Is Russia Insider sponsored by a Russian oligarch with the ties to the European far right?

The emails leaked by the Anonymous International last year give us a few insights into the workings of the English language pro-Putin propaganda website Russia Insider.

Its editor Charles Bausman launched the website in September 2014, and described the rationale behind the website as follows:

“It was started in September 2014 by a group of expats living in Russia who felt that coverage of Russia is biased and inaccurate. […] The problem is media control by a few corporations and interest groups, and their close ties with governments and business interests. Instead of challenging, questioning, and fostering open discussion, they tend to promote those interests.”

Ironically, this is what Russia Insider itself has been doing since its launch, namely publishing and republishing pieces of Russia’s disinformation warfare against the West and Ukraine.

Charles Bausman, editor of Russia Insider and a regular commentator for Russia Today (RT)
Charles Bausman, editor of Russia Insider and a regular commentator for Russia Today (RT)

The leaks reveal that Bausman, rather than relying on crowdfunding for Russia Insider, asks for money from a Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev via his associate Alexey Komov.

There were several interesting articles devoted to Malofeev in the international and Russian media. In the context of this blog, Malofeev is known for providing financial assistance to the pro-Russian extremists in Eastern Ukraine (for this very reason Malofeev was sanctioned by the EU, Norway and Switzerland), organising homophobic conferences in Russia, assisting French far right politicians in getting Russian money, and building European far right alliances.

Komov is a no less interesting figure. He is an employee of several organisations founded and funded by Malofeev, as well as a representative of the homophobic World Congress of Families in Russia. He is also an honorary president of the Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, Russia’s front organisation in Italy established by the far right Lega Nord party. Komov even gave speech at the party’s congress at the end of 2013 that elected Matteo Salvini as its leader.

And here’s a series of communications between Russia Insider’s Bausman, Komov and Malofeev:

Charles Bausman to Alexey Komov (2 October 2014):
Alexey, take a look at our stats, - click the button in the footer. They are very, very strong. I still need money!!  Any chance of resuming the conversation?

Alexey Komov to Konstantin Malofeev (2 October 2014):
Charlie, however, has created a good website - http://russia-insider.com/en - a high-quality, pro-Russian and popular one. He wants to cooperate...

Charles Bausman to Alexey Komov (18 October 2014):
This has links in to my TV appearances. I've been on 4 times now. Any reaction from K?

In his last email, Bausman also sent to Komov his CV that gives us a few interesting details.

It is interesting to note that Bausman was born in West Germany (Frankfurt) in 1964, but then lived in Soviet Russia, “due to father’s long-term assignment” there in 1968-1972 (one wonders what that assignment was about). According to his CV, Bausman was educated in the US, but has been living in Moscow since the late 1980s. He also states that “in virtue of professional and family connections”, he has “multiple high-ranking connections to the European and American media”, as well as “investment and political spheres”.

What is not clear is whether Bausman has eventually received any financial help from Malofeev (the leaked mailbox belongs to a fourth party), but his willingness to “cooperate” with a Russian oligarch who is close to the Kremlin and has been providing funding for the war in Eastern Ukraine is quite revealing.

Dmytro Yarosh’s resignation from the Right Sector

The recent resignation of Dmytro Yarosh from the leadership of the Right Sector may be a sign of the forthcoming changes in the strategies of both the Right Sector and the Ukrainian state.

In order to understand the significance of Yarosh’s resignation statement, one needs to consider two important points related to Ukraine’s domestic situation and international relations.

First, the Right Sector has evidently radicalised its rhetoric and actions after the signing of the Minsk II agreement in February 2015. Many fighters of the Right Sector battalion and its affiliated Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (also known by the Ukrainian acronym DUK) were unhappy about the “hybrid ceasefire” implied by the Minsk II agreement, as they preferred to continue fighting against the Russian invaders and their separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine. Some members of the Right Sector were also unhappy about Ukraine’s new government and, especially, President Petro Poroshenko, who appeared, for some ultranationalists, as traitors of the Ukrainian revolution.

It would be too easy to explain the unhappiness of some members of the Right Sector about the “hybrid ceasefire” by their alleged bloodthirst. The war opens up many opportunities to those engaged in it. Of course, war, in a sense, is a desired state for many ultranationalists; they have “genetic inclination” for war. However, this argument has a limited explanation power with respect to the unwillingness of some members of the Right Sector/DUK to end the fighting. Some fighters have used the war as a way to avoid prosecution for the actions that the state would consider not entirely legal. They thought that their military feats would buy them a “legal” way out of Ukraine’s legal framework. In a few cases, that did happen, but in general several members of the Right Sector/DUK were held accountable for their illegal actions.

While there are many other explanations why the Right Sector is unsatisfied with the Minsk II agreement, the crucial point is that the Right Sector has become the most radical opposition to Poroshenko and the government. They still crave a national revolution, as they believe that the revolution that started with the Euromaidan protests was an unfinished revolution, or was not a revolution at all. Thus, the Right Sector is a direct threat to the constitutional order in Ukraine, especially given the fact that the Right Sector/DUK fighters have arms that can be used against state officials. Not that the Right Sector can stage a coup détat – they have neither sufficient human resources nor ample public support for this – but their actions may lead to further destabilisation of the weak Ukrainian state, and the Russian invaders can use this destabilisation to their avail. This is something that Yarosh, being a relatively moderate and balanced politician, understands well. And this is why Yarosh acted as a mediator between the state and the extremists in the Right Sector. However, the frustration among the Right Sector’s fighters grew stronger, and they started asking the leadership of the organisation “to give them the order”.

Second, the Western powers have consistently demanded from the Ukrainian authorities to put all volunteer military units under the army or police control. The Ukrainian authorities clearly see the point: not only do the autonomous military units constitute a threat to the state, their existence sours Ukraine’s relations with the West too. On 3 November this year, the Council of Europe published CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks’s report that, in particular, said:

The Commissioner also raised issues related to the volunteer battalions’ integration into the regular army and the police. His interlocutors in the Ministry of the Interior reiterated that the process had been completed with regard to those volunteer battalions integrated in the police force. The prosecutorial authorities informed the Commissioner about a verification procedure launched by them into the activities of all members of volunteer battalions.

But a more important part of the report is this one:

The Commissioner has not yet had a possibility to discuss these issues with the authorities at the Ministry of Defense and other relevant security structures. However, he is aware of credible reports implicating the existence of armed groups which continue to enjoy a high degree of independence and do not appear to be fully incorporated in the regular chain of command. Most frequent references are made in this context to the groups affiliated with the Right Sector (Pravyi Sector). This issue should be addressed without further delay.

What does Yarosh’s resignation mean? It means that he will no longer be a mediator between the state and the Right Sector’s extreme wing, and will no longer cover up for the violent and aggressive actions of particular members of the Right Sector. What it also means is that the state may have become serious about the threats that the Right Sector pose.

What will the state do?

1. The state may deliver an ultimatum to the Right Sector: either they integrate into the army or the police, or they will be crushed as an illegal armed group. This ultimatum will most likely lead to a split within the Right Sector: some fighters will prefer to join the army/police, some will choose the underground activities. A split into more than two groups is also possible.

2. Those who will choose the underground activities will most likely be destroyed. As the destruction of the stubborn fighters of the Right Sector/DUK may lead to a larger revolt against the authorities (dissatisfied fighters of other military units may join this revolt too), the state will:

2.1. wait until the extremists make an obvious mistake that will be perceived by the general public as a legitimate reason for the state to crush them – this can be either a direct attack on the state authorities or a blatant violation of the Minsk II agreement;

2.2. or it will use the security service agents within the extreme wing of the Right Sector to provoke that mistake.

The economics of rebellion in eastern Ukraine

In April 2014, angry mobs and armed men stormed administrative buildings and police stations in eastern Ukraine, waving Russian flags and proclaiming the establishment of “Peoples’ Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. At the time, some observers predicted that the “pro-Russian” uprising would spread to other parts of southeast Ukraine, throughout the vast territory Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to as historical “New Russia”.

Contrary to these forecasts, the rebellion remained surprisingly contained. No region outside Donetsk or Luhansk experienced large-scale armed conflict or fell under rebel control. Not only were separatists unable to realize the project of a greater “Novorossiya” (‘New Russia’) stretching from Kharkiv to Odesa, they failed to consolidate their grip even within the borders of the Donbas. Not more than 63% of municipalities in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were under rebel control at any time during the first year of the conflict, and less than a quarter of these territories showed resistance to government forces during Kyiv’s attempt to liberate them.

What explains local variation in rebellion? Why is rebel violence more intense in some areas than in others? Why have some towns in eastern Ukraine remained under government control while others fell to the separatists?

The most common answers to these questions have fallen into one of two categories: ethnicity and economics. The first view expects rebellion to be more likely and more intense in areas home to large concentrations of ethnolinguistic minorities – in this case, Russians or Russian speaking Ukrainians. According to this logic, geographically concentrated minorities can overcome some of the collective action problems associated with rebellion – such as monitoring and punishing defectors – while attracting an influx of fighters, weapons and economic aid from co-ethnics in neighboring states. Among others, Vladimir Putin too has cast the Donbas conflict as a primarily ethnic one: “The essential issue is how to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the southeast of Ukraine”.

An alternative explanation for rebellion is economic opportunity costs. According to this view, as income from less risky legal activities declines relative to income from rebellious behavior, participation in rebellion should rise. As Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity proclaimed adherence to European values and set the path towards Europe and away from the Custom’s Union with Russia, the opportunity costs of rebellion declined in the Donbas. As a heavily industrialized region with deep economic ties to Russia, the Donbas was uniquely exposed to potential negative economic shocks caused by trade openness with the EU, austerity and trade barriers with Russia. A rebel fighter with the Vostok battalion summarized this view: “Many mines started to close. I lost my job. Then, with what happened during the spring, I decided to go out and defend my city”.

In an article forthcoming in the Journal of Comparative Economics, I evaluate the relative explanatory power of these two perspectives, using new micro-level data on violence, ethnicity and economic activity in eastern Ukraine. I find that local economic factors are stronger predictors of rebel violence and territorial control than Russian ethnicity or language. Ethnicity only had an effect where economic incentives for rebellion were already weak. Separatists in eastern Ukraine were “pro-Russian” not because they spoke Russian, but because their economic livelihood had long depended on trade with Russia and they now saw this livelihood as being under threat.

The economic roots of the pro-Russian rebellion are evident from new data on violence and control, assembled from incident reports released by Ukrainian and Russian news agencies, government and rebel statements, daily ‘conflict maps’ released by both sides, and social media news feeds. The data include 10,567 unique violent events in the Donbas, at the municipality level, recorded between then President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight in February 2014 and the second Minsk ceasefire agreement of February 2015. Figure 1 shows the geographic distribution of rebel violence and territorial control during the first year of the conflict.

1-eng

To explain variation in the timing and intensity of violence and control, I considered the proportion of Russian speakers residing in each municipality, and the proportion of the local labor force employed in three industries, differentially vulnerable to post-Euromaidan economic shocks. These included machine-building, which is heavily dependent on exports to Russia, highly vulnerable to Russian import substitution, and currently lacks short-term alternative export markets. At the other extreme, there is the metals industry, which is less dependent on Russia, and a potential beneficiary of increased trade with the EU. Finally, I considered employment in the mining industry, which had grown dependent on Yanukovych-era state-subsidies, and became highly vulnerable to IMF-imposed austerity measures. Given the relative exposure of these industries to post-Euromaidan economic shocks, one should expect the opportunity costs of rebellion to be lowest in machine-building towns and highest in metallurgy towns, with mining towns falling in the middle. Figure 2 shows the spatial distribution of these variables. I also accounted for a host of other potential determinants of violence, like terrain, logistics, proximity to the Russian border, prewar electoral patterns, and spillover effects from rebel activity in neighboring towns.

2-eng

A statistical analysis of these data reveals that a municipality’s prewar employment mix is a stronger and more robust predictor of rebel activity than local ethnolinguistic composition. In municipalities more exposed to negative trade shocks with Russia (municipalities with high shares of population employed in machinery and mining), rebel violence was more likely to occur overall, and was more intense. For a median Donbas municipality, an increase in the machine-building labor force from one standard deviation below (4%) to one standard deviation above the mean (26%) yields a 44% increase (95% credible interval: a 34%-56% increase) in the frequency of rebel violence from week to week.

These municipalities – where the local population was highly vulnerable to trade disruptions with Russia – also fell under rebel control earlier and took longer for the government to liberate than municipalities where the labor force was less dependent on exports to Russia. On any given day, a municipality with higher-than-average employment in the beleaguered machine-building industry was about twice as likely to fall under rebel control as a municipality with below-average employment in the industry.

By contrast, there is little evidence of either a “Russian language effect” on violence, or an interaction between language and economics. The impact of prewar industrial employment on rebellion is the same in municipalities where a majority of the population is Russian-speaking as it is where the majority is Ukrainian-speaking. Russian language fared slightly better as a predictor of rebel control, but only under certain conditions. In particular, where economic dependence on Russia was relatively low, municipalities with large Russian-speaking populations were more likely to fall under rebel control early in the conflict. The “language effect” disappeared in municipalities where any one of the three industries had a major presence. In other words, ethnicity and language only had an effect where economic incentives for rebellion were weak.

The seemingly rational economic self-interest at the heart of the conflict may seem puzzling, given the staggering costs of war. In the eighteen months since armed men began storming government buildings in the Donbas, over 8000 people have lost their lives, and over a million have been displaced. Regional industrial production fell by 49.9% in 2014, with machinery exports to Russia down by 82%. Suffering heavy damage from shelling, many factories have closed. With airports destroyed, railroad links severed and roads heavily mined, a previously export-oriented economy has found itself isolated from the outside world. If local machinists and miners had only known the scale of the destruction to come, the economic rationale for rebellion would surely have appeared less compelling. Yet when choosing between a high-risk rebellion to retain one’s economic livelihood and an almost certain loss of income, many people chose the first option.

From a policy standpoint, the economic roots of the Donbas conflict should be seen as good news. Despite the ethnocentric media coverage of this war in Russia and the West, the data show that attempts to divide Ukraine along ethnic or linguistic lines are likely to fail. These results can also explain why the conflict has not spread beyond Donetsk and Luhansk. Home to a large concentration of enterprises dependent on exports to Russia, highly subsidized and traditionally shielded from competition, the Donbas became exposed to a perfect storm of negative economic shocks after the Euromaidan. No other region in Ukraine, or the former Soviet Union, has a similarly vulnerable economic profile. Without a compelling economic motive, a pro-Russian rebellion is unlikely to occur elsewhere in Ukraine.

By: Yuri M. Zhukov, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan

Moscow opts for conspiracy theories to explain the Flight 9268 crash

The crash of the Metrojet Flight 9268 operated by Russian airline Kogalymavia has presented Moscow with a dilemma: what explanation of the crash would be most useful for the Kremlin’s positioning both domestically and internationally? Essentially, there have been two options:

1. A mechanical failure.

The Russian media reported that Flight 9268 experienced technical problems and the pilot asked for a landing in a nearest airport. The Russian media also quoted various people in Russia – family members of the crew, technicians, and other third parties – saying that, in the past, there had been oral reports of the technical problems that the pilots and crew had with the aircraft. Explaining the crash of Flight 9268 with a reference to the mechanical failure was apparently the safest option for Moscow. Since Russia is engaged in the erratic campaign of saving the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria by bombing civilian population, anti-Assad rebels, and, occasionally, ISIS terrorists, the technical explanation presents a picture of a dramatic casualty in no way related to Putin’s Syrian campaign. Naturally, this explanation also points to the corrupt practices in Russia (an aircraft experiencing technical problems should never have been used by the Kogalymavia airline), but all the Russians are aware of the devastating corruption in their country, so “it’s fine”.

2. A terrorist attack.

Almost immediately after the crash, ISIS terrorists claimed responsibility for the incident. This directly linked the crash to Moscow’s Syrian campaign, and implied that ordinary Russians paid a costly price for Putin’s adventures. Hence, admitting that the terrorist attack was the cause of the crash of Flight 9268 could be a blow to Putin’s image domestically: for the Russian audience, he presents the Syrian campaign as something distant and, at the same time, beneficial for Russia’s international standing, but the terrorist attack brings the war back home. A similar situation in Spain (an al-Qaeda cell claimed responsibility for the 2004 Madrid train bombings) resulted in the withdrawal of the Spanish troops from Iraq. If Putin admits that an Egyptian cell of ISIS has been behind the crash and continues his Syrian campaign, his popularity in Russia my decrease. On the other hand, acknowledging the terrorist attack could still be useful for Moscow in terms of its international image: “the Russians are fighting the war on international terrorism, and Russia and the West are in this together, hence Russia is no longer a pariah state, so do lift the sanctions and accept us to the club of the global powers”.

Nevertheless, Moscow sees the first option as the most useful. After all, even the prospect of Russia’s heightened international standing can only be used by the Kremlin for the purposes of consolidating Putin’s regime, but Moscow’s cost-benefit analysis shows that the threats to Putin’s domestic image in the case of accepting the second option are more significant than the potential benefits.

Moscow’s current problem with the first option, however, is that British and US intelligence services increasingly point to the terrorist attack as the cause of the crash, thus narrowing Moscow’s maneuvering space. And the recent reports in the Russian and international fringe media hint that Moscow may have come up with a third option.

3. ‘The West did it’

On 6 November, Russia’s international Sputnik website published Finian Cunningham’s article that bluntly asked: “was it really terrorists, or was it British MI6 agents palming the deed off as terrorists?”. The same day, a conspiracy website published an article by Sorcha Faal arguing that the Russian intelligence service had allegedly captured and arrested “two CIA assets for masterminding the Sinai plane crash of Flight 9268”. The same argument was reproduced by Sean Adl-Tabatabai, a long time follower of David Icke who believes that a secret group of reptilian humanoids controls humanity. On 8 November, Russia’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselev, published an article implicating that an explosion on Flight 9268 could be a result of the agreement between the “Western coalition” and ISIS.

Thus, Russia’s third option is admitting that the terrorist attack was the cause of the crash, but this terrorist attack itself was a Western plot against Russia.

This version may seem absurd to everyone who is not prone to conspiracy theories, but it is also extremely dangerous. It means that, indeed, the consolidation of Putin’s criminal regime at home is far more important for the Kremlin than the international cooperation, and that Moscow is ready to escalate its war on the West. The Kremlin keeps on instilling anti-Western hatred into the Russian society by feeding it with conspiracy theories, and this hatred may lead to psychological acceptance of even more aggressive approach towards the West. As Voltaire wrote, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.