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The Untold Story of “Russiagate” and the Road to War in Ukraine

If you run a newspaper and want people to pay attention to an important article, don’t make it 10,000 words long (which would amount to 30 typewritten pages) and don’t publish it two days before a national election. Jim Rutenberg, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote just that kind of article. “The Untold Story of ‘Russiagate’ and the Road to War in Ukraine” was published on November 6, 2022, two days before the midterm election, and hardly anybody seems to have noticed.

A few days earlier, the Times had printed a summary of Rutenberg’s article, written by Rutenberg himself, but the summary was just one of many “live” updates that day regarding the war in Ukraine. The Times put it between “Russian military bloggers criticize the Kremlin for rejoining the Ukraine grain deal” and “Poland erects a razor-wire fence along its border with Russia’s Kaliningrad”. I doubt many people noticed.

Here’s the summary:

Russia’s meddling in Trump-era politics was more directly connected to the current war than previously understood.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s assault on Ukraine and his attack on American democracy have been treated largely as two distinct story lines.

Yet those two narratives came together on a summer night in 2016 when Donald J. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, met with Paul Kilimnik, a Russian citizen who ran the Kyiv office of Manafort’s international consulting firm.

Mr. Kilimnik shared a secret plan calling for the creation of an autonomous republic in Ukraine’s east, giving Mr. Putin effective control of the country’s industrial heartland, where Kremlin-backed “separatists” were waging a two-year-old shadow war.

The scheme cut against decades of American policy promoting a free and united Ukraine, but Mr. T____ was already suggesting that he would upend the diplomatic status quo; if elected, Mr. Kilimnik believed, Mr. T____ could help make the plan a reality.

First, though, he would have to win. Which brought the men to the second prong of their agenda — internal campaign polling data tracing a path through battleground states to victory. Manafort’s sharing of that information would have been unremarkable if not for one important piece of Mr. Kilimnik’s biography: He was not simply a colleague; he was, U.S. officials would later assert, a Russian agent.

In the weeks that followed, Russian operatives would intensify their hacking and disinformation campaign to damage Hillary Clinton and help turn the election toward T____. What the plan Mr. Kilimnik offered on paper is essentially what Putin … is now trying to seize through sham referendums and illegal annexation.

This second draft of history emerges from a review of the hundreds of pages of documents produced by investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and for the Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; from impeachment-hearing transcripts and the recent crop of Russiagate memoirs; and from interviews with nearly 50 people in the United States and Ukraine, including four hourlong conversations with Mr. Manafort himself.

The Russia investigation and its offshoots never did prove coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow, though they did document numerous connections. But to view the record through the war, now in its ninth month, is to discover a trail of underappreciated signals telegraphing the depth of Mr. Putin’s Ukrainian obsession.

Mr. Rutenberg could have added that viewing the historical record in the context of the war also helps explain Russia’s support for the ex-president and why he and his most rabid supporters are still taking Russia’s side.

The Russians Are Running Away

According to the Kiev Post, the stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive that began earlier this month has now reached the border with Russia near the town of Hoptivka. Let’s hope Ukraine can secure the thousands of square miles they’ve now recovered and eventually restore all of its national borders.

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Tonight, President Zelensky had a message for Russia:

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They’re Not Communists, They’re Fascists

History professor Timothy Snyder says Putin and his associates are fascists (NY Times). No kidding:

Fascism was never defeated as an idea. . . . It was only on the battlefields of World War II that fascism was defeated. Now it’s back — and this time, the country fighting a fascist war of destruction is Russia. Should Russia win, fascists around the world will be comforted.

We err in limiting our fears of fascism to a certain image of Hitler and the Holocaust. Fascism was Italian in origin, popular in Romania — where fascists were Orthodox Christians who dreamed of cleansing violence — and had adherents throughout Europe (and America). In all its varieties, it was about the triumph of will over reason.

Because of that, it’s impossible to define satisfactorily. People disagree, often vehemently, over what constitutes fascism. But today’s Russia meets most of the criteria that scholars tend to apply. It has a cult around a single leader, Vladimir Putin. It has a cult of the dead, organized around World War II. It has a myth of a past golden age of imperial greatness, to be restored by a war of healing violence — the murderous war on Ukraine.

It’s not the first time Ukraine has been the object of fascist war. The conquest of the country was Hitler’s main war aim in 1941. Hitler thought that the Soviet Union, which then ruled Ukraine, was a Jewish state: He planned to replace Soviet rule with his own and claim Ukraine’s fertile agricultural soil. The Soviet Union would be starved, and Germany would become an empire. He imagined that this would be easy because the Soviet Union, to his mind, was an artificial creation and the Ukrainians a colonial people.

The similarities to Mr. Putin’s war are striking. The Kremlin defines Ukraine as an artificial state, whose Jewish president proves it cannot be real. After the elimination of a small elite, the thinking goes, the inchoate masses would happily accept Russian dominion. Today it is Russia that is denying Ukrainian food to the world, threatening famine in the global south.

Many hesitate to see today’s Russia as fascist because Stalin’s Soviet Union defined itself as antifascist. . . .  Its opposition to fascism, however, was inconsistent.

Before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the Soviets treated fascists as just one more form of capitalist enemy. Communist parties in Europe were to treat all other parties as the enemy. This policy actually contributed to Hitler’s ascent: Though they outnumbered the Nazis, German communists and socialists could not cooperate. After that fiasco, Stalin adjusted his policy, demanding that European communist parties form coalitions to block fascists.

That didn’t last long. In 1939, the Soviet Union joined Nazi Germany as a de facto ally, and the two powers invaded Poland together. Nazi speeches were reprinted in the Soviet press and Nazi officers admired Soviet efficiency in mass deportations. But Russians today do not speak of this fact, since memory laws make it a crime to do so. World War II is an element of Mr. Putin’s historical myth of Russian innocence and lost greatness — Russia must enjoy a monopoly on victimhood and on victory. The basic fact that Stalin enabled World War II by allying with Hitler must be unsayable and unthinkable.

Stalin’s flexibility about fascism is the key to understanding Russia today. Under Stalin, fascism was first indifferent, then it was bad, then it was fine until — when Hitler betrayed Stalin and Germany invaded the Soviet Union — it was bad again. . . .Soviet anti-fascism, in other words, was a politics of us and them. . . . 

A time traveler from the 1930s would have no difficulty identifying the Putin regime as fascist. The symbol Z, the rallies, the propaganda, the war as a cleansing act of violence and the death pits around Ukrainian towns make it all very plain. The war against Ukraine is not only a return to the traditional fascist battleground, but also a return to traditional fascist language and practice. Other people are there to be colonized. Russia is innocent because of its ancient past. The existence of Ukraine is an international conspiracy. War is the answer.

Because Mr. Putin speaks of fascists as the enemy, we might find it hard to grasp that he could in fact be fascist. But in Russia’s war on Ukraine, “Nazi” just means “subhuman enemy”— someone Russians can kill. Hate speech directed at Ukrainians makes it easier to murder them, as we see in BuchaMariupol and every part of Ukraine that has been under Russian occupation. Mass graves are not some accident of war, but an expected consequence of a fascist war of destruction.

Fascists calling other people “fascists” is fascism taken to its illogical extreme as a cult of unreason. It is a final point where hate speech inverts reality and propaganda is pure insistence. It is the apogee of will over thought. Calling others fascists while being a fascist is the essential Putinist practice. . . .

We understand more about fascism than we did in the 1930s. We now know where it led. We should recognize fascism, because then we know what we are dealing with. But to recognize it is not to undo it. Fascism is not a debating position, but a cult of will that emanates fiction. It is about the mystique of a man who heals the world with violence, and it will be sustained by propaganda right to the end. It can be undone only by demonstrations of the leader’s weakness. The fascist leader has to be defeated, which means that those who oppose fascism have to do what is necessary to defeat him. Only then do the myths come crashing down.

As in the 1930s, democracy is in retreat around the world and fascists have moved to make war on their neighbors. If Russia wins in Ukraine, it won’t be just the destruction of a democracy by force, though that is bad enough. It will be a demoralization for democracies everywhere. Even before the war, Russia’s friends — Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Tucker Carlson — were the enemies of democracy. Fascist battlefield victories would confirm that might makes right, that reason is for the losers, that democracies must fail. . . .

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Meanwhile, from The Guardian:

Hungary’s nationalist leader, Viktor Orbán, will be the star speaker at an extraordinary session of America’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to be held in Hungary this week, in an effort to cement bonds between the radical right on both sides of the Atlantic under the banner of the “great replacement” ideology.

In a speech on Monday, Orbán made explicit reference to the ideology, which claims there is a liberal plot to dilute the white populations of the US and European countries through immigration. Increasingly widespread among US Republicans, the creed was cited by the killer who opened fire on Saturday in a supermarket in a predominantly black area of Buffalo, New York.

Orbán is also in the news because he opposes Sweden and Finland joining NATO and has stopped the European Union from banning imports of Russian oil. Putin must enjoy having an ally in Hungary.

Russia Ain’t the Soviet Union Anymore

Two European academics who have studied Russia’s culture and politics explain why the war in Ukraine is much more than a response to NATO. They also explain why segments from the most extreme Fox News programs are replayed on Russian TV:

In recent weeks, many analysts — especially those trying to find a logical justification for the Russian war in Ukraine — have argued that the Kremlin was reacting to a perceived threat from NATO encroachment and the Western alliance’s push into Russia’s sphere of influence.

While that may be so, such explanations miss an important point. . . . 

Gay parades and cancel culture

In his sermon approximately two weeks into the war, on March 6, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church justified the invasion of Ukraine as necessary to defend Orthodox Christians against Western values and gay pride parades. On March 24, during a meeting with young artists, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about cancel culture, arguing that much the way J.K. Rowling was criticized for her opposition to transgender rights, the West was now “trying to cancel a whole 1,000-year culture, our people … Russian writers and books are now canceled.”

Russia presents itself as being at the forefront of the global culture wars, leading the resistance to liberal values. Russian anti-Westernism has religious implications: According to its own narrative, Russia is guarding true Christian faith, as embodied in the Eastern Orthodox church, from Western attempts to distort it, whether through Marxism in the 20th century or liberalism in the 21st.

Ukraine plays an important role in this story. It is depicted as part of the “Russian world,” the cradle of Russian civilization, which for many centuries was centered not around Moscow but around Kyiv, capital of today’s Ukraine. Ukraine’s choice to orient itself toward the West and reconcile a Slavic Orthodox identity with liberal democratic values is thus dangerous to this Russian vision of itself.

Global Christian Right

The arguments about gender freedoms and cancel culture that we hear today from Patriarch Kirill and Putin are nothing genuinely Russian. They derive from a global Christian right ideology, which Russian conservatives learned about in the 1990s.

Right after the end of the Cold War, Christian right activists, especially from the United States, flocked into Russia; among them were Focus on the FamilyCoMission and the World Congress of Families. From the 1990s onward, Russian conservatives have argued that the frustrations of their society falling apart result from painful liberal socioeconomic reforms. Their argument combines elements of a late-Soviet conservative social ethos, Russian Orthodox traditionalism and huge transnational influences.

Today’s Russian discourse on traditional values is a hybrid of Christian right ideas from the global culture wars and nostalgia about Russia’s great Soviet and even greater imperial and Orthodox Christian past.

The whimsical West

This type of Russian cultural conservatism was marginal until around 2010, when it started to migrate to the center of Russian political life — decisively so during Putin’s third term as president. For Putin, the traditional values discourse was a good pretext for political repression — exemplified in the treatment of the Pussy Riot women — and a shield against rising opposition, which demanded more freedoms.

Traditional values and the defense of Christianity were a suitable foundation for the new Russian foreign policy mission: becoming the leader of those countries and actors that were not, were no longer or had never wanted to be “liberal.”

In the process of “learning” the global culture wars, Russian conservatives not only defined their national identity in relation to a global Christian conservatism, but also acquired a precise vision of the West as spiritually hollow and failing. Christian conservatives flocking to Russia conveyed an image of the West that was torn, weak and doomed, because it no longer had children, no longer had values, and did not even distinguish between men and women. As a result, many Christian conservatives from the United States and Europe  looked to Russia with hope.

Christian conservatives’ image of a failing and doomed West began to dominate views of Russian conservative elites during the late 2000s. But Russian elites saw their Western conservative partners as part of that failing West: they too were weak and pitiful heralds of a West in decline.

Russian triumphalism

This account of the West helped give birth to a new Russian triumphalism. Russian media filled with TV shows and “documentaries” on “Gayropa” and “Sodom.” These shows conjured up a caricature of weak “gayish” Western males and women who lost their femininity by competing with men in spheres where they could achieve nothing serious.

Russian media frequently stressed the oddity that many Western democracies nominated women as defense ministers, as if that was the ultimate proof that the West has lost its ability to defend itself. In this collective image of a weak West, Russia depicted itself (to the inside and outside) as the country of strength, the bulwark of traditional families: with strong men, fertile women and children properly guarded against subversive homosexual propaganda.

Russian triumphalism

This image is without any empirical foundation, but that was not important. It resulted in an internal perception of Russia as world messiah and a force preventing the world from sliding into the chaos of evil, with a special mission of saving the world from liberal depravities. The Patriarch’s March 6 sermon expressed precisely that worldview.

Fascinated by this flattering vision of Russia, elites, it seems, overestimated Russia’s strength and underestimated Ukraine’s. The Kremlin also appears to have underestimated the strength and unity of the collective West, which appears not as corrupted and not as weak as Russia imagined. Pointedly, J. K. Rowling, whom Putin mentioned as a victim of Western cancel culture, refused his characterization and accused Putin of killing civilians instead.

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Everybody should keep in mind that 21st century Russia isn’t the 20th century Soviet Union. There are no communists in power now. Putin is yet another neo-fascist authoritarian, the kind that rules over HungaryBrazilIndiaTurkey, the Philippines and elsewhere. That’s why our former president and other Republicans admire Putin and those like him. The days when being an anti-Communist meant being anti-Russia are long gone.

Where Putin’s Head Is At

A Russian journalist, Mikhail Zygar, offers this explanation of Putin’s behavior. From The New York Times:

I have been talking to high-level businessmen and Kremlin insiders for years. In 2016 I published a book, “All the Kremlin’s Men,” about Mr. Putin’s inner circle. Since then I’ve been gathering reporting for a potential sequel. While the goings on around the president are opaque — Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, has always been secretive and conspiratorial — my sources, who speak to me on condition of anonymity, have regularly been correct.

What I have heard about the president’s behavior over the past two years is alarming. His seclusion and inaccessibility, his deep belief that Russian domination over Ukraine must be restored and his decision to surround himself with ideologues and sycophants have all helped to bring Europe to its most dangerous moment since World War II.

Mr. Putin spent the spring and summer of 2020 quarantining at his residence in Valdai, approximately halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to sources in the administration, he was accompanied there by Yuri Kovalchuk. Mr. Kovalchuk, who is the largest shareholder in Rossiya Bank and controls several state-approved media outlets, has been Mr. Putin’s close friend and trusted adviser since the 1990s. But by 2020, according to my sources, he had established himself as the de facto second man in Russia, the most influential among the president’s entourage.

Mr. Kovalchuk has a doctorate in physics. . . But he isn’t just a man of science. He is also an ideologue, subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism. This appears to be Mr. Putin’s worldview, too. Since the summer of 2020, Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk have been almost inseparable, and the two of them have been making plans together to restore Russia’s greatness.

According to people with knowledge of Mr. Putin’s conversations with his aides over the past two years, the president has completely lost interest in the present: the economy, social issues, the coronavirus pandemic, these all annoy him. Instead, he and Mr. Kovalchuk obsess over the past. A French diplomat told me that President Emmanuel Macron of France was astonished when Mr. Putin gave him a lengthy history lecture during one of their talks last month. He shouldn’t have been surprised.

In his mind, Mr. Putin finds himself in a unique historical situation in which he can finally recover for the previous years of humiliation. In the 1990s, when Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk first met, they were both struggling to find their footing after the fall of the Soviet Union, and so was the country. The West, they believe, took advantage of Russia’s weakness to push NATO as close as possible to the country’s borders. In Mr. Putin’s view, the situation today is the opposite: It is the West that’s weak. The only Western leader that Mr. Putin took seriously was Germany’s previous chancellor, Angela Merkel. Now she is gone and it’s time for Russia to avenge the humiliations of the 1990s.

It seems that there is no one around to tell him otherwise. Mr. Putin no longer meets with his buddies for drinks and barbecues, according to people who know him. In recent years — and especially since the start of the pandemic — he has cut off most contacts with advisers and friends. While he used to look like an emperor who enjoyed playing on the controversies of his subjects, listening to them denounce one another and pitting them against one another, he is now isolated and distant, even from most of his old entourage.

. . . No one can see the president without a week’s quarantine — not even Igor Sechin, once his personal secretary, now head of the state-owned oil company Rosneft. Mr. Sechin is said to quarantine for two or three weeks a month, all for the sake of occasional meetings with the president.

In “All the Kremlin’s Men” I described the phenomenon of the “collective Putin” — the way his entourage always tried to eagerly anticipate what the president would want. These cronies would tell Mr. Putin exactly what he wanted to hear. The “collective Putin” still exists: The whole world saw it on the eve of the invasion when he summoned top officials, one by one, and asked them their views on the coming war. All of them understood their task and submissively tried to describe the president’s thoughts in their own words . . .

As I have reported for years, some members of Mr. Putin’s entourage have long worked to convince him that he is the only person who can save Russia, that every other potential leader would only fail the country. This was the message that the president heard going back to 2003, when he contemplated stepping down, only to be told by his advisers — many of whom also had backgrounds in the K.G.B. — that he should stay on. A few years later, Mr. Putin and his entourage were discussing “Operation Successor” and Dmitri Medvedev was made president. But after four years, Mr. Putin returned to replace him. Now he has really and truly come to believe that only he can save Russia. In fact, he believes it so much that he thinks the people around him are likely to foil his plans. He can’t trust them either. . . .

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