Projecting the Kremlin line

For The Guardian, Seumas Milne's recent output on Russia must present a terrible quandary

On Monday 2 March, The Guardian published a robust editorial, condemning the efforts by Kremlin propagandists to deflect blame for the murder of Boris Nemtsov by muddying the water with numerous, tenuous theories or, as The Guardian put it, spreading “distracting PR chaff.”

The editorial referred to this tactic, seeking to hide facts by claiming the in-existence of objective truth, as “weaponised relativism”. The article, rounding on the post-modern whitewashing of a cruel and authoritarian state by Margarita Simonyan of RT and the ‘grey cardinal’ himself, Vladislav Surkov, was a welcome recognition by the paper of what has been painfully clear to Russia watchers for years now. My Interpreter colleague Michael Weiss and the writer and film maker Peter Pomerantsev discussed this issue late last year in their paper The Menace of Unreality.

However only two days later, on the 4th, The Guardian‘s own Seumas Milne, who has been returning to the limelight with his editorial work on the recent release of leaked South African intelligence cables, rushed forth to defend the Kremlin, “weaponised relativism” in hand.

With Nemtsov in the ground for just over 24 hours, Milne set about not only insinuating that it was in fact the West that had ordered the killing, but derided the victim. According to Milne, “Nemtsov was a marginal figure whose role in the ‘catastroika’ of the 1990s scarcely endeared him to ordinary Russians.”

This has been the line pushed by so many of the Kremlin’s supporters: Nemtsov was an irrelevancy. It belies the fact that he was not only the most widely known, as a former deputy prime minister, member of the ‘non-systemic’ opposition (political groups excluded from the managed potemkin parliament) who was not under arrest or in exile, but that he was in fact highly charismatic, well-regarded, and not tainted with a history of nationalism, unlike Alexey Navalny for example. Furthermore, rather than being rejected by voters, Nemtsov was elected into the Yaroslavl city Duma in 2013.

Over the last few years, with intensity only gaining during the war on Ukraine, Nemtsov had been a regular target for state television programmes and pro-Kremlin youth groups attacking the ‘fifth column’ of traitors, for their opposition to Putin.

There have been recent claims that an ‘atmosphere of hatred’, fuelled by propaganda and militancy in the Donbass, may have led to fanatical Putinists mudering Nemtsov. Such claims, to me, seem unlikely given the location of the shooting and the extensive surveillance directed at Nemtsov (the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul attested to the latter on Twitter recently).

However Milne does not even consider this possiblity (which would at least leave the FSB’s hands clean), stating that the “[r]esponsibility for an outrage that exposed the lack of security in the heart of Moscow and was certain to damage the president hardly seems likely to lie with Putin or his supporters.”

Instead, Milne heavily implies that the killing was instigated by Putin’s opponents in the west. Here Milne takes his line straight from President Putin, who announced on the night of Nemtsov’s death, through is press secretary Dmitry Peskov, that the shooting bore an “exclusively provocative character”. A not-too-subtle hint that the official position would be that opponents of the state had carried out the assassination to discredit the regime.

One should note that Nemtsov himself appeared to be party to this diabolical plot to discredit his president, having told Sobesednik on February 10 that his mother feared that Putin would have him killed.

Milne then moves onto the war in Ukraine, in which, perhaps surprisingly, he does not deny Russia is a combatant. Indeed, and this is where the relativism of which The Guardian had written, comes most clearly into play, Milne both acknowledges Russia’s involvement in the war and justifies it.

Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and it’s hybrid war in the Donbass are, Milne argues, all a reasonable response to NATO’s “military expansionism”.

Milne writes that “Nato has marched relentlessly eastwards, taking in first former east European Warsaw Pact states, then republics of the former Soviet Union itself.”

While Milne makes passing reference to NATO “insisting” that the accession of states once occupied by Soviet troops to the military alliance is a sovereign choice, he makes no move to soften the image of military conquest conjured here. Instead, any claims of the capability of sovereign states to decide who they ally with are all eclipsed because they fall into line with the evil master plan of the US hegemon.

It is not just an issue of extreme political spin; Milne is factually incorrect on several points. The ‘ceasefire’ in the Donbass could perhaps better be described as a reduction in fighting. The Russians and their proxies are continuing to shell and attack key Ukrainian positions with soldiers and civilians continuing to die. The Ukrainian government heralds 24-hour periods without casualties as successes. The second Minsk agreement is likely to have the same outcome as the first.

Milne claims that the post-Maidan government has denied minority ethnic rights, yet he offers no examples of this. That is because, bar one bill to abolish the official status of the Russian language – which was vetoed by President Turchynov on the 28 February, 2014 – there has been none. Despite the efforts of Kremlin propagandists to portray the Ukrainian government as waging a war on Russian speakers, large swathes of the government are Russian speakers. So are many of the military leaders in the east, including commanders of volunteer formations, such as Semyon Semyonchenko, who, until last month, commanded the Donbass battalion. Meanwhile, the repressions against Tatars in occupied Crimea continue apace.

One should recall that, in December 2012, Milne called US and British warnings that the Assad regime had been preparing to use chemical weapons a “breathtaking reprise of the falsehood that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq”. Milne is certainly no source to go to for military predictions.

Another perverse inversion in Milne’s article is his use of scare-quotes to describe the Ukrainian military operation to defend Mariupol “from its own people”. Apparently Mariupol’s residents were responsible for killing 31 of their own neighbours in the devastating Grad rocket attack on a civilian area on 24 January this year.

Milne argues that while such actions aren’t justified in terms of international law, they should be seen “in the context of Russian security”. Putin’s position is further justified here by citing the popular approval he gains in a state in which he or his cronies control almost all media and trample on dissent.

While this vision of a powerful, colonial superpower being entitled to a sphere of influence may seem to be the very definition of imperialism, Milne is often presented as an ‘anti-imperialist’, and, true to form, he precedes this apologia by listing what he considers to the even greater sins of the West.

This logical dissonance is exemplified by the fact that, in his 2012 collection of columns, The Revenge of History, centred around the defeat of pro-Western Georgia by Russia during the 2008 South-Ossetian war, which Milne sees as a triumph for a “multipolar world”, the only mention of Vladimir Vladimirovich himself comes when Milne cites the USA’s support for “Putin’s ongoing devastation of Chechnya” as one of the magnets for jihadi terrorism. Elsewhere Chechnya is described as one of the victims of the “imperial world order”.

However on the 24 October last year, Milne made an appearance that suggests a transition from fellow traveller into a direct advocate, an agent of influence.

The Valdai Discussion Club is an annual forum at which politicians, journalists and academics from around the world gather to meet with President Putin and other Russian leaders. The event largely serves as a platform for the Kremlin to present its views and agenda to sympathetic (or potentially so) international audiences. Of attending the forum, The Guardian‘s Luke Harding said that “you end up being a puppet in the Kremlin’s theatre, there to make Putin look good”.

At last year’s conference, Vladimir Putin appeared on stage, alongside Andrei Bystritsky, chairman of the board of the Valdai Development and Support Foundation and former head of the Voice of Russia propaganda station, former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, and the former French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, for a question and answer session before a fawning audience, chaired by none other than Seumas Milne.

Milne, who moderated the discussion and was granted the opportunity of asking the first questions to the president, claimed, in response to a letter from an appalled Russian student, that his appearance did not in any way constitute an endorsement, adding that journalists were often asked to fulfil such roles.

Writing five days later, Milne presented his role at the discussion as if he had posed an appropriate challenge to Putin:

When I asked Putin whether Russia’s actions in Ukraine had been a response to, and an example of, a “no-rules order”, Putin denied it, insisting that the Kosovo precedent meant Crimea had every right to self-determination. But by conceding that Russian troops had intervened in Crimea “to block Ukrainian units”, he effectively admitted crossing the line of legality – even if not remotely on the scale of the illegal invasions, bombing campaigns and covert interventions by the US and its allies over the past decade and a half.

But Milne’s actual questions that day had served to allow Putin the space to not only justify Russian actions in Ukraine (Milne, rather speciously, refers to Crimea as a separate place), but also to grandstand about Russia’s humble and well-meaning place in the world:

We’ve had this discussion about optimism and pessimism, and the president set out his preference for a system of global rules and a new era of global governance. Now, it’s an attractive prospect but in the light of recent events it doesn’t look a very plausible one, certainly in the short term. We’ve all talked about the breakdown of the global order and President Putin has talked about the threat of multiplying conflicts if that continues.

Two questions in one which I’d like to ask: First of all, whether you consider, President Putin, that Russia’s own actions in Ukraine and Crimea over the past few months to be a response to that breakdown of rules and a sort of example of a “no-rules” order?

And the second part of the question is really, whether what’s taken place, this global breakdown of rule systems, does that signal from Russia’s point of view a shift in Russia’s global position. It’s been said here in the last couple of days that Russia can’t lead in the current global order but it can decide who leads. I wondered whether that’s your own view?

This is not a grilling, to say the least. It is a performance as part of an event aimed solely at projecting the Kremlin line.

Milne attempted to further couch his support for Russia’s foreign policy proposals by contritely noting that Putin’s system of government, which he describes as “oligarchic nationalism”, “may not have much global appeal”. But his fundamental line is that any force that provides a “counterweight” to US hegemony is to be welcomed.

As Putin praises the brutal military dictatorship re-established by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, supports the butchery of the Assad regime and sends tanks into Ukraine, Milne appears unfazed, for his position is truly that of the ultimate relativist; what matters is the global game of power balancing – a truly imperialist position.

For The Guardian, Milne must present a terrible quandary, or at least he ought to. For, to take the editorial line that moral relativism and disinformation ought to be challenged, while publishing the distorted apologia of a Kremlin advocate, one who performs front-of-house PR duties with the president himself, is surely an untenable position.

Pierre Vaux is a writer and translator at The Interpreter. Follow him on Twitter

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