In the aftermath of Russiagate a group of Democratic Party Senators have published one of the most bizarre and disturbing reports ever to issue from the US Senate.
The best way to summarise it is to say that it takes every single charge which has ever been made against Vladimir Putin and Russia and repeats them whilst ignoring any evidence which contradicts them.
The whole dreary catalogue is there: the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, the Khodorkovsky prosecutions, the Politkovskaya and Litvinenko murders, the Magnitsky affair, Putin’s billions, Chechnya, the 2008 South Ossetia war, Crimea, the Ukrainian conflict, the state sponsorship of organised crime, the use of gas exports as a political weapon, the malign influence of RT and Sputnik, the sponsorship of extreme right groups in Europe, the Russian role in the Brexit vote, and even the Russian Olympic doping scandal.
To anyone accustomed to reading articles about Vladimir Putin and Russia in such places as the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Economist and the Guardian, it is all very familiar. Indeed at times the report reads like an extended version of one of those articles.
In every case Vladimir Putin is the villain of the piece, demonically plotting to destroy democracy both in Russia and the West for reasons which incidentally are never made wholly clear.
As examples of where the report ignores contradictory evidence in order to make its case I will cite just five examples amongst the many others which could be made:
(1) The report claims that no-one has ever “credibly” claimed responsibility for the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings.
To this day, no credible source has ever claimed credit for the bombings and no credible evidence has been presented by the Russian authorities linking Chechen terrorists, or anyone else, to the Moscow bombings. As the public polling results show, there is still considerable doubt
The report says this in order to support its claim that Vladimir Putin and the Russian security services were actually responsible for the bombings.
However this is simply not true. The Chechen and Jihadi warlord Shamil Basayev and his Saudi associate Al-Khattab made quite clear who was responsible for the bombings in comments made shortly after they took place, linking the bombings quite clearly to the ongoing conflict in the Russian Caucasian republic of Dagestan, which they had just invaded with a volunteer army of Jihadi fighters.
Here is how Wikipedia reports their comments
Commenting on the attacks, Shamil Basayev said: “The latest blast in Moscow is not our work, but the work of the Dagestanis. Russia has been openly terrorizing Dagestan, it encircled three villages in the centre of Dagestan, did not allow women and children to leave.” Al-Khattab, who was reportedly close with Basayev, said the attacks were a response to what the Russians had done in Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, two Dagestani villages where followers of the Wahhabi sect were living until the Russian army bombed them out. A group called the Liberation army of Dagestan claimed responsibility for the apartment bombings.
The “Liberation Army of Dagestan” is now widely acknowledged to be one and the same as the Islamic Army of Dagestan formed by Basayev and Al-Khattab in 1999 to attack Dagestan.
There is no doubt that Jihadi terrorists were responsible for the Moscow apartment bombings. As the report rather grudgingly acknowledges many of those involved in the bombings were subsequently rounded up and put on trial for the bombings by the Russian authorities.
The outcome of the trials has never to my knowledge been challenged by the European Court of Human Rights which has the jurisdiction to do so and which would no doubt have done so if there had been anything about the trials which was obviously wrong.
All the major participants in the bombings have been identified and are known and it is or should be a fringe conspiracy theory to allege that Putin and the Russian authorities were responsible for them.
It is nonetheless that fringe conspiracy theory which the Democratic Senators have adopted for their report.
(2) The report repeats the common Western charge that the Russian billionaire oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested and persecuted because of his political activities
Putin and his allies have neutered political competition by creating rubber-stamp opposition parties and harassing legitimate opposition. For example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Russian oil company Yukos, was imprisoned for more than a decade on a spate of charges deemed to be politically motivated.
His prosecution could be broadly interpreted as a signal to other powerful oligarchs that supporting independent or anti-Putin parties carries great risk to one’s personal wealth and well-being.
This ignores the fact the European Court of Human Rights – the court with the authority to pronounce on this issue – has repeatedly said in a lengthy succession of Judgments that Khodorkovsky was convicted and imprisoned not because of his political activities but because he carried out a gigantic tax fraud – just as the Russian authorities have said – and that the case against him was not therefore brought for political reasons as the report says.
(3) The report repeats the charge that President Putin did away with direct election of governors in 2004 as part of a cynical power-grab
In 2004, Putin ‘‘radically restructured’’ the Russian political system by eliminating the election of regional governors by popular vote in favor of centrally directed appointments, characterizing this significant power grab as an effort to forge ‘‘national cohesion’’ in the wake of the terrorist attack at a school in Beslan in North Ossetia.
This ignores the fact that in 2012 direct election of governors was brought back again, something which the report never mentions.
It is fair to say that this reversal of the supposed “radical restructuring” of the Russian political system which took place in 2004 has not led to the dramatic changes in political conditions in Russia that some expected.
However that points to the underlying truth about the supposedly “radical restructuring” which supposedly took place in 2004: it wasn’t radical at all.
Though it is true that in 2004 Putin assumed the power to appoint governors to Russian regions, these appointments had to be approved by the parliament of the region to which the governor was appointed.
In practise regional parliaments showed no interest in challenging Putin’s nominees, just as regional electorates have shown little interest in the gubernational elections which were reintroduced in 2012, which almost always result in Putin’s nominees being elected.
This points to the political reality in Russia today. As is the case in most countries – including by the way the US – there is scant interest in politics at a regional level, whilst the reason Russia is politically stable is not because of the country’s institutional structure – which is its internal affair – but because the government is popular and enjoys legitimacy.
(4) The report gives an extraordinarily elliptical and mendacious account of the causes of the 2008 South Ossetia war
Leading up to August 2008, tensions had been growing in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, regions that had been contested since Georgia’s independence in 1991. South Ossetian separatists shelled Georgian villages in early August, which led to the deployment of the Georgian military to the area.417 The Russian military responded by pushing the Georgian troops out of South Ossetia with a heavy assault of tanks.418 It soon became clear that the Russian attack was not limited to just conventional military means, but was much more comprehensive in scope
This completely ignores the fact that the EU’s Independent Fact Finding Mission Report headed by the Swiss lawyer Heidi Tagliavini, though making severe criticisms of Russia’s conduct during the war, nonetheless concluded that it was Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili not Russia who started the war.
As it happens Vladimir Putin was away in Beijing attending the 2008 Summer Olympics at the time when the war started. That is hardly consistent with him planning or indeed expecting the war to start when it did.
(5) The report in a lengthy appendix discussing the Russian Olympic doping scandal treats the Russian government’s involvement in the doping of Russian athletes as proved. However the International Olympic Committee’s own investigation of this claim says quite clearly that it has not been proved. See my detailed discussion here.
These are just five examples taken at random where the report simply ignores contrary evidence in order to make its case.
Anyone willing to plough through the 200 plus pages of the report is welcome to do so if they wish to find others.
The report is also characterised by some quite remarkable leaps of logic.
For example the fact that President Putin and Russia are extremely popular in Bulgaria is President Putin’s and Russia’s fault. President Putin and Russia are also somehow to blame for the fact that there is massive corruption in Ukraine.
Presumably President Putin and Russia should be working to make themselves unpopular in Bulgaria, and presumably they also control Ukraine’s anti-corruption endeavours and are responsible for their failure despite the intense hostility to Russia of the current Ukrainian government.
The report in fact harps on the subject of “Russian corruption” to a frankly unhinged degree.
Not only are Putin and Russia corrupt but they ‘export’ corruption everywhere so that corruption wherever it happens whether in Ukraine or elsewhere is caused by them.
By way of example the political conflict in Catalonia is not the result of internal tensions within Catalonia. It is the result of a plan by corrupt Russian businessmen and organised crime chiefs to gain control of Catalonia in order to secure the wealth they have hidden there, and to gain control of Catalonia’s economy by driving out the Spanish and European firms which were formerly based there.
The association of Russia with corruption highlights another fact about the report.
It begins with the common ritual statement that its quarrel is with President Putin and his “regime” and not with the Russian people
…..it is important to draw a distinction between Mr. Putin’s corrupt regime and the people of Russia. Many Russian citizens strive for a transparent, accountable government that operates under the democratic rule of law, and we hold hope for better relations in the future with a Russian government that reflects these demands.
In practice, as the obsession with Russian corruption all too clearly shows, the report finds it impossible to sustain this claim. Hostility not just to Putin and his “regime” but to Russia itself is in fact present in every paragraph.
Thus the report contains a lengthy and tendentious discussion of Soviet disinformation activities during the Cold War though their relevance to what President Putin and his government are doing today is not obvious.
However the Soviets who carried out these disinformation activities were (mainly) Russians, which is obviously the reason the report discusses them at such length.
In other words Russians always and invariably engage in disinformation: they did so during the Cold War at the time of the USSR, and – because they are Russians – they are doing so again now.
Even the Russian government’s efforts to support Russian culture both at home and abroad is somehow sinister, as if the promotion of Russian culture is in itself sinister
Under Putin, the Kremlin has engaged and boosted cultural forces and religious institutions inside Russia to provide an additional bulwark against the democratic values and actors it paints as anathema to the country’s interests….
The Kremlin funds, directly or indirectly, a number of government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and think tanks throughout Russia and Europe. These groups carry out a number of functions, from disseminating pro-Kremlin views to seeking to influence elections abroad.
Following a series of ‘‘color revolutions’’ in former Soviet Union republics like Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, in 2006 the Russian government established the World Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots, which is responsible for coordinating the activities of Russian organizations abroad and their communications with the Kremlin.
Some GONGOs that receive and disburse funds from the Kremlin, such as the Russkiy Mir Foundation and Rossotrudnichestvo, established in 2007 and 2008, are headquartered in Russia but have branches throughout the EU, and are led by senior Russian political figures like the foreign minister or the chair of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of the parliament.
Kremlin-linked oligarchs also sit on the boards of many of the GONGOs.
Based on conservative estimates from publicly available data, the Kremlin spends about $130 million a year through foundations like Rossotrudnichestvo and the Gorchakov fund, and, in 2015, channeled another $103 million in presidential grants to NGOs; after including support from state enterprises and private companies, however, actual funding levels may be much higher.
Most of the Russian government’s funding is focused on post-Soviet ‘’swing states’’ like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia, but Kremlin-supported groups also operate in the Baltic states and the Balkans, especially Serbia and Bulgaria.
The Russkiy Mir Foundation which is referred to here is a cultural foundation and is Russia’s equivalent of the British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute.
Rossotrudnichestvo is a Russian government agency concerned with administering civilian foreign aid programmes, principally within the territories of the former USSR.
The Gorchakov Fund is a publicly funded body intended to support Russian diplomacy (Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and former Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov are both trustees).
There is no justification for conflating the work of Rossotrudnichestvo and of the Gorchakov Fund with the quite different work of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, and it misrepresents the nature of the Russkiy Mir Foundation to do so.
Consistent with its hostility to the Russian government’s efforts to support Russian culture is the report’s intense and frankly sinister hostility to the Orthodox Church, to which the report devotes a whole chapter. Thus we read
One prominent example is the strong ties that Putin and his inner circle have forged with the Russian Orthodox Church and its affiliates.
The Russian Orthodox Church enjoys special recognition under Russian law, while in contrast, laws such as the 2006 NGO laws and the 2016 ‘‘Yarovaya’’ package of counterterrorism laws have enabled pressure against non-Russian Orthodox religious entities through cumbersome registration processes and administrative constraints, restrictions on proselytizing, and expanded surveillance.
Additionally, the U.S. State Department has reported that the Russian state has provided security and official vehicles to the Russian Orthodox patriarch (but not to other religious leaders) and noted reports that the Russian Orthodox Church has been a ‘‘primary beneficiary’’ of presidential grants ostensibly designed to reduce NGO dependence on foreign funding.103 In return for the state’s favor, the Russian Orthodox Church has promoted Putin and the state’s policies at multiple turns.
A former editor of the official journal of the Moscow Patriarchate (the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church and its affiliated churches outside the country) told The New York Times in 2016 that ‘‘The [Russian Orthodox] church has become an instrument of the Russian state. It is used to extend and legitimize the interests of the Kremlin.’’
This is noteworthy given Putin’s roots in the KGB—the tip of the Soviet spear in restricting religious activity during the Communist era—and it reflects a careful cultivation of his identity as a man of faith and a defender of the Orthodox faithful.
The image of Putin as defender of traditional religious and cultural values has also been leveraged by the Kremlin ‘‘as both an ideology and a source of influence abroad.’’
In projecting itself as ‘‘the natural ally of those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights,’’ the Russian government has been able to mobilize some Orthodox actors in places like Moldova and Montenegro to vigorously oppose integration with the West…..
Just as the Kremlin has strengthened its relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church and used it to bolster its standing at home, the Russian Orthodox Church also serves as its proxy abroad, and the two institutions [Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian Orthodox Church – AM] have several overlapping foreign policy objectives……
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also used Kirill to promote a relativistic view of human rights at the United Nations, arranging for him to give a speech in 2008 (before he was Patriarch) at the UN Human Rights Council, where he bemoaned that ‘‘there is a strong influence of feministic views and homosexual attitudes in the formulation of rules, recommendations and programs in human rights advocacy.’’
According to a report by Chatham House, in Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia, Orthodox parent committees, modelled on similar Russian Orthodox committees, have launched attacks on LGBT and feminist groups.
These committees ‘‘claim that gender equality is a Western construct intended to spread homosexuality in Eastern Europe, blaming the United States and the EU for the decay of ‘moral health’ in the respective societies.’’
The Russian Orthodox Church also enjoys strong financial backing from Kremlin-linked oligarchs Konstantin Malofeev and Vladimir Yakunin, who are both under U.S. sanctions.
In Bulgaria and Romania, the Kremlin even allegedly coopted Orthodox priests to lead anti-fracking protests.
In Moldova, senior priests have worked to halt the country’s integration with Europe (leading anti-homosexual protests and even claiming that new biometric passports for the EU were ‘’satanic’’ because they had a 13-digit number), and priests in Montenegro led efforts to block the country from joining NATO.
These comments paint Orthodox priests and believers everywhere and not just in Russia as proxies of the Kremlin, denying them any independent agency – at least when they speak out against Western cultural practices and US policies – and representing them as enemies of democracy.
To which all I can say is that Western attitudes to the Orthodox Church have witnessed an extraordinary reversal within my lifetime.
During the Soviet period the Orthodox Church was the heroic victim of Soviet persecution. Today it is the despicable handmaiden of Russian power. The one constant is Western hostility to the Russian government. That never changes.
The greater part of the report is however taken up with the now standard accusations about Russia’s supposed disinformation strategy and the way Russian media agencies like RT and Sputnik are supposedly destabilising the West and are interfering in Western political processes.
There are the usual calls to counter and censor these agencies and to police social media and the internet in order to discredit or eliminate these pro-Russian voices, “pro-Russian” in this context being anyone anywhere who voices any criticisms of the foreign policy of the United States or who makes any criticisms of its domestic conditions, even if that person is an American.
This harping on Russia’s disinformation strategy is every bit as obsessive as everything else in the report.
Its starting point is the belief that Russians – including of course the Russian media – have no right to hold or express views on any question which disagree with those of the US government.
That in turn leads inexorably to the assumption that when Russians do express such views they must be acting in bad faith.
The totalitarian nature of this reasoning is obvious, but the Democratic Senators who have authored the report seem oblivious to it.
Reading the report it is in fact quite clear that its authors believe that ‘disinformation’ is what Russians do, so that the Russians are ultimately responsible for all ‘disinformation’ wherever it takes place. Thus if a false story appears anywhere on the internet it must be the Russians who are to blame for it.
Moreover since no right thinking person could ever agree with the Russians on any issue – and certainly not on any issue which involves criticism of or disagreement with the US government – it follows that anyone who does so must be either a Russian agent or a “useful idiot”.
This is not just totalitarian thinking; it is also profoundly paranoid thinking. At one level it demonstrates an astonishing loss of nerve. During the Cold War it was the Soviets who placed restrictions on the flow of information. Now the reverse is happening. It is however the paranoia which stands out.
This is all the more ironic in that the report actually contains a chapter entitled “the Kremlin’s paranoid pathology”.
This chapter despite its title in fact contains only one passage which discusses Russian beliefs in order to show that they are paranoid
Putin’s regime and most of the Russian people view the history of the late 20th century and early 21st century in a starkly different light than most of the West does. The historical narrative popular in Russia paints this period as one of repeated attempts by the West to undermine and humiliate Russia.
In reality, the perceived aggression of the United States and the West against Russia allows Putin to ignore his domestic failures and present himself as the leader of a wartime nation: a ‘‘Fortress Russia.’’
This narrative repeatedly flogs core themes like enemy encirclement, conspiracy, and struggle, and portrays the United States, NATO, and Europe as conspiring to encircle Russia and make it subservient to the West. As part of this supposed conspiracy, the EU goes after former Soviet lands like Ukraine, and Western spies use civil society groups to meddle in and interfere with Russian affairs.
(bold italics added)
This is the only passage in the report which admits that the Russian people and President Putin and the Russian government on a specific issue believe one and the same thing.
The problem with this passage is however that the Russian beliefs it discusses cannot be described as paranoid for the simple reason that Russians are right to believe them.
Recently declassified documents have now confirmed what in truth has been known all along: that the West promised Russia on multiple occasions that NATO would not be extended eastwards, and that the West subsequently broke this promise.
Western interference in Ukraine is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact.
So is Western interference in Russian domestic politics, with Time magazine for example openly bragging about the US’s role in engineering Boris Yeltsin’s fraudulent election victory in 1996.
By contrast believing that stories which appear in the Russian media and the relatively small number of often contradictory social media messages which are claimed to originate in Russia can have any significant impact on Western political processes is paranoid, as is constantly harping on about supposed Russian misdeeds even when evidence has appeared which proves they are not true (see above).
What then is the significance of this strange report?
At its most basic, the report must be seen as a shot in the bitter partisan conflict which is currently raging in the US between President Trump and his Democratic Party opponents.
That the primary target of the report is actually President Trump – who continues to say that he wants better relations with Russia – is confirmed by these words in the report
Following attacks like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, U.S. presidents have rallied the country and the world to address the challenges facing the nation. Yet the current President of the United States has barely acknowledged the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s repeated attacks on democratic governments and institutions, let alone exercised the kind of leadership history has shown is necessary to effectively counter this kind of aggression.
Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president.
The threat posed by Mr. Putin’s meddling existed before the current U.S. Administration, and may well extend beyond it. Yet, as this report will demonstrate, the Russian government’s malign influence operations can be deterred.
Several countries in Europe took notice of the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election and realized the danger posed to their democracies. They have taken steps to build resilience against Mr. Putin’s aggression and interference, and the range of effective measures implemented by European countries provide valuable lessons for the United States.
To that end, this report recommends a series of actions that the United States should take across government, civil society, and the private sector—and in cooperation with our allies—to push back against the Kremlin’s aggression and establish a set of long-term norms that can neutralize such efforts to undermine democracy.
Yet it must be noted that without leadership from the President, any attempt to marshal such a response will be inherently weakened at the outset
(bold italics added)
The trouble is that the paranoid language of the report shows that the Democratic Party Senators who have authored it believe what they say.
They are not conjuring up an invented threat from Russia in order to attack Donald Trump. Rather their reason for attacking Donald Trump is first and foremost because he does not share their paranoid view of Russia.
To suppose otherwise would be both complacent and wrong.
That makes the prospect of any rapprochement taking place between the US and Russia in any foreseeable future extremely improbable, to put it mildly.
Even if this is only a minority report, the fact that it has not been ridiculed and criticised across the US for the paranoid and preposterous document that it is shows the extent to which paranoia about Russia within the US elite has become universal and internalised.
Paranoia of this intensity is not susceptible to reason or argument, and it is all but impossible to see how a rapprochement between the US and Russia is possible when there are so many powerful people in the US who hold these views.
The report also shows the intense pressure Donald Trump is under to be even tougher with Russia than the US already is.
As well as demanding the banning or restriction of “pro-Russian” voices in the media and on the internet, the authors of the report press for intensified confrontation with Russia on every possible front.
They want more military spending to confront Russia, more military deployments close to Russia’s borders, more interference in Russian domestic processes, more efforts to block Russian oil and gas exports to Europe, they want Nord Stream 2 cancelled, and they demand an almost certainly illegal prohibition on US citizens buying Russian sovereign debt.
Even if some of these demands are unworkable or are resisted, the pressure is so intense that some of them at least are likely to be implemented, whilst the prospect of any relaxation of the restrictions which are already in place quite simply is not there.
In the longer term it is difficult to avoid being deeply disturbed by all this.
Back on 12th October 2016 I wrote an article for The Duran discussing how racism against Russians has become the one form of racism which continues to be acceptable in the West, and how this racism and the ugly stereotyping of Russians to which it gives rise is dangerous because it lowers the threshold where violence against Russians becomes acceptable.
This report – with its hostile attitude towards the spread of Russian culture and to the Russian Orthodox Church, and its depiction of corruption, aggression, disinformation and organised crime activity as peculiarly Russian activities – is a case in point.
It is inconceivable that such a report could be written about the cultural, religious and information policies of any other other country – Israel or China are obvious examples – without this provoking a furious outcry. By contrast in the case of Russia such a report not only can be published; it is widely treated as authoritative and goes unchallenged.
What the report shows is how far these anti-Russian attitudes which can be accurately called racist – and which President Putin has recently compared to anti-semitism – have become internalised even at the highest levels of the US government and of the US political elite, so that it is not only possible but even respectable to repeat them there.
That is a very worrying fact, and it is impossible to see how it can end any way but badly.