He probably puts the milk in before the tea, too

Foreign Policy has taken a break from its usual schedule of Hillary: She’s Less Awful Than You Think pieces, to tell us about a heinous crime:

OLY-2014-RUS-RUSSIA-PUTIN-POLITICS

Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Actually Care About Saving Leopards 

A high-profile, Putin-backed campaign to protect the habitat of Persian leopards has been quietly abandoned, clearing the way for the country’s richest man to expand his ski resort…

Link.

Now I’m about as pro-fluffeh as political analysts get, but I’m still not 100% convinced that when Putin finally stands before the Pearly Gates, his attitude towards Persian leopards will be the number one item on St. Peter’s charge sheet. It may not even feature in the top five.

Which is a moderately interesting reaction in and of itself. If I had run into this same article on one of the many animal rights sites to which I subscribe (I wasn’t kidding about the pro-fluffeh item – you should see the amount that poorly battery hens and downtrodden milch cows have had off me over the years), I would – right now – be searching for the “donate” button with suspiciously watery eyes.

Reading it on FP, however stirred not a shred of sympathy for the sadly afflicted kitties, merely cynical irritation at the idea that someone felt this was high-quality negative PR.

Seems like Facebook feels much the same way:

Alas, poor leopards. Choose your media outlets more carefully next time.

(P.S. If the political fannying about hasn’t soured you on the idea, you can donate to the leopards here: https://ptes.org/grants/worldwide-projects/persian-leopards-in-iran/ or here: http://www.worldlandtrust.org/projects/armenia/save-caucasian-leopard)

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Not being absent

Xi and Putin

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

A few days back it was related in the media that Chinese government-affiliated tabloid and rabble-rouser the Global Times had published an editorial saying:

China will look for past references on how Russia has taken action against Eastern European countries which have deployed the U.S.’s missile defense systems at their borders.

Link.

Woah, right?

Here it is, in black and white:

对于韩国,要明确表达我们反对部署萨德系统,如果韩国不听劝阻坚持部署,中国就有必要参考俄罗斯对东欧国家部署美国反导系统时所做的那些回应。

Link.

So that’s what Xi Jinping meant when he talked about “not being absent“.

When asked if this represented the Chinese government’s position, Hong Lei made vague, generic statements about THAAD being bad for regional stability.

A bomb is a bomb is a bomb?

Rusian war fotage Syria

We’ve been blathering on about the superior quality of recent Russian war footage for months, so it’s nice to see that France 2 apparently agrees with us.

RT just caught them passing off footage of Russian bombing raids as NATO film stock.

Read the background and see the video here. No wonder the Russians have been taking such pains over copyrighting their material.

Images of the Year, 2015

Last year’s winners were relatively frivolous, reflecting a new, more casual, more boisterous way of doing politics that accompanied the rise of the BRICS. Top of the list was the Natalia Poklonskaya fanart, symbolising the changing ways in which citizens interact with politicians and political events (and also because mmmmmm Natalia Poklonskaya). Second came Angela Merkel’s Caxton Street selfie, representing the same phenomenon but also the new breed of populist personality politics. Third was the razzmatazz surrounding the APPEC Summit in Beijing, in there to show how the rising states tend to lack the Western modesty and or embarrassment about openly taking pleasure in wealth and power.

This year’s winners?

Well most people would probably go for that photo of Aylan Kurdi.

Aylan Kurdi

However, it really says a great deal more about Western social media trends than about Asian politics, which rules it out for the purposes of this blog. On the other hand, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon satirising the Western attitude to refugees that was immediately seized upon as being anti-Muslim did make the short list:

Charlie Hebdo Aylan Kurdi

However, this blog deliberately focuses on high-level power politics and the way that this is expressed and understood. This year has seen a certain amount of settling, familiarisation and concretisation of the phenomena that first hit the limelight last year. The rise and rise of Donald Trump has gone a certain way towards confirming that populist personality politics is here to stay, even in the West. With this, however, audiences have also grown more cynical and calculating regarding its manifestations. Last year we were – to a large extent – blown away by all the showbiz glitz and renewed joie de vivre on the part of our leaders. Now we’ve had time to think about it, we’ve also begun to look beneath the surface. While we’re still impressed (cynically impressed, for the most part, but still impressed) by all the swag, we’re also aware that beneath it all decisions are being made and strategies played out that will change all of our futures, whether for better or worse.

That’s why this year’s winner is a group of pictures, namely every image tweeted under the #ModiFindsCamera hashtag, which began after video footage came out showing Modi literally dragging Mark Zuckerberg out of the way of the photographers.

The #ModiFindsCamera phenomenon wins because it shows that while people are still impressed by this new-style politics, they’re impressed because they can see the skill and calculation that goes into it, not because they’re deceived by the show.

And while we’re on the Modi theme, another honourable mention has to go to the brilliantly telling (not to mention sinister) pictures of Modi standing by while David Cameron serves as his warm-up act at Wembley:

Modi at Wembley

Which leads us on to second prize…

While last year’s political swag had a certain amount of because-we-can exuberance to it, this year the displays have tended to be more purposeful (though this hasn’t always been the case). The message has generally been more focused and clearer, even brutal in many cases. This is why second prize goes to the picture of Xi Jinping’s jet being escorted by JF-17s during a visit to Pakistan:

Xi Jinping visits Pakistan

Also, because it’s just fucken awesome

There is nothing I can add here that will better explain the message intended by this gesture than the image itself. It’s almost feudal: Pakistan is deliberately casting itself in the role of vassal, but accompanying this with such an immediately impressive display of military capacity (yes, I know it’s just eight JF-17s, but that’s not your first thought when you see it, and it’s the instinctive reaction that counts) that it nevertheless retains its dignity. The impression is more of a samurai retainer or a mob boss’ enforcer than of cringing neo-colonialism. Everything about the display works and is deeply satisfying.

So…

Third place goes to another incredibly well-done piece of military image-crafting, this time from Russia. It’s gritty, brutal and immediate, but it’s also a media product, created with an aesthetic underpinning and an intention to use skill and artistry to produce a specific response.

Russiaworks Syria video

As we said at the time “Who knew reality could be this beautiful?”

Frustratingly, since the video was first published the team that made it seems to have signed some sort of rights deal to restrict the availability of their footage online. For the time being, you can watch it here, though the link may go down at any time. There are also some other videos available on their website.

It’s in there not just as a tribute to the success with which the Russian leadership has been able to sell its own Syrian narrative via the media, but also as a stand-in for all the other brilliant, witty, perceptive and creative Russian media experiments that have kept us amused and impressed throughout the year.

Finally, an honourable mention has to go to the coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY was genuinely one of a kind, so the reactions to his death cannot be said to be symptomatic of wider global trends (though they did include weather modification, which is one of the big political stage-management trends in Asia at the moment). Nevertheless, we predict that with greater insecurity and a return to personality politics, we will be seeing more of this sort of thing in coming years.

So that’s that. Think we missed anything? Please comment!

 

More on Russian opinion polls

Public opinion in Russia

We’ve mentioned the odd world of Russian opinion polls here before.

If you’d like to read more on the subject, here’s a fascinating piece by the Levada Centre’s Denis Volkov, translated by Meduza:

“I don’t believe that Putin’s approval rating is 86 percent!” We hear this phrase endlessly from commentators in Russia and abroad. But interpreting these ratings isn’t a question of faith, but a detailed analysis of all the available sociological data collected throughout Vladimir Putin’s time in power. When non-sociologists discuss the president’s ratings, they usually look at indicators from the past few months, selecting the most dramatic of these figures—Putin’s 86-percent approval rating as president)—without taking into account many other related questions. In doing so, they arrive at the flawed conclusion that Russians ardently support any decision by the authorities.

These misinterpretations usually go like this: instead of digging into the details and trying to reconcile the entire mass of conflicting data, commentators simply express their doubts about the honesty of the sociologists who conducted the poll, the validity of the poll’s sociological methodology in the Russian context, or the candor of the poll’s respondents. At the same time, they automatically classify the 10 percent of the population that doesn’t support Putin and opposes Russia’s reunification with Crimea as “the democratic minority,” which exists in opposition to a majority that’s composed, of course, of philistines and bellicose patriots. This interpretation crumbles, however, under the scrutiny of a careful analysis of the data.

First, let’s say a few words about whether respondents are afraid to answer our questions. Respondent dishonesty is difficult to assess, but the important thing to remember is that it is a constant. Most of the surveys conducted by the Levada Center (or by any other polling company) hold to the same methodology: they make use of personal interviews conducted at the homes of respondents. People’s accessibility (that is, their willingness to take part in surveys) hasn’t changed in the past 20 years. The same number of people open their doors today as did two or five years ago; as before, almost everyone shares their contact information at the end of the interview, so it’s possible to verify that the survey was carried out. Routine, multi-level controls (statistical, analytical, and by telephone) are standard procedure in any large research agency, and they allow us to monitor the quality of the work done by the interviewers.

Much depends on how the interview is designed: if questions about support for the president are going to be taken out of context, it can make respondents uncomfortable. But placed among questions about the economy and about the state of affairs in the country, in a person’s city, or in their household, they can work quite smoothly.

(Continued…)

Link.

Here’s something confusing for a Monday morning

Putin gun

Sure, but what’s the margin of error?

Here’s an odd little tale. Just recently this story has popped up in the Russian media:

Early in the morning , I heard an intriguing piece of news on Russian state TV: America loves Putin even more than Russians do themselves! He enjoys an 88 percent approval rating in Russia, but the figure is higher in the United States, the report on Rossia 24 television said.

“A lot has already been said about the incumbent [U.S.] president’s low ratings, a night news anchor said. “He has just been dealt a new below-the-belt blow. An opinion poll by the popular New York Daily News shows that U.S. citizens liked Vladimir Putin’s speech at the General Assembly session better than [Barack] Obama’s speech. Ninety-six percent voted for the Russian president and, accordingly, only 4 percent voted for the American president.”

Link. (I’m not entirely sure why it’s suddenly gained in popularity now, since the original poll and the initial reports on it came out over a month ago.)

If you want the RIA Novosti version, you can find it here.

The story has been picked up by various US right wingers:

Though some sites both in the US and Russia have been more cynical, speculating that the win may have been the result of voting by Russian 50 cent parties or even that the whole thing was a fabrication. Meanwhile, the armchair generals of Reddit have congratulated themselves soundly on seeing through the propaganda.

This is intriguing for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it’s interesting to see the different spin put on the information by the different media outlets, largely because it reflects the way in which Russia’s PR guys take care to modify their message based on the kind of audience they’re targeting. For instance, while domestic and foreign media use similar techniques and have a similar ethos behind them, the aesthetics and the tone is entirely different. Domestic PR appears ridiculously unsubtle to foreign eyes but in fact plays relatively well to the sort of domestic audiences on whom the sly nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of something like Russia Today would be largely lost.

If what the blogger says is correct, Rossiya 24 was reporting this as a straight-down-the-line popularity poll, which it obviously isn’t. They can get away with it, however, because they know that 99.99% of their audience isn’t going to go online and check. By contrast, Ria Novosti – which tends to target a more serious, grown-up audience – has given one of the more restrained versions of the story, sticking to the facts without trying to make it sound more than it is. Nevertheless, it has reported it – something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a serious, grown-up news agency to do for every tinpot little online survey. Perversely, RIA Novosti manages to give the tale more credibility by the mere fact of covering it, even while Rossiya 24 is doing the exact opposite.

Secondly, its an excellent example of how Russia’s soft power strategies have developed under Putin. (Soft power is an over-used term;Russia’s media strategy in recent years is one of the few phenomena that merits it.)

Usually, when you are running a PR campaign you decide on a message you want to put across and then look for the best way to do so. The Russians have not taken this path. Instead they provide us with dozens of different possible messages, theories, conspiracies and hints and allow us to pick the one we like best, while nevertheless leaving us uncertain as to whether or not we have picked correctly.

Even the green-black-and-silver aestehtics of the RT site are borrowed straight from The Matrix, something which its intended audience will definitely register at least on a subconscious level, purely because it is such a familiar part of the demographic’s visual vernacular.

Russia Today aesthetics

There is no spoon

As a strategic response to the widespread perception that the “Washington Consensus” has imposed a single narrative on the world, it is a stroke of genius – like something made up by Umberto Eco (or, more probably, by Vladislav Surkov). They’re just providing alternatives: who could possibly object to that? Their slogan is “question more” because they want us to do just that: ask questions, not come up with answers.

The other side of the coin, obviously, is that when all truths are possible, no possibility is definitively true. The cat is both dead and alive at the same time. In other words, the same strategy works equally well to legitimise alternative narratives as to sew confusion.

Moreover, this is approach to mass communications is not simply a sort of invisibility cloak to conceal whatever is really going on inside the Russian state. It is what is going on inside the Russian state. The maintenance of perpetual uncertainty is central to the current government’s management strategies.

To pick one example: the rumour that Putin funds his own opposition has been doing the rounds for ages. It could be entirely true (it’s what I’d do if I was an autocrat, and if I’ve thought of it then he certainly has), or it could be made up to induce paranoia at a relatively low cost.

I’ve even heard from people who should know that Putin’s PR team has, in the past, pressured polling organisations to reduce his popularity scores to make the numbers more democratically plausible. It could well be true, or they could be putting the rumour about purely in the hope that incorrigible gossips like me will repeat it as widely as possible. Either way: mission accoplished.

Meanwhile, at the State Department

maxresdefault

A few days ago I managed to extract a few gags from the badass Putin quote that turned out to be made up.

So, just to mix things up a bit, here’s a quote that sounds made up, but is in fact 100% kosher.

Today RT ran an incredulous sounding piece about Admiral John Kirby criticising Russia for not being committed to fighting ISIS. Here’s the key part:

An appeal to expand the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State came from French President Francois Hollande three days after deadly attacks in Paris a week ago. Stating that “France is at war,” Hollande called for the creation of a “large coalition,” which could unite forces with Russia “to achieve a result that has taken too long.”

The grand coalition is going to be the focus of separate talks President Hollande will have with his American and Russian counterparts in coming days. The French leader is expected to hold talks in Washington on November 24 and in Moscow on November 26.

However, the US State Department says that Russia’s involvement in the coalition would depend on Moscow’s“commitment.”

“But in order for that to work, every member of the coalition has to have the same focus on defeating ISIL, and thus far we, talking about Russia, haven’t seen that same commitment,” Kirby said, referring to Russia’s support for the Syrian President Bashar Assad. “It’s inconsistent with the goals of the coalition, which is to defeat ISIL, if you’re also propping up the Assad regime.”

Wat lady

Well it clearly makes no sense at all, so surely it must have been taken out of context, or had some caveats removed, or been messed about in some way?

Nope.

In fact, if you go and double check the quote on the State Department website, you’ll find that RT has, if anything, been generous on this one:

There is a 65-member coalition fighting ISIL. That’s the coalition. And as we’ve said before, if other nations not in the coalition want to join it and to be a part of it and to focus on the fight against ISIL, well, then that’s a conversation that we’re certainly willing to have with them. But in order for that to work, every member of the coalition has to have the same focus on defeating ISIL, and thus far – you talked about Russia – we haven’t seen that same commitment. It’s inconsistent with the goals of the coalition, which is to defeat ISIL, if you’re also propping up the Assad regime and flying missions in support of the Assad regime and helping the Assad regime stay in power. It’s simply inconsistent with the core goal of the coalition itself.

Not that this sort of chutzpah has not worked for the State Dept and related organs before. In 2003 70% of Americans thought that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda. Over half of respondents to a Harris Interactive Poll in 2006 thought that Saddam Hussein had WMDs (a figure that had actually risen since the previous year). As far as PR techniques go hammering home clearly untrue information until it is believed is not a hugely subtle one, but it worked extremely well because it hits several well-known plausibility heuristics that most human thinking seems to share: simply put, if you don’t think too hard about it, almost any story about nefarious Middle Easterners getting up to dark deeds does sound more or less like the sort of thing that happens in real life. (These have been discussed here frequently before under the headings of “everything funds terrorism” and “that’s just not what crime does“.) Moreover, the Bush administration was extremely good at it because they were happy to keep up the repetion over a long time and – perhaps even more importantly – to keep the message simple: a statement of fact rather than an argument.

When it comes to applying this technique, the Democrats are hamstrung by what should be their biggest asset: their committment to being the brainy-but-honest party. The key message that they want to put across here, that supporting Bashar Al Assad is also in some way helping ISIS, is both too complex and too subtly propounded to have the impact they are hoping for. If they had merely said over and over and over again that Assad is supporting ISIS there is every chance that a substantial proportion of the US public would have ended up believing it. The second you question such a statement, it does, of course, reveal itself to be entirely ludicrous, but a large proportion of the audience would not question it.

Making a clever logic puzzle out of it (defeating ISIS is the key objective, ergo if you are doing anything in the region except bombing ISIS you are insufficiently committed to the task) must have pleased the Ivy Leaguers of the State Department no end, but doing so also invited the audience to think about it for themselves – the one thing that anyone using the sledgehammer approach to propaganda must avoid at all costs. People given a fact may very well accept it unquestioningly. People given a chain of causality will check it for flaws.

The power of narrative

Putin's daughter

Here’s a strange article:

Since Vladimir Putin began cementing his grip on Russia in the 1990s, many of his friends have grown famously rich.

Not so the president himself, say his supporters, who insist Putin is above the money grab that has marked his reign. His public financial disclosures depict a man of modest means. In April, Putin declared an income for 2014 of 7.65 million roubles ($119,000). He listed the ownership of two modest apartments and a share in a car parking garage.

His daughter Katerina is doing considerably better, supported by some of the Russian president’s wealthy friends, a Reuters examination shows.

After unconfirmed media speculation about Katerina’s identity, a senior Russian figure told Reuters that she uses the surname Tikhonova. Andrey Akimov, deputy chairman of Russian lender Gazprombank, said he had met Katerina when she was little and more recently, and that Tikhonova was Putin’s daughter.

Reuters has also learned that earlier this year Katerina, 29, described herself as the “spouse” of Kirill Shamalov, son of Nikolai Shamalov, a longtime friend of the president. Shamalov senior is a shareholder in Bank Rossiya, which U.S. officials have described as the personal bank of the Russian elite.

As husband and wife, Kirill and Katerina would have corporate holdings worth about $2 billion, according to estimates provided to Reuters by financial analysts. That wealth stems mainly from a large publicly disclosed stake in a major gas and petrochemical company that Kirill acquired from Gennady Timchenko, another longtime friend of Putin…

(It goes on at some length, for the rest, follow the link.)

So what’s strange about it? Surely a story about a despot in some shonky foreign land enriching his family by corrupt practices is the sort of thing you read every day?

Well that’s what’s strange about it. Given how many things there are to dislike about the Putin government, picking on the showbiz lifestyles of his children seems rather like complaining that there aren’t enough photos out there of him engaging in manly outdoor pursuits semi-clothed. It may well be your considered opinion, but I’m going to look at you in an odd way nevertheless.

wtf dog

The fact is that the family as a whole has consistently strived for anonymity in a way that – if you or I did it – would amount to something close to paranoia. Oddly, and extremely frustratingly if you work in the media, barely any information exists about the daughters, who both hold somewhat humdrum jobs under false names and almost never appear in the press.

In fact, even the Reuters article recognises this much:

After unconfirmed media speculation about Katerina’s identity… There is no indication she has made any personal financial gain from this work… Katerina, Maria and  Kirill Shamalov all declined to comment for this article… We have no information whatsoever about the personal life, family connection… Katerina has largely escaped public attention… Little else was known about her adult life…

But wait, there’s more: “under the name Tikhonova, she is listed as an author, along with other academics, of a chapter in a maths text book and at least six scientific papers”.

It’s like the last days of Rome.

So, in conclusion, both daughters lead disappointingly ordinary lives as academics, probably helped somewhat by family connections but almost certainly to a lesser extent than is commonplace within the former USSR. But you’d really need devote some time to deconstructing the article to work that out. The overarching narative is one of decadence and corruption, to the extent that you really have to make an effort to notice that there’s no actual decadence and precious little corruption (take no notice of those network diagrams – I can produce similar ones for the elite of any country you care to name; that is how elites work).

And this is not necessarily because Reuters is an evil anti-Russian propaganda organ of the US authorities. More likely, it’s just that when you investigate the families of the Russian leadership you go in looking to find decadence and corruption, and if it turns out that they’re actually extremely discreet and – frankly – a tad boring, well that just proves that they have something to hide, doesn’t it?

If you want to criticise Putin for running an oppressive police state, destabilising his neighbours and presiding over a country-wide web of corrupt local fiefdoms, be my guest. If you want to criticise his kids’ lifestlyes, however, you should probably take a look at what people like Chelsea Clinton and Euan Blair have been up to lately first.

See also under: “that’s just not what crime does

Truth is a Slippery Animal

There’s a passage in a British political autobiography (I think it’s Julian Critchley’s A Bag of Boiled Sweets, but I couldn’t swear to it) in which an old stager warns a younger colleague on the campaign trail that one should never tell voters that crime is falling, even if it is, because you won’t be believed: “that’s just not what crime does.”

Similarly with these US tales of Russian airstrikes in Syria hitting some hospitals. There’s every possibility that they’re entirely true; the Russians have certainly never shown or laid claim to any great passion for pinpoint accuracy in their military operations. Nevertheless, coming immediately after US strikes did verifiably hit a hospital, the announcement becomes unconvincing ex officio.

Suppose you toss a coin five times. The first four times it comes up heads. Of course, the chance of it coming up heads the fifth time you do it is still 50:50, but even knowing that your mind rebels and tells you that the probability of getting heads a fifth time must be massively reduced.

Similarly in this case. The probability of Russian airstrikes hitting a Syrian hospital has not changed, but the story nevertheless looks far less believable coming immediately after the US really did bomb a hospital.

Look at the comments from the video above:

cctv comments thread

Granted, people who follow CCTV on Facebook are unlikely to constitute the most pro-US audience out there, so let’s try an alternative source. Reddit is an always-reliable furnisher of lowest common denominators opinions that tend to be pretty evenly spread across the spectrum:

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

So here’s a handy hint for the State Department: whether it’s true or not, next time just say it was a fucking orphanage or something. It’s not as though the Russians are going to come forward spluttering and saying “I think you’ll find it was actually a hospital…”

Shock and awe

Russia Works drone footage

Who knew reality could be this beautiful?

We’ve already covered the oddly pleasurable-to-watch Russian plane-cam videos from Syria here, but this is something new.

The one line about Western intervention in the Middle East from Vladimir Putin’s recent address to the UN that got picked up by all the headline-writers was “Do you realise what you’ve done?” Well, if not, then there’s a team of Russian journalists and a drone on hand to show us in glorious high-definition and with the aid of a breakbeat soundtrack*.

This is the most beautiful war footage I have ever seen. Watch it. Then pour yourself a glass of wine, call the family round and watch it again because it is genuinely that good.

Incredible, isn’t it? These guys have a vlog where you can check out some of their other footage.

* The song is High Roller by The Crystal Method, just fyi.