Monday, May 22, 2017

On Russia

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.                  
Winston Churchill

Rule of law is not consistent with state-sponsored brutality. When the Russian government attacks civilians in Chechnya, killing innocents without discrimination or accountability, neglecting orphans and refugees, it can no longer expect aid from international lending institutions. Moscow needs to operate with civilized self-restraint. 
Republican Party Platform of 2000

Elections are not a viable means of ensuring democratic change in Russia.  
Boris Berezovsky

I’m going to lead with a facile statement that, to me, is obvious and self-evident: Russia is Bad.

More specifically, Putin is bad. But as he is the king of Russia — a modern-day, autocratic czar — it is safe for the moment to ascribe criticisms of him directly to Russia.

As per usual, correctly determining the historical “start” of the discussion can save us a lot of time. From Caesar, the kings of Russia took their title: Czar, reigning for centuries as absolute monarchs.  The rulers changed, the names changed, but in the end, there was always an Emperor. The revolution of 1917 violently deposed Emperor Nicholas II, yet by 1924 there was another emperor: Joseph Stalin.

Stalin, thankfully, did not live forever, and his successors were successively weaker. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to restructure and temper the extremes of Soviet society (glasnost and perestroika) were of decidedly mixed success; the government collapsed. A man who can win a Nobel peace prize is not an emperor iron-handed enough to rule Russia.

The fall of the Soviet Union is as good a place to start as any. When the USSR broke, it splintered into 15 independent republics: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Most still share close ties with the Russian state.
Khazakstan is, by all accounts, "very nice".
The president of the newly minted Russian Federation, Boris Yeltzin, can charitably be described as "painfully corrupt". Under his administration, Russia’s GDP fell by 50%, quality of life sharply decreased, and oligarchs made billions off newly privatized industries. His own vice president denounced Yeltzin’s policies as “economic genocide” (though this is probably still preferable to regular old Stalin-style genocide). In response to the widespread popular unrest, Yeltzin attempted to disband the parliament, who disagreed vehemently. This was eventually solved by bringing in the army, killing a bunch of people, arresting the leaders of the resistance, and greatly strengthening the office of the president.

Enter Vladimir Putin, stage right. An ex-KGB agent and director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), he became influential very quickly; within a decade of entering politics, Yeltzin appointed him prime minister (August 9, 1999). Now hold onto your butts, because it goes fast from here and reputable sources are hard to come by. Finding sources clear, strong, and uncontestable enough to punch through the fog of misinformation surrounding Putin is difficult, for reasons I will soon make clear (we are seeing a similar effect in America, now that Putin’s “fake news” campaign has succeeded).

In early September 1999, 4 apartment buildings were bombed, killing 293 Russians and injuring more than 1000. This American Life summarizes what followed:

Putin blamed it on Chechen rebels, invaded Chechnya, started the Second Chechen War, which he won. It was a popular war. Catapulted him into the presidency. When he took office, he had 53% of the vote. And even back then, when he took office in 2000, there was a question. Did he bomb those buildings himself to create the pretext for the war and his own rise to power?

Moscow’s official story is odd at best. Chechnya had no apparent motivation, and planning/coordinating such widespread attacks on foreign soil would be almost impossible. The explosives used were military-grade, and access to the one factory that produced it was tightly controlled. But the most suspicious part of the story was their explanation for the “5th” bomb.

In the city of Ryazan, 2 weeks after the first bomb, two men in a suspicious car are observed carrying heavy bags down into the basement of an apartment block. The police are called, a detonator is found, the bags contain the same military-grade explosive used in the previous bombings (to which only the military and the FSB have access), and the men are badge-carrying FSB agents. Their presence and behavior is explained as a “training exercise”, and the whole thing is brushed aside in the face of the popular new war.

There are several other suspicious goings-on that I haven’t mentioned, and various investigations have been attempted by people within the government, journalists, and external human rights investigators. However, their findings have been limited, since the people investigating tend to abruptly turn up dead. This is a troubling pattern that we will come back to.

But none of that matters! The war is popular, and Putin is growing in popularity as the face of the war. Then, suddenly, on New Year’s Eve 1999, in what could disingenuously be described as a “Y2K” panic, Yeltzin resigns, naming Vladimir Putin as acting president. Putin then immediately suspends all corruption investigations into Boris Yeltzin, which is not suspicious in the slightest. Next, he reschedules the election, moving it up by months and giving the opposition party little time to mobilize. Thus, in March 2000, within 8 months of his initial appointment, Putin is elected president of Russia.

Since his election, he has “served” as president from 2000 to 2008, Prime Minister (as appointed by his direct successor) from 2008-2012, and president again from 2012 onwards. The Russian constitution had two 4-year term limits, as per the United States, until they were altered to allow Putin to run again. With the now 6-year term limits, Putin will be in office until his inevitable reelection in 2018. Presumably in 2024, something else will come up; a Czar does not relinquish his power.

During my research, I was struck by the parallels between the 1999 bombings in Russia and the September 11th attacks. Not because I think Bush was responsible (if journalists and the head of the 9/11 commission turned up dead, that would be a better parallel), but because in many ways, it doesn’t matter. Again, as per This American Life:

Whether the government or people around Putin played a role or whether they didn't, the effect is the same. Either you believe what they said about the bombings, that there were terrorists out to kill ordinary Russians, in which case you are frightened and the world is a very scary place; or you believe that your government or someone connected to the government could be bloody-minded enough to kill 300 innocent civilians in their beds, in which case the world is a very scary place and you should be frightened. This is how it works in a police state. You should be frightened. And that's how the government exercises control.

And control is very much the name of the game. But the problem is more subtle and insidious than a big singular bad guy. Putin is very popular in Russia, and the reasons are not easily brushed aside. During Putin’s first term, Russia’s GDP grew 72%, improving every year. Putin was instrumental in transforming the collapsed soviet state into a globe-spanning superpower — and his citizens love him for it. His approval rate remains incredibly high, with some polls suggesting support in excess of 80%. For a gestalt parallel, he’s as popular as Bush was in the weeks following 9/11, and has been for well over a decade. Russia is Putin-crazy, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Our graph shows something else disturbing, but not surprising: a spike in popularity following the forcible annexation of Crimea. Typically, increased prosperity following a popular war against a weak enemy is the sort of thing that gets people going.

But the “how” is more relevant to our discussion, because there’s a big hidden piece to this puzzle: propaganda. Now I’m fairly confident that the images of propaganda closest to mind are WWII pieces: Rosie the Riveter, and so on. Modern propaganda is seldom so obvious. To this end, let us focus our attention on an ad-man by the name of Vladislav Surkov.
Here he is sitting next to Putin, discussing the situation in Ukraine with Angela Merkel
He’s an interesting guy. When he was officially banned from entering the United States due to his involvement with the Russian takeover of Crimea, he responded: “The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work.” However, he’s also directly responsible for the government’s crackdown on free speech, intimidation of opposing parties, and quashing of journalists. So, a cool guy, but not a good one.

Under his auspices, Russia has moved toward a system he calls “Sovereign Democracy”, wherein the entire political landscape is carefully “managed”. (Though of course there is still reliance on the old standby: vote fixing). Any explanation of sovereign democracy is going to fall short, but imagine a system where viewpoints of all political parties are carefully planned and accounted for. Such a system may appear competitive, with actual dissent permitted. Yet, in a fascinating Goldstein-ian wrinkle, the ideologies of the party, the opposition, and everyone else are all written ahead of time. The Atlantic writes:

As the former deputy head of the presidential administration, later deputy prime minister and then assistant to the president on foreign affairs, Surkov has directed Russian society like one great reality show. He claps once and a new political party appears. He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth, who are trained for street battles with potential pro-democracy supporters and burn books by unpatriotic writers on Red Square. As deputy head of the administration he would meet once a week with the heads of the television channels in his Kremlin office, instructing them on whom to attack and whom to defend, who is allowed on TV and who is banned, how the president is to be presented, and the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in.
One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.

Unfortunately for us, Russia’s political managing is not contained within its borders. Human psychology is readily exploitable: give a man two choices, he can decide easily. Give him a hundred, and he’ll be choosing at random. Chaos is the tool and the goal. When fact and fiction cannot be distinguished, apathy and confusion are the inevitable results. Some of you may have been reading between the lines so far, but we’ll get back to that in a second.

Going back to Putin’s 80% approval rate, identifying the source of the protests is instructive. The state-run news programs (and at this point they are all state-run) still hold massive sway, but the fiercest opposition comes from intellectuals, students, and anyone with access to media not filtered through Surkov’s machine. It’s no wonder, then, that the first step to control is to destroy trust of any news, especially news you do not directly regulate.

We have been witnessing the development of a similar system in the United States for quite some time: the parallel “right wing” news organizations of Fox, Breitbart, et al. The rallying cry of “fake news” is only new here, in Russia it has been the name of the game for over a decade. While the commentariat is talking about Russian “weaponization” of fake news, the truth is even worse.

They’re all on the same side. Putin’s government is highly conservative and nationalistic, and happily supports groups in any countries whose views align with theirs. We’ve seen accusations of influence and interference in America, Britain, France, Netherlands, and more, but it takes two to tango. There are ready allies in countries all over the world, who are anxious and eager to turn the clock back on international cooperation, human rights, and anything else inconvenient. With the advent of the internet, international borders are no impediment to information sharing, and Russia has responded accordingly. Surkov’s political machine doesn’t stop at Moscow’s edge, it works on any media it can touch. That is to say, on all of them.

Legalities are of no great concern; international law is something to be obeyed only when it serves the national interest. Russia has been waging what Surkov deems a “non-linear war”, and it has been doing so for some time. This is bad.

Democracy is losing, human rights are losing, Liberal ideals, and the concept that people have a right to appoint their own government is losing, and it’s losing on every conceivable axis. Which is exactly what we would expect to see, if only one side was actively waging war. It’s about slow and steady gains, which is exactly what we’re seeing.
That's St. Basil's cathedral, but I get what you're saying TIME magazine.
Now I am (ostensibly) trying not to be alarmist, and it’s not like all the credit can be pushed onto Russia — there are other historical forces at work. But if any place could be said to be the cause, it’s Russia. The cold war has ended in name only, and any alliance with Russia will only go as far as Russia’s self-interest. By deliberate design, the Russian citizenry is cynical, amoral, and unconcerned with higher ideals. The leader of the country with one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, makes a deliberate policy of antagonizing the west and destabilizing it on any available axis. And, as in any such conflict, nuclear war is never far from the table.

Basically, if your political views are in alignment with a person who kills journalists and political opponents, while waging aggressive war on neighboring countries, it might be wise to reevaluate them.

Fighting back is an important first step, but even more important is establishing a kind of quarantine, a digital iron curtain. We need a secure system, with verifiable tags and sources. It is na├»ve to assume that information and propaganda have no power; there is a reason China strictly regulates its internet. If the internet is a channel of attack, we may have to do the same. 

(Though China is probably not the best country to imitate if we're trying to retain our ideals)

Obviously, I’m not in favor of a censored internet, but unless we have a strong enough counter-informational campaign (which we do not), the ideals we (should) value most are vulnerable.

I can only hope we aren't too late.

5/29/17 EDIT: Trump's advancement of Russian interests is proceeding apace

At this point, it seems clear that it doesn't actually matter whether Trump colluded with Russia or not. Active collusion simply isn't needed; the policies and interests being advanced are the bigger concern. If there's no collusion, it's because none is necessary.


  1. Well... As a person who hears a lot of Russian propaganda I can tell that this post has quite a few things in common. And some points look like author does not completely understand what the things looked in ex-USSR countries in the first two decades after its collapse.

    If you care to hear feedback on your post from someone living in the are of strong Russian influence I'm interested to comment more (just don't want to engage if that's not the case)

    1. Absolutely. I strive to make my posts as accurate as possible, so if there are specific factual inaccuracies, please do point them out (preferably with citations so I can verify them).

    2. Well. So, let's start from the beginning.
      "I’m going to lead with a facile statement that, to me, is obvious and self-evident: Russia is Bad."
      What can I say? I really don't like Russia. I consider their influence on my country (Belarus) very negative. And I can talk quite a lot about it. But "Lets start with obvious - these guys are Bad" is exactly the way propaganda work. Switch to Russian news and you will hear just this. "Lets start with obvious". Like you know, "Ukrainians are Nazis" or "USA is the greatest warmonger of 21 century". "Those guys are Bad" is actually one of the favourite ideas of Russian propaganda - the best way to distract people from any inner economical or political problems.

      But let's put aside the introductions and get to the topic. What you say about Yeltsin-time corruption and quality of life decrease is technically true. But they are true in the same way as "Hitler didn't like Jews". Certainly true but doesn't even starts do describe a scale of this disaster. First almost everyone lost all their savings to hyperinflation. You had enough money to buy an apartment or a car? Well if you didn't buy it then in a year you could buy a pack of cigarettes for it. And while you don't have any savings your salary could be delayed for months if not years. No welfare, of course. Crime rates skyrocketed, so you could start a business but wold have multiple protection rackets over you the next day. And this is what lots of people associate with democracy, westernization and other beautiful words. And nowadays I can think that all of this was worth it. Tht it's good we dropped the Soviet ideology. But my father remembers the desperation when he couldn't feed the family and hates the West for it - and his reasons are pretty strong.

      Putin being behind the explosions... Doesn't seem so. Looks like the same kind of conspirology as September 11 being inside job. He just didn't need this to start the war, there were enough reasons without it. After the disgracefully lost First Chechen everyone would approve. The point about explosions being military grade may seem strong for Americans but from my perspective it seems that you just can't imagine the scale of corruption in the 90th in Russia. There were no such thing as "tightly controlled access". Military was underpaid. So if you are a soldier guarding the warehouse with explosives you pocket one or two. If you are the officer you get yourself a few crates. And if you are higher commander you get a dozen of tracks. And all three of those are willing to sell for quite a small price. You know, they also need to feed families. Or build a new villa, if things go good. Hell, that was a time when the battleships were sold for scrap metal.

    3. The biggest problem with "fake news" is that there's always plenty of them on both sides.You stop listening to state propaganda and switch to opposition's independent internet media - and after some time you see that they lie just as much. Foreign media? Maybe better but not by much.
      Recently western media just started saying about Russia the same thing that Russian propaganda was saying about USA for the last five years. Yeah, I mean this part:
      "Democracy is losing, human rights are losing, Liberal ideals, and the concept that people have a right to appoint their own government is losing, and it’s losing on every conceivable axis. Which is exactly what we would expect to see, if only one side was actively waging war."
      That was exactly their point when they justified the annexation of Crimea. They sad that they were losing for decades because only one side was waging the war. That the NATO bases are closer and closer to to Russian borders because they didn't fight back. That there's more and more immorality in Russia because they didn't fight western propaganda and cultural expansion. And more and more and more of these.

      So I'd advice to be very careful with this approach. That's exactly how they justified large-scale censorship and lots of very very ugly laws

    4. Thank you for this. Many of the context-based points were victims of squeezing the information into blog form.

      Some of the understatement was intended as humor, and is delicately phrased as such (This is not meant as criticism. I know from experience that it's difficult for non-native speakers to pick up nuance, even if they are fluent in the language)

      One such victim to the condensation was the incident in the Duma between Gennadiy Seleznyov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. (though Zhirinovsky is quite a piece of work in his own right)

      The whole situation is weird, regardless of who was actually responsible.

      The "very very ugly laws" definitely aren't great, but if you have a more specific suggestion than "be careful", I'd love to hear it. Not sure how to happily solve a prisoner's dilemma if one side consistently defects.

  2. Well, first and foremost I'd say, that it's certainly not a prisoner's dilemma for any person except the highest officials of Russia and USA. The "prisoners" in prisoner's dilemma are the people who make desicion and get consequences by some pre-defined rules without the involvement of any third party. In our case - you, me, Putin, Trump and numerous russian and american factions are all participationg in this system on different roles and have really different interests.
    If we simplify the situation to the point where interests off every citizen are the same that the interests of a country and are represented by countries ruler - then we really have the prisoner's dilemma. So - do not simplify. Ever.

    When Putin demands that all Russian citizens' personal data in the internet must be stored on russian-based servers so that CIA cannot access it - then if we simplify it looks completely reasonable and beneficial for everyone on Russian side - other party can't get our data. In not so simple reality it's quite obvious that for 99% russian citizens it's much more dangerous if FSB has access to their data. It has power to do much more harm that CIA, just because it's nearby.

    When you demand to tighten control on media, internet or whatever because evil FSB can use the lack of control to attack you - just think if it really can do more harm to you and your values that this tightened control? And when you think about it do not discard the worst case scenario. When the law about offending the religious feelengs was introduced in Russia lot's of people accepted it, thinking that desecrating churches is actually bad enough to be penished. No one thought that people will be trialed for saying "There's no God" on facebook or playing a mobile game in church.
    As far as I see it Americans are more patriotic and have more trust in their government... But sometimes it's better to remeber that your government always has much more possibilities to harm you than any "enemy" government