RUSSIA, RUSSIA, EVER FAILING

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

One of the favourite delusions of the people Scott Ritter calls the “Putin whisperers” is that Russia or Putin – to them the two are synonymous – are always on the point of collapse and one more push will bring them down. To the sane, observing the development of Russia from 1991 to 2021, this conviction is crazy: Russia has endured and prospered. But, as I have said elsewhere, these people fit Einstein’s definition of insanity and forever repeat their failures: Ritter calls them “intellectually lazy”. They’re not Russia experts, they’re wrongness experts and constant practice has made them quite good at being wrong.

A recent example is a BBC documentary which I haven’t bothered to watch. I haven’t bothered because, after forty years in the business, I don’t have to: I know full well that BBC+Russia=clichés: bears, snow, unchanging horribleness and the confirmation of everything the BBC told you earlier. Bryan MacDonald has watched it and is especially amused by this line: “(However), some things in Russia change, like the seasons.” Paul Robinson describes the methodology: “talk to a few people, and then draw some sweeping conclusions“. In other words, just another piece of propaganda reinforcement typical of the species. Russia is always Russia: bad, smelly, stunted and vicious. Whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter. As a Putin whisperer said in 1997

It is not prudent to deny or forget a thousand years of Russian history. It is replete with wars of imperial aggrandizement, the Russification of ethnic minorities, and absolutist, authoritarian, and totalitarian rule.

(This is from yet another screed on how to deal with Russia; compare it with Nuland’s a quarter century later: same old stuff – we’ve been too soft but if we add a withered carrot to the big stick, we’ll get them to do what we want. But at least Nuland recognises Russia’s military strength. Which, I guess, should be welcomed as some recognition of reality.)

One of my favourites, from twenty years ago, is Russia is Finished. But never mind what mere reporters write in newspapers and magazines – venues that in the pre-Internet days would have been forgotten after their final appearance as garbage wrap; the Russia is Finished delusion has taken root in more consequential soils. A senior member of the American apparat believes: “Inside the country, low oil prices, the coronavirus pandemic, and Russians’ growing sense of malaise all bring new costs and risks for the Kremlin.” She, or somebody of like opinion, is behind this statement from White House Press Secretary Psaki: “Well, I think the President’s view is that Russia is on the outside of the global community in many respects… What the President is offering is a bridge back. And so, certainly, he believes it’s in their interests to take him up on that offer.” Well, as to “outside”, in the first two weeks of April, Putin spoke with the leaders of Libya, Lebanon, Belarus, Finland, USA, Philippines, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany, Armenia, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Mongolia and Saudi Arabia. Official Washington is as condescending as it is ill-informed.

A compendium of doom from the “experts”: Russia will fail in 1992, finished in 2001, failed in 2006, failed in 2008, failing in 2010, “rapid deteriorating economy” in 2014, failed or declining in 2015, failing in 2017, negligible economy and “rusted out” military in 2017 (“Russia’s coming attack on Canada” is an exceptional fount of worthless analysis: hardly a correct statement anywhere, starting with the sub-head), falling behind in 2018; headed for trouble in 2019. Russia’s 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. One “expert” repeats himself as if the intervening decade had not passed.

But they repeat themselves because that’s what they do. They have one thing to say and they say it over and over again. Michael McFaul is an exemplar; read what he predicts and bet against it. “If Russia’s economy continues to grow at anemic rates, we should expect these anxieties about Putin’s current foreign policy course to grow” (2018); Russia could have been “strong and great” if only it had “integrated” with the West (2015); “a confident Putin and a confident Russia is no more” (2014). Anders Åslund is an ever-fresh source of wrongness: “The only person who needs a war with Ukraine is Putin. He presumably hopes to boost his minimal popularity through another war.” (2021). “Russia faces a serious – and intensifying – financial crisis. But the country’s biggest problem remains President Vladimir Putin, who continues to deny reality while pursuing policies that will only make the situation worse.” (2015) and, twenty years young: “Russia’s Collapse” from 1999. Mark Chapman gives more “glittering examples of Aslund reasoning“. This past, present and future failing is, of course, fatal for Putin. He is a killer without a soul and losing the battle for Russia’s future in 2021, a “weak strongman” in 2020, a “thug, bully and a murderer” in 2016, weak and terrified of losing control in 2015, a “virtual Lt. Col. Kije” in 2001 and a moral idiot in 2000.

The Wrongness Experts tell us it’s a big failure but, in the real world, he and his team have achieved quite a lot. His approval rating has not fallen below 60% in twenty years; the BBC tells us that Russia is heading for catastrophe but Russians tell us it’s “heading in the right direction“. (That’s, incidentally, about three times Americans’ assessment of their own future). The simple fact – impossible to get into the heads of the Putin whisperers – is that the Putin Team has done a good job and enjoys steady support. You’d agree too, if you lived in a country that was actually improving: just compare any Western country in 2000 with today and then do the same for Russia; it’s not hard to see. If you permit yourself to see, that is.

Even these dullards understand that a direct military confrontation might not be a good idea (I hope I’m not being premature: after all, in today’s White House, in one room they’re trying to get out of Afghanistan and in another they’re trying to get into more adventures near Russia.) So they recommend sanctions. We’re supposed to believe that each round of sanctions is a response to something Moscow did but the truth is that it’s not what Moscow does, it’s what Moscow is that’s the cause: the very day – 14 December 2012 – the Jackson-Vanik sanctions were lifted, the Magnitskiy sanctions were imposed. That is: from 3 January 1975 to today, for completely different ostensible reasons, Washington has been sanctioning Moscow.

Then after Crimea, more sanctions: Åslund misses the target again: “My view is that the sanctions are so severe that it’s simply not necessary to reinforce them further.” George Soros joined the Wrongness Experts when he confidently predicted Sanctions would bring “bankruptcy” by 2017. Nope: more sanctions, no bankruptcy.

In fact, sanctions, overall, have strengthened Russia because its intelligent government maximised substitution. As a small example, Canada used to have a pretty reliable half billion dollar market for pork in Russia, now Russia exports pork and Canada’s market is gone forever. In the 1990s, it was commonly estimated that Russia imported about half its food; now it is self-sufficient and earns more from food exports than from arms exports. That might have happened eventually, but it happened now because Moscow’s clever reaction was to ban most food imports and support its own farmers. (Remember when cheese was going to bring Putin down?) Europe’s – and Canada’s – loss became Russia’s gain. Washington, it should be noted, is careful never to ban imports that it wants like oil and rocket engines; sauce for the European goose is not sauce for the American gander. But the Putin whisperers, ever willing to reinforce failure, keep piling on the sanctions.

All these “experts” getting it wrong year after year is good for a laugh. But they always pop back up on the TV talk shows spouting the same old tripe. No one ever asks: Mr Expert, you’ve been wrong for twenty years, why should anybody take you seriously now? (Well once – check it out.) On and on it goes – being an Official Russia Expert is the easiest hornswoggle there is. But the Wrongness Experts don’t just clutter up the talk shows, they infest Washington, the White House, the Pentagon, K Street, the universities and the think tanks. They shape policy. We can laugh as we watch them fail again, but their under-estimation of Russia is very dangerous. We have just had an example. Ukraine President Zelensky, egged on by them, confident that mighty NATO had his back and that Russia was feeble, started moving troops and in March pompously decreed the “de-occupation of Crimea“. Within a couple of weeks Moscow had concentrated more soldiers and weapons in less time than NATO ever could anywhere. It was tense for a while but Moscow appears to have made its point and Zelensky is now begging for talks. Not so fragile; wrong again.

But the danger is that they will go too far. Scott Ritter thinks that the Putin whisperers have reached their high water level with the recent sanctions, Belarus coup attempt and tensions in Ukraine. I hope he’s right but I suspect that there is still more to come: they’ve made an easy living at this grift and they can’t change now. And it’s depressingly unlikely that they will be replaced by people who can see reality.

RUSSIA THE ETERNAL ENEMY QUOTATIONS

This is a classic: make up any old crap, when the Russians deny it, it’s proof.

Attributing such attacks, however, is imprecise, an ambiguity that Moscow takes advantage of in denying responsibility, as it did Thursday.

NYT on a story whose any old crap that particular time was how Russia was trying to steal vaccine information from other countries. 16 July 2020.

SUNBEAMS FROM CUCUMBERS: THE VIEW FROM THE KHANATE OF KAGANSTAN

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

We now have the complete set, so to speak. The Kakhans of the Khanate of Kaganstan have both spoken. The husband in A Superpower, Like It or Not and the wife in Pinning Down Putin: How a Confident America Should Deal With Russia; he, so to speak, is the theorist and she the practitioner. She, Victoria Nuland, is back in power as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. She is, of course, infamous for the leaked phonecall during the Maidan putsch. He, Robert Kagan, is one of the founders of the – what now has to be seen as ill-named – Project for the New American Century.

I mentioned Kagan’s piece in an earlier essay and found it remarkable for two things – the flat learning curve it displays and its atmosphere of desperation. PNAC was started in a time of optimism about American power: it was the hyperpower and nothing was impossible for it. Its role in the world should be, Kagan confidently wrote in 1996, “Benevolent global hegemony”. Washington should be the world HQ:

superpower, love it!

A quarter century later his message is:

superpower, endure it.

Quite a difference. Today “there is no escape from global responsibility… the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative”.

Kagan is at a loss to explain his difference in tone, or, more likely, he’s unaware of it. The reason, however, is quite easy to understand – failure. Washington followed the neocons’ advice into disaster: it’s been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for two decades and it’s losing. The forever wars have come home: its economy is fading, its politics are shattered, its debt load is stunning, its social harmony is eroding. It’s not at the top of the hill any more. Brzezinski warned that a Russia-China alliance would be the greatest threat to US predominance but thought it could be averted by skilful diplomacy. Well, as it turned out, US actions (the word “diplomacy” is hardly applicable) drove Moscow and Beijing together and the strong domestic base that they all took for granted is crumbling. And, to a large extent, it has been the neocons, the wars they encouraged, the exceptionalism they displayed, the arrogance they embodied, that has created this state of affairs. Kagan should look in the mirror if he wants to know why Americans’ perception of superpower status changed from exultant opportunity to dreary duty.

With this background, we turn our attention to Nuland’s views about what should be done about Russia (“Putin’s Russia” of course – these people personalise everything). Her piece entertainingly marries stunning ignorance about Russia to stunning naïvety about prescriptions. There is no point in boring the reader by trudging through her nonsense, so I will just pick a few things.

Those three are enough – Victoria Nuland, for all that she pretends to superior knowledge, is absurdly unaware of the real situation in Russia. And it’s not as if it’s all that hidden, either: all the sources I mention above are in English and easy to find. In her world, Russia is guilty of everything Rachel Maddow says it is, including using cyberweapons against electrical grids.

What are her prescriptions? And, again, for someone who poses as an expert on Russia, they’re laughable. Her general theme is that Washington and its allies have let Putin get away with too much for too long and it’s time to take back control:

Washington and its allies have forgotten the statecraft that won the Cold War and continued to yield results for many years after. That strategy required consistent U.S. leadership at the presidential level, unity with democratic allies and partners, and a shared resolve to deter and roll back dangerous behavior by the Kremlin. It also included incentives for Moscow to cooperate and, at times, direct appeals to the Russian people about the benefits of a better relationship. Yet that approach has fallen into disuse, even as Russia’s threat to the liberal world has grown.

Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election this coming fall will—and should—try again with Putin. The first order of business, however, must be to mount a more unified and robust defense of U.S. and allied security interests wherever Moscow challenges them. From that position of strength, Washington and its allies can offer Moscow cooperation when it is possible. They should also resist Putin’s attempts to cut off his population from the outside world and speak directly to the Russian people about the benefits of working together and the price they have paid for Putin’s hard turn away from liberalism.

In short: reassert “leadership”, “resolve”, “position of strength”; the now familiar PNAC “strategy” that has failed for twenty-five years.

A few gems stick out.

  • “No matter how hard Washington and its allies tried to persuade Moscow that NATO was a purely defensive alliance that posed no threat to Russia, it continued to serve Putin’s agenda to see Europe in zero-sum terms.” No comment necessary or possible: this is just as solipsistic as describing a Russian military exercise in Russia as “Russia’s Military Drills Near NATO Border Raise Fears of Aggression“.
  • The US and its allies should continue “maintaining robust defense budgets”. As if they weren’t already hugely outspending Moscow. She knows they aren’t keeping up because she goes on to say they must spend more to “protect against Russia’s new weapons systems”. Perhaps the West’s behaviour has something to do with this? Perhaps a lot of the Western spending is a waste? No, too much for her: she can sometimes glimpse reality but her exceptionalism prevents her from seeing it.
  • “The one lesson Putin appears to have learned from the Cold War is that U.S. President Ronald Reagan successfully bankrupted the Soviet Union by forcing a nuclear arms race”. No, the lesson that Putin learned is that enough is enough and too much is too much. Brezhnev & Co didn’t get that. It’s the US that will bankrupt itself chasing down “full-spectrum dominance”.

But the most ridiculous suggestion is surely this:

With appropriate security screening, the United States and others could permit visa-free travel for Russians between the ages of 16 and 22, allowing them to form their own opinions before their life paths are set. Western states should also consider doubling the number of government-supported educational programs at the college and graduate levels for Russians to study abroad and granting more flexible work visas to those who graduate.

She seems to think that its 1990-something. But, in the real world it’s 2021. Russians have been to the West; Russians know about it; they travel; all over the place. If Nuland ever left her bubble she would see that every European tourist spot has Russian-language guidebooks. I read through her screed with growing contempt but that really sealed it for me: Victoria Nuland hasn’t got a clue. The truth is, that the more Russians see of the West, the less impressed they are. Just ask Mariya Butina.

Again a bit of reality leaks through, from time to time, but she is incapable of reflection:

The first order of business is to restore the unity and confidence of U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia and end the fratricidal rhetoric, punitive trade policies, and unilateralism of recent years. The United States can set a global example for democratic renewal by investing in public health, innovation, infrastructure, green technologies, and job retraining while reducing barriers to trade.

Actually, doing all this is quite a big job; a very big job; too big a job in fact. And, even if Washington were to seriously start “investing in public health, innovation, infrastructure, green technologies, and job retraining while reducing barriers to trade”, remedying the numerous deficiencies would take many years.

Another thing that she dimly perceives is the gap between Russian and American weapons capabilities. Of course she can’t see any connection between that and US/NATO behaviour or Washington’s forever wars: it’s just another nasty thing done by that nasty man in the Kremlin. However, it is actually encouraging that she knows, however dimly; it creates the possibility that she understands that an actual war with Russia would be a bad idea. So that’s something, anyway.

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However, enough consideration of this ill-informed, complacent, unrealistic sunbeam. If this were a comparative treatise on the American extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers as contrasted with the failed attempts of the so-called savants of Laputa it would be amusing, but the author of this footling effort is a few arm’s lengths away from The Nuclear Button. It is not a joke.

The fading Imperium Americanum is influenced by dangerous ignoramuses like Nuland and her husband. Everything they have suggested has failed: they start in complacency, add to it ignorance and learn nothing; but they’re still there. It’s very frightening.

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Speaking of “Putin’s information stranglehold”, Nuland’s essay is available at INOSMI translated into Russian and so is her husband’s. Russians can read this stuff and form their own opinions. “Putin’s disinformation campaigns” are so clever that they use real information.

We won’t tell you that they’re dangerous idiots;

we’ll let them tell you that they’re dangerous idiots.

THEY’RE NOT EVEN TRYING TO MAKE SENSE NOW

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

The US intelligence community published a report on 10 March, widely reported in the US free speech news media, on foreign interference in the US election (how many oxymorons so far?). The report establishes a new level of idiocy on the long-running “Russiagate” nonsense.

The idiocy began when Trump, campaigning, remarked that it would be better to get along with Russia than not. A sentiment that would not have surprised Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan or any of the others who recognised that, like it or not, Moscow was a fact. A fact that had to be dealt with, talked to, negotiated with so as to produce the best possible result. Why? Well, apart from the diplomatic reality that it is better to get on with your neighbours, the fact that the USSR/Russia was a nuclear power that could obliterate the USA was adequate reason to keep communications alive. If relations could be improved, all earlier US Presidents would agree, so much the better. But for Trump – the outsider – to dare to say so was an outrage. Or more accurately, a hook on which to hang enough simulated outrage to cost him the election. Then, upsetting all expectations, he won. Immediately pussy hat protests, blather about tax returns, Electoral College speculations, 25th Amendment, psychiatrists opining unfitness (COVFEFE: Bizarre Trump Behavior Raises More Mental Health Questions): an entire industry was created to get Trump out, or, if he couldn’t be got out, then at least prevented from doing any of the things he campaigned on. All the swamp creatures were mobilised. The most enduring of these efforts was the Russia allegation. A Special Counsel was created to investigate Russia, Trump and the election. Leaks from this and other investigations fuelled outrage and talk shows.

One of the indications that the story was actually an information operation and not based on fact was its imprecision. Was Trump merely too friendly with Putin, or was he his puppet? Was Trump just a fool to think that relations with Russia could be improved, or was he following instructions? In short, was he a dupe or a traitor? How exactly had Russia interfered in the election and to what effect? Had a few voters been influenced or had the result been completely determined by Moscow? In short was Moscow running the USA or just trying to? Proponents of these crackpot theories never quite specified what they were talking about – it was all suggestion, innuendo, rumours and promises of future devastating revelations. Some of the highlights of the campaign: Keith Olberman shouting Russian scum! Morgan Freeman solemnly intoning that we were at war, and, night after night, Rachel Maddow spewing conspiracies. Some media headlines: Opinion: Here are 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian asset. Trump is ‘owned by Putin’ and has been ‘laundering money’ for Russians, claims MSNBC’s Donny Deutsch. Mueller’s Report Shows All The Ways Russia Interfered In 2016 Presidential Election. A media firestorm as Trump seems to side with Putin over US intelligence. Trump and Putin, closer than ever. All signs point the same way: Vladimir Putin has compromising information on Donald Trump. And so on. Four years of non-stop nonsense promising, tomorrow, or the next day, the final revelation that would disgrace Trump and rid the country of him forever: my personal favourite is this mashup of TV hairstyles telling us that the walls were closing in. Information war. Propaganda. Fake news.

All this despite the fact that the story as presented simply made no sense at all. As I pointed out in December 2017, if Moscow had wanted to nobble Clinton, it had far more potent weapons at its disposal than a too-late revelation of finagling inside the DNC.

And it wasn’t just TV talking heads; the US intelligence community participated. There were two laughable “intelligence assessments”. The DHS/FBI report of 29 December 2016 carried this stunning disclaimer:

This report is provided “as is” for informational purposes only. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.

The DNI report of 6 January 2017 devoted nearly half its space to a four-year-old rant about RT and admitted that the one Agency that would really know had only “moderate confidence”. In short: ignore the first report, and don’t take the second one seriously. Were people inside these organisations trying to tell us it was all phoney? No matter, the anti-Trump conspiracy shrieked out the reports immediately.

One by one, it fell apart. Mueller, despite the prayer candles, came up with nothing. The “Dirty Dossier” was a fraud. The impeachment for something that Biden actually did failed. These dates should be remembered – Crowdstrike CEO Shawn Henry told the House committee that he had no evidence on 5 December 2017; this classified testimony was not made public until 7 May 2020. Simply put: the key allegation, the trigger for all the excitement and investigations that followed, was a lie, many people knew it was a lie, the lie was kept secret for 884 days. But the lie served its purpose.

There were no investigations of this fraud, only pseudo investigations that went nowhere. When the Republicans had a majority on the House of Representatives there were serious investigations but the testimonies – like Henry’s – were kept secret because they were “classified”. When the Democrats gained control, there were continual boasts that the evidence of collusion was overwhelming, but nothing happened either. Trump’s first Attorney General recused himself and the investigation was conducted by the conspirators. His second Attorney General promised much, set up a Special Counsel, but nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing: a junior conspirator had his knuckles rapped for faking a FISA warrant. In short, the Deep State ran the clock out: the swamp drained Trump.

Ran it out quite successfully too: relations with Russia got worse and Trump himself was hamstrung. His orders were ignored everywhere: on investigating the conspiracy and on removing troops; here’s an insider telling us that the Pentagon ignored his orders on Afghanistan. He was stonewalled on Syria: “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.” The “most powerful man in the world” was blocked on almost every initiative and the long false Russia connection story was a powerful weapon in the conspiracy to impede his attempts to change course.

In 2021 Trump left office and there was no need to mention any of it again. But here’s where it gets really stupid. In December 2020, the NYT solemnly told us: Russian Hackers Broke Into Federal Agencies, U.S. Officials Suspect: In one of the most sophisticated and perhaps largest hacks in more than five years, email systems were breached at the Treasury and Commerce Departments. Other breaches are under investigation. At the same time we were equally solemnly told by US officials “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history”.

In short, we are supposed to believe that

in 2016 the Russian hacked nothing but the election

and in 2020 they hacked everything but the election.

How stupid do they think we are? Even stupider evidently. Instead of retiring the Trump/Russia/collusion/interference nonsense when it had achieved its purpose, the Intelligence Community Assessment on Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections takes us right back down the rabbit hole. I haven’t read it and certainly don’t intend to (see oxymoron above), but Matt Taibbi has and eviscerates it here; he’s read far enough to have mined this gem “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact”. (Is this a hint from insiders that it’s all fake?) The report claims that Putin authorised, and various Russian government entities conducted, a campaign to denigrate Biden. Specifically by using Ukrainian sources to talk about corruption of Biden and his son Hunter; despite the video of Biden boasting about firing the investigator, we’re assured that this is all disinformation. And the consumers of the NYT and CNN will believe what they were told. Or, actually, will believe what they weren’t told: the media kept quiet. (Now that’s interference and interference that actually might have changed votes.) The report goes on to say that China did something or other and Iran, Hezbollah, Cuba and Venezuela also chipped in. But fortunately no foreign actor did anything to affect the technical part of the election.

The US security organs expect us to believe,

giving no proof,

that there was lots of malign activity

which had no effect on the election whatsoever.

Which is telling us they think we’re even stupider. Russia swung the election four years ago but forgot how to this time? Putin’s attempt to keep Trump in was blocked by security measures adopted when his tool was President? This time Putin wanted Biden in? Russia’s efforts on behalf of Trump were countered by China’s on behalf of Biden and Iran’s interference broke the tie? But then, information operations don’t have to make sense, they just have to create an impression: Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela do bad things to good people.

Oh, and the latest is that Moscow cultivated Trump for over 40 years, Imagine that: in 1980 they were so perceptive as to see the future importance of a property developer; who’ve they got lined up in the wings now? And Rachel Maddow is back at the old stand pushing some conspiracy theory about Trump, Putin and COVID. I guess it’s not yet time to put away the tinfoil hats.

As I have said before, English needs a whole new set of words for the concept “stupid”: the old ones just don’t have the power any more.

WHY DO THEY KEEP DOING IT?

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Einstein is said to have observed that insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting a different result. What a perfect description for US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan is not enough: keep doing it. Sanctions on Russia haven’t made any difference, keep doing them. Beijing is not the least deterred by “freedom of navigation” cruises, keep doing them. Iran won’t bend to Washington’s will, keep doing the same thing.

One of the ur-neocons figured out what the problem is. Even if he didn’t realise he had: “Robert Kagan Diagnosed America’s Biggest Problem: Americans Who Don’t Want To Run the World“. What’s interesting about Kagan’s piece, actually, is the tinge of depression that runs through it – he’s actually at one of the stages of grief. When the PNAC project was announced in 1997, it was very confident indeed: its founding document – also by Kagan – Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy – laid it out

What should that role be? Benevolent global hegemony. Having defeated the “evil empire,” the United States enjoys strategic and ideological predominance. The first objective of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve and enhance that predominance by strengthening America’s security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests, and standing up for its principles around the world.

The enormous web of the global economic system, with the United States at the center, combined with the pervasive influence of American ideas and culture, allowed Americans to wield influence in many other ways of which they were entirely unconscious.

And so on. The US was powerful enough to do it; it could do it; it should do it: the ruler of the world – all-benevolent and all-powerful. This was the flavour of the time: History had stopped moving, the liberal order was the future, everybody knew it. Washington “stood taller and saw farther“. It was the indispensable nation.

Kagan’s piece this year – no doubt penned to celebrate the departure of Trump and the return of his wife to power – was titled A Superpower, Like It or Not. The title itself gives a hint of doubt – no longer a proud assertion, it’s a defiance.

The only hope for preserving liberalism at home and abroad is the maintenance of a world order conducive to liberalism, and the only power capable of upholding such an order is the United States.

Two decades earlier it was the promise of a better world, now it’s the fear of a worse. Obviously so – not that Kagan sees it this way – but obviously nonetheless: the past two decades have not been successful for the project. Kagan’s unacknowledged fear of the worse is hammered home again and again:

The time has come to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility… the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative.

The US is sitting on a dragon and it daren’t get off or the dragon will kill it. But because it can’t kill the dragon, it must sit on it forever: no escape. And dragon’s eggs are hatching out all around: think how much bigger the Russian, Chinese and Iranian dragons are today than they were a quarter-century ago when Kagan & Co so confidently started PNAC; think how bigger they’ll be in another.

A dispiriting state of affairs – not that Kagan is capable of perceiving it. Past failures – like the Iraq war – are brushed off as “relatively low cost” because their failure cannot be admitted: the wars must trudge on. And what’s Kagan’s advice to his fellow Americans? They must get used to shipping their children off to the forever wars because the alternative is worse. No “benevolent global hegemony” now, just sitting on dragons forever. A very gloomy outlook indeed. Doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different outcome.

Take Russia, for example. I’ve written elsewhere about the American obsession with Putin, its complete ignorance of what’s happening in Russia. Russia and China are listed routinely as Washington greatest enemies/opponents and Russia has been on that list for a long time. NATO has expanded, Russia has been accused, Russia has been sanctioned. But Russia is still there and more powerful than ever – quite a large dragon now. To say nothing of China, a mighty dragon indeed. Here’s their latest piece of wishful thinking – separate Moscow and Beijing, maybe they can bribe Moscow by letting it have Ukraine. Andrei Martyanov eviscerates this bird-brained attempt to emulate Kissinger and Nixon.

Can one venture the thought that the Kagan/PNAC strategy of hegemonic aspirations based on military power isn’t working very well and that US auctoritas is receding? From another ur-neocon source, the Atlantic Council, two writers dare to suggest that Washington should change the way it deals with Moscow: “a reality check” they call it. A minor change; well hardly any change, really. No attempt to use their supposed better vision to ascertain Moscow’s view of things, or try to envision what Moscow might want, no discussion of what Moscow regards as its grievances; no, none of that:

Instead, the Biden administration should seek to build a less aspirational policy toward Russia, minimize the use of sanctions, and look for incentives that might induce Moscow to take steps in line with US interests.

Different means, same ends. Russia is still bad, “human rights” are something from the US Patent Office. (Obviously the authors haven’t seen the video about police violence that Moscow is passing around.) Again the tedious assumption of superiority – indispensability – only a dim realisation that lecturing all the time isn’t working and an occasional carrot should be added to the mix. But Moscow still has to be pushed into line.

But even this milquetoast suggestion outraged twenty-two of their colleagues who issued a rebuff: “misses the mark… premised on a false assumption … disagree with its arguments and values and we disassociate ourselves from the report”. Absolutely no reason to change anything, keep doing the same thing; bound to be a different result this time. Let’s try sanctions again on the latest excuse; didn’t work before, maybe they will this time. But the more sanctions, the stronger Russia gets: as an analogy, think of sanctions on Russia as similar to the over-use of antibiotics – Russia is becoming immune.

Has there ever been a subject on which people have been so wrong for so long as Russia? How many times have they said Putin’s finished? Remember when cheese was going to bring him down? Always a terminal economic crisis. A year ago they were sure COVID would do it. A US general is in Ukraine and Kiev’s heavy weapons are moving east but, no, it’s Putin who, for ego reasons – and his “failing” economy – wants the war. Why do they keep doing it? Well, it’s easy money – Putin (did we tell you he was in the KGB?) wants to expand Russia and rule forever; therefore, he’s about to invade somebody. He doesn’t, no problem, our timely warning scared him off; we’ll change the date and regurgitate it next year. In the meantime his despotic rule trembles because of some-triviality-of-the-moment. These pieces write themselves: the anti-Russia business is the easiest scam ever. And there’s the difficulty of admitting you’re wrong: how can somebody like Kagan, such a triumphantasiser back then, admit that it’s all turned to dust and worse, turned to dust because they took his advice? Much better to press on – it’s not as if anybody in the lügenpresse will call him out or deny him space. Finally, these people are locked in psychological projection: because they can only envisage military expansion, they assume the other guy is equally obsessed and so they must expand to counter his expansion. They suspect everybody of suspecting them. Their hostility sees hostility everywhere. Their belligerence finds belligerence. The hyperpower is forever compelled to respond to lesser powers. They look outside, see themselves and fear; in their mental universe the USA is arrogantly strong and fearfully weak at the same time.

Their learning curve is absolutely flat – the USA must expand into the South China Sea to stop Chinese expansion, expand up to the borders of Russia to stop Russian expansion, expand into the gulf to stop Iranian expansion, expand into Africa because someone else might want to expand there. All of it wrapped in sickening protestations of innocence – read any State Department briefing on Venezuela – like this one from 25 February:

international champions standing up for democracy… human rights… calling for a return to democracy… accountability for these human rights abuses… millions of Venezuelans are suffering.. support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people.

In their minds the USA has to move far away from its borders to defend itself; they cannot comprehend that other powers see Americans at their borders as aggression. The mighty USA is the blameless victim of other countries’ suspicions. Anyone who dares suggest trying something else is de-platformed, scorned and calumniated – we must keep failing because we cannot succeed. It’s repeated by all the West’s rulers: the walking dead.

There’s a historical curiosity here. Five hundred years ago Columbus had an idea that you could sail west to China, and he hawked it around the capitals of Europe looking for someone to bankroll him. He was wrong, as all educated people knew: China was to the west all right, but any ship would have run out of food and water and all the crew died of scurvy long before it travelled 180 degrees of latitude. Finally he found a backer, discovered the Americas (going to his death certain it was China) and all else followed. About fifty years earlier, the Chinese sailor Zheng He made enormous voyages of discovery. But the new Emperor wasn’t interested and that was that. One of the strengths of Europe in those days was its diversity – Columbus failed to sell his idea to Portugal, Genoa, Venice, England but, finally, Spain took the bet. Of the many fish in the European pond, he needed to catch only one. China, centrally ruled, had only one and his no was final.

In the West, and especially the USA, today, we observe an inability to imagine, understand, come to terms with or tolerate difference. The “diversity” being pushed today all over the West is the pseudo-diversity of different faces with the same approved thought. Today it’s the West that insists on the uniformity of the so-called Rules-Based International Order (the West makes the rules and gives the orders) while it’s China that calls for “seeking harmony without uniformity“.

The Kagans dimly perceive that things haven’t gone quite the way they were supposed to but they have no idea of what to do except more of the same. Zombies.

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?

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.

OBAMA.3

(Answer to a question from Sputnik)

Given that we have a video of Obama saying that he’d like a third term if he had a front man with an earpiece and given what we know of his role in moving the Democratic primaries for Biden, it’s a safe assumption to say that we are now in Obama.3.

So some deductions – START – which he extended, has been extended. Washington will try to re-do JCPOA, negotiated on his time, but Tehran may not be willing, so that could be harder to do. There is every reason to expect more hostility to Russia, more Ukraine, more Syria. Same wars. Less anti-China rhetoric. And, as with Obamas 1 and 2, benefits to the “three B’s” – bankers, billionaires and bomb makers. So the extension of START is probably the last thing that will make Moscow happy.

But I expect that foreign affairs will take a back seat to the predominant efforts of the Biden/Harris Administration of tightening control over “misinformation”, trying to grind Trump and his followers into the dust and the embarrassments of the 25th Amendment. Then the midterm elections will roll the dice again.

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.