(Now that the book is out I publish my entry. Most of the people who wrote their “how I got here” sections were awakened by the relentlessly one-sided coverage of Russia by the MSM: they suspected that it couldn’t possibly be that one-sided and started looking.

Putin’s Praetorians: Confessions of the Top Kremlin Trolls Kindle Edition; Phil Butler (Author), Patricia Revita (Illustrator), Pepe Escobar (Foreword)

I started work for the Canadian Department of National Defence in 1977 in the Directorate of Land Operational Research of the Operational Research and Analysis Establishment. I participated in many training games in real time and research games in very slow time. The scenarios were always the same: we (Canada had a brigade group in West Germany) were defending against an attack by the Soviet/Warsaw Pact side. In those days NATO was a defensive organisation and, as we later found out, so was the other side: each was awaiting the other to attack. Which, come to think of it, is probably why we’re all here today.

I enjoyed my six years, often as the only civilian in a sea of uniforms, but I realised that a history PhD stood no chance of running the directorate so, when the slot opened, I contrived to switch to the Directorate of Strategic Analysis as the USSR guy. I should say straight off that I have never taken a university course on Russia or the USSR. And, in retrospect, I think that was fortunate because in much of the English-speaking world the field seems to be dominated by Balts, Poles or Ukrainians who hate Russia. So I avoided that “Russians are the enemy, whatever flag they fly” indoctrination: I always thought the Russians were just as much the victims of the ideology as any one else and am amused how the others have airbrushed their Bolsheviks out of their pictures just as determinedly as Stalin removed “unpersons” from his.

That was November 1984 and Chernenko was GenSek and, when he died in March 1985, Gorbachev succeeded. While I didn’t think the USSR was all that healthy or successful an enterprise, I did expect it to last a lot longer and when Gorbachev started talking about glasnost and perestroyka I thought back to the 20th Party Congress, the Lieberman reforms, Andropov’s reforms and didn’t expect much.

In 1987 two things made me think again. I attended a Wilton Park conference (the first of many) attended by Dr Leonid Abalkin. He took the conference over and, with the patient interpretation of someone from the Embassy, talked for hours. The Soviet economy was a failure and couldn’t be reformed. That was something different. Then, on the front page of Pravda, appeared a short essay with the title “A New Philosophy of Foreign Policy” by Yevgeniy Primakov. I pricked up my ears: a new philosophy? But surely good old Marxism-Leninism is valid for all times and places. As I read on, I realised that this was also something new: the author was bluntly saying that Soviet foreign policy had been a failure, it was ruining the country and creating enemies. These two were telling us that the USSR just didn’t work. As Putin told Stone, “it was not efficient in its roots”.

These things convinced me that real change was being attempted. Not just fiddling around at the edges but something that would end the whole Marxist-Leninist construct. As far as I was concerned, it had been the communist system that was our enemy and, if it was thrown off, we should be happy. Sometime around then I was interviewed for a job at NATO and the question was what, with all these changes, was NATO’s future. I said it should become an alliance of the civilised countries against whatever dangers were out there: the present members of course, but also the USSR, Japan and so on.

Well, that didn’t happen did it? I remember a very knowledgeable boss assuring me that NATO expansion was such a stupid idea that it would never happen. He was wrong too.

In 1814 the victors – Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria – sat down in Vienna, with France, to re-design the world. They were wise enough to understood that a settlement that excluded France wouldn’t last. In 1919 this was forgotten and the settlement – and short-lived it was – excluded the loser. In 1945 Japan and Germany were included in the winners’ circle. At the end of the Cold War, repeating the Versailles mistake, we excluded Russia. It was soon obvious, whatever meretricious platitudes stumbled from the lips of wooden-faced stooges, that NATO was an anti-Russia organisation of the “winners”.

But I retained hope. I think my most reprinted piece has been “The Third Turn” of November 2010 and in it I argued that Russia had passed through two periods in the Western imagination: first as the Little Brother then as the Assertive Enemy but that we were now approaching a time in which it would be seen as a normal country.

Well, that didn’t happen did it?

And so the great opportunity to integrate Russia into the winners’ circle was thrown away.

For a long time I thought it was stupidity and ignorance. I knew the implacably hostile were out there: Brzezinski and the legions of “think” tanks (my website has a collection of anti-Russia quotations I’ve collected over the years) but I greatly underestimated their persistence. Stupidity and ignorance; you can argue with those (or hope to). But you can’t argue with the anti-Russians. Russia wants to re-conquer the empire so it invaded Georgia. But it didn’t hold on to it, did it? No but that’s because we stopped it. Putin kills reporters. Name one. You know, whatshername. Provocative exercises on NATO’s borders. But NATO keeps moving closer to Russia. Irrelevant, NATO’s peaceful. Putin is the richest thief in the world. Says who? Everybody. Putin hacked the US election. How? Somehow.

I quoted Hanlan’s razor a lot – “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. And, stupidity and ignorance there were (a favourite being John McCain’s notion that the appropriate venue for a response to a Putin piece in the NYT was Pravda. And then he picked the wrong Pravda! (But he won’t hate Russia or Putin any the less if he were told that, would he?) At some point I came to understand that malice was the real driver.

I suppose it grew on me bit by bit – all the stupidity converged on the same point and it never stopped; but real stupidity and ignorance don’t work that way: people learn, however slowly. I think the change for me was Libya. I started out thinking stupidity but, as it piled up, it became clear that it was malice. I’d seen lies in the Kosovo war but it was Libya that convinced me that it wasn’t just a few lies, it was all lies. (My guess is that Libya was an important development in Putin’s view of NATO/US too.)

Naive perhaps but, for most of history stupidity has adequately explained things and malice is, after all, a species of stupidity.

So what’s the point of writing? I’ll never convince the Russia haters, and there’s little chance of getting through to the stupid and ignorant. And most people aren’t very interested anyway.

Well, this is where malice meets stupidity. If we consider the Project for a New American Century, the neocon game plan “to promote American global leadership”, what do we see twenty years later? Brzezinski laid out the strategy in The Grand Chessboard at the same time. What today? Well, last year he had to admit that the “era” of US dominance, he was so confident of twenty years earlier, was over. There’s no need to belabour the point: while the US by most measures is still the world’s dominant power, its mighty military is defeated everywhere and doesn’t realise it, its manufacturing capacity has been mostly outsourced to China, domestic politics and stability degenerate while we watch and there’s opioids, spectacular debt levels, incarceration, infant mortality, недоговороспособны and on and on. Donald Trump was elected on the promise to Make America Great…. Again. Hardly the hyperpower to lead the globe is it?

The Twentieth Century was the “American Century” thanks to limitless manufacturing capacity allied to great inventiveness anchored on a stable political base. What is left of these three in 2017? Can America be made “great” again? And wars: wars everywhere and everywhere the same. And what other than malice has brought it to this state? Malice has become stupidity: the neocons, Brzezinskis, the Russia haters, the Exceptionalists, scheming “to promote American global leadership”, have weakened the USA. Perhaps irreparably.

So, who’s the audience today? The converted and people at the point when a little push can break their conditioning have always been there. But now there is a potentially huge audience for our efforts: the audience of the awakening.

Which brings me back to where I started. Except that it’s the USA this time:


We’re here and we’re waiting for you: you’ve been lied to but that doesn’t mean that everything is a lie.

Is Trump Finished?

Written for Edward Lozansky’s expert group 25 July 2017 (

Conventional opinion has been wrong about Donald Trump every chance it has had. He wasn’t seriously running; he’d never get the nomination; couldn’t possibly win the election; would be impeached, declared insane, would quit, was failing, was a Putin stooge and on and so on. Therefore absolutely nothing in the MSM or conventional thinking about him is worth a millisecond’s consideration: whatever conventional thought thinks is wrong. I know of only one person who has successfully read the Trumpian tea leaves and he is today saying that Trump is on the point of complete victory. Read Scott Adams; don’t waste your time with those who have been wrong every time before.

That having been said, I have been reading Adams on Trump for more than a year now and have seen him get it right time after time. If he says Trump is on the verge of victory, I believe him. I waste no time on the opinion of pundits who will be wrong again.

I was encouraged by Trump’s oft-stated intention of having better relations with Russia and his statement in his Inauguration Address that “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone…“. For too long Washington’s real message has been the threat, however fragrantly wrapped, “Do what we want or we’ll destroy you”. Twenty years of this has destroyed many countries: it has also (not that the destroyed are sorry about it) weakened the United States itself: Iran’s power and influence has spread, Russia and China are allied, other long-time allies are looking away, the US itself is debt-ridden, quarrelsome and stripped of the manufacturing power that made it so mighty. I believe that Trump understands this on some level.

But I am dismayed by his adulation of the winners of the “U.S. military’s marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament“. I am disturbed by his evident belief that jihadist terrorism – that product of takfiris like ibn Taymiyya and al Wahhab – finds its headquarters among Twelver Shiites. Many of his personnel choices are very disturbing: people who in no way can be seen as making the change that he promised. The resistance of the Deep State to his attempts is frightening (although it may be significant that one of his latest tweets is that it is not merely a “swamp” to be drained but a “sewer”. Many people pull against him. But I haven’t given up hope yet (and, indeed, developments in Syria give hope.)

Putin had similar problems when he, an outsider, was dropped into the Moscow swamp and here the Saker advises Trump to emulate Putin.

Putin was underestimated too. Here are two opinions that look pretty silly today:

Psychiatry recognizes a condition known as ‘moral idiocy’. Every time he opens his mouth in public, Putin confirms this diagnosis for himself.

                                                                                                       (Andrey Piontkovsky, 2000.)


Putin, of course, is no Peter. The KGB lieutenant colonel who was abruptly bumped into the presidential throne of a nation in total disarray comes nowhere near ‘the Great’ in ambition, potential, drive or physical height.

                                                                                                          (Serge Schmemann, 2000.)

After the Trumpquake — Что делать?

Question: (Coming together to generate ideas for a new foreign policy agenda). In the end, the 2016 US presidential campaign did what democracies are supposed to do: it gave the electorate a clear choice between two different visions of the country’s future and the policies each party proposed to take us there.  When faced with the prospect of “more of the same,” meaning more impoverishment of the middle and lower classes, more risks of new wars:  it ‘threw the bums out.”

Unfortunately, on the way to this happy outcome the level of political culture on display by the presidential candidates and their campaign staffs sank to unprecedented lows and vicious personal attacks on each other often obscured the policy differences between the candidates.

Nevertheless now that the outgoing President Obama and the incoming President Trump have shaken hands at their first transition meeting in the White House, it is time for the rest of us to make our peace with one another.  This, however, should not mean ending our differences of opinion on policies.  On the contrary, what the country needs now is a good dose of debate and in particular partisan, as opposed to nonpartisan discussion of our foreign policy issues, since we have for the past 4 years at least been stumbling into a very dangerous confrontation with both Russia and China without the benefit of free public discussion of our options.

What concretely can we all do to force the media, the foreign policy establishment to ‘come out and play’ now rather than sulk and spit venom at the victorious Trump team?

The encouraging truth is that reality eventually triumphs; the discouraging truth is that it only does so over a long and painful time. Trump’s victory is, in its way, a victory for reality but a mighty effort remains.

What can we do in forums like this one? Keep talking about reality I suppose: the reality that the neocon domination of Washington has failed in every way possible; the reality that Washington’s endless wars have been failures; the reality that every failed war has planted the seeds of the next; the reality that a extraordinary opportunity was squandered in the 1990s; the reality that making Russia into an enemy is stupid, unnecessary and extremely dangerous; the reality that “exceptionalism” is exceptionally dangerous, destructive and stupid; the reality that the MSM is lying about Syria, about Russia, about Ukraine and about almost everything else; the reality that Putin is not a “thug” determined to re-create the USSR; the reality that Russia is not “isolated”, in “economic freefall” or on the edge of “regime change”; the reality that “The West” has been on the wrong course for two decades. The reality that the neocon/liberal interventionist route leads to destruction.

We may eventually hope that our little drops of water wear away the stone. Perhaps some of us have had an effect on Trump’s thinking, or Flynn’s thinking, or Bannon’s thinking. But we will probably never know and, in truth, it’s almost impossible to work out the influence.

But if Trump can get the Russia relationship right, then a great number of Washington’s international entanglements will be easier to remedy. And he does seem to be interested in getting that right.

But I think, in the last analysis, we have to agree with the great physicist Max Planck:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

In short, a new foreign policy for the USA will have to advance, to paraphrase Planck again, “one political funeral at a time”.

But it’s encouraging that Trump’s election has produced so many political funerals.

Trump and Clinton, Clinton and Trump

(Written for expert panel)

To me, the choice in the US election is utterly simple: the most important thing is stopping the perpetual wars of the New American Century.

President Clinton means more wars. Deeply implicated in the wars in Yugoslavia, Libya and Syria, she is contaminated by the noxious gospel of American Exceptionalism; the arrogant (and profoundly ignorant) assumption that the US is morally justified in doing anything anywhere to anyone at any time because its intentions are pure. “American Exceptionalism” is manifested today chiefly by armed force: military bases around the world, US special forces active in half the countries and war after war since the close of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago. It should be clear – even if it isn’t to the Exceptionalists – that the US is losing these wars, that each sets up the conditions for the next and that their consequences, far from the “stability” fantasised by the Exceptionalists, are uniformly disastrous. Clinton will end none of them and will start new ones. Added to which, given her extreme rhetoric, there is the non-zero possibility of bringing us to World War Last against Russia and China.

Trump, on the other hand, boasts of his skills at negotiating The Deal. This deserves more attention than it has received. “American Exceptionalism” never negotiates because there is nothing to negotiate about: there’s the Exceptionalist way, the correct way, and there are all the other ways and they’re all wrong; other countries’ national interests count for nothing against the Exceptional. For the Exceptionalists a “negotiation” is a command to do it our way – the right way – or we bomb you. This is not what Trump is talking about: in a real deal both parties feel that they have achieved a good result; a real negotiator respects the other side’s interests and takes them into account; a real deal doesn’t need to be bombed into place. As US power drains away – and even Zbigniew Brzezinski understands that it is “no longer the globally imperial power” he said it was only twenty years ago – managing the decline will be enormously important for the safety of the world. Far better that we have The Dealmaker for four or eight years than The Exceptionalist.

Can President Trump deliver on his promise to step away from confrontation and wars? There’s a very good reason to expect he can. The years of the so-called “imperial presidency” have shown us that while American presidents have to struggle to achieve anything domestically they can start wars ad libitum – especially now that the secret of disguising neocon aims behind a froth of humanitarian rhetoric has been discovered. So all President Trump has to do is not start them.

Therefore Trump is the obvious candidate to hope for and there are good reasons to think Trump can deliver: his starting approach is to negotiate and all he has to do to prevent a new war is to not start it. The other differences between the two candidates fade into froth and bubbles: no more Exceptionalist wars trumps – if my feeble pun may be accepted – everything else.


Russian “non-systemic” opposition and U.S. Foreign Policy

JRL/2013/ 202/31

Certainly there is a section of the Russian population that does not like Putin and any of his works. Numbers can only be guessed at but the percentage is probably not more than fifteen and not less than five. This opposition is very diverse – it ranges from super nationalists who don’t like his statements about the multi-ethnic nature of Russia to those who want him to do everything their (idealised) West wants him to do. Of these, a certain percentage is nurtured and encouraged – and until the new NGO law, funded – by outside interests.

Some of these outside interests are governments – the American NGO industry, now virtually a wholly-owned subsidiary of the present Administration – is an important engine of funding and propaganda but there is also a section of opinioneers who believe Russia to be the principal enemy of the West; a feeling that appears to be stronger in the Anglosphere than elsewhere. Some of these outside interests are individuals who, while they might march in step with and cross-fertilise the government interests, are self-actuated.

The Russian opposition can be distributed along two axes: one ranging from wholly home-grown to wholly foreign-created, the other from super-nationalist to super-liberal (“liberast” as some call it). Generally, foreign support goes more to the liberast end of the spectrum than the nationalist although Navalniy is an interesting exception. (And, I believe, the first of the foreign-boomed oppositionists to have a foot in each camp. Which thought is worthy of another essay.)

Internally the opposition is waning for several reasons. First pro-gay rights campaigners co-exist uncomfortably with super-nationalists: they may agree to dislike Putin but they disagree about everything else. Second, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of Russians support Putin, his team and their general course (and don’t have much regard for the protesters, either). Third, protesting, in the absence of real political organisation – and when you are a fraction of a fraction you must operate inside the system – is clearly a waste of time. And, let us not forget that the Russian NGO law has had the success that its American model had in forcing things out of the shadows.

Whatever trivial damage this inchoate opposition is doing to Putin & Co inside Russia, it is very important to the outside anti-Russia campaign. We are now at the point where Putin’s name cannot be said without the “ex-KGB, jails opponents, steals elections, kills reporters” modifiers. And there are plenty of Russian oppositionists (oddly free to speak and move around) to corroborate these charges.

External support for the anti-Putin fractions in Russia has received two heavy blows. First was the suicide of Berezovskiy. He was instrumental in organising and funding the important Politkovskaya, Litvinenko and Pussy Riot memes (“Putin kills or imprisons his opponents as shown by…”). But he is gone and there is no one to replace him. Washington suffered humiliation on Syria – ready to go a-bombing with media campaign up and running, Moscow pulled the casus belli out from under it. The only thing for Washington to do was to pretend that that’s what it meant all along (which it did). Suddenly the “Putin is anti-gay” campaign shut down: just as suddenly as it had started when it became clear Snowden was staying in Russia. So, the two biggest anti-Russia meme generators have been switched off.

And off they are: consider the Greenpeace case. Total silence from governments, NGOs and the media (not total actually: the Netherlands and Greenpeace itself; but otherwise….). No campaign on this one.

Another interesting by-product of Washington’s Syrian flop is a growing respect for Putin. This phenomenon has been remarked on by others but it bears watching. Thanks to a decade of innuendo and falsehoods, people do not like Putin but they are coming to recognise that he is a very effective leader and stands up for his country’s interests.

So we might (might) be seeing the end of the anti-Russia propaganda machine. A machine that has, I believe, been operating with only very brief pauses, since the 1830s or 40s.

Snowdon’s arrival in transit was a surprise to the Russians

I wasn’t going to attempt an answer to Vlad’s questions because I didn’t know what to think about the Snowden affair. Was he alone? Was he a whistleblower appalled at the realities of the world? Or a spy? A traitor? An opportunist? Was his arrival at Sheremetyevo a clever move in a chess game or a panicked flight? (Edward Jay Epstein, one of the few MSM reporters who is not a copy typist, raises some good questions here.)

All I knew was that he was no longer in Hong Kong and that Putin told us last week that he was in no-man’s-land in Sheremetyevo and hoped he would go away soon. (Few commentators understand that all international airports must have such a limbo lest any stowaway, with his feet on the new country, immediately claim asylum or otherwise initiate other tiresome and expensive legalities). But was he still there or had he moved on? Well we know now he’s still there; Ecuador doesn’t particularly want him; he has asked several countries for asylum. Not such a clever chess game it seems.

And he has asked Moscow for asylum and it sounds as if he will been granted it. But there’s a condition: Putin has said “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our US partners, no matter how strange this may sound coming from me.” So stay, but be silent. Putin also said there had been no collaboration with Russia’s intelligence services.

Altogether a very clever solution to Moscow’s and Washington’s mutual problem. After years of observation, I have learned that Putin never gives the lie direct, although he does not answer all questions fully. If he says there was no collaboration with Russian intelligence agencies, I believe him. (And not least because it is highly unlikely that Snowden has anything to tell them that they do not already know. Snowden’s big secret, electrifying the outside world, is the fact and extent of the collecting, not the details collected. Spetssvyaz knows all that and does the very same thing.) I also believe that Snowdon’s arrival in transit was a surprise to the Russians and his staying there so long a bigger surprise.

But Putin has cleverly squared the circle: Snowden is safe, but the further damage he can do to the USA is ended. Everybody should be happy – or at least as happy as is possible in the circumstances.

So one interesting question to watch will be how Washington takes this. It is the best available result for it: no embarrassing trial (or more embarrassing non-trial) and no more publicity and leaks. (And the possibility of a quiet interview with Snowden when the fuss has calmed down)

But the most interesting thing to watch will be the anti-Russia mob: will they be able to figure all this out and acknowledge the favour Putin has done Washington? Or will they wind themselves up into another anti-Putin rant? Another learning opportunity for them. And just after Boston too.

Russia and the G8: Is Russia isolated or does it represent the global majority?

JRL/2013/ 117/42

Is Putin really as isolated on Syria as we are told? There is plenty of evidence that he is in general agreement with world opinion. He is in better agreement with Americans about intervention than Obama is: a number of polls show opposition to US involvement in the 60s. Better with the British than Cameron is: similar results in the UK. As to the rest of the world, a recent Pew survey shows there is little support for intervention anywhere else either. Putin’s opposition to outside interference much better reflects world opinion than the interveners do. Which may be why there is such an intense campaign against Russia and Putin: he must be discredited.

He does not “support Assad” – that is an accusation to drown out what he is really saying. Putin opposes intervention in Syria (and Iraq… and Kosovo… and Libya…) for three reasons: principled, practical and personal. Intervention violates a key international principle because, like it or not, Assad’s regime is the recognised government of the country. By what right does a fraction of NATO, unsupported by its population, decide to pick a side in a vicious civil war? Once upon a time, interventions were legitimised by the UN (1st Gulf War); then by NATO (Kosovo); now by only some of NATO (Libya). Secondly, there is nothing to suggest that the end result will benefit anyone. Russia is a cautious country that plays by primum non nocere – first, do no harm. Previous Western/NATO interventions have done little for stability and have often resulted in aiding and comforting their enemies (a definition of treason in most countries). Finally, he fears that Russia might be on the list of undesirable governments to be overthrown. He has seen the appetite for intervention grow with the feeding.

Therefore, Putin opposes intervention in Syria because it is questionably legal, sets (another) dangerous precedent, will almost certainly leave behind it a more chaotic, miserable and dangerous situation (vide Kosovo or Libya) and because he fears the extension to Russia. It has nothing to do with any “alliance”, “support” for Assad, the so-called naval base or arms sales. There is no alliance, he does not “support” Assad, the naval base is a corner of a small port with few facilities and most of the arms sales contracts have been placed on hold. But it is necessary to demonise Putin to drown this out. The fuss about the Russian air defence missiles which never appeared was a useful distraction from the (US-crewed) air defence missiles which did appear. The fuss about the so-called naval base distracts attention from new US bases. The ritual reiteration of Putin’s support for Assad smokescreens the surreptitious support for his enemies.

So: not only will Putin be proven correct in that some-of-NATO’s interference will not have a happy ending, not only is his condemnation of intervention in accord with majority world opinion so far as can be determined but it is even in accord with opinion in the countries whose leaders are cheering on NATO’s next adventure in “humanitarian interventions”.

While Putin may be out of step with the G8 majority (somewhat smaller than it pretends to be – does anyone seriously think Tokyo has signed on? Berlin kept out of the last adventure, who expects it to participate in this one? Is Rome on board?), that pseudo-majority is itself out of step with public opinion in its own countries and, so far as can be determined, out of step with world opinion.

Calling him isolated is an attempt to shout down the reality that the interveners’ own electorates do not support intervention.

Does the Prism scandal challenge America`s democratic values?

In connection with the PRISM scandal, we should remember the Venona intercepts. Back in The Day, a number of broadcasts to Soviet agents in the US, Canada and the UK were intercepted and saved. They were in a code that was never completely broken but they were pondered over and over again, for years – decades – by Western intelligence agencies. Bit by bit parts of the messages were understood. But never completely; full understanding came only after the collapse of the USSR opened the original messages.

Those charged with the security of their country had better take this source of information seriously. The Enemy communicates. After 911 (and lots of it before, truth be known) all this stuff – ie everything – was vacuumed up and stored in case it had to be searched later. The PRISM data collection effort is, as it were, the gathering of a mountain of dross in which there may be a few nuggets of ore. John Smith’s phone calls (or yours) hold no interest today and there is no reason to take the enormous effort to look at them, but they might be later when we find out who he really is. Billions of phone calls, tweets, twitters, e-mails and everything else. It’s all out there, it’s all recordable, almost all of it is of no interest at all, but we don’t know today which is and which isn’t. So keep it all, because we can. Perhaps it might have been better to have explained the process openly at the beginning but intelligence organisations do have a bias towards secrecy.

Putin’s comments are carefully chosen and honest as far as they go. One can be quite certain that Spetssvyaz, the Russian signals intelligence organisation, is doing the same thing to the best of its abilities and budget. Putin said nothing that he will have to apologise for later. But he said nothing very informative either.

The point is that this stuff is all collected and stored and, maybe, later, a bit is looked at in detail, in theory, when a judge or other legal authority grants permission. In theory. The practice, of course could easily be different. Some rogue breaks into the database; security requirements are twisted into industrial espionage; the tax people want information on somebody the authorities don’t like; some other government authority – with, of course, the very best and purest of motives – needs to know something.

Contemporary technology allowed Sir Francis Walsingham to intercept only letters. But modern technology makes possible the collection of enormous amounts of information: he intercepted hundreds of letters; his successors intercept millions of tweets. Simply put: you either trust the authorities to make the correct judgement to look only at the bad guys or you don’t. There is no easy answer. If you trust the authorities to create the right safeguards, and follow them, you can sleep peacefully. If not, not; the future will tell whether you were right or wrong.

But the USA under Obama is not the only one doing this, and no one should be simple enough to think it is.

Is Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ law justified?

How one reacts to Russia’s NGO law depends on what one thought those NGOs were doing in the first place. If they were disinterestedly and objectively advocating for and monitoring universal human rights, then the Russian law is objectionable. But if they were functioning as an arm of a foreign country’s policy then the Russian law must be seen as an act of self defence.

Which leads us to the Russian law’s model: the American Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. This act is still in force and has a section of the US Department of Justice charged with its enforcement. Note that the official description has many of the words that opponents of the Russian act claim to find so offensive: “agents of foreign principals”, “political or quasi-political capacity” “foreign agents” “Counterespionage” “National Security”. In 1938 the coming war was visible and there were many foreign interests that wanted to shape American public opinion. FARA was, therefore an act of self defence.

Is the Russian act also an act of self defence? Consider the reaction to Russia’s Duma election; despite results consistent with the findings of numerous opinion polls that Putin’s pedestal party was losing support but still commanded half the vote, US Secretary of State Clinton condemned the result instantly and the foreign-funded NGOs produced supporting “evidence” which did not stand up to later investigation (Vedomost’s examination of Moscow results, the only serious examination of which I am aware, found nothing much). Consider Suzanne Nossel, smoothly moving between government and NGOs, committed to using “human rights” as part of the arsenal of US power. Consider a US official admitting that countries that don’t cooperate get “reamed” on human rights. It’s not “human rights”, it’s realpolitik.

Sceptics should ask themselves two questions: after all, it wouldn’t be the first time that reporting on Russia was stage managed. The first is why, in the endless think pieces about the Russian law, is the American law never mentioned? Second, why won’t the NGOs register under the law? In theory, once registered, they can still operate even if labelled, to quote FARA, as “agents of foreign principals”; shouldn’t they want to test whether this is true? Think how much stronger their case would be if they complied with the law and were shut down anyway. If they are, as they claim, objective seekers after truth, shouldn’t they be confident that the truth will out? Why are they folding without a struggle? Makes one wonder whether they are flaming out as a last obedience to their foreign masters because the truth is that they have no existence on their own. You should be suspicious: truthful reporting would mention that Russia is not alone with such a law and brave human rights supporters would forge on anyway. All this makes me more confident that the Russians are correct: it’s not human rights, it’s Nosselism.

Oh, and just as a matter of interest, Nossel has been associated with three NGOs: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and, today, PEN. (and not, by the way, to universal acclaim “Humanitarian imperialism” “cooption of the Human Rights movement by the U.S. government” and plenty more). In the last month the three have run pieces on Russia’s NGO law, AI still wants to free Pussy Riot and PEN has something on writers in Russia. But none of them, curiously enough, has anything to say about tax authorities harassing political opponents and legal authorities listening in on reporters’ conversations.

Which, a simple person would think, are quite serious human rights violations.

What are the prospects for effective US-Russia anti-terror cooperation in the wake of the Boston bombings?

It would be good if the Boston attacks were to lead to serious cooperation. It is possible this will happen. I hope it will. It would also be good if Americans came to understand that almost everybody in Chechnya’s leadership today fought against Moscow in the first war. A fact that shatters the conventional view.

But we have seen this movie before.

Moscow warned the West about the common enemy it was fighting at the Munich Security Conference in 2001, no reaction. Putin told Bush the USA was on the target list, no reaction. Taliban sought an anti-American alliance with Moscow and was stoutly rejected. After 911 Putin used Moscow’s considerable influence with the Northern Alliance to establish cooperation and, it was the Northern Alliance, using weapons provided by Moscow, which actually overthrew Taliban – admittedly with considerable US support. Without Moscow’s influence the swift overthrow of Taliban would have been much harder, if not impossible. The two then tackled another problem: for years Moscow had been saying that jihadists had infiltrated the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and for years Washington accepted Tbilisi’s claims that this was just another lie. But Moscow was telling the truth; a joint operation drove the jihadists out of Pankisi.

This was Washington’s opportunity to learn that Russia has the two essential requirements to make it an ally: a common enemy and experience and knowledge to bring to the alliance.

But, if learned, this was forgotten as Washington reverted to its instinctive anti-Russian position. Jihadists in Chechnya were called “rebels” as if it was just a revolt against Russian heavy-handedness; Russian elections were excoriated; the “human rights” weapon was deployed; “colour revolutions”, missile defence and NATO expansion continued; Russian concerns were contemptuously ignored or re-branded as “threats” (as in Russia threatens to react to missile defence). American animosity to Russia seems impenetrable to reality.

The “Rose Revolution” was especially hallucinatory: Bush was completely taken in by Saakashvili. (Medvedev tells us the first thing Bush ever said to him was: “You know, Misha Saakashvili is a great guy.” During the South Ossetia war Bush said: “It was clear the Russians couldn’t stand a democratic Georgia with a pro-Western president”. Pretty foolish sounding these days as the new government in Tbilisi reveals the reality of Saakashvili’s regime.) The jihadist centre in Pankisi, Tbilisi’s lies and Moscow’s truth, were forgotten and further chances for cooperation against the common enemy were lost as Washington believed everything Saakashvili told it. The US training program for Georgia’s armed forces – begun when Moscow’s allegations about Pankisi were confirmed – transformed into encouragement for Saakashvili’s military ambitions.

So here we are again: Boston has shown that the North Caucasus is a theatre of the world-wide jihad: after all, the Tsarnaevs may have hated Russia but they actually attacked the USA. Jihadists driven by the familiar ideology from ibn Taymiyya, through al-Wahhab, through Qutb, to Khattab and bin Laden; their Chechen connection is as incidental as the “underwear bomber’s” Nigerian origin or the “beltway sniper’s” American origin. Again Russia’s warnings were dropped; again Putin offers cooperation.

Will this opportunity for improving mutual security be dribbled away again? Perhaps the climate is better in that NATO expansion is dead and Saakashvili is gone.

But I expect little: the causes of these errors – anti-Russia bias and political correctness – are too deeply embedded to be overcome yet and we will never know, therefore, what true cooperation could achieve.