Saturday, August 30, 2014

Russia's Next Steps

The Kremlin has begun the next stage of its operation in Ukraine, introducing large numbers of regular forces onto the scene in southeast Ukraine and basically taking over the "separatist" movement, which it orchestrated to begin with. International discussion continues to use language like "Russia is supporting the separatists," etc., but this has been obsolete for some time. Within a matter of weeks rhetoric will probably catch up to the current reality. By then, however, Russia will have likely moved on to the next phase of escalation.

By now anyone who closely follows news from Ukraine (such as the author) has become aware of the recurring patterns in the Kremlin's behavior and rhetoric:

1. Denial of involvement in the current stage of the operation to Western and domestic audiences. On the international level, this slows international responce because suspicions require time to be confirmed and proven beyond a doubt. By the time incontrovertible facts have been presented and influential players are convinced and discussing what action to take, Moscow has already moved on to the next stage.

2. Admitting to limited benevolent involvement in previous stages of the operation to a domestic audience after the fact and only as necessary. This allows time for society to become accustomed to the new situation, and it is always easier to justify things after the fact, particularly if the operation was successful.

3. Silencing any domestic grassroots protests (through incarceration, intimidation, changing the status of an increasingly activist organization to "foreign agent," which means that the organization is presumed to receive foreign funding, painting troublemakers as "Maidan orchestrators" or worse, etc.). Visible figures such as pop musicians or relatively harmless opposition leaders are permitted to have their opinion as long as there is no popular resonance.

4. Multivector domestic information control consisting of: firm control over TV stations and, to an increasing degree, radio, online news portals, and even social media; blocking of certain websites, YouTube videos, etc. Creation of a kind of virtual reality through all influential media channels that demonizes Ukraine and Western powers and promotes a kind of "benevolent" Russian fascism. Citizens may have a different opinion as long as it is perceived that there are few of them and they have no influence.

5. Multivector international information* campaign directed primarily at perceived potential allies in Western and Central Europe (which the Kremlin hopes to estrange politically from the Anglo-Saxon world) involving: recruitment of foreigners to flood online articles and posts with pro-Russia and anti-West comments to create the appearance of a majority opinion and demoralize those who think otherwise, intimidating journalists, and publishing articles in support of Russia. Close tabs are kept on sentiments in influential circles and on economic, political, and military factors through intelligence gathering, which helps the Kremlin determine which steps it can get away with.

*The information aspect of the war has caught the West largely off guard, particularly techniques of influencing popular perception through social media and disinformation. This will likely be one of the main things the West will have to develop a response to and/or protection against for future conflicts.

6. Use of confusing distractions that contribute to uncertainty and hesitation, such as imposing suspicious humanitarian convoys on Ukraine and allowing various "accidents" to happen such as shooting down a passenger liner.

7. Hints of future stages of the operation are given in public statements by influential political figures and thinkers to a domestic audience. These hints help prepare the Russian audience for likely future events, avoiding any shocks that could rile people up. These statements also apparently serve as signals to the media about what to talk about and cover. But they are also clues for international players.

Now that these patterns are becoming ever more apparent, people are paying more and more attention to hints coming out of Moscow. The Kremlin may be gradually losing its element of surprise as international players clue into their game and learn to read between the lines. The other day hints were given that Kazakhstan may be a future target of Russian operations. After all, it has a large Russian speaking population and is tightly integrated with Russia despite some movement towards China. Putin said that Kazakhstan didn't have its own statehood before the Soviet Union. Similar things were said about Ukraine in the years leading up to its invasion. Putin was also noted to have mentioned Russia's nuclear arsenal twice in a recent statement, which can be perceived as a warning to western military leaders.

If we use our imagination a bit, what kinds of disruptive things might we be able to envision happening next? (Russian leaders often label this sort of thinking "Russophobic sentiments")

- after much fighting and casualties, Russian troops establish a land corridor to Crimea and resume water and electrical supply to Crimea coming from Ukrainian territory
- as control of Donbass is secured by Russian forces, coal mining and military factors there resume their operations (to Russia's benefit), which is painted as averting a humanitarian disaster, which Russia leverages to try to gain international acceptance of its "peacekeeping" presence in the region.
- Russian troops press far enough into central Ukraine before western powers respond that their later retreat into southeast Ukraine is perceived as an "acceptable compromise."
- some costly disaster overloads Kiev's budget at just the wrong time, such as a dam burst on the Dnipro River or an explosion of the Chernobyl containment facility, neither of which would be unequivocally traceable to Russia
- an atomic bomb "accidentally" detonates in a location that is not unequivocally perceived as being an obvious military target (such as near some medium-sized town in a state bordering Russia or Ukraine), leaving other atomic powers uncertain as to how to respond or who exactly is to blame; meanwhile the Kremlin denies responsibility and promises to find and punish all those involved
- Moscow contributes to a military conflict in another region of the world, tying up the West and drawing attention away from the post-Soviet region
- Moscow pressures or blackmails Kazakhstan into become a Russian protectorate due to "dangers in the region" and begins the process of absorbing it into the Russian state
- chemical weapons cause civilian casualties in a large city in southeast Ukraine, and Moscow blames the incident on Kiev and uses it domestically as justification for a full-scale invasion of the country (which has already occurred) to protect local civilians against Ukrainian atrocities
- Moscow preemptively cuts off its oil and gas pipeline to Europe just as Western Europe is preparing to provide Ukraine with armaments to support it in the war
- Putin could die suddenly, and everyone would be left wondering what happens next

As for poor Ukraine, which has little say in the fate of its own country, we can expect to see increasing military mobilization and low-budget guerrila warfare, which Ukrainians historically have plenty of experience in. The first could be undercut by budget constraints and even bankrupcy or default, while the second will be much harder for Moscow to target and eliminate. The degree of guerrila resistance is also a wild card that Russian military experts will have be unable to predict or control. No matter what the military outcome, Moscow will have become Ukrainians' arch-enemy for years to come. Ukraine's economy also faces a substantial likelihood of collapse, though it seems international financial institutions will display a willingness to shore it up.

Within Russia, the Kremlin will endeavor to quelch any popular protests, focusing on organizers and networks. A weak spot are mothers of Russian soldiers, who will be impossible to demonize in media propaganda. Major shifts in public sentiment are always a possibility, despite the propaganda, but the Kremlin apparently feels it has this under control for now. Given the nature of the Internet, certain videos could potentially escape censorship and be distributed and viewed millions of times in a matter of days. Things like this could lead to an uncontrollable exponential rise in dissent. Russians will experience a decline in their standard of living due to sanctions, but public attention will be focused on the benefits of national unity, supporting domestic production, and military successes near Russia's borders.

Internationally, it seems likely that the West will begin to offer more and more military support for Ukraine and make increasingly menacing NATO maneuvers. NATO has apparently halted Russia at least twice in the past ten years and could do so again, though Russia would continue its covert operations while halting its overt movements. This assistance, however, may come when Russian forces are already deep into Ukraine, and Russia could negotiate for a truce that leaves them with half of Ukraine — the previously envisioned swath of land from Lugansk to Transdnistria along the southern part of Ukraine.

Obviously Russian intelligence is keeping tabs on everything that would influence the success of its operations, and each successive escalation appears to be the right thing to do given the current circumstances and the geopolitical understanding of Kremlin strategists. If Russia has decided to send in large numbers of troops and take back the Donbass region from Ukrainian forces, that means they have calculated that the benefits outweigh the risks. While their calculations could be off, it seems more likely that they would misjudge the likelihood of popular uprisings and grassroots processes than of official sanctions and military response.

It will be interesting to come back to these notes in some weeks and months and see what, if anything, has come true.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Putin Plays With Fire

News is starting to leak into Russian society of the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Some quiet group funerals have taken place where nothing was said about the true cause of the mens' death. But more and more coffins are coming back home, and the truth will soon be impossible to hide.

Until now Putin and the army leadership have denied military involvement in the war in Ukraine. Videos have recently been posted on Youtube of interrogations of Russian soldiers who were captured in the past few days in Ukraine. Most didn't realize they were being sent to Ukraine.

These videos have nearly a million views now. I don't know if they will be blocked by the Russian censors. The fate of these soldiers if they are returned to Russia is also uncertain. One says he doesn't think they will be killed, but they'll be sent to prison for sure.

This situation can't continue for long. Despite a high level of support for Putin, surveys show 5% support in Russian for a military invasion of Ukraine. There are organizations of soldiers' mothers who are very active.

The only way Putin can continue the war is to continue sending regular soldiers to Ukraine in increasing numbers. But this requires a stranglehold on information that is likely to crack with all the coffins coming home.





Sunday, August 24, 2014

Uwaga! Polish teachers needed in Poltava and Kremenchug

The TryUkraine Work Study Program has been inactive for quite some time, but I occasionally still get internship offers. Here's one (or two) for a native Polish speaker(s) to teach Polish and communicate with local staff in Russian.

Требуются преподаватели польского языка для подготовки студентов к поступлению в польские вузы. Объём работы — пара часов в день. Преподаватель получит жильё — скорее всего, комнату в принимающей семье, а также небольшую зарплату, которой хватит только на карманные расходы. Это может быть хорошая возможность для тех, кто хочет подтянуть свой русский (или украинский) язык, познакомиться с украинцами и пожить в небольшом городе. От себя добавлю, что Полтава очень приятный, зелёный город. Последний раз там был, кажется, в 2006 году.

Write to me for more information. Można nawet pisać po polsku. I will probably charge a small fee for helping to set this up. I have not decided yet.


Monday, August 18, 2014

War Update

I haven't posted for two months. During this time the so-called ATO, or Anti-Terrorist Operation, has been steadily gaining steam. The Ukrainian Army has been rebuilding itself and taking back territory from separatists. A passenger jet was shot down by a Buk land-to-air missile launcher brought over the border from Russia and operated by Russian technicians.

News from Ukrainian sources seems encouraging, but progress is consistently much slower than predicted. Non-official sources (I follow Semen Semenchenko's Facebook page; he is a volunteer battalion field commander) are not as optimistic and view the current operation as a long-term undertaking, and not something that will be over in a few weeks or months.

Occasional in-depth essays or interviews from analyst Andrey Illarionov (in Russian) are also hardly optimistic. I have mentioned Illarionov several times and want to post a recent presentation of his in English.



Here he talks about hybrid war and the Kremlin agenda. I want to point out that Illarionov is definitely one of the most alarmist voices on the subject of Ukraine, but his projections have consistently come true. I listen carefully to him to try to understand the range of possibilities of what might happen in coming months and years.

War developments

As of early August Russia appears to have been supplying considerably larger numbers of weaponry and manpower to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. I have read estimates that the proportion of Russian forces among separatists has risen from 20% to 50%. A lot of high-tech weaponry has been brought in from Russia. In addition, Ukrainian forces continue to be shelled from across the border.

The fact that Russia has been ramping up direct support for separatists despite the increasing success of the ATO and all the new sanctions is not good news. What is Mr. Putin up to? How far will he go? Does he have a clear plan, or does he simply see no way out of the current situation other than to blindly move forward?

What seems certain is that things will not end well for Putin, if history has anything to teach us.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Update on the Ukrainian-Russian War

So far we see only the "possibility of stabilization" without any actual signs of stabilization. Or maybe it's a perverse kind of stabilization whereby Ukraine sacrifices its sovereignty for the sake of stability between more important geopolitical actors.

Strange things are happening. Poroshenko becomes president and immediately declares that the antiterrorist operation needs to be over in a week (How? Through military victory, capitulation, or a ceasefire?). Three Russian tanks bearing a Russian flag cross the separatist-controlled eastern border of Ukraine and drove to Donetsk. Then Putin calls Poroshenko to talk things over, recognizing Poroshenko as the President of Ukraine, and soon thereafter calls George Bush Senior to congratulate him on his 90th birthday.

The peculiarity of the tanks, Putin's phone calls, and the almost total lack of reaction in Kiev is analyzed by Andrey Illarionov in his blog (Eng. translation here). It will soon become clear what the meaning of the tanks and the phone calls is.

Why are Ukraine's attempts to protect its sovereignty so feeble? Yes, the army's level of equipment and competency is rapidly rising. Yes, the volunteer battalion "Donbass" is growing in strength, directed by pragmatic and charismatic "Semen Semenenko" (read his interview, Eng. translation here).

But the degree of mobilization in Ukraine seems inadequate to the threat. Many Ukrainians believe that behind-the-scenes intrigue is sabotaging the government's ability to establish control over its eastern territories and undertake the large-scale reforms most Ukrainians want to see.

Things have always been like this in Ukraine. Why? Here is one increasingly plausible explanation (Eng. translation here) — the Kremlin has been trying to direct things in Ukraine all along. This could explain some of the strange events that have taken place in Ukraine in the past 20+ years. It also puts some meat onto the bones of Putin's view of Ukraine as a failed state.

Georgian ex-president Saakashvili is notably agitated and perplexed about the military situation in Ukraine in this news interview (in Ukr. and Rus. only). He characterizes the new president as "decisive" and recognizes the Ukrainian people's will to preserve their freedom, but is careful to speak euphemistically about what must be done in the east, though it is plainly clear that he believes the only solution is to destroy the separatists as quickly and decisively as possible while sparing civilians. One gets the clear impression that he is unsure whether this will actually be done (because he is aware of what's happening behind the scenes). Saakashvili says that Putin will not stop unless forced and that Putin believes that defeat in eastern Ukraine will lead to the fall of his own regime. These are plausible viewpoints.

One more broad-scale interview: Illarionov on the chances of a world war around the events in Ukraine (Eng. translation here) from before the presidential elections.

Sorry to keep referring to Illarionov, but if our aim is to obtain an understanding of events that best predicts future events and explains past ones, then we should listen. Illarionov has an incredible track record of predicting developments in Ukraine. His ability to decode diplomatic interactions that mean little to ordinary citizens is also stellar.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beginning of Stabilization in Ukraine?

There are a number of very positive developments in Ukraine. First, Ukraine has a new president — Petro Oleksiyovych Poroshenko. He garnered over 50% of the vote in the first round, meaning that a second round was not necessary. He is noticeably more modern, educated, and progressive than previous presidents. He enjoys wide support, putting to rest claims that the temporary government in Kiev following Yanukovych's disappearance was "illegitimate."

Putin chose not to interfere before the election and appears to be slowly withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border. He now has fewer cards to play, but surprise moves can hardly be ruled out. Sanctions from the West appear to be making an impact of some kind.

A small delegation of Ukrainians visited Tbilisi last week. Evgeniya Belorusets — a friend of mine — has a photo exhibit here with photos and texts about Maidan and the events in Eastern Ukraine. There was an interesting discussion at the exhibit with a well-known Ukrainian political analyst, Vladimir Fesenko, present.

Some interesting points from the discussion:


  • No one expected special forces to begin shooting at and killing protesters. No one expected that Yanukovych would to actually leave office. No one expected Crimea to actually be annexed, although analysts had speculated on the subject a number of times over the years. No one expected the events in eastern and southern Ukraine. Everyone was caught by surprise — many times. 
  • Ukrainian press is operating in conditions of "counter-propaganda" against ridiculous and shameful propaganda in the Russian press, which has more influence abroad and even within Ukraine.
  • There is a confluence of crises in Ukraine: political, geopolitical, military, financial, economic, and social. If the government and people fail to handle the crisis, the country will not survive. 
I took away from the discussion a renewed optimism that things in Ukraine would work out. Furthermore, I feel the time is ripe for serious structural changes in government and relations between citizens and government. As soon as things settle down a bit more and I am able to settle my affairs, I would like to return and spend a few months in Ukraine. I don't want to miss the historical moment when new systems are being built and long-term stability returns to the country.

At the same time, the government is conducting a serious anti-terrorist operation in Eastern Ukraine. People are dying nearly every day on both sides. As time passes and the Russians lay low, the Ukrainian army is getting better at its job. Without external support the separatists do not have a chance. Russia is feeling the pressure and seems to be withholding more direct active support of separatists. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

A De-escalation of the Ukraine-Russia Crisis?

Political analyst and former Putin aide Andrey Illarionov believes that a significant change of course has taken place in the Kremlin due to western military pressure. He compares it to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the world stood on the threshold of nuclear war. Here is his analysis (here is a Google translate version in English).

Illarionov demonstrates point by point that Russia had been preparing for a major war up to April 26, but messages coming from Moscow from April 28 onward have had an markedly different flavor. What happened in the 48 hours between the evening of the 26th and the 28th?

A partial answer can be found in press releases from the Russian and American Defense Ministries published on April 28. The press releases speak of an hour-long conversation between Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. I'll translate Illarionov's summary and conclusion (points 19-21).

19. A brief summary of the documents cited above:
"In view of the Russian army concentration on the Russian-Ukrainian border and the presence of clear signs of its readiness to invade continental Ukraine at any moment, the U.S. administration temporarily stopped trying to persuade its Moscow counterpart, as it had been doing the previous two months, and began speaking a language the Kremlin could understand. In the language of the Russian Defense Ministry's press release the signal is described as follows: "The Russian Minister described the increased activity of US and NATO armed forces at Russian borders in Eastern Europe as unprecedented." In the language of the US Defense Ministry the signal that was sent is described in this way: "Hagel emphasized to his Russian counterpart how dangerous the situation in Ukraine remains and that Shoygu "reiterated his assurance that Russian forces would not invade." Sec. Hagel also repeated his call for an end to Russia's destabilizing influence inside Ukraine and warned that continued aggression would further isolate Russia and result in more diplomatic and economic pressure." 
Thus, it can be stated that the unprecedented increased activity of US and NATO armed forces at Russian borders in Eastern Europe, together with diplomatic and economic pressure averted the invasion of Ukraine by Russian army forces and halted the continually increasing momentum of a new war in Europe. 
20. In other words, on April 26-28, 2014, the US administration and armed forces began to take measures apparently similar to those taken by the US administration and armed forces on August 11-12, 2008, which halted the Russian army offensive towards Tbilisi and led to a cease-fire in the Russian-Georgian war. 
21. If the US administration and armed forces together with the government of Ukraine had begun to take measures not on April 26-28, 2014, but exactly two months earlier, on February 26-28, then the Russian-Ukrainian war would have been halted at its very earliest stages, Ukrainian Crimea would not have been occupied and illegally annexed by Russia, a multitude of documents of international law would not have been violated, the system of international relations and global security which had been taken seven decades since WWII to create through the efforts of hundreds of nations at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars would not have been destroyed, and dozens, if not hundreds, of people would not have lost their lives.

What remains to be seen now is whether the de-escalation is just a tactical retreat or a long-term change of course.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Moderate View on the Situation in Kiev and Southeast Ukraine from a Russian Politician

While the Ukrainian news site that I follow, Pravda.com.ua, seems to be pretty good at covering news and providing some interesting analysis, it has a few sources of bias that are typical of many news sources:

  • Articles sometimes have titles that are misleading or make fun of certain politicians
  • The use of loaded terms instead of more neutral descriptors
  • More intense coverage of certain issues — what certain politicians/groups/countries are doing wrong — and less coverage of other issues, like mistakes made by the new government. 
  • Comments are... often filled with hate in both directions
As a class, journalists tend to be idealistic and naive about some aspects of power politics. But where can you get the other side of the story? I often enjoy analytical articles by political scientists, political advisors, etc. who understand the logic of things better than most journalists. 

There was just one politician in the Russian Duma who voted against the accession of Crimea to Russia on March 20: Ilya Ponomarev. He recently made a trip to Ukraine and reports on the situation there after meeting with politicians and political groups and traveling around the country. I found his report very balanced and indicative of real issues in Ukraine that are poorly covered by Ukrainian Pravda and similar news outlets. 

Here's the original in Russian and a Google Translate version in English

Some interesting points from the article that help balance the perspective:
  • The new government in Kiev also represents a group of oligarchs and representatives of big business. There has been a redivision of power and property.
  • The Euromaidan was a genuine popular protest (who could think otherwise?!), but all it has achieved so far politically is the redistribution of power at the top echelons. A choice between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko as president is not what people went to the streets to achieve. 
  • The much talked about lustration process (governments' policies of mass disqualification of those associated with the abuses under the prior regime) is basically stuck because the Maidan demanded it but lustration would threaten the positions of many who have benefited from Euromaidan. So they're trying to do a kind of "selective lustration" that they hope will satisfy Maidan supporters. 
  • Pravyy Sektor ("Right Sector") activists are basically just like skinheads in Russia — grown and fed by political powers. But their role in Ukraine is vastly overstated by Russian media. Also, the author reports not encountering any "Banderovtsy" — a vague term thrown around by Russian media to refer to Ukrainian nationalists intent on persecuting Russians and Russian speakers. 
  • The Kremlin's actions surrounding Ukraine have severely damaged Russia's reputation in the eyes of Ukrainians. Most of their angst is directed personally at Vladimir Putin, but some of it carries over onto feelings towards Russia and Russians in general, particularly because so many Ukrainians are aware of what Russians think about the issues and the propaganda they are fed through the news. 
  • "Russians are the victims of government propaganda and sincerely believe they are saving a brother nation from fascists who have seized power in Kiev thanks to money from the CIA and the European Union."
  • Youth in Kiev are enlisting in militias and the army in large numbers. Ponomarev has never seen so many Ukrainian flags and so much patriotism and sees it as a national rebirth. 
  • Most Ukrainian citizens viewed Crimea as "not completely Ukrainian" and recognize that the dominant Russian speaking populace always looked towards Russia. That doesn't negate the amoral nature of the takeover.
  • People don't just blame Russia for the takeover of Crimea, but also the previous leadership of Ukraine that failed to provide a better life for people there, and the current leadership that failed to defend the peninsula. 
  • Kiev is full of alarm and heated political discussions but is still calm. Donetsk Region is currently under battle, and firearms are being used (but no artillery or fighter planes).
  • Only 20% of Ukrainian army and police forces joined the Russian side in Crimea. The rest left when given the chance. 
  • In the three problem regions of Kharkov, Donetsk, and Lugansk, there are roughly four equal groups: those who want to become part of Russia, those who want to stay in Ukraine but conduct federalization, those who want to preserve a unitary Ukrainian state, and those who are unsure. It's a different situation than Crimea and portends civil war if events continue as they are going.
  • "There is no massive Russian intervention, but there are special forces there (GRU? [Main Intelligence Directorate forces — translator]) and subversive groups who perform a directing and organizing role for so-called self-defense forces."
  • The main reason for protests in the southeast is not the desire to join Russia, but fear of a new wave of property redistribution and discontent with authorities in Kiev. Russia is but a protector and a provider of stability to these people. 
  • 60% of the population in these regions are afraid of "Banderovtsy," 48% of poverty, and 38% — of Russian soldiers. 
  • Donbass mine workers look at the situation in Russia's Rostov Oblast, where almost all the coal mines were shut down. They don't want to enter Russia. 
  • People in the east are displeased that Kiev government leaders don't come and talk to them or make visits only to their local protégés, and that the national agenda is being set by representatives of western and central regions.
  • People in the southeast did not understand why oligarchs were appointed governers of their oblasts and don't believe in the good intentions and ideals of pro-Maidan politicians. 
  • The government in Kiev needs to become closer to people in the east if it wants to keep them in the country. They need to go out onto the squares and engage with people and not be afraid of being pelted with eggs. 
  • Quite a few high officials actually don't want to keep eastern Ukraine because it is subsidized from the budget and they don't want to revive industry. 
  • A referendum on federalization should be held. Only 20-25% of people around the country support federalization, and it would help calm tensions. Without such a referendum the presidential election might be disrupted in the east, with dire consequences. Some politicians in Kiev are coming around to this idea. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pro-Kremlin Sympathy among Naive Westerners

I have encountered quite a few Westerners recently who do not know Ukraine well and cannot understand understand why their governments refuse to acknowledge the results of the Crimean referendum. The idea of holding a popular referendum on an issue and then acting accordingly on the governmental level seems so perfectly democratic. Why would their governments oppose the "will of the people" in some other country, especially on an issue as benign as which country to be part of?

What so many people in the West do not understand is that democratic institutions such as "free elections" and "referendums" can easily be manipulated in authoritarian states to produce whatever result is desirable to the state.

Westerners have not experienced and can barely imagine the types of violations and tricks used. These techniques were widely applied in the Soviet Union and have continued to be honed and perfected in post-Soviet states where dictators and autocrats maintain their grip on the state while displaying the external attributes of democracy to the outside world.

Here is a sample list of election fraud techniques gleaned from the Russian Wikipedia:

  • refusal to register certain candidates because they do not meet certain requirements established by by the dominant political power 
  • creating polling stations that are too tiny or numerous to be properly monitored given limited party funds
  • photographing filled in ballots or otherwise breaching voting confidentiality 
  • falsifying the ratings of candidates and political parties leading up to the election in order to win the support of conformist voting segments who go along with the majority
  • buying voters or exerting administrative pressure; threatening to fire employees if they do not vote for a certain party (in organizations or enterprises controlled by party structures or supporters)
  • forcing people to vote by absentee ballot, which are more easily falsified
  • voters submitting multiple ballots, which requires adding "dead souls" or other nonexistent voters to voter lists in order to keep the numbers of ballots balanced with the number of voters, and somehow getting additional ballots to certain people in advance
  • using disappearing ink in regions where people are likely to vote for the "wrong" candidate or party
  • putting barely noticeable marks in the boxes for the "correct" candidate that are then picked up by electronic readers
  • "carousel" method of buying votes, where a voter is handed a pre-filled out ballot before he enters the polling station; there he receives a fresh ballot and in the booth puts it in his pocket and places the other ballot in the box; outside the polling station he gives the agent the empty ballot and receives his pay
  • removal of official observers or blocking their access to polling stations or to entire regions
  • falsification of, or deliberate counting mistakes in polling station protocols showing the number of votes for different candidates
  • repealing polling results due to various "infringements" in areas where the "wrong" candidates enjoyed popular support

A number of such techniques were documented during the Crimean referendum of March 16. Not to mention that according to Ukraine's constitution such a referendum must be held over the entire country, the referendum took place under Russian military presence with severe anti-Ukraine propaganda, over half of voters did not participate (largely due to the view that the results were predetermined and illegitimate), and the Crimean government had recently come to power under very suspicious circumstances after a seizure of the Crimean Parliament building by masked and unmarked soldiers of "unknown origin."

That is how you get "97% support" for becoming part of Russia in a region where independent polls showed just 41% support three weeks earlier.

Many people in the West have bought into at least some of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow. In post-Soviet rhetoric, it is perfectly normal to call a democratic movement "undemocratic," popular protests "a Western plot," opposition leaders "unpatriotic," supporters of statehood "fascists," the use of force against citizens an "anti-terrorist operation," and someone else's anti-terrorist operation "brutal suppression of peaceful protests."

Westerners are simply not used to this degree of reality distortion and tend to assume that "the truth is somewhere in between" what they hear from different media sources.

Many sympathize with certain statements and stances that Putin has made against western powers, as if he were giving voice to their own gripes. I can assure such people that what Putin means when he says something is not what you mean when you say it. Putin is not a Libertarian or a neoconservative. The political category he represents probably doesn't even exist in your country.

This is reminiscent of those idealistic American communists of the early XX century who "resonated" with the Bolshevik Revolution and the propaganda coming out of the early Soviet Union. They emigrated to Communist Russia to create a better life for themselves in what they thought was a country built upon the very ideals they espoused.

These poor souls were promptly sent off to the camps or otherwise destroyed. What the Bolsheviks had created was not communism "for the people," but a totalitarian state that used communist rhetoric for PR purposes but whose main objective was the preservation of absolute centralized control.

According to political scientists, modern Russia qualifies as an authoritarian state. It just happens to use democratic rhetoric that Westerners think they understand because the words are familiar.

People in the West can often recognize "media spin," but they are largely unaware of more crude forms of information control. In democratic countries with more or less independent media, if you don't like the "spin" on one channel, you just switch the channel.

But imagine there is just one channel, or all the channels show the same thing. How would you know there is a "media spin?" Or what if there is simply complete and utter silence, like in the first few days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster?

Can you imagine that a kind of unofficial state committee would issue instructions to news channels indicating how they were to cover new events? Can you imagine that such facts would be common knowledge among reporters, and yet the public would almost never hear about it? Can you imagine journalists routinely being intimidated, refused access to events, or even beaten, tortured, or killed?

These things are truly difficult to imagine in the West. When thinking about post-Soviet countries which have the appearance of democratic institutions, it is only natural to assume that these institutions work in roughly the same way as those in your home country.

Just think about it: what sort of environment would produce citizens who express the views that "nothing can be changed," "nothing depends on us," "all I can do is just go about my life," and "getting involved in politics just means trouble"?

Hopefully now it is a bit more clear where this political fatalism comes from.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Update on Situation in Ukraine

Ukraine is continuing to slide towards war. Russian special forces teaming with local separatist groups have been taking over government buildings in cities in eastern Ukraine, including oblast centers Donetsk, Kharkov, and Lugansk.

These are relatively pro-Russia regions, but support for secession to Russia is far lower than in Crimea, where it has hovered around 40% for the past few decades. In eastern Ukraine polls

The Ukrainian government in Kiev is in a difficult situation. There are 4-way talks on Ukraine scheduled for April 17 in Geneva. Russia has threatened to boycott the talks if force is used against the "separatists." We can expect there to be an escalation of separatist activity before April 17 to provoke an armed response (anti-terrorist operation) from the Ukrainian military, which will allow Russia to pull out of the talks, where Russia is expected to come under a lot of international pressure.

And yet if Kiev continues to avoid a military response, the West will not get provide military support either, and Russia will continue its operation in Ukraine. This will lead to much loss of life and political repression. Resistance will also lead to casualties.

The presidential election scheduled for the end of May are at risk of being suspended due to a state of war or emergency declared in response to destabilization in the east and south of Ukraine. The Ukrainian military is weak, and Kiev has been making threats and giving ultimatums to the "separatists" and not backing them up with action.