“Surkov’s Propaganda”

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June 16, 2015

“Surkov’s Propaganda”

By Rostislav Ishchenko

Translated from Russian by J.Hawk

Part two of a series

Actually, the second article ought to have been called “From Slavyansk to Minsk.” Now it will be the third, because the first article (Militarists against Peacemakers”) caused a great deal of unhealthy agitation due to my personal feelings about Strelkov. That by itself was not a sufficient reason to dedicate a separate article to the topic. It wasn’t necessary to even mention Strelkov in the further examination of the competing Donbass conflict resolution concepts, and I would not have returned to the topic. I don’t like  to write about people I don’t like. After all, any text about anyone is just additional PR for them.

But when two days after the article publication I received phone calls from three well-known and sensible bloggers who unanimously argued that they are extremely concerned about Strelkov’s rhetoric, and especially that he still has fairly high level of support in the patriotic circles (even though it it dropped by more than half over the last year), I thought that maybe I should say more on the issue. It’s worth writing about because had I not written the article, I wouldn’t have known that Strelkov worries them. Which in turn means that people are simply afraid to express their opinion on this individual. They simply write nothing about him–nothing good, nothing bad, but simply bypass the topic. They are afraid of being accused of spreading “Surkov’s propaganda”, paid for by Surkov’s money. 

Well, I’m not afraid. The continuous information hysterics are one of the reasons for my negative attitude toward Strelkov and the group of propagandists which services him. If the discussion with opponents is reduced to general accusations and hysterical slander, it means the team is extremely unprofessional and concerned only with informational support. The hysterics and accusations are deployed when, and only when you have run out of arguments in support of your position. 

One of the people who work with Strelkov’s team is the outstanding professional information warrior Boris Rozhin [who blogs as Colonel Cassad], whose potential is practically not being utilized since the others set the tone. As a result Strelkov, who started as the icon of the patriotic opposition to the authorities lost half of his approval among the target audience over one year (while his rating still remains pretty high, one can no longer speak of a dominant position). I am sure that if Rozhin were to be groomed for the leadership position, not Strelkov, we’d be observing a steady trend toward ratings growth, and the by now comical anti-Surkov hysteria (given that nobody has “abandoned” the Donbass, rather to the contrary, the republics have grown stronger) would have been replaced by well-meaning and well-argued propaganda effort. 

Incidentally, the very fact of the attack on Surkov which was organized by Strelkov and which is continued by his team is also a negative for me. I can stay without hesitation that if given a choice of working with Strelkov or with Surkov, I’d choose the latter. And not because of money. Everybody pays money. The people who do Strelkov’s PR don’t live by the Holy Spirit alone. Especially since active roles on that team are being played by individuals who don’t open their eyelids in the morning for free, and who are by now used to high salaries.

Here’s my reasoning. I can remember three (there may have been more, but I’m not aware of them) critically important problems for the country which Putin delegated Surkov to address. They were the suppression of the information operations of the “white ribbon” opposition between 2005 and 2013, when it represented a real danger and was not, as today, a collection of pathetic marginals whom only the lazy don’t kick. Incidentally, several of the current “patriots” back then unabashedly wore the white ribbons.

Then there was Abkhazia, where it was necessary to quickly resolve the intra-elite conflict do deprive the US of the ability to play on the local conflicts. And then Ukraine. Moreover, Surkov was given the mission right when the crisis began to transform into a civil war.

Given that Putin constantly assigns him to deal with crises, I can draw two conclusions:

–The President trusts him.
–The assigned tasks are carried out well, which means in a professional manner (otherwise he’d have been replaced a long time ago).

One more observation. The terms “Surkov’s propaganda” and “Surkov’s money” (which are happily and actively thrown about by the Strelkovites) appeared a few years ago when the Russian TV caught several top oppositionists on their way to get instructions from the US Embassy. They knew nothing about “Surkov’s propaganda” before they went in, but when they came out they already knew all about it. Given that the US is our enemy, if they don’t like “Surkov’s propaganda,” it tells me that Surkov is acting correctly.

I don’t know what Surkov is like in person, but his political activity (at least that which I can see) doesn’t cause concerns for me. He is constantly accused of some secret agendas, but the proof is of the “everyone knows” and “Strelkov said” variety.

And who is this Strelkov whom I am supposed to take on his word? It’s not a rhetorical question. Already in April 2014 I was horrified by an individual who, publicly and with TV cameras present, introduced himself as a “colonel of the FSB” organizing an armed uprising in Ukraine. A special services officer who carries out a secret mission on foreign territory has no right to drop his cover. The “polite people” only smiled politely when asked “who are you?”, or at most replied that they are local militia who bought their weapons and equipment in the local “Hunting and Fishing” store (and these were simple soldiers, not “FSB colonels”).

You can find a detailed description about how he and 52 others “decided” that the Donbass will turn out just like Crimea in many places on the internet (http://kp.ua/politics/477951-yhor-strelkov-my-rasstrelyvaly-luidei-sohlasno-zakonu).  I just want to turn your attention to one fact–an individual who calls himself a “colonel of the FSB” admits that he arrived on the territory of another country, organized an armed uprising there and even started to execute the citizens of another country “for looting.” On top of that he, an “Orthodox monarchist,” claims that he killed people on the basis of the “Defense Committee Decree from June 22, 1941 On Establishing Military Tribunals.” In other words, he is citing a long-defunct legal act issued by a communist state (USSR) that ceased to exist a quarter of a century ago and which he, as an “Orthodox monarchist” and admirer of the White movement, cannot possibly regard as legitimate.

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He is not even being sarcastic, he simply doesn’t understand what he is saying and how it is perceived. All in all, it’s enough to get you summoned all the way to The Hague.

Therefore I was not surprised when I saw on Wikipedia information on his more modest rank. As I already wrote above, I was not so much surprised by this very young and already retired FSB colonel, but rather his behavior which was absolutely inappropriate for a special services officer.

Moreover, the colonel has no fellow servicemembers who could share their recollections of his brilliant career. I’d think the journalists have already looked. They haven’t found anything, have they? Just don’t tell me that all of FSB has been put on a lockdown. The o nly confirmation of his alleged service in the FSB central apparatus is the interview with “General Gennadiy Kazantsev” which is extremely suspect and appears to be a poorly carried out fake (http://nvo.ng.ru/spforces/2014-12-19/1_interview.html).

The author of the interview modestly notes that Kazantsev is not a real last name, but that the real last name is known to him. So why hide it? There are sufficient details in the interview for the FSB personnel office to instantaneously figure out who headed which directorate at what time. Moreover, the interview includes a photo of some people, described as depicting the general during his youth in Afghanistan. So you can publish the photo but can’t name the name? Furthermore, as a pseudonym they’ve taken up the last name of General Viktor Kazantsev who genuinely became well known during the Chechen War. 

And the story of how Strelkov was accepted into the FSB is a soap opera for housewives. A pair of FSB colonels tracking potential monarchist terrorists (because two FSB colonels have nothing better to do) and stumbling upon the intellectual Strelkov are so impressed by him that they immediately induct him into the FSB, even though that would be illegal. There is another inconsistency in the dates: different versions of Strelkov’s biography state that he began his FSB service in 1993 or 1998, but “General Kazantsev” “remembers” it was in 1995. But in 1998-2000 published articles in the Zavtra [Tomorrow] newspaper, and in 2011 he worked as a freelance correspondent for ANNA News. A rather difficult occupation for an FSB officer with a successful career. 

Naturally, anyone can edit Wikipedia so the data can be wrong. But Strelkov’s team can edit Wikipedia as well. What is more, since Strelkov became a public figure, his finely tuned biography should have been prepared by a team and put out on the internet. So that Wikipedia could be corrected in case it errs. Strelkov’s service colleagues (at least the retired ones) should have been out in force giving interviews. Photographs in uniform and with buddies from the directorate should have been published. Or maybe someone thinks that FSB officers don’t take photos of themselves?

In other words, there is nothing. A shady biography of someone who commuted to a couple of someone else’s wars, including the Yugoslavia one, who seems to have served somewhere. When there was no war to his liking, he engaged in historical re-enactments. With all that, he appears to be a very difficult person. He managed to feud with most of his colleagues and associates on the Donbass. Including his friend of many years, Boroday.

The two things I don’t like in people in general and in politicians in particular is absence of professionalism and dishonesty. When a shady personality with an unclear biography who has appeared out of nowhere starts out by giving the US and Kiev the “proof” of “Russian invasion” in the shape of an “FSB  Colonel organizing resistance”, and then dedicates the whole of his political career to baseless attacks on the Kremlin official who is managing the Ukrainian crisis (and in fact even though Strelkov doesn’t say it outright, he is attacking the Kremlin, Putin, Putin’s internal policy of national compromise, as well as the cautious but highly effective foreign policy),  I have to ask the question: is this something that benefits Russia’s national interests? Even if the anti-Kremlin hysteria is accompanied by hypocritical handwringing about the “dying population of the Donbass”. Because the man who says “I pulled the trigger on the war” has no right to feign concern about the casualties of the war he started.

It was exactly what the US wanted–to draw Russia into a the conflict and obtain proof of its aggression. Here he is, an “FSB colonel”   who “on Putin’s orders” started the war. All that was left was to send the army into Ukraine.

We don’t know whether Moscow planned to send the army into Ukraine. There are two variants:
1. The plans to send in the military did exist, but they were abandoned due to a range of circumstances (international, economic, military). If that’s the case, then Strelkov’s activities which introduced an element of uncertainty (since it wasn’t clear what was going on and who started it) which may have been one of the many arguments against invading (not the main one, but definitely one of them).

2. The demonstration was initially a bluff. This scenario strikes me as more probable, because Putin never does that which is expected of him. Nobody expected the “polite people” in Crimea so they came. After that everyone was certain that the Russian Army would appear on the Donbass any day. Officially they are still not there.  However, if it was a bluff and Russia decided to win Ukraine without waging a war, then Strelkov’s actions forced the Kremlin to correct its strategy on the fly.

But no matter what the scenario, Strelkov’s actions did not help Russia’s leadership implement its plans. And incidentally, the law gives the Russian leadership the right to ask Strelkov why he did what he did (it’s just that it’s not convenient to make him a victim of the regime), but the Russian leadership has no duty to explain itself to him.

Russia’s aid grew and became more public as the leadership of the republics transitioned from Russian citizens to local officials. Because the locals are the insurgents, and if the main insurgent is an “FSB colonel”, then he is an invader as far as the entire international community is concerned. And a country in whose name it operates must either disavow him, or accept the responsibility for an unprovoked aggression. Both options were bad for Russia.

And the “colonel” takes credit for the fact that when he was asked to leave the Donbass, he allowed himself to be quickly convinced. The whole story with Strelkov’s recall reveals the Russian authorities humaneness. The US would have simply sent an assassin (many people die in war, after all), or they would have given him the Noriega treatment for drug smuggling, but Russia simply convinced him to go on vacation.

In parallel to the mosaic of militias a regular army was being formed, and the field commanders’ authority was replaced by a regular administration. This is of considerable importance because it’s easy to get excited about a “national hero” who fights out there somewhere as long as you yourself have a normal and effective administration. But living under a field commander’s authority is a dubious privilege. He operates not in accordance with the law but with justice. But everyone has a different version of justice. He is busy with fighting the war and the civilian population (especially if it can’t feed his army but, on the contrary, demands resources of the commander) is simply ballast.

In other words, we can discern Russia’s position aimed at ensuring that DPR/LPR authority transitions to local leaders, establishing local order in both civilian and military administration that would replace anarchy with normal governance with which one can work, including on the international level.  All of these goals were being pursued in part by distributing and redistributing assistance depending on the loyalty and pliability of this or that commander. It’s only logical that whoever receives assistance ought to respect its interests. Pliability is not a mortal sin but rather something of value since it makes it possible to plan combat operations.

Conclusions:

1. I don’t believe that only Strelkov started the war (although he was important).
2. I don’t believe that Strelkov prevented Putin to send in the army, but he did add the element of uncertainty and his actions on th eDonbass were a provocation intended to force Russia to make a choice: either send in the military and greatly weaken its position in the confrontation with the US, or to refuse to send in the military and weaken its internal prestige.
3. I don’t believe that Strelkov understood what he was doing, I am certain he was being used. Not by the US (even though US benefited from his actions and benefits to this day). He was used by part of the Russian political spectrum which intends to radicalize both the internal and foreign policy and is prepared to risk a schism of the Russian society (the cancellation of the national consensus) while facing a confrontation with the US. This is a highly adventurist policy and Putin is no adventurist.

In general, my assessment of Strelkov is that he is highly ambitious but rather limited, which makes it easy for him to be used. He was very lucky not to die in Yugoslavia or Transnistria, he managed to get out of Slavyansk, and he is not merely free but engaging in politics.  He is a politician, though so far without any standing.

Here is where we finish our story with Strelkov. As I already said, he’s not essential to further analysis of the problem. Of the genuinely large and interesting problem.

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