false information, exposed his network, found others, followed them and, who knows, turned or compromised some. Now, he’s blown and probably won’t go anywhere near the Russian world again. The British will be back-checking his contacts and network and making a damage assessment and probably shutting things down. So, the FSB gave up years of exposure and mapping of networks.

The video also reveals the degree to which the FSB is following Navalniy’s organisation. Everyone assumed that it was, of course, but it appears that the surveillance team was waiting in the restaurant. So that gives away another part of the FSB’s modus operandi. For all we know, the restaurant was a favourite place of the Navalniy organisation; not any more: they won’t be going there again.

Note how good the sound recording is. That would presumably reveal something about the technology and trade-craft the FSB possesses. I’m sure that, to those who know these things, other details of trade-craft and equipment were revealed as well.

It is an easy deduction that the FSB has more information that it has not revealed: for example whether Ashurkov’s pitch resulted in a sale. (Note that Navalniy’s organisation receives a certain amount of funds via the anonymous Bitcoin). Neither has it revealed any other videos of similar sales pitches that one must assume it has. One can only assume that the FSB already has a good case and can trace the money.

As everyone knows, Navalniy fell sick on a flight inside Russia and a few days later, wound up in a hospital in Germany saying he had been poisoned with novichok. While the ever-changing story requires the reader to completely suspend disbelief, as usual in the information war against Russia, new variants are rolled out, confident that its targets aren’t paying attention past the headlines that Putin has poisoned someone again. Thanks to John Helmer’s reporting, we know that the doctors at the Charité Hospital found many health problems when it examined Navalniy but no evidence of novichok. The novichok “evidence” comes from German and Swedish military facilities which have declined to publish their findings. Navalniy, for his part, has several times asserted that Putin attempted to kill him with novichok. So, we have evidence from two civilian hospitals that show no novichok; there are assertions that it was novichok, but they’re secret and come from military sources; Navalniy says it was novichok. Does this look like prima facie evidence that Navalniy collaborated with foreign intelligence agencies against his country?

Where did Navalniy get the illustrations for his video on Putin’s supposed palace? We know that the building is very far from finished because people went to see it. So somebody supplied the faked-up interiors (complete with Putin himself). A Germany-USA production? “in early December, the [German] studio received a request from the United States about whether it had free production capacity. In strict secrecy, work began on Navalny’s film”. Perhaps there’s another charge here, given the expected importance of this “proof” of Putin’s supposed corruption for Navalniy’s campaign. (Another silly story for the gullible, by the way: where would he keep his loot and when does he have time to enjoy it?)

The entire Western propaganda structure leapt on the story. I’ll just quote this one thing from the NYT’s resident sage, Thomas Friedman, because of its amusement value:

Putin is not very important to us at all. He’s a Moscow mafia don who had his agents try to kill an anti-corruption activist, Aleksei Navalny, by sprinkling a Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok, in the crotch of his underwear. I’m not making that up! Russia once gave the world Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Dostoyevsky, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Putin’s Russia will be remembered for giving the world poisoned underwear.

“Poisoned underwear”, “mafia don”, “he keeps stalking us”. Plenty more where that came from: if it’s Putin or Russia, the accusation is the proof. Vide Biden’s demand that “He should be released immediately and without condition“. Suspiciously like a coordinated operation; perhaps the FSB can actually show connections.

Navalniy is the latest in a long line of Western anti-Putin heroes. I’ve been in this business for three decades and I’ve forgotten half of them. Reports on protests that carefully avoid mentioning people who would spoil the narritive. Putin is a “moral idiot“. Lots of poisonings of opponents (is the absence from that list of the long-recovered and now-discarded Yushchenko significant?) and even non-poisonings; but no explanations for why the (almost invariably ineffective) poisons change: dioxin, thallium polonium and now novichok. Protests are always about to bring him down. Endless endless nonsense about Putin himself – too much to catalogue. Russophrenia. And so on and on; the people change – Browder and Khodorkovskiy fade to the background, Berezovskiy gives up, begs to be allowed home, kills himself (they say) – but the story never changes. Pussy Riot was huge until it wasn’t. Pavlenskiy does something in Russia, he’s a hero, same thing in France, he’s arrested. Always a fraudulent election in Russia (Moscow should take a leaf out of Washington’s book and call all such claims “conspiracy theories” and block discussion.) Washington says it had the MH17 shootdown on film, but you can’t see it. Nothing is ever proven but it never stops. The audience is assumed to have the IQ and attention span of gnats: Moscow hacked the US election system in 2016 but in 2020 the system was watertight while Russia was hacking everything else. It’s information war; most of it nonsense from proven liars. Maybe Moscow has had enough. The Biden Administration is full of Russia-baiters all fully invested in the Trump/Putin conspiracy theory; there will be no change; it’s time for Moscow to give up expecting anything else.

Maybe Moscow is going to make an example of the latest Western favourite and charge him with treason and prove it. Maybe that’s why this video was released. It would appear to be a case of “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization . . . directed at harming Russia’s security” as the treason law puts it. A revision of the law that came into effect, as it happens, in the year the video was recorded. Collaborating with foreign intelligence structures to create a poisoning narrative would appear to fit the definition too. How about writing a letter to a foreign head of state asking him to sanction your country?

And more hints of evaporated patience: Moscow handed over to the OSCE videos of Western police beating up protesters – Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, the USA, Finland, France and the Czech Republic – helpfully pointing out “For doubters, we have shown a contrasting model. How they do it and how we do it. Feel the difference”. The message is clear: motes and beams; or, as they like to say in the West, “whataboutism“. Moscow then expelled diplomats from three countries, accusing them of participating in protests.

Washington, London et alia will protest in the usual way with all the usual statements about human rights that they themselves are pretty casual about at home (“Почувствуйте разницу”), but I suspect that Moscow doesn’t care much what its enemies say. In this matter it may well be that the idiotic Navalniy poisoning story, coming after all the other evidence-free accusations, was the last straw. And perhaps Beijing’s success in shutting down the equally foreign-inspired troubles in Hong Kong was an encouraging example.

We will see, but it’s another indication that Moscow has had enough. After all, there’s an audience out there that isn’t glued to CNN and the NYT. There’s no chance of changing minds in Washington or London; it might still be possible in Berlin and Paris – Nord Stream II is probably the test – but there are hundreds of millions out there who are listening. Zone B, the Saker calls it.

STUPID, STUPIDER, STUPIDEST

(First published Strategic Culture Foundation

The British newspaper the Sunday Times, relying on the usual unnamed Western intelligence sources (German this time they say, but as they’re unnamed, who knows?), has just re-animated the Navalniy poisoning story by informing us: “Revealed: Kremlin made a second attempt to poison Alexei Navalny in botched assassination: Russian spies tried to kill Putin’s fiercest critic with the deadly nerve agent novichok before he could be flown to Berlin, western intelligence sources reveal.” This story, picked up by other outlets, presents us with three possibilities. All three involve the word “stupidity” – a word that is becoming gravely inadequate to describe today’s reality. English needs a stronger word to cover this concept.

The simple facts are that Aleksey Navalniy fell sick on an internal flight in Russia on 20 August, the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk where he was taken to hospital, a couple of days later he was flown to a hospital in Germany – at Putin’s urging, we are told – from which he has been released apparently in good health.

And the Gadarene swine of the West rushed straight for the cliff. Poisoned by tea, or was it a water bottle? maybe his clothing. Cancel last! – cocktail the night before. Ignore all rumours about coke or diabetic shock – it’s gotta be Putin’s poison du jour, novichok (has he run out of polonium, mercury and dioxin?) and, what is more, by a variant “more malicious and deadly than all known offshoots of the Novichok family”. Russian doctors found no poison – but who would believe a Russian? Russia gave “no credible explanation” to the accusations. But how could any Russian ever say anything “credible” as Canada’s Globe and Mail wondered: “The Kremlin, predictably, says it didn’t poison Alexey Navalny. So what can the West do?” The West in general, and the European Union in particular, likes to boast about values among which is that “Everyone who has been charged shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” But not if you’re Russia. Russia must answer questions demands UK, Europeans on OPCW, Merkel, NATO, When Russia was unable to prove its innocence, the EU sanctioned “guilty” Russian officials as did most of the West. That the story was the usual slipshod assemblage of orphic assertions was revealed when the opposition party Alternative für Deutschland forced German government spokesmen to answer its questions: it was “not aware” of many things.

And sillier still: Anders Åslund called Merkel and Navalniy “the two leaders of the free world” and, not to be outdone, John Brennan tweeted “Imagine prospects for world peace, prosperity, & security if Joe Biden were President of the United States & Alexei Navalny the President of Russia”.

Paul Robinson took the trouble to go through the Sunday Times story and discovered that only 100 words of 4,000 mentioned the second attack and they were erected on a flimsy foundation: “the underpants story is just what a single Russian scientist, unconnected to the case, happens to think“. But we can add unnamed scientist to the “unnamed intelligence sources”. Amusingly, the scriptwriters didn’t coordinate this latest twist with the hero of the story and Navalniy himself was quoted as calling the Sunday Times story “very strange”, adding that he was “really surprised” to hear it. On his side of the tale he was busy naming his attackers and Bellingcat, that reliable investigator who uncovers what Western intelligence agencies cannot, assured us that Navalniy had been tailed. But, having caught Bellingcat out on this howler three years ago, I don’t waste my time on him either – falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.

In short, it’s all the same old stuff we’ve heard over and over again – Bellingcat, unnamed intelligence sources, evidence we can’t show you, changing facts, weird inconsistencies, amazing coincidences. I’ve been at this business for some time and I remember when Putin poisoned Karinna Moskalenko and I also remember when he didn’t; my trust in these stories departed a long time ago. And that is where the word “stupid” comes in. These stories invite considerations of stupidity. But who are the stupid ones? Putin & Co? The consumers of the stories? Or the story-makers themselves?

The first possibility is that Putin and his team are stupid. They decide to assassinate Navalniy (but why? He’s probably peaked in his effect – in the latest Levada poll he scores a couple of percentage points; a rating little changed in six years; in short, his ratings have never been much above the polling error.) And why now? Anyway, we’re supposed to believe that they decide that now is the moment and, rather than using something simple – a mugging or a car accident – they use novichok. Despite the fact that, as the western media has repeatedly told us, it had already failed in one assassination attempt. To make matters even stupider, the Germans solemnly told us this was a “a variant that the world did not know until this attack, but which is said to be more malicious and deadly than all known offshoots of the Novichok familyThe fact that he is still alive… is only due to a chain of happy circumstances“, “Harder” was another word used. “Harder” than the Salisbury version; but, apparently, not “hard” enough to require decontamination teams, hazmat suits or even to make Navalniy sicker. But back to the story; after it had failed to kill him, rather than sending a couple of hitmen to the hospital with a pillow, they tried again with the same stuff. Some “expert” stupidly tweeted that it’s a “false narrative” to argue that if the Russian authorities had wanted to kill him he would be dead because the “false narrators” are wrongly assuming that Russian assassins are “omnipotent”. No, not “omnipotent”, just normally competent – and do remember that the people who buy the Navalniy poisoning story also believe that Putin has been routinely killing people and therefore ought to be pretty good at it. Anyway, we’re supposed to believe that when the second attempt failed – that’s three failures out of three – Putin let him go to Germany where all this could be revealed to the western media by “unnamed intelligence sources”. Are Putin and his team really that stupid? You would have to be pretty stupid to think that they are.

Which smoothly leads us to the second possibility which is that the purveyors of western news stories (emphasis should probably be put on the second word) think their customers are stupid enough to think that Putin & co are that stupid. The customers are supposed to swallow the notion that Putin wanted Navalniy dead, used something that would immediately be blamed on him, failed, tried again with the same thing, failed again and then said, ah… whatever… and let him go. Are the readers that stupid? Only very stupid people would think they were.

Which leads to the third possibility – it’s not Putin & Co who are stupid, it’s not the readers who are stupid, it’s the rather small number of people who control the western media who are so stupid that they think they can get away with this obviously idiotic story.

But, at that level, it’s probably not stupidity, although there is surely the stupidity engendered by arrogance enfolded in sycophancy. It’s probably really about power and control. What better proof of power can there be than to tell a lie and have everyone, knowing that it is a lie, repeat it? Washington had the MH17 shootdown on film, but don’t ask to see it. Russia invades Ukraine regularly, but the invaders can’t get past Donetsk airport. Brexit was a Russian plot until somebody sued and demanded to see the evidence. The Panama Papers were about Putin except that they didn’t mention him and therefore they must have been by Putin. Russia is simultaneously all-powerful and about to fall apart. Russian threatens the NATO border.

We’re actually seeing the process happening right in front of us now while we watch: with a straight face CNN told us that US elections were dangerously insecure in 2006, compromised in 2016 but watertight in 2020. Any moment we can expect the headline: “Putin’s election hackers spread conspiracy theories about election hacking”.

Most of these stories are dictated by “Western intelligence sources who cannot be identified” or by organisations with opaque ownership and that, rather than stupidity, gives us the clue about the purpose of these idiotic stories. It’s not the details that matter in propaganda, it’s the lasting impression. Long after the details – Litvinenko, Yushchenko, Skripal, Navalniy – are forgotten, people will remember that Putin poisons people he doesn’t like. Orwell knew: “the past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth”. Or we can take Captain Jedburgh’s point of view and make things so complicated that everyone has a theory but no one has the facts.

But that also works best with a helpful push from stupidity.

WEAPONISED COURTS

First published at RT with some additions and deletions and hyperlinks stripped out.

A Dutch court has just reversed an earlier Dutch court ruling which reversed an earlier Dutch court ruling. Russia had been sued by a company representing Yukos shareholders. The latest iteration, reversing the reversal and taking us back to the original judgement, demands Russia pay $50 billion. (Yukos was nationalised on the grounds of failure to pay tax arrears after the arrest of its CEO for tax evasion.)

What should Moscow do? It has appealed but perhaps it should think about whether it still wants to play the game. Let’s look at the behaviour of other Dutch courts. Slobodan Milošević appeared at the Hague charged with crimes against humanity, genocide – the full package – in 2001. And quite rightly said most Westerners – had not their media had already named him the “butcher of the Balkans“? In 2016 the International Court of Justice ruled that perhaps he hadn’t been as guilty as all that. Too late: Milošević had died in his prison cell ten years before, the trial still rolling on. The Netherlands is in charge of the investigation into the destruction of the MH-17 flight over Ukraine in 2014. Again we had immediate Western news assertions that Putin and Russia were responsible and the personal assurance of John Kerry that US intelligence resources had watched the whole thing. And it’s been a fact-free Gish gallop ever since. After several investigations, suspiciously dependent on Ukrainian intelligence sources, social media and Bellingcat, with no one asking where the “we saw it” was, the trial of four individuals began in March 2020 and has been proceeding at the same comfortable pace as the Milošević trial. In 2018 Ukraine, without the least suspicion of a chain of evidence, produced some missile parts that it claimed were from the SAM that was said to have shot the plane down. The parts had numbers, numbers can be traced and the missile factory traced them. They were parts of a missile shipped to an AA unit in the west of the Ukrainian SSR in December 1986. The judges decided that the documents were irrelevant because while they “may say something about where the missile was between [19]86 and 91, but they say nothing about where the missile was in July 2014“. (Presumably a daring raid from Donetsk to an ammo dump in western Ukraine had happened; which nobody noticed.)

So one might ask what Russia can expect from any trial held in the Netherlands except an interminable process until the defendant dies.

Russians might then turn their attention to the practice of the rule of law in other Western countries today. Meng Wanzhu is approaching her third year of house arrest in Canada. Julian Assange has been in one of the most severe British prisons for eighteen months and is approaching the second year of his trial. Mariya Butina: in a US prison, often in solitary, on very questionable charges. Venezuela stored its gold in London for safekeeping but can’t have it back (that judgement reversed for now). Or Frédéric Pierucci. Or the EU sanctioning Russia because it couldn’t prove its innocence of the latest accusation. A big fine in a Polish court over the Nord Stream pipeline. The open-ended CAATSA. Russian observers might be forgiven if they regarded this as not rule of law but war of law – lawfare.

Moscow has generally played the game and accepted Western Court rulings: and sometimes, they’ve gone its way: for example the European Court of Human Rights ruling of 2011 that the case against Khodorkovskiy had not been politically motivated. But, given the relentless cascade of accusations – redoubled in the past five years – perhaps Moscow should reconsider on the grounds that Western “justice” will never give it a fair shake.

Will it do so? Well, there have been some hints. At the Valdai conference Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russia no longer looked to Europe as an example and was not going to be its vassal. The Constitution was recently amended to make Russian law primary. These would appear to be clues that Moscow is at least pondering the conclusion that Western courts are a weapon and. A pity, but there it is. As Margarita Simonyan said:

For fifty years, secretly and openly, we wanted to live like you, but not any longer. We have no more respect for you…

GOODBYE: HAS RUSSIA HAD ENOUGH INSULTS?

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

I have argued that Russia is not a “European country”; my argument stands on the fact that Russia and Europe had quite different histories and little contact until the Emperor Peter became a major player in European history by knocking Sweden out of the running. I have argued that, whatever they may have wished in the past, an increasing number of Russians today don’t want to be “Europeans”: they view Europe – the West – with increasing distaste and bewilderment. “Europe” is, of course, a word with many meanings: here I mean a culture/civilisation/society that, over the past half millennium, has spread around the world and now is commonly called “the West”. These days, the capital power of the West is the USA but the USA, Canada, Australia, much of South America and many of the other outposts of European settlement are children of the original European civilisation.

Russia’s relationships with the West have gone through many ups and downs – ally, for example, with Britain in 1812, 1914 and 1941, enemy in 1853, 1918, opponent during the so-called Great Game and the Cold War. Russians often see the relationship as one of ungrateful rejection: take, for example, the long-forgotten important service Russia did for the Union in 1863. In my mind this feeling stems from Russia’s unusual history as a predator fish which remembers its long time as a prey fish – its neighbours remember the first, itself the second – the prey fish feeling was, of course, strongly reinforced by the death struggle of 1941-45.

Be that as it may, since the fall of the USSR and the end of communism, Russia has been rejected by the West. After a short-lived period in the very early 1990s when there was talk of “A new era of Democracy, Peace and Unity” “a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our peoples have cherished for decades”, the rejection has been unmistakable, brutal and direct. NATO expansion, in whatever platitudes it was wrapped, now stands clear as what Moscow always thought it was – an anti-Russia enterprise moving military forces ever closer to Russia. Russians are quite right to see colour revolutions in their neighbourhood as moves against them. Russia is under a permanent sanctions regime – the excuse changes but the sanctions remain and Jackson–Vanik was instantly replaced by the Magnitsky Act. Washington continually adds new sanctions and ensures that its lackeys do as well. And, even though a strong argument can be made that the sanctions have benefited Russia because Moscow was smart enough to deal with them like a judo master, the fact remains that sanctions are hostile acts short of war.

So, many people wondered how much longer Moscow would keep on making offers to its “partners” and seeing them thrown back at it. Some think Putin is too soft – it’s a generally accepted estimate that about half of the 25% or so of Russians that do not approve of his performance in office do so because they think him too obliging.

Well, maybe it’s happening at last. We will take the remarks by Foreign Minister Lavrov noting that he is not a man who has ever spoken lightly or without thought: whatever he says is to be taken seriously. At Valdai he said:

we must stop considering our Western colleagues, including the EU, as a source of assessment of our behaviour that we need to follow, or measuring ourselves with the same yardstick.

And

if the EU is arrogant enough to declare, with this sense of unconditional superiority, that Russia must understand there will be no “business as usual,” well, Russia wants to understand whether there could be any business at all with the European Union under these conditions.

That’s pretty plain – Russia rejects the West’s self-awarded role of judge and will not be its liegeman. It strongly suggests that Moscow is thinking about giving up. It has, however, made one last offer – perhaps the last offer, even a test: Moscow will not deploy certain missiles if the West does not.

The Navalniy affair seems to have been the one step too many. Aleksey Navalniy is an anti-Putin activist much beloved in the West but mostly ignored by Russians: his poll rating is around the margin of error and only occasionally has he had much of an effect. In August 2020 he fell sick on an airplane which turned back and landed in Omsk where he was hospitalised. A few days later, still in a coma, he was flown to a hospital in Germany. We have only recently learned that the transfer to Germany was at Putin’s direct urging.

It is obvious that Putin didn’t poison him; to believe he did is to believe that the murderer, with the victim in his power, sent him to safety. Nonetheless it was immediately declared that Navalniy had been “poisoned” and by none other than “novichok” and, what is more, by a “a variant that the world did not know until this attack, but which is said to be more malicious and deadly than all known offshoots of the Novichok familyThe fact that he is still alive… is only due to a chain of happy circumstances.” (Those “happy circumstances” remind the cynic of the “miracle” that saved Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey and his family from the novichok smeared everywhere in their house.) Despite this especially “malicious” variant, he was out of his coma in a much shorter period than the Skripals who were not killed by the old version either. The cynic would notice that, despite being “more malicious”, this particular novichok did not need people in hazmat suits cleaning everything in sight. The poison arrived via tea; smeared on a water bottle; on his clothing. In short, a tale we have heard before: the assassins don’t try something simple like a car crash but use something that can be pinned on them; an incredibly deadly poison that is ineffective; the assassins don’t follow through; the story of how the poison got into him keeps changing and no actual chains of custody, evidence or anything else is every presented. But at least the German hospital has been allowed to keep its roof.

The European Union likes to boast about its values. Among them is this: “Everyone who has been charged shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” But not if you’re Russia. Russia must answer questions demands UK, Europeans on OPCW, Merkel, NATO, When Russia was unable to prove innocence, the EU sanctioned Russian officials as did most of the West.

So, to recap. Navalniy falls sick, receives treatment in Russia, is moved to Germany, “novichok” is found, Russia “fails to explain”, Russia is blamed and sanctioned. No facts, no data, no believable or consistent story. Where was the “proved guilty according to law” there?

Very much of a pattern this and we’ve seen it with the Skripals, Nemtsov, MH17, Magnitskiy, Moskalenko (I wonder if anyone remembers that one? How about Patarkatsishvili?), Litvinenko, Politkovskaya – blame Putin immediately and declare him guilty when he fails to prove the negative and huff “Russia’s contempt for the international norm against chemical weapons use must stop“. Add to this NATO expansion, colour revolutions, endless accusations of submarine incursions or election interference and all the rest. Year after year after year. Even the dullest muzhik in deepest Siberia should have got the point that, as far as the West is concerned, Russia, the ever-enemy, is guilty of any charge you want to make. Russia is guilty just because it is. And anyone who asks about ducks or children can only be a Putinbot spewing fake news.

So is Moscow about to say it’s had enough? If so, it has somewhat of a problem. At the moment and for the foreseeable future, depending on how serious the civil disorder is after its election, the United States is the principal power in the world if for no other reason that it has far more destructive power than anyone else. Moscow must tread carefully here; cutting relations with Washington would cost more than it’s worth. London is probably lost to Moscow but Berlin, Paris and Rome are not necessarily lost. And, as they go, many other Europeans will follow. Therefore Moscow can hope that, in the reasonable near term, more normal relations with some of the principal European powers may be possible. Thus it would be a bad move to cut relations with them.

But, Brussels, the European Union structure, what use is that? Russia has an embassy to the EU because, they say:

The Russian Federation aims to develop close and comprehensive partnership with the European Union based on the principles of equality, mutual benefit and respect for each other’s interests.

Where’s the “close and comprehensive partnership”, where’s the “equality, mutual benefit and respect”? And the next sentence in the website is not true: “Russia and the EU enjoy intensive trade and economic relations.” No they don’t: the only entities to trade with the EU qua EU are manufacturers of office supplies, paper and red tape. Russia has trade with Germany, Italy et al – with members of the EU, not the EU itself. What’s the point?

So, if Moscow has had its fill of three decades of insults, offences and calumnies and wants to make a point, cutting relations with the EU structure would be the place to start: easy and cheap. Pull out the permanent mission and stop all doings: deal with the individual countries one by one. Brussels might even welcome the savings now that it’s lost a chunk of its budget.

RUSSOPHRENIA – OR HOW A COLLAPSING COUNTRY RUNS THE WORLD

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

I am indebted to Bryan MacDonald for this brilliant neologism: Russophrenia – a condition where the sufferer believes Russia is both about to collapse, and take over the world.

An early example comes from 1992 when the then-Lithuanian Defence Minister called Russia a country “with vague prospects” while at the same time asserting that “in about two years’ time [it] will present a great danger to Europe” (FBIS 22 May 92 p 69). Vague prospects but great danger. Given the vague demographic prospects of his own country, it was a rather ironic assertion given that Lithuania’s future would appear to be a few nursing homes surrounded by forest. But he said it in the days of the full EU/NATO cargo cult. In 2014 US President Obama immortalised this in an interview:

But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents.

Wrong on all counts: all he did was display how poorly advised he was.

Russia, Russia ever failing: will fail in 1992, finished in 2001, failed in 2006, failed in 2008, failing in 2010, failed in 2015. Russia’s failing economy, isolation, ancient weapons, instability; a gas station masquerading as a country. Doomed to fail in Syria and losing influence even in its neighbourhood in 2020.

a country with GDP comparable to that of Australia cannot afford to be a superpower, fight a protracted war in Syria, fight in the Ukraine and develop its own stealth fighter and other equipment to match the United States.

In 2016 Stratfor, predicting the world of 2025, thought it unlikely that the Russian Federation will survive in its current form. And neither will Putin. He was only a petty dictator with a Swiss bank account in 2000; a Lt. Col. Kije in 2001; another Brezhnev in 2003; facing his biggest crisis in December 2011, under dire threat and losing his leverage in January 2015; weak and terrified in July 2015; overextending his reach in May 2016; losing his shine in June 2017; losing his grip in October 2018; losing their trust in June 2019; losing control in September 2019; his house of cards was wobbling and he was the symbol of Russia’s humiliation in August 2019. His political demise was near in January 2020; more crises and coronavirus could topple him in April, another biggest crisis in May; losing popular support in June; running out of tricks in August; holed up in isolation, another gravest crisis in October. Soon gone. Russia’s economy won’t last much longer either: smaller than Spain’s or California’s in 2014; in tatters and facing a slow and steady decline in 2015; surprisingly small in 2017; about the size of Belgium plus the Netherlands and smaller than Texas’ in 2018; headed for trouble in 2019. Weak energy prices its Achilles heel in 2020. And on and on: really weak in 2006; its three biggest problems in 2013; Russia is not strong. And Putin is even weaker in 2015. Don’t fear Russia, marginalize it because it’s weak and has a rapidly aging and shrinking population in 2018. Still weak in 2019 and Paul Gregory tells us that’s it’s weak but with nukes in 2020.

Occasionally – very occasionally – someone, more acute than most, wonders How Did A Weak Russia Ever Become A Great Power Again? or why with less money than Canada and fewer people than Nigeria, it “runs the world now”. But the explanations are facile: too much butter spent on guns or a passing situation:

In the emerging post-Cold War-era Russia, no matter how poor it is in many key areas, can be #2 in the world for many years to come. Only when China rises in the next 20 years or a new kind of President emerges in the United States will that change. Until then Vladimir Putin can play his games to his heart’s content.

Of course all of these headscratchers assume that the exchange rate of the ruble is the true measure of Russia’s economy; which is a pretty silly and misleading idea.

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But at the same time Russia is an enormous, dangerous, existential threat functioning with enormous effectiveness in all dimensions.

Far from a having the deceptively weak military of 2015, it is developing the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon in 2018 and in future wars the US will have nowhere to hide. The next January we’re told that it and China are building Super-EMP bombs for ‘Blackout Warfare’. Russia has imposed aerial denial zones and fields eye-watering EW capabilities; it has “black hole” submarines, a generational lead in tanks, an unstoppable carrier-killer missile and devastating air defence. It’s working on a new missile threat to the US homeland. General Breedlove, former NATO Supreme Commander who did much to poke the bear, gives us a particularly striking example: he now fears that a war “would leave Europe helpless, cut off from reinforcements, and at the mercy of the Russian Federation.” The British army would be wiped out in an afternoon, NATO would lose quickly in the Baltics – NATO’s totally outmatched. The Russian threat is unlike anything seen since the 1990s. The worry is that Nato has under-reacted.

Putin was the world’s most powerful man and, linking up with China, could soon become more powerful than the U.S. in 2018. He was wielding Russia’s formidable military and powerful economic policies in 2019. And never forget Russia’s major hacking threat and deadly malware. Its interference and influence in Western voting is stupendous: the 2016 US election; Brexit; Canada; France; the European Union; Germany; Catalonia; Netherlands; Sweden; Italy; EU in particular and Europe in general; Mexico: Newsweek gives a helpful list. And, long before Putin: “100 years of Russian electoral interference“. As a covert influence actor and purveyor of disinformation and misinformation Russia is the primary threat in the US election.

Putin was a threat to the Rules-Based International Order in February 2007, May 2014, January 2017, February 2018, May 2018, June 2019 and many months before or since.

During two decades as Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin has rarely concealed his contempt for Western-style democracy and the rule of law. The poisoning of Russian political activist Alexey Navalny, amid a widening Russia-supported crackdown on opposition leaders in Belarus, indicates the lengths to which Putin and his cronies will go to silence their enemies and maintain power.

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So, on the one hand Russia is a failing country, with a trivial economy, a greatly over-rated military led by someone who is always facing a catastrophe at home. Nothing to worry about there: presently weak and future uncertain. On the other hand, Russia has a tremendously powerful military, an economy that does whatever its ever-young autocratic permanent ruler wants it to. Its propaganda power is immense and unbeatable, the background determinant of the world’s action. Russophrenia.

And, out of the blue, COVID gives him another opportunity to bamboozle the helpless West and undermine its precious Rules-Based International Order. Somehow. See if you can make sense of this incoherence:

This should worry the West once the pandemic has passed. Not because Russia poses a serious long-term threat to our interests; it doesn’t, although Putin would prefer us to think that his shrivelled realm does. But because Russia is not the only authoritarian state seeking to learn lessons from the current crisis which could be used in a future conflict.

Russia’s Vaccine Stunt which experts worry is dangerous is being supported by attacks on the Oxford vaccine which Russia tried to steal. Russians, Russians everywhere!

Russophrenics are unaffected by reality. Russia’s success? Forget maleficence and try competence. Its military is designed to defend the country, not rule the world: a less expensive and attainable aim. Its economy – thanks to Western sanctions – has made it probably the only autarky in the world. Election interference is a falsehood designed to damage Trump and exculpate Clinton which has been picked up by Washington’s puppies. But don’t bother with mere evidence; As the author of this New Yorker piece explains:

Such externally guided operations exist, but to exaggerate their prevalence and potency ends up eroding the idea of genuine bottom-up protest—in a way that, ironically, is entirely congenial to Putin’s conspiratorial world view.

Or as the Washington Post memorably put it: “Especially clever is planting tales of supposedly far-reaching influence operations that either don’t actually exist or are having little impact.”

Scott Adams understands the process perfectly:

Absence of evidence is evidence.

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Pretty crazy isn’t it? And getting crazier. All this would be funny if it were Ruritania ranting at the Duchy of Strackenz. But it isn’t: it’s the country with the most destructive military in the world and a proven record of using it ad libitum that is sinking into this insanity. And that’s not good for any of us.