On The Russia Moment

Expanded notes from a Facebook exchange with South Africa’s Damon Leff about Russia Today and allegations of Russia hacks:


1. Most credible Western sources note that Russia Today is Kremlin-funded. It would not be able to operate unless it reflected Putin Administration aims and interests.


2. Is television producer Peter Pomerantsev biased about Russia Today’s funding? Two relevant quotes from Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True And Everything Is PossibleThe Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014):


Russia Today is Russia’s answer to BBC World and Al-Jazeera, a rolling 24/7 news channel broadcastng in English (and Arabic and Spanish) across every hotel and living room in the world, set up by presidential decree with an annual budget of over $300 million and with a mission to “give Russia’s point of view on world events.” (p. 46)



Once things had settled down it turned out that only about two hundred of the two-thousand-or-so employees were native English speakers. They were the on-screen window dressing and spell-checkers of the operation. Behind the scene the real decisions were made by a small band of Russian producers. (pp. 47-48).


Is Russia Today funded the same way as the BBC and CNN? The BBC is funded by an annual license fee and its BBC World Service reflects UK Government interests. CNN is privately funded via Time Warner and there is academic work on the so-called CNN Effect (Piers Robinson and others).


A BBC or CNN comparison involves things like journalistic standards, editing choices, narratives, and guest selection. If you watch any of these stations for a long time period then you can observe this for yourself. Having watched RT for a year for me it is interesting — and it has clear biases.


3. If Russia or Wikileaks hacked the Democratic National Party in mid-2016 then they are not going to say ‘yes’ when confronted. Effective deception and information warfare operations involve several layers of plausible deniability. For example, Ray McGovern’s recent claim to Russia Today that email has a “tracing mechanism” omits that this can be re-routed in an information warfare operation.


4. The Central Intelligence Agency has claimed Russian involvement in the hacks. Articles critical of the CIA that allege a fake campaign against Russia (such as by CounterPunch‘s Dave Lindorff) are often either more about domestic politics or about the CIA’s historical operations in other countries.


5. In a multipolar world it is important to debias your worldview and to consider situations from other viewpoints. For example, in PhD research I look at Russian sources on nuclear strategy and Islamic State. But in doing so you should not be a naive idealist about others’ aims and intentions. Russia’s Putin Administration has particular strategic goals. It is helpful to be familiar with Russian sources such as geopolitics expert Alexander Dugin who is quite open about Putin Administration goals and intentions.


6. Russia also has a history of effective disinformation and tactics like Kompromat: compiling dossiers of compromising information about public figures. Kompromat fits how Wikileaks released information about Hillary Clinton’s senior campaign officials but not Donald Trump’s campaign. Russia Today often adopts a ridicule strategy on public figures it doesn’t like. What this suggests is that such tactics and strategies are migrating from Russia to a United States or Western context.


7. It is helpful in assessing Russia Today to have some familiarity with the propaganda work of writers like Jacques Ellul, Jason Stanley, Randal Marlin, Edward S. Herman, and Noam Chomsky. The emergence of new players like Russia Today also reflects the maturation of inter-state rivalry using new communications and media platforms.


8. Having an academic background can be misunderstood by activists. You learn what argumentation and evidence is. You often get to be immersed in the scholarship of a particular field. You learn from specialists. You may have relevant industry experience. (In my case, working as a journalist and writing / editing for the Disinformation website for almost 10 years.) You learn to do careful source evaluation of all sources. This stance can be frustrating to some issues-motivated activists. They may want a simple enemy.


Research Notes

A few research notes from my PhD thesis draft:


  • The journal International Affairs may be a source for Russian perspectives on Jack Snyder’s original conceptualisation of strategic culture, and the SALT nuclear arms reduction talks. In particular, a comparative US-Russia historical perspective is needed.
  • Robert Jay Lifton and Haruki Murakami’s interviews with Aum Shinrikyo renunciates provide possible secondary data to identify possible hypnotisibility. The APA Division 30 definition of hypnotisibility (2014): “An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.”
  • Coercive persuasion sequelae in Aum Shinrikyo and Islamic State would be coded as Other Specified Dissociative Disorder in DSM V (following the work of Robert Jay Lifton and Edgar Schein).
  • A social psychological perspective suggests that the renunciates were sensitised to Aum Shinrikyo’s leader Shoko Asahara from Aum propaganda such as media reports, books, and short anime films. Haruki Murakami documents how Aum renunciates often provided the labour for this media to be produced and disseminated.

A Weak Signal on the Post-Fact Climate

Re-reading Peter Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014), I noticed this detail about the RT (Russia Today) channel (p. 48):


But the first time viewer would not necessarily register these stories, for such obvious pro-Kremlin messaging is only one part of RT’s output. Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, had a talk show on RT. American academics who fight the American World Order, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, antiglobalists, and the European Far Right are given generous space. Nigel Farage, leader of the nonparliamentary anti-immigration UKIP party, is a frequent guest; Far Left supporter of Saddam Hussein George Galloway hosts a program about Western media bias.


Pomerantsev’s comment about Farage is a weak signal about the contemporary post-fact climate. Russian disinformation and propaganda migrated from RT in 2014 into the Brexit vote and the Trump presidential campaign in 2016. This post-fact climate can also be traced to the disillusionment in the West after the 2007-09 global financial crisis and 2011 sentiment fears about the European Union. Pomerantsev is now program director of the Information Warfare initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Terrorist Group Aims

An excerpt from my PhD thesis notes:


Particular outcomes identified for terrorist groups include: (i) the achievement of a particular strategic vision (Y1); (ii) asset expropriation for decision elite or leadership control (Y2); (iii) promulgation of a particular political or religious ideology (Y3); (iv) continuation through a successor group or institution (Y4); (v) evolving into a political party or developing a political wing (Y5); (vi) devolution into an earlier developmental phase or form (Y6); and (vii) negotiation of a peace deal with a nation-state’s government (Y7).


Process tracing can be used to identify these group aims from terrorist communiques and propaganda.

The Medallion Fund

Occasionally news filters out about ultra-secretive quantitative hedge funds who employ scientists. Renaissance Technologies is amongst the most profitable: it uses string theorists and voice recognition researchers. Katherine Burton of Bloomberg Markets notes about RT’s Medallion Fund:


The fabled fund, known for its intense secrecy, has produced about $55 billion in profit over the last 28 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, making it about $10 billion more profitable than funds run by billionaires Ray Dalio and George Soros. What’s more, it did so in a shorter time and with fewer assets under management. The fund almost never loses money. Its biggest drawdown in one five-year period was half a percent.

Kissingerian Realpolitik

For the past several years I’ve been circling around Henry Kissinger’s grand strategy work. In March 2012, I had a coffee with Kissinger’s biographer Jeremi Suri. Later that year I corresponded briefly with Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis on grand strategy. The first volume of Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger biography is queued on my Kindle to read after PhD work is completed. Kissinger’s interview with The Atlantic Monthly‘s Jeffrey Goldberg is a transcript I will return to over the next several months to closely study.


Esquire Magazine has posted an interesting article on the Russian use of Kompromat – compromising material about public figures – in the recent United States election. Some Kompromat involved using the website Wikileaks to disseminate hacked emails. For more information on how Kompromat works see Alena V. Ledeneva’s book How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business (Cornell University Press, 2006).

The Power of Systems

In the late 1980s strategic culture analysts adopted a comparative approach to examine the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Carl G. Jacobsen, Ken Booth, and David R. Jones’ Strategic Power: USA/USSR (Macmillan, 1990) was the high watermark. Then the USSR collapsed in 1990-91 and strategic culture analysts looked for other research topics. A transnational community for strategic culture research only emerged later.


Egle Rindzeviciute’s new book The Power of Systems (Cornell University Press, 2016) offers a counterfactual example of what strategic culture could have evolved into had the Cold War persisted. Rindzeviciute examines the transnational community that emerged around the Austria-based International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis and its policy research in cybernetics and systems models.


Here’s further information on the new book:


In The Power of Systems, Egle Rindzeviciute introduces readers to one of the best-kept secrets of the Cold War: the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, an international think tank established by the U.S. and Soviet governments to advance scientific collaboration. From 1972 until the late 1980s IIASA in Austria was one of the very few permanent platforms where policy scientists from both sides of the Cold War divide could work together to articulate and solve world problems. This think tank was a rare zone of freedom, communication, and negotiation, where leading Soviet scientists could try out their innovative ideas, benefit from access to Western literature, and develop social networks, thus paving the way for some of the key science and policy breakthroughs of the twentieth century.

Ambitious diplomatic, scientific, and organizational strategies were employed to make this arena for cooperation work for global change. Under the umbrella of the systems approach, East-West scientists co-produced computer simulations of the long-term world future and the anthropogenic impact on the environment, using global modeling to explore the possible effects of climate change and nuclear winter. Their concern with global issues also became a vehicle for transformation inside the Soviet Union. The book shows how computer modeling, cybernetics, and the systems approach challenged Soviet governance by undermining the linear notions of control on which Soviet governance was based and creating new objects and techniques of government.

Reality-Testing The Cathedral

For the past day I’ve been reading Nick Land and Mencius Moldbug (the pen-name of Curtis Yarvin) to understand a group of alt.right philosophers called neoreactionaries. Critiques by The Baffler‘s Corey Pein and TechCrunch (and Disinformation) alumnus Klint Finley have been helpful.


Moldbug’s adversary is The Cathedral: his name for media, civil service, and university elites. In Moldbug’s Cathedral, universities create public and social policy which the media then disseminates to shape public policy. The Cathedral is oligarchical in structure yet also distinct from Moldbug’s Inner Party (the Democrats) and Outer Party (the Republicans).


Conceptual parallels exist with the Deep State in the United States (Mike Lofgren, Peter Dale Scott), the Nixon era Black Iron Prison (Philip K. Dick), and white supremacist conspiracies of a Zionist Occupation Government. Oligarchal and elite power structures like Moldbug’s Cathedral arise in many fringe subcultures.


I agree with Moldbug that oligarchical power structures exist. Political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters (Oligarchy) and Jane Mayer (Dark Money) provide comparative historical and tax code analysis. But I’ve also worked in media and universities for the past 20 years. Moldbug’s Cathedral needs a reality-test.


University research can influence public and social policy. This influence is via research publication, public intellectuals, and the translation of research findings into policy. Influence can also occur through cohorts who are socialised into a worldview either in universities or in government. Yet research can also circulate in academia and in outlets like The Conversation – and may not have any policymaker impact.


Media shaping of public opinion is also now more complex. Policymakers’ strategic leaks can have repercussions for investigative journalism. Clickbait and ratings create pressure on journalists. Op-ed columnists can gain clout, fame, and prominence. Advertisers have financial leverage to guide coverage. Individual readers may live in a filter bubble. Social media platforms amplify rumours and folklore narratives. University researchers are one of many potential sources for journalists.


Moldbug cites Walter Lippmann‘s Public Opinion (1922) as an historical source for the Cathedral’s university-media nexus. Moldbug critiques linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky as a Cathedral proponent who uses Lippmann’s ‘manufacture of consent’. The reality is different. Much of Chomsky’s writings (including the propaganda model developed with Edward S. Herman) critique foreign policy and media elites, and they advocate for Gramscian activist movements. Chomsky distinguishes the financial media from popular and tabloid media outlets.


Moldbug ends up advocating for a soft reset of the Cathedral and to restore the Stuart monarchy. He sounds at times like Hildred Castaigne from Robert W. Chamber’s short story ‘The Repairer of Reputations‘ (1895), who believed that an Imperial Dynasty of America existed. Moldbug accepts that the Cathedral can probably not be destroyed and still adopts an adversarial stance towards it.


Moldbug would have likely remained a minor blogger and conspiracy theorist were it not for his Silicon Valley connections with entrepreneur Peter Thiel . Now, with Donald Trump’s election, the alt.right has stormed the Cathedral. Castaigne’s delusional vision of an Imperial Dynasty of America is now closer to becoming a subcultural agenda.


Meanwhile, Moldbug has decloaked as Curtis Yarvin and no longer publicly blogs under his pen-name. Instead, Yarvin now spends his time on launching Urbit: a cryptographic-powered service for personal web servers. “Freedom is an engineering problem,” Urbit notes in its promotional material. Yarvin might even attract some media outlets and university research institutes as potential clients. If the Cathedral can’t be defeated then you can always create new, entrepreneurial services to extract profitable rents from it.