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The Kremlin's Manichaean delusion How Moscow came to embrace fringe anti-Western conspiracy theories

Source: Meduza
Photo: Richard Lautens / Toronto Star via Getty Images

What do the First World War, sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have in common? Both unfolded in August, and, according to Sergey Naryshkin, the Russian Duma's speaker, both were "provocations" by Western politicians. Last weekend, Naryshkin penned an op-ed in the Russian government's paper of record, Rossiyskaya Gazeta (read Meduza's special report here), launching a vitriolic attack against the United States in familiarly Cold-War rhetoric. Naryshkin also credited Russia with saving the reputation of the UN Security Council by vetoing a resolution to create an international criminal tribunal on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Naryskin supported his argument by referring to Christopher Black (pictured above), a “Canadian expert in international law,” who apparently agrees with Naryshkin's assessment of world politics. To learn more about Black and his world, and how they inform the thinking of men like Naryshkin and others in the Russian government, Alexey Kovalev takes a look in a special report for Meduza.

Christopher Black is a criminal lawyer living and working in Canada, where he's defended several murder suspects. He also established a high-profile career in international criminal law, having defended men accused of genocide in two international tribunals related to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. One of Black's clients, General Augustin Ndindiliyimana, was fully acquitted of all charges by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Black also co-chaired the International Committee for the Defense of Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Serbia, accused of war crimes. (Milošević conducted his own defense at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, but died in his cell in the Hague in 2006 before a verdict could be reached.) Black protested vocally against what he and numerous other lawyers saw as the illegal detention of Milošević.

Up to this point, Black's credentials as an expert in international criminal law are undisputed, and his prolonged campaign against the alleged illegitimacy of international criminal tribunals and their pro-American bias carries a lot of weight. Black's latest writing praises Russia for vetoing the MH17 resolution (this is the point Naryshkin makes in his op-ed). His support for Moscow was republished by WikiSpooks, an amateur website that laboriously explores topics like chemtrails, 9/11,  and conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK. In his piece, Black states that, despite NATO's insistence that Russia or Russia-backed separatists are responsible for downing MH17, “evidence supplied by eyewitnesses, air traffic controllers, Ukrainian military pilots, and Russian radar plots [...] indicate[s] that it was more likely shot down by a Ukrainian government Sukhoi jet fighter.” 

Black's interest in the air traffic controller is not insignificant: testimony by "Carlos the Spanish air traffic operator" is one of the earliest versions of the MH17 catastrophe touted by RT and other Kremlin-aligned media, which were immediately exposed as fake. There's no evidence that WikiSpooks is Kremlin-funded or in any way aligned, but its motivation is explicitly expressed in their mission statement: any fact promoted by the “official narrative” via the “commercially-controlled media” is inherently false and must be disputed. Hence, to WikiSpooks and other similar websites, the position that Russia or Russia-backed rebels shot down MH17 is false simply because it is endorsed by the American government and must be confronted, even if it leads to a jumble of contradictory versions of the same event, based on spurious evidence.

A link at the bottom of the WikiSpooks article indicates that it was reprinted from the website of the Strategic Culture Foundation (where, in turn, it was borrowed from the website of the Gorchakov Foundation, a Kremlin-funded NGO). The Strategic Culture Foundation is a supposedly independent think tank that “provides a platform for exclusive analysis, research, and policy commentary on Eurasian and global affairs.” Some headlines are generic for any news website ("Donald Trump: Unexpected Impact on US Presidential Race," "Afghanistan on Brink of New Wave of Escalating Tension"), but a closer inspection reveals a strong anti-American and anti-Western undercurrent.

While the English version of Strategic Culture Foundation's website looks relatively ordinary, its Russian version (there's also a Serbian one) is outright bizarre. The 'About' section states harmlessly enough: “Benefiting from the expanding power of the Internet, we work to spread reliable information, critical thought, and progressive ideas.” But right beside this text is an op-ed by Dmitry Sedov full of diatribes so astonishingly racist that you want to rub your eyes to make sure you've understood. “The trumpeters of democracy from [liberal radio station] Ekho Moskvy don't need those grants," Sedov says of supposed US government funding for aspiring journalists in the Baltic countries to counter "propaganda" out of Russia. "They are already covered in chocolate like the negroes in Harlem!” In another piece, titled “America's Dark Side,” published on August 6, Sedov (whose credentials are unclear, as no biography is provided and his writings can only be found on SCF's website, or reprinted on other loyalist outlets) explains that the US, led by a black president, is falling to the onslaught of "black racism": there are bars that are off-limits to "dogs and whites" and armed gangs of "black fascists" facilitate white flight from major American cities.

A Whois search reveals that the domain was registered in Moscow by a certain "Andrej G Areshev"—apparently a Moscow-based political scientist specializing in Asian and Caucasian affairs, who pens op-eds like “Frau Merkel's Karabakh Fantasies” in publications like Regnum and—outlets considered to toe the Kremlin's line. (In 2009, for instance, Regnum's chief editor was barred from entering Latvia and Estonia.) Areshev is also a prolific author on the Strategic Culture Foundation's website. One of his latest pieces is titled "Climate Warfare: Is It Really a Conspiracy Theory?" There, he blames the latest wave of droughts and wildfires in Russia on "climate warfare" waged by the United States by way of HAARP, an ionospheric research program based in Alaska. "HAARP as a tectonic weapon" is a popular conspiracy theory, but what's peculiar is the source that Areshev uses to support his argument: the findings of “Professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa Michel Chossudovsky.” While Chossudovsky is indeed a tenured professor with verifiable credentials, he is also known as the founder of the Center for Research on Globalization. Despite the grand-sounding name, it's a fairly standard conspiracy rumor-mill that runs the whole gamut from 9/11 truthery and to anti-vaccination hysterics. 

What makes different from other similar websites is the disproportional weight it enjoys in news coverage by the Russian state media. Global Research is prominently featured as the only source in numerous stories by Russia's leading newswire RIA Novosti, where it's referred to as a "think tank" or "publication" whose "experts" or "journalists" regularly reveal or uncover some fact that fits into the Kremlin's current foreign policy agenda. RIA's latest story based on content that appeared on is titled “Media Uncovered a US Resolution that 'Recognizes' Donbass' Sovereignty,” and refers to the Captive Nations resolution, otherwise known as Public Law 86-90, adopted in 1959 by US President Dwight Eisenhower. While the original draft of the resolution did include some dubious claims (the list of "captive nations" included the nonexistent states of Cossakia and Idel-Ural) and was criticized by prominent American scholars for being based on historical misinformation, it doesn't take much effort to "discover" the resolution, as it's not classified and is widely available online. Describing as "the media" is also problematic, insofar as it is less a news outlet and more an amateur conspiracy website whose founder has subscribed to the Kremlin's narrative simply because it opposes the one promoted by the “deep state” and its subservient “mainstream media.”

It's in this context that Black and Naryshkin's MH17 veto argument make sense. Black is a prominent member of Kremlin's foreign "cheerleading team," which consists of assorted Euroskeptics, far-right politicians, and religious conservatives. He jet-sets between various Kremlin-funded events, from Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin's “Dialogue of Civilizations' forum in Rhodes to a roundtable in the Duma hosted by none other than Sergey Naryshkin, where he enthusiastically joined in preaching Russia's messianic mission and decrying the United States' nefarious machinations.

It is this chorus of increasingly fringe elements that seems to be shaping the Kremlin's dystopian worldview, where the United States is a Manichaean evil whose sole purpose is to plot against Russia. Much has been said already about Russia's "weaponization of information" and its propaganda war against the West. But what is the endgame of this war? If it's convincing the rest of the world of Russia's greatness, then the war is most definitely lost. According to Pew's latest survey, support for Russia internationally is not terribly impressive. If the point of the propaganda campaign is not to convince, but, as Peter Pomerantsev argues, to “lead overeager Western analysts down a hall of mirrors,” to spread discord and confusion, then the first victim of this campaign is the Kremlin itself. Moscow is eager to embrace seemingly any conspiracy nut, to endorse any laughable urban legend, so long as it's anti-Western, and especially anti-American. (For instance, Sergey Zheleznyak, a high-ranking member of the Russian parliament, recently said he opposes using substitute-therapy for drug addiction because methadone was discovered in Nazi Germany and its original trademark name is Adolphine, after Adolf Hitler.) 

The Kremlin, it would appear, has fallen into its own trap. 

Alexey Kovalev


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