No, Putin is not a global mastermind
Luke Harding’s Russia-blaming Shadow State is a perfect example of liberals' hysteria and addiction to conspiracy theory.
Over the past decade, the expectations of the liberal commentariat have been confounded, and their worldview shaken, by the populist revolt.
The most notable moments of this revolt arrived in 2016, with, first, the Brexit vote, and then the election of Donald Trump as US president. Both these election results felt like defeats for the liberal middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic. They were heavily invested in the losing campaigns for Hillary Clinton in the US and Remain in the UK, and were floored by their inability to win popular support, especially given both campaigns had the backing of political, media and business elites.
Liberal pundits responded to Brexit and Trump with a mix of anger and incredulity. When Trump won, journalist Leigh Alexander asked, ‘Why didn’t we replace these voters with grain-threshing robots sooner?’. And so confident was Newsweek of Clinton’s victory that it was forced to pulp a special commemorative edition of its magazine, featuring the cover headline, ‘Madam President’.
Similarly, in Britain the decision to leave the EU was greeted with dismay among the liberal middle classes. ‘I can’t tell you how much I’ve grieved over the result’, said Guardian columnist Owen Jones, while The Times’ restaurant critic Giles Coren blamed pensioners: ‘the wrinkly bastards stitched us young uns up good and proper.’ Observer columnist Nick Cohen concluded, ‘it is as if the sewers have burst’.
The intense prejudices and snobbery revealed in the liberal reaction to the Brexit and Trump votes offer a good clue as to why Clinton and Remain lost. Directly attacking voters — or ‘the basket of deplorables’, as Clinton described a section of them during the 2016 presidential campaign — is not a good segue into asking them to vote for you.
But happily for those who still cannot get over Brexit or Trump, they have doggedly developed an excuse for rejecting the legitimacy of the results, which does not involve explicitly attacking voters. That excuse goes by the name of Vladimir Putin.
This means that every political defeat suffered by the liberal elites, indeed every bad thing that happens in the world, is now attributed to the malevolent actions of the Russian president. In the old days, when the middle classes lost a war, or an election, they would blame the Jews. Today, they prefer to blame the Russians. Putin is the go-to alibi for every failed liberal project. He is the dog-ate-my-homework excuse for all the lame Democrat and Remain campaign organisers and sulking Guardian commentators.
Chief among the purveyors of the Protocols of the Elders of Moscow is Luke Harding, who used to report from Russia and still writes for the Guardian. In his new book Shadow State, Harding alleges that Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote happened because of the hidden hand of Putin.
Harding’s argument is entirely fictional, and it shows. For example, he cites as ‘evidence’ of Putin’s involvement in Trump’s victory an increase in the number of searches for the word ‘treason’ on Google in 2016, and an ‘ex-CIA’ agent’s assessment of Trump’s ‘body language’. At one particular Trump-Putin summit, Harding affects astonishment that no minutes were taken. ‘The lack of an official record wasn’t proof of anything of course’, he notes. That does not stop him from implying that it is, though — ‘it was, to say the least, unusual’.
The allegations that Trump was in the pocket of Putin are utterly far-fetched. Indeed, they are based on a 1959 spy-fiction by Richard Condon called The Manchurian Candidate (twice filmed: in 1962 and 2004), where the Kremlin has a spy in the White House. But then, Harding frequently resorts to fiction to make sense of reality. For example, to explain the use of blackmail by the secret services, Harding writes of how a British agent destroyed a sex tape that could expose a Russian cipher clerk, called Tatiana Romanova. The British agent in question is James Bond, and Tatiana Romanova is a fictional character from the 1963 Ian Fleming novel, From Russia With Love. Still, Harding tells us, ‘the plot wasn’t Fleming’s invention. It was espionage reality.’ But, as ever with Harding, he offers little in the way of evidence to support such an assertion.
He also uses improbable-sounding code words to make the reader feel as if he is indeed some sort of espionage expert. But behind the jargon, the reality is banal. Harding writes of ‘HUMINT’, which means ‘human intelligence’, or ‘gossip’, as it used to be called. ‘ORBAT’ means ‘Order of Battle’, which turns out to mean little more than the management structure of the Russian secret services.
Sometimes the proliferation of such code names makes the text drift into a dreamworld, where ‘CrowdStrike identified the first group of intruders as Cozy Bear of APT29’ is supposed to be a sentence. Blackmail material is always called by the supposedly Russian name, ‘Kompromat’, just to make it sound more mysterious and foreign. Metaphors win out over real-world explanations, so that at one point Harding writes that ‘an invisible platoon of Russian ghosts broke in’, or was it just the ‘tiny purple fishes burning ripples in the tissues of my mind’.
To make his daft claims stand up, Harding seeks out the one English spy who has less credibility than himself: Christopher Steele. Steele was for a while head of the Russia desk at MI5. For whatever reason, MI5 did not seem to value Steele’s services and, since 2014, he has worked as a private investigator for the ‘business intelligence’ company Orbis.
Steele used his old MI5 connections to pick up contract work for the US Democratic National Committee in 2016, writing a background smear document on Trump, who was then the Republicans’ presidential nominee. The so-called Steele dossier was, without doubt, unethical, certainly damaging to Britain’s standing with its most valued ally, and probably illegal (for all the reasons that Trump’s critics say that Russian interference in the US election would be illegal). The idea of the Steele dossier, drawing on outlandish tales from old, broken-down Russian secret-service agents, was that it could be used during the election as background to brief friendly journalists about just how awful Trump was.
But Steele quickly discovered he had gone too far in assembling his ‘dossier’ of outrageous smears, especially in regards to one story. Steele alleged that Trump had paid prostitutes in Moscow to play some kind of sex game that involved urinating on a bed that former US president Barack Obama had slept in when he had stayed in a Moscow hotel. To the cynical and jaded hacks, too lazy to write about policy, the fantasy that Trump was filmed by Russian spies paying whores to perform ‘watersports’ was just too exciting. It was, admits Steele, ‘very difficult to prove’, but ‘he firmly believed the incident happened’. Steele’s old MI5 colleague Christopher Burrows is even less convincing, saying that a lot of the material was ‘unprovable’ or not ‘wholly accurate’.
The interest in the ‘pee-gate’ dossier was so great that all of the journalists who had seen the background document (on the understanding that they would not quote it) could not help gossiping about it. Eventually, Buzzfeed broke the embargo and published it in full. Steele was horrified. As a secret smear, the dossier was doing its work. But by publishing it, Steele and the Democratic Party would have to defend its truthfulness, which they could not. Such was the unreliable nature of the document that earlier this year Steele was ordered by a British court to pay damages to two Russian bankers, due to ‘inaccurate and misleading claims’ in the dossier.
Other aspects of the dossier make it clear that it was made up. Steele claimed that the Russian secret services had been collecting ‘Kompromat’ on Donald Trump since 1987. It would have been far-sighted indeed of them to have anticipated that the then New York property developer would be in the White House more than 30 years later. Aware that this is implausible, Harding writes throughout only that Russian spies had been interested in Trump ‘for more than five years’.
The argument that it was Putin who put Trump in the White House avoids one terrible truth: namely, that it was Hillary Clinton who put Donald Trump in the White House. Not only did she fight a breathtakingly poor campaign, but Clinton’s team actually tried to make sure that Trump was the Republican presidential nominee, reckoning that he would be the easiest to beat.
Among the more heinous allegations against Putin that are supposed to have cost Clinton the election was that he ordered the publication of Democratic National Committee emails (stolen by one or more hackers) on the Wikileaks website. This is supposed to have cost Clinton dearly. And perhaps it did. It revealed that she was a thoroughly cynical hack who had sold her soul to Goldman Sachs, and that her campaign had conspired with Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to rig the party’s vote so that the popular senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders, would not get the nomination. Maybe the Russians were behind the hack. But on the whole, it was better that the world found out what it was like inside the Democratic Party’s higher echelons than not.
To support his claim that Wikileaks worked hand-in-glove with Trump and Putin, Harding reported in the Guardian that ‘a well-placed source’ told him that Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort went to see Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, in March 2016. This claim has been widely ridiculed, not least because Assange, hiding in the embassy to avoid extradition to the US, was one of the most surveilled men on the planet. He was therefore not the easiest man to pop in to visit. Harding’s article still sits on the Guardian website, though nobody believes it is true, not even Harding, apparently, since he makes no mention of the claim in Shadow State.
His allegations that Putin was behind the 2016 Brexit vote are equally far-fetched. Much turns on the fact that Leave.EU campaign donor Arron Banks has a Russian wife, although ‘it is unclear if Banks went to Moscow’, writes Harding. Later, Harding even admits that the Kremlin was divided on whether Leave or Remain would be the better option for Russia.
Nevertheless, Harding brings up all the old and false charges that the Leave campaign had an unfair advantage because of ‘Russian money’. None of this is true. First, the Remain campaign outspent the Leave campaign by £19,309,588 to £13,332,569. Secondly, Harding points out that Leave was fined by the Electoral Commission for campaign overspending, but omits to mention that Remain was also fined for the same breach of spending rules.
The claim that Russia was somehow responsible for the Brexit vote makes little sense. What influence could Russian money or tweets possibly have over the 17.4million Britons who voted to leave the EU? They decided to vote to leave the EU for themselves. Even if you could show that, somehow, some small percentage of Leave voters were influenced by, say, Facebook ads paid for by Putin, you would be stuck with the fact that Britain did not just vote once to leave the EU. The electorate did so again and again, supporting parties that promised to honour the vote at the 2017 General Election, the 2019 European Parliament Elections, and, of course at the 2019 General Election, which the Brexit-supporting Tories won by a landslide.
Harding makes much of the supposed troll farms that were spreading misinformation in the EU referendum and also in the US presidential election. That might be true. But most of the evidence shows that Russian attempts to influence voters through fake Twitter accounts were of little to no consequence.
One of the factors that kept the specious claims of Russian manipulation alive were the official investigations demanded by Clinton supporters and Remain. The most important investigations were: the Special Investigation under Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the US election; the Electoral Commission investigation into the Leave campaign; the National Crime Agency investigation into Arron Banks’ donations to the Leave.EU campaign; and the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee report into alleged Russian interference in British elections, aka the Russia Report.
These investigations have played a very destructive part in the political process. Though an official investigation seems to announce a determination to resolve the issue in question, it generally has the opposite effect – at least for the months and years that the investigation continues. That is because for as long as the investigation is on, unscrupulous journalists like Luke Harding and his colleagues at the Observer — including Carole Cadwalladr and Nick Cohen — have an excuse to report the allegations against the target of those inquiries, without having to make allegations stand up.
Harding and Cadwalladr in particular have contributed acres of newsprint making all kinds of baseless and absurd allegations on the premise that these allegations are being investigated. What neither of them have the integrity to do is to report the outcome of those investigations with any seriousness.
In Shadow State, Harding consistently mocks special investigator Robert Mueller for the ‘high standard’ and ‘high bar’ of proof to which he held his report. This high standard is a commitment to the truth – something that Harding seems to think is unnecessary. When Mueller concluded that there was no collusion between Trump and Putin, Harding dismisses that as inconsequential, even though he has parasitically borrowed moral authority from the Mueller investigation right until the point that it concluded.
Similarly, Harding, like many others, uses the National Crime Agency investigation into Arron Banks as an opportunity to smear Banks as a conduit for Russian money. But he singularly fails to accept the conclusion of the NCA investigation: ‘The NCA has found no evidence that any criminal offences have been committed.’
And what of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report, published in July? The committee was chaired by the former attorney general and arch Remainer Dominic Grieve, a man who Boris Johnson had forced out of the Conservative Party for opposing Brexit. Despite the clear bias of the chair, and the ‘expert witness’ testimony of, incredibly, Christopher Steele, the committee still had to conclude that there was no evidence of Russian interference in Brexit. ‘The Russia report is not smoking and there’s not even a gun’, wrote journalist John Rentoul.
So there it is. The core complaint of Shadow State – that Putin is behind Brexit – turns out to be a massive, hysterical myth. Just do not expect Harding to admit it. He has too much invested in it.
James Heartfield’s latest book is The Blood-Stained Poppy, written with Kevin Rooney.
Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, by Luke Harding, is published by Guardian Faber Publishing. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)
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