[this article was written for the Unz Review]
No, this will not be an article about Russians kidnapped in Chechnia (that was a very long time ago) or somewhere in a combat zone. I will be talking about the USA and Iran. First, here are a few links for context:
- About the FBI’s illegal detention of parliament member Inga Iumasheva “Imagine FSB interrogating a US senator? FBI agent questions Russian lawmaker, offers ‘informal’ meeting“
- About the IRGC’s rather weird arrest of Russian journalist Iulia Iuzik “Iran Arrests Russian Journalist Yulia Yuzik for Espionage“
- A recent article by Paul Craig Roberts “Will the Russians Ever Learn?“
- My own analysis for the Unz Review “Kidnapping as a Tool of Imperial Statecraft?“
Quick update: the Iranians have declared that the detention of Iuzik was not an espionage case, but a visa violation which will be resolved very soon.
Next, I would like to clarify a few things before discussing what I think is “Russia’s kidnapping problem“.
In the case of Iuzik, I do not think that she was a spy for anybody, including the Israelis. Why? For one thing, I read that she entered Iran with a passport stamped with an Israeli visa. That is not very smart, especially for a putative ‘spy’ and, besides, even the Israelis are not that arrogant (or incompetent). Furthermore, if the Iranians (who have truly world class security services!) had really suspected Iuzik they had many other options including:
- Setting up a sting operation and film her doing something illegal
- Feed Iuzik all sorts of bad info to confuse her bosses and smoke out any spies in Iran
- Contact the FSB and warn the Russians about her real professional profile
These are just the three most obvious ones. There are many more.
Finally, spies are not arrested immediately upon arrival, this really makes no sense whatsoever (what would be the point?).
[Sidebar: some have noted that Iuzik is closely linked to all sorts of toxic Russian “informal” or “non-system” opposition groups. That is absolutely true and I am sure that Iuzik has no more love for Putin than she has for Iran. And maybe she truly loves Israel. But that does *not* make her a usable spy while this could have made her a “victim of Putin’s regime and hatred for real journalists“, at least if the Russian Foreign Ministry had not acted immediately and firmly. The truth is that these Kodorkovskii-type of “journalists” are no threat to Putin or his “regime”. That is precisely what makes them so angry and why they have to invent “persecutions” ex nihilo]
So what happened here?
My guess is (and I hope and ask my Iranian friends to correct me if I am wrong!) that this is not about Iuzik herself. I see two possibilities:
- The Israeli visa really infuriated somebody at the IRGC and that person acted impulsively
- This is the result of internal infighting in Iran
The first one is obvious, so let me explain the second one.
A lot of Iranians harbor plenty of reservations about Russia, some are even outright hostile or suspicious. They are not alone, there is also plenty of Russians who do not trust the Iranians. In the first case, the history of wars and Russian interventions (not to mention the Soviet support for Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran!) is the cause. In the Russian case, the Iranian attitude towards Afghanistan, Chechnia and, especially, Bosnia created a bad image of Iran (and, to a lesser degree, Islam) in some circles in Russia. There is nothing new here, other countries have had the same problem (France and Germany, Russia and China, etc.). My guess is that somebody somewhere in the Iranian power structure saw this as a way to create problems between Russia and Iran. The telltale sign for me is that Iuzina was arrested, according to various reports, by a IRGC special forces team (that is what is done with real spies to prevent them from killing themselves or destroying evidence). Thus a REAL anti-spy method was used on somebody who was self-evidently NOT a spy. If so, that plan failed, since the Russians immediately summoned the Iranian ambassador who immediately promised to solve this issue.
The case of Iumasheva is much more primitive. This is simply the latest attempt of the US deep state to try to make the Russians do something in retaliation which could then be used to prove how evil and devious the Russians are. As for offering her to grab a coffee on the way out, it is simply a lack of education of the FBI agents involved. Maybe they wanted to hit on her, or brag to their pals about taking her out, or maybe they simply wanted to show some kindness and did not realize how this kind of clumsy “kindness” would be seen in Russia (where women have a very different status than the poor women of the United States).
So these two cases are completely unrelated and do not form a pattern.
Except they do, alas, and this is the real Russian kidnapping problem.
In the public opinion (both in Russia and outside Russia) Russia simply looks weak and easy to bully. Now, of course, inside Russia these kinds of views are mostly held by pro-US “liberals” who are just waiting to fan any flame against Putin and the Kremlin. Most people inside Russia do actually understand the reasons why Russia does not retaliate in kind (Maria Zakharova just repeated it all on TV recently, Russian speakers can listen to her here). She summed it all up by mentioning the Russian proverb “На обиженных воду возят” whose direct translation into English makes no sense whatsoever: water is carried on the backs of offended people. This proverb comes from the times of Peter I when canalizations were not available everywhere and when some dishonest employees of the state who were supposed to deliver the water by carriage for free began charging money for this. When Czar Peter heard about that, he punished these crooks by making them pull the horse-carriages themselves. Nowadays the word “offended” takes a different meaning of “pouting” or “whining”, so I would (very freely) translate it as “whiners get screwed” or something to that effect. An even freer translation could be “don’t bitch and you won’t be treated like one”. Simply put, concepts like “oi vey!” or “gwalt” are not Russian ones :-)
When westerners are outraged, they typically do a lot of talking. They threaten, they complain, they protest, they denounce, etc. Russians typically say nothing, take the pain and concentrate. Furthermore, complaints, threats or protests are seen as signs of weakness in the Russian culture. For example, the advice given to anybody going to jail in Russia is “не верь, не бойся, не проси” which means “don’t trust, don’t fear and don’t ask/beg”. If the so-called “Russian studies specialists” and other experts in the West understood this key feature of the Russian mindset they would not misread Russia so often.
So this is what happens: each time somebody in the West kidnaps a Russian citizen (or does not respect their diplomatic status) the Russian officials very boringly and vapidly protest, mostly behind closed doors and publicly repeat the canned sentences about “US obligations under international law”, about how the boorish behavior of the USA will end up boomeranging and even further discredit the country which modestly fancies itself the “city on the hill”, “indispensable nation”, the “land of the free”, “home of the brave”, etc.
This all simply reeks of weakness to non-Russians (just see Paul Craig Robert’s article above!).
And that is a REAL problem for Russia.
In Asia, everybody “gets it”. The Iranians understand that absolutely perfectly and do not mistake politely smiling diplomats with Russian weakness (Iran’s future is, in so many ways, becoming dependent on Russia and the Iranians know that very well; just as with the Putin-Xi alliance, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Putin also understand each other perfectly). Hence their immediate reaction. As for the Russians, they also understand that this was not a hostile act on the part of Iran as a country but either a bureaucratic screw-up, or a case of Iranian infighting (which happens in Russia too!).
But in the West, Russia’s apparent passivity and even taste for pain only triggers bewilderment and frustration and I believe that Russia needs to address this problem for the following reason:
Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of Obama and Trump, the AngloZionist Empire is tanking much faster than anybody (including myself) would have ever thought. True, Europe is still a US colony, but the “natives are being restless” and there are all the signs that at least the “Old Europe” (aka “western Europe”) is slowly coming to its senses and realizes that the US not only fails to deliver much, but even cannot really punish very much either. Not only that, but the “Old Europeans” will vitally need Russia’s help to deal with the “New Europeans” (aka “eastern Europeans), wannabe colonial servants and full-time Empire-brown-nosing regimes when the EU finally tanks (which, at least to me, is not an issue of “whether” but only a question of “when”).
So far, and as long as Russia continues to look like a willing punching ball of the USA, future potential allies will always wonder whether Russia is a paper tiger or, even worse, a “pretend-resister” and a pushover in reality.
Europe and the Americas are no more a Russian foreign policy priority, if only because right now the US is “not agreement capable” while the EU is trying to find some middle-path between the US, Russia and the nutjobs in the East. True, Russian foreign policy priorities are now in the South, the East and the North. But let’s not confuse cause and effect here. A truly sovereign USA or EU would be an superb partner for Russia in so many ways that she cannot but do everything she can to try to change current US and EU perceptions.
So what could Russia do?
I will immediately exclude all actions which would be illegal under international and Russian law. The fact that a political Neanderthal acts like a thug is no reason for civilized people to emulate him or retaliate in kind. Each country, each nation, has to decide for itself whether the rule of law (national or international) is something which matters to it or not.
However, I believe that there are legal actions the Russians could take.
For one thing, the Russians could get much, much more assertive at the UN. I get it, Lavrov had to say that he was sure that Trump and Pompeo had nothing to do with the latest illegal denial of visas of Russian officials to the UN: he was trying to help Trump who probably really had nothing to do with this. But Pompeo?! Of course Lavrov and everybody else understand that this could not have happened without Pompeo’s go-ahead. How much did Lavrov’s diplomatic talk help Trump? I don’t think that it made any difference. And it did make Lavrov look plain silly (a very rare case indeed!) in the eyes of the western public. Was it worth it? I don’t think so!
Next, so far the Russians have failed to really put pressure on the USA worldwide, but the reality is that she has plenty of options to hurt US security, political and economic interests. For example in Africa where Russia (and China) have gained a lot of traction in recent years or in Latin America where Russia could provide much more political support to opposition groups to local comprador regimes (say in Brazil, Colombia or even Mexico!). I don’t mean do what the USSR did and waste millions on local Communist parties or by single-handedly supporting the local economies. But the Russians could begin using political methods (covert and overt) to being showing the US intelligence community (which will immediately detect this) that there is a price to pay.
What would be important in this case would be to start very “low”, with a few actions here and there, just enough to get the US Americans to notice and then to protest in back-channels. Once this happens, the Russians could simply say “you treat us as hostiles, fine, but there will be a price to pay”. The first time around Uncle Shmuel is unlikely to notice, but once this become a pattern, especially an increasing one, trust me, he will notice!
And, consider this: the USA is already, and has been since at least 2013, engaged in a full-spectrum aggression on Russia and they have pretty much exhausted all nasty measures which the USA could implement more or less safely. Escalating further by, say, disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT, or try to impose a no-fly zone over Syria or try to disconnect Russia from the Internet, or blockade Russian ships – these are all measures which are often mentioned, but which would definitely trigger a dangerous Russian retaliation. The Russians have made several (very uncharacteristic) warnings about that and the US Americans most likely understood that perfectly. This is also what happened when the Ukronazis were on the verge of an attack on Russia and Putin decided to (again very uncharacteristically) warn Kiev that any such attack would have major “consequences for the Ukrainian statehood“. All the Ukrainians, most of them being either Russian or understanding the Russian political culture, immediately understood what that meant and the much announced offensive was scrapped.
Conclusion: Russians still often suck at PR
Yes, RT was huge progress, and even Sputnik probably has a function for the western audiences. And ladies like Zakharova sure are a HUGE progress compared to the stone-faced Soviet spokesmen. But, simply put, this is not enough.
Furthermore, even inside the Russian society there are real patriots (not just western agents) who are getting mighty fed-up with the Kremlin’s, let’s kindly call it “meek” or “hyper-polite” attitude. Meekness is a great quality, so are good manners. But other attitudes and actions are needed when faced with rogue thug-like regimes, especially when those regimes are both self-worshiping and appallingly ignorant.
I have already mentioned in the past that I believed that the “retirement age reform” was a mistake and that it would create a new, patriotic, opposition to the Kremlin’s policies and even, but to a lesser degree, to Putin himself. This did happen, even if Putin’s last-minute intervention kinda softened the blow and, eventually, this topic was if not forgotten, then at least not the top issue.
Then there has been, for years now, a weird policy of apparent appeasement of the Nazi regime in Kiev. Since Putin’s very public threat, since he refused to even take phone calls from Poroshenko and since the Russians have FINALLY begun handing out passports to the Ukrainians, things have somewhat improved on that front. But for YEARS the Russian opposition (patriotic or not at all) was warning about an imminent “sellout” of Novorussia and that hurt the Kremlin (even if that sellout never happened).
I think that it is high time for Putin or Lavrov to start “not taking calls” from Trump or Pompeo, initially figuratively but, if needed, maybe even literally.
As for the patriotic opposition to Putin, there would be a very easy way to deal with it:
- start listening to it and show much more firmness
- finally give the boot to some of the more toxic 5th columnists in the government
- invite that opposition for a real national debate in various public forums (Valdai, TV, radio, etc.)
I think that many of these patriotic opponent of the Kremlin would be glad to fully support Putin if he did that. If he fails to do so, this opposition will only grow. Right now the Kremlin is “lucky” that this patriotic opposition has not succeeded (yet?) in presenting a single halfway credible political figure to lead it. To my great regret, most of the folks involved are angry, bitter and deeply resentful that they have been almost completely ignored by the Kremlin. But this will inevitably change, especially if the current government continues to look weak, indecisive and not truly patriotic at all.
Thus, I believe that, both for external and internal reasons, the Kremlin needs to develop and implement a much firmer policy towards US-ordered kidnapping of Russian citizens. I also believe that this will happen once the political costs for the Kremlin of its current “politeness” become even higher.
One more thing – remember the US seizure of Russian diplomatic buildings in the USA? Putin’s response was very typically Russian: he invited the children of US diplomats to Christmas ceremony in the Kremlin. For a short while, he did look like the proverbial “better man”. But what since? NOTHING! Another President sits in the White House and the buildings are still under illegal US control. Did Putin’s “better man” attitude do anybody any good? Especially in the long term? I sure don’t think so. There is a simple truth that every cop knows: narcissistic thugs do not appreciate good manners. There is a lesson here.
PS: I just saw this video of Iumasheva explaining what happened to her: