Monday, November 30, 2015

Kremlin Accuses Me of Lying About Syria

Sputnik International is a news agency that is owned by the Russian government and can be relied on to follow the Kremlin’s propaganda line. In its Forbes (that’s me) caught lying about average Russians' support for Syrian campaign, Sputnik brands as lies my characterization (Putin's Syria Narrative Must Win Russian Public Opinion--But It'll Be A Hard Sell) of a Levada Center poll on Russian attitudes towards Syria.

Being singled out by an official agency of Kremlin propaganda is flattering in a perverse way. It shows that they worrry about the effect I might have on public opinion. But it is not flattering to be called a liar; so let's look into what I actually said.

Sputnik complains about my “selective use” of two of three Levada Center questions on Syria. It seems my “lie” was to not emphasize Levada’s finding on its first question of strong Russian support for an air campaign in Syria. To quote their complaint:

“Gregory appears to have selectively used only Levada's figures from the second question, which asked whether Russians "support the Federation Council's decision to allow the use of Russian troops abroad." The wording of the question, and particularly the word 'troops', helps explain respondents' hesitation in supporting intervention. It also helps explain fears about involvement turning "into a 'new' Afghanistan situation for Russia," (with 45% suggesting it is a 'possibility or a 'certainty', and 38% that it is 'unlikely' or 'impossible'), again, presumably only if Russian ground troops were introduced.”

Sputnik must pardon my confusion. I do not see any “lie.” They just don’t like my citation of public opinion that suggests the Russian people question involvement in a conflict in the Middle East that reminds them of the Afghanistan quagmire. The poll expresses the natural concern that Russian soldiers will eventually get involved.

Reading further into the Sputnik complaint, my “lie” also consists of not anticipating that Levada would conduct another poll after I finished my piece: “With the Russian air campaign now entering its second month, and Russian ground troops nowhere in sight, Levada found, in polling conducted last week, that the numbers of Russians who believe the Syrian campaign could turn into 'a new Afghanistan' is steadily dropping, with only 35% now believing that it is possible or likely, and a full 50% confident that it will not happen.

Excuse me Sputnik. I would not emphasize that 35 percent of the Russian people are in disagreement with a Kremlin policy. Under Putin, more than a third opposition is a huge number. Who knows what the real number would if the poll were carried out under less repressive circumstances.

So here we go again. Throughout the Ukraine war, Putin claimed there were absolutely no regular Russian troops in the Donbas. There were also no Russian special forces in Crimea until Putin declared there were. The Kremlin will now insist that there are no ground troops in Syria, although they are being interviewed by foreign media and posting selfies on social media. With no ground troops in Syria, there can be no combat deaths, the Kremlin will insist. In fact, the first combat death in Syria has been labeled a suicide to the dismay of his parents. 

Sputnik should be circumspect in its accusations of lying. I presume it has forgotten the defense ministry’s official briefing that proved conclusively that MH17 was downed by a Ukrainian fighter – a result covered by both Sputnik and its sister organization RT.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Sputnik. Their strong reaction to my piece tells us that the Kremlin has deep concerns about the Russian people’s support for the Syria operation – support that can turn on a dime if body bags start flooding in from Syria.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Turkey's Downing of the Russian Fighter: Expect Nuclear Saber Rattling and Threats to NATO's Existence

The world is in for a tense time of possible nuclear brinksmanship. If the United States and the other NATO countries blink, NATO is no more, and Putin has achieved his major goal. We must worry whether the Western world is led by leaders up to the task. There should be some sleepless nights in Berlin, London, Paris and Washington D.C. Putin is rightly described as a bully—and the standard procedure against bullies is to fight back. Turkey’s Erdogan has done just that. Will Turkey’s military allies back him up or cave once more? This test, if it comes, will have profound consequences.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Russia’s Economic Stagnation

Since the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine in February 2014, Vladimir Putin has assured the Russian people that any resulting economic hardship would be short and mild. Even after energy prices slumped, sanctions were imposed, and the economy weakened, Putin optimistically pointed to “signs of recovery,” to “declining dependence on oil,” and insisted that sanctions were not a burden but an opportunity. Russia’s premier, Dmitry Medvedev, assured the people that the government would “fulfill its social obligations [pensions and health care] in full.” Putin praised the Kremlin’s economic Houdinis for showing the West that its “economic sanctions are having no effect.”

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Russia cooks its defense books Moscow says it spends less than it does so that NATO will cut back too.

Reports that Russia is limiting military spending to a 1 percent (nominal) increase in 2016 may be timed to deflate NATO’s initiative to raise defense spending to the target 2 percent for each member country. Russia is playing a dual role. On the one hand, it exults in its military power on prominent display in Syria. On the other, it plays the role of impoverished cousin — too poor to keep up military spending. Russia cannot have it both ways.

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