Ukraine's problems haven't been caused by the West. (Photo: Getty)
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We can only stand up to Russian propaganda by being true to ourselves

Russian attempts to blame the West or Ukrainian fascists for the crisis in Ukraine are nonsense, but if we don't stay true to our values, we'll hand the Kremlin another PR victory.

Information warfare is the hot topic of the moment one year on from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Caught off guard by the scale and audacity of Moscow’s propaganda offensive, Western governments and think tanks are straining to catch up with seminars and conferences devoted to analysing Russia’s mastery of the information landscape. The governments of the UK, Denmark, Lithuania and Estonia have tabled joint proposals for an EU response. The Ukrainian government is launching a TV news channel and mobilising an Internet army in a conscious effort to emulate Russian tactics. Matching Russia, spin for spin, seems to be the desired goal.

Some of this may be worthwhile, but much of it will be ineffective or even counterproductive unless greater effort is made to understand why Russian propaganda works. The starting point has to be an honest acknowledgement that the Kremlin’s most effective lies are built on foundations of truth. They play on the insecurities of Western societies that have become disoriented by economic crisis and the divisive legacy of the War on Terror. Messages are cleverly targeted at those who are already questioning their values and place in the world. Above all, Putin’s propagandists are adept at exploiting our mistakes and turning them against us.

Russia’s depiction of the revolt that ousted Viktor Yanukovych from power as a Western-sponsored fascist coup may be absurd, but it’s a fiction we helped to create. An intercepted phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and her Ambassador in Kiev, in which they mused imperiously on who should run the country as the regime crumbled, made it seem like Washington was pulling the strings. The decision to include the Russophobic and anti-Semitic Svoboda party in the post-Yanukovych government allowed Putin to warn Crimeans that the fascists were coming. America didn’t overthrow Yanukovych, the people of Ukraine did. The far right has very little support in Ukraine; Svoboda failed to get 5% in last autumn’s parliamentary elections. Yet these mistakes enabled Russia’s information warriors to make their narrative stick.

A favoured theme of Russian propaganda is the status of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the ex-Soviet states. The Russian government routinely refers to the seventeen million or so ‘compatriots’ living in neighbouring countries as persecuted minorities in need of protection. Although the claim is flimsy, Ukrainian lawmakers helped to give it substance in the days following the fall of Yanukovych by voting to repeal legislation that granted the Russian language official status in certain regions. The decision was vetoed by the acting President, but the damage had already been done. The language issue still crops up in conversation with those who think that Putin’s claim to be acting in defence of human rights has some basis in fact.

The Baltic States have long been a focus of criticism from Moscow and last autumn a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official threatened them with “unfortunate consequences” over their treatment of ethnic Russian minorities. Some fear that Putin is preparing the ground for his next military adventure. The reality is that Russians living in the Baltic are far less likely to be victims of discrimination than, say, people from the Caucasus living in Moscow. Yet tough language requirements do mean that many Russians in Latvia and Estonia are unable to get citizenship and experience reduced educational and employment opportunities. More could and should be done to integrate them into society.

Given the fear of Russian intervention and the suspicion that ethnic Russians might be used as a ‘fifth column’, examples of overt discrimination and political persecution are quite rare. A particularly glaring exception concerns the treatment of Viktor Uspaskich, the Russian-born founder of the Lithuanian Labour Party, prosecuted for fraudulent accounting of his party’s finances. In a case that featured political pressure on the judiciary, the use of forged evidence and countless abuses of due process, Uspaskich was eventually sentenced to four years in prison in 2013. Only his immunity as an MEP now prevents his incarceration. Tomorrow, the European Parliament will vote on a request from the Lithuania authorities to revoke that immunity.

For once the suggestion that the judicial process has been politically manipulated doesn’t need to be inferred. A leaked US diplomatic cable records the boast of a senior Lithuanian official that he and his government “engineered the departure of Labor Party kingpin Viktor Uspaskich from Lithuania because of the latter's ties to the Russian SVR”. The SVR is Russia’s foreign espionage service, but no evidence linking Uspaskich to it has ever been produced, nor does a charge to that effect appear on any indictment. The only real connection appears to be Uspaskich’s Russian ethnicity.

Our best protection against Russian propaganda isn’t counter-propaganda; it’s the resolute defence of democratic standards. Compromising those standards plays into Putin’s hands by allowing him to blur the distinction between his methods and ours. This, in turn, weakens our capacity to resist by sowing doubt about what we are seeking to defend. A renewed attempt to restrict the Russian language in Ukraine would suggest to many people that this is not a fight between European values and authoritarianism, but between two different forms of nationalism. It’s a fight most Europeans would not wish to be part of. Weaponising the legal system to take out your political opponents is pure Putinism. If we weaken the rule of law to combat Russia, we have already lost.

We can’t defeat the cynicism of the Kremlin’s information war unless we remain true to ourselves. The European Parliament would be doing itself, Lithuania and the West in general a favour if it votes this week to uphold Victor Uspaskich’s immunity instead of handing Vladimir Putin yet another stick with which to beat us.

 

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit