Thursday, 28 August 2014


I'm going to experiment with Twitter.

My account is @JCassian1  (I hope).

Longer posts will still be here.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Strelkov and Berezin: modern Don Quixotes? Fantasy in East Ukraine

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare...

(W.B. Yeats: Meditations in Time of Civil War)

For all their professed contempt for the West, Strelkov and Co. seem to get a lot of their ideas from Hollywood. Strelkov’s conspiracy theory about the MH17 being full of corpses was straight from the TV series Lost. Now Strelkov’s deputy, Fyodor Berezin, has been taking his Matrix DVDs a bit too seriously, judging by a bizarre interview in Novaya Gazeta. He claims we are all just computer programmes and Strelkov may never have even existed.

There is a strange overlap between the war in eastern Ukraine and fantasy literature. Before he became a rebel bigwig, Berezin was a hack writer, who published dozens of pulp novels. Back in 2009, Arsen Avakov, now the Ukrainian interior minister, chaired the ''Star Bridge'' International Science Fiction Festival in Kharkiv. He noticed that a lot of the new Russian fiction in the military fantasy genre was about future conflict in Ukraine, including Berezin's Ukrainian Front, which imagines a confrontation between Russia and NATO in the Donetsk and Luhansk area. Other examples included Battlefield: Ukraine by Giorgi Savitsky and Russian-Ukrainian Wars by Alexander Sever. This led Avakov to ask: did the Russians want a war?

Last December, Strelkov himself published a children's fantasy novel, which could easily be seen as an allegory of the coming showdown between true Russian patriots and their treacherous Slav brethren, i.e. the Ukrainians. The title translates literally as The Detective of Castle Heldiborn (or maybe The Detective Story of Castle Heldiborn). It tells the tale of the inhabitants of Castle Heldiborn and their incessant wars with just about everybody else. Strelkov writes:

The masters of the castle – the knights of Heldiborn – were then, as now, terribly warlike. And this is no surprise. In those days there was not a trace of any fascinating sciences or arts. Ships did not cross the sea… What was left for the noble people to do? If foreign wars arose, they would journey to the border with the army of the Imperator; if there were none, they would fight their neighbours – knights like them. Or they would start all kinds of rebellions. It goes without saying that we, the keepers of the castle, the Ist-Limesy, helped our masters in everything they did and followed their example.

The Ist-Limesy are fantastic creatures based on the domovoi, a household spirit in Russian folklore (traditionally more famous for mischief-making than patriotic violence). The deadly enemies of the Ist-Limesy are their fellow domovie, the Piff-Paffs - nasty, treacherous creatures who help the knights of the evil Castle Buffenzig. Renata Lis sees a clear analogy between the Piff-Paffs and the Ukrainians. Castle Heldiborn is the sacred land which must be defended: Rus', Russia or the Soviet Union.

I predict that one day some Russian satirist - a Pelevin or a Sorokin - will produce an updated, blackly comic version of Don Quixote based on the current events in Ukraine. The hero, the Knight of the Sad Countenance Igor Strelkov, and his loyal Sancho Panza Fyodor Berezin will have their heads crammed full of cheap sci-fi and jingoistic Russian military history. Only this time, they won't be tilting at windmills, but shooting down civilian airliners. And this time it will be for real.

(Much of the information in this post came from Renata Lis in Rzeczpospolita and Oleg Khlebnikov  in Novaya Gazeta).

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Strelkov dead?

I was going to post about Strelkov's children's novel, but it can wait.

According to the Moscow journalist Yulia Latynina , the Russian warlord and author of The Mystery of Castle Heldiborn is no more.

She claims the Ukrainian army learned Strelkov's daily routine, including the location of his favourite Donetsk restaurant and the motel in Snezhne where he slept, and heavily shelled the area. Strelkov was fatally wounded.

I don't know how accurate this report is, but Strelkov has not been seen in public recently. On Friday it was announced that he was taking a month's holiday, a peculiar thing to do for the commander of a city under siege. He was also said to have left for Russia so he could train the army of "Novorossiya". None of this makes much sense, although Strelkov's deputy Fyodor Berezin has an even weirder explanation: Igor Strelkov may never have existed at all. But I'll save that for a later post.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Strelkov: more biographical details

Renata Lis has published a long article in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, which pieces together some more biographical details about the mysterious Igor Strelkov. Here are a few of her findings:

Strelkov models his distinctive look on the Russian General Alexander Arkadyevich Suvorov (as painted by the Prussian artist Franz Krueger). This is not the famous Suvorov of the Napoleonic Wars, but his grandson who took part in the crushing of the Polish uprising of 1830-31.

Strelkov fought in Transnistria, Bosnia and the two Chechen wars.

His friend Mikhail Polikarpov wrote a book about their adventures in Bosnia, Russian Wolves. Strelkov appears as the character Monarchist, obsessed with the Russian Civil War and happily shelling the houses of "Turks" (i.e. Muslims) with a mortar. (Recently, the Bosnian media has alleged that Strelkov was a comrade of the Serbian paramilitary Boban Indic and took part in rapes and killings in Visegrad).

In the late 1990s, Strelkov published The Bosnian Diary of Igor G. (i.e. Igor Girkin = Igor Strelkov).  Both Visegrad and Boban Indic are mentioned. The author tells of his delight at seeing Orthodox churches from the time of the White Russian emigration in Belgrade and his contempt for Serbs who fail to live up to his Pan-Slavic ideals.

In Moscow Strelkov belonged to the Markov Club, a military re-enactment society named after the White general Sergei Markov. Strelkov was even more fascinated by another White general, Drozdovsky, who famously marched across Ukraine, from the Romanian town of Iasi to the Don. [NB: Lis doesn't mention it, but Drozdovsky's men later allegedly buried him in a secret grave near Sevastopol].  Strelkov spent such a fortune on his hobby that Lis suggests this may have been the reason his wife left him. One of the biggest expenses was a heavy machine-gun, which Strelkov used in re-enactments of the Russian Civil War and both World Wars. He preferred to play the role of junior officers.

By most accounts, Strelkov is a teetotaller. In Polikarpov's novel, the Strelkov character uses the radio handle "Vodka", but this is probably ironic. Although the Russian military re-enactment clubs are notorious for their heavy drinking, Strelkov abstained and chose non-drinkers as part of his machine-gun crew.
Next post: Strelkov's fantasy novel for children

Thursday, 24 July 2014

More Putin fans: Assange and Livingstone...and Ollie Stone

Looks like Julian Assange has become a Flight MH17 truther. WikiLeaks is retweeting the Russia Today version of events (via Oliver Bullough).

On the far left, ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone is also following the Putinist line. Not much of a surprise there.

Update: Another one of the usual suspects has joined the Flight MH17 truther club. It's JFK director Oliver Stone (see his twitter feed). Stone's 2009 documentary South of the Border was recently broadcast (several times over) on Russia Today. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I'd be starting to see a pattern here...

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The anti-fascist Putin still has passionate admirers on the European Far Right

Not least Nick Griffin, who has just resigned as the head of the British National Party. Unlike their continental counterparts, the BNP have performed poorly in recent elections and Griffin has decided to fall on his sword. But, before doing so, he sent a message of support to Putin's Russia ("the last bastion of our race on the planet"), vowing to protect it against the neo-con plot to drag it into World War Three*:
Third, as you all know, I am following up my successful and historic intervention in Cameron’s attempt to drag Britain into war in Syria, with a very much harder campaign to expose and resist the latest neo-con campaign to herd the public into confrontation and conflict with Russia.

During my term as your British National Party MEP, I made many contacts at an international level, connections with whom I am now working to build a pan-European campaign for peace and to resist the utter evil of those who seem hell-bent on plunging us into another world war, against the last bastion of our race on the planet.
(* I'm not linking the BNP site. You can Google it if you like).

Elsewhere, earlier this month the Hungarian fascist party Jobbik (link) "submitted a motion to the Hungarian National Assembly in order to issue a resolution to condemn the Eastern Ukrainian genocide conducted upon the orders of the Kiev government, along with the Western supporters of the massacre, as well as to promote Hungarian-Ruthenian autonomy in the Lower Carpathian Region". As the provider of the link, Leonid Ragozin asks, (I'm guessing, rhetorically), "Who funds Jobbik? Sorry to keep asking this question several years in a row."

France's Front National have been copying Putin's line on the Malaysian airlines disaster almost to the letter. Google the statement by FN spokesman Aymeric Chauprade entitled "Tragédie du Vol MH-17 en Ukraine: oui à une enquête internationale, non à la diabolisation de la Russie" (Tragedy of Flight MH-17 in Ukraine: yes to an international inquiry, no to the demonisation of Russia!"). The gist of the statement is: no one should jump to conclusions because finger-pointing at Russia is completely unfair, especially when it puts French arms sales at risk, but pointing the finger at Ukraine is quite all right.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

...or yet another scenario

Or, and this is likely to be the preferred option, [Putin] will try to have his cake and eat it too: by saving face inside Russia and also avoiding further isolation abroad by “freezing” the conflict. In this scenario, Moscow would call for immediate cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire, and an international “peace conference” that would include the EU, US, Russia, the “self-defense forces” and Ukraine. In the meantime – and it could be a very, very long time – the rebels will remain in control of the territories they hold today.

          (Leon Aron at AE Ideas)

Putin is just brazen enough to attempt to play the peacemaker and honest broker over Ukraine. Even at this late stage, I bet he thinks he can switch from being arsonist to fire chief. After all, it worked for him last year when he successfully stepped in to protect his ally Assad from paying the price for gassing civilians. I can well imagine him thinking it's worth trying the same trick again to save his own bacon.

On the other hand, I can equally imagine Putin going for another option Leon Aron mentions:
After new sanctions are imposed, Putin may very well decide that having paid the price he might as well double down by sending regular troops to save his proxies and help them hold Luhansk and Donetsk.
As Aron says, "Stay tuned!"

What will Putin do next?

Putin's subdued response to the disaster is ominous. It reminds me of his reaction to the overthrow of Yanukovych. For days he said or did little, then he invaded Crimea.

Since Thursday, the Russian propaganda machine been flailing, lacking clear direction from the very top, pumping out various incoherent conspiracy theories which are poor even by Russia Today's low standards. Perhaps it merely shows the Russian security services disinformation department doesn't work weekends and hasn't yet got round to forging the requisite evidence implicating Ukraine. But I think it demonstrates the Putinists are still waiting for their lord and master to decide which line he will take.

Some scenarios for the future:

1. Putin and his cronies will try to drag the crash investigation out as long as possible, be as obstructive as they can, then reject any findings they dont like. Russia may even present the results of its own alternative enquiry. Putin has lost control of reality, but not of the Russian media. Maybe that's enough for him. Obviously, this scenario is highly plausible.

2. Putin will back down, give up his support for the separatist rebels and leave Ukraine in peace. To which my reaction is: yeah right.

3. Putin will do something really extreme and stupid, like he did with the annexation of Crimea, because he can't back down now. I have a horrible feeling this might be what he's planning.

The story so far - how we got here

(This is my personal view of the "logic" that led to the Malaysian airline disaster)

The surreptitious empire: the secret policeman's neo-imperialism

Many Russians feel deep imperial nostalgia for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for them, Russia doesn't have the resources to resurrect the Soviet Union; it can only do so in a weakened, surreptitious form: for example, the Eurasian Union. Enter Vladimir Putin, who has claimed the biggest tragedy in his life was the break-up of the USSR. As a secret policeman, his instincts are to do everything covertly and deny the truth when challenged. He's the ideal architect of a surreptitious empire.

Putin's aim is not to send the tanks in, as in 1956 or 1968, but to create compliant puppets in Russia's neighbours. If they get uppity, then he foments civil war and sends covert military backing.

Ukraine is a vital element in this project: it is by far the largest ex-Soviet state apart from the Russian Federation. If it can't be made to do Putins bidding and evolves in a Western direction then the other ex-Soviet states might follow its example and turn away from Russia. It was vital to punish Ukraine for rejecting Putin's puppet Yanukovych.
How to read the mind of Vladimir Putin

Incidentally, its possible that Putin thinks of the European Union as America's surreptitious empire. He thus thinks it is deeply unfair he can't have his own equivalent, the Eurasian Union. One way of getting an insight into the way Putin thinks is to look at what he accuses others of doing. He offers a classic study in psychological projection. For instance, he believed the Euromaidan protesters must have been Western agents because that's how he himself would have arranged matters in a parallel situation.
Building a superpower on a budget
Putins plan to build Russia into a superpower on the cheap has gone horribly wrong because he has been forced to work with shoddy materials. Most of his covert actions rely on irregular forces. As the name suggests, irregulars are difficult to control and lack military discipline. There's a good reason why they have a notorious reputation for massacres and extra-judicial killings in civil wars (the Black and Tans, the various militias in Lebanon in the 70s and 80s or in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s). They are often nothing more than hooligans and gangsters with guns, drunk on a mixture of alcohol, the ability to push civilians around and extreme nationalism. The third of those is the most dangerous intoxicant of them all, as we've seen with Igor Strelkov.
Pyrrhic victory in Crimea

Putin has also stoked up extreme nationalism among the Russian public. His easy victory in Crimea now looks like a Pyrrhic one which has led to a fatal escalation of the war. Putin's home audience craves more success just as Putin is hungry for the high the opinion poll boost gave him. He should have left things at the annexation of Crimea, but he couldn't. He had to try his hand at Eastern Ukraine. However, over recent weeks the Ukrainian armed forces have been gaining ground against the so-called Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. If those puppet states collapse, then Putin has lost control of Ukraine and lost the war. The jingoists will not be happy and may not be forgiving. The Eurasian Union project will have suffered a massive blow. Yet Putin can't send the conventional Russian army in; he still has to rely on the irregulars and cross his fingers that his agents in Eastern Ukraine are able to rein in their excesses. The irregulars can't win against the Ukrainians with the basic weaponry at their disposal. In particular, they are vulnerable to Ukrainian air superiority. Some time in the last few weeks Putin made the fatal decision to entrust the irregulars with highly sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems. He must have realised what a gamble he was taking. The results have been as predictable as Putin's unconvincing denials of all responsibility.

Just a passing thought

This is probably just one of those trivial "separated at birth" coincidences, but does anyone else see a passing physical resemblance between Igor Strelkov and Gavrilo Princip, the man who shot Archduke Franz-Ferdinand a hundred years ago this summer and started World War One?

Compare: Princip; Strelkov.

Has Strelkov - a fan of histrical re-enactment - deliberately cultivated a "Princip moustache" or is that just standard old-fashioned Slavic military "facial furniture"? Strelkov has yet to acquire the haunted look Princip displays in most of his surviving photos, but I imagine he's been pretty camera-shy since Thursday.

Princip and Strelkov are both bumbling terrorists but the Russian is unlikely to precipitate World War Three, however much that would flatter his ego.

Kursk 2

All the glitter and multi-billion dollar gloss of the Sochi Olympics have long since tarnished. With the Malaysian air disaster, Putin is showing the same face to the international community as he did to the Russian public when the Kursk submarine sank in 2000 with the loss of 118 crew:
Carefully staged photo-ops aside, the Russian leader cut an unimpressive figure in public: tetchy, foul-mouthed and unsympathetic. If trouble brewed, he disappeared. When the Kursk, one of the most advanced vessels in Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet, sank after a botched torpedo launch, Mr Putin stayed on holiday for a week. When he was finally asked by an American television interviewer what had actually happened (Russian naval officials had blamed everybody and everything but their own incompetence), Mr Putin seemed to find it impossible to show sympathy, distress or contrition. He grimaced and said simply ‘it sank’. (Edward Lucas, The New Cold War)
Clearly, Putin does not care too much about his image in the world media any more. He's now exclusively playing to a homegrown audience via a media which is almost wholly under his control. Elsewhere, the mask has slipped and the KGB mediocrity underneath is showing through.

Friday, 18 July 2014


It looks like separatist leader/Russian agent Igor Strelkov's boasts about downing a plane yesterday were genuine.

Also, from a profile of Strelkov on the New Yorker blog:
Like the radical nationalists and neo-imperialists in Moscow, who have easy access to the airwaves these days, Strelkov has a singular point of disagreement with Putin: the Russian President hasn’t gone nearly far enough; he has failed to invade and annex “Novorossiya,” the separatist term for eastern Ukraine. Pavlovsky said that people like Strelkov and his Moscow allies are as delusional as they are dangerous, somehow believing that they are taking part in grand historical dramas, like the Battle of Borodino, in 1812, or “the novels of Tolkien.”
“Strelkov is well known for leading historical reënactments of Russian military battles, like you have in the States with the Civil War reënactors,” Pavlovsky said. “It used to be a fantasy world for people like him, but now they have a realm for their imaginations.”
warned about Putin handing sophisticated weaponry to pumped-up nationalist thugs on Dilettante's Winterings  back in May. It took no great powers of prophecy on my part and if I could see what was likely to happen then so could a "great statesman" like Putin. I put the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy on Vladimir Putin, the man who armed and incited these troglodytes.

My speculation based on what we know already: The separatists acquired at least one BUK missile launcher at the end of June. Basic training takes several weeks. They wanted to show the Ukrainian armed forces they could shoot down Ukrainian aircraft at any height. A few days ago they managed to hit a Ukrainian Antonov at 20,000 feet. The downing of the Malaysian airliner was a demonstration of rebel firepower that went horribly wrong.

PS: There are now allegations that Strelkov is spinning a conspiracy theory that whole thing was staged and the plane was full of bodies which were already dead. Someone should have told him about Occam's razor before he came up with an excuse like that.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Demonstrators storm the presidential palace in Abkhazia

There have been serious protests in the separatist republic of Abkhazia (de jure belonging to Georgia but de facto under Russian control). This time the demonstrations are against the Kremlin-backed government. Unlike South Ossetians, who have been agitating for union with Russia, I get the impression Abkhazians would really like to be independent from both Georgia and Russia.

It will be interesting to see if this is just a flash in the pan. If not, I wonder how Putin will handle it.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Provisional results - brief post

Looks like Poroshenko has won by a landslide.

The "fascist" candidates Oleh Tiahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh earned a combined total of 2.4% of the vote. Where now for Putin's "anti-fascist" propaganda campaign?

Somehow I doubt Putin will cheerfully accept the result. We'll see what his new rhetorical angle is in the coming days.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

"Prince Charles's comparison of Putin to Hitler 'risks an international scandal'..." saying out loud what everyone is thinking. Hint: if you don't want to be compared to Hitler, don't behave like Hitler in 1938. And go easy on the Mein Kampf quotes.

I remember when Charles refused to shake Idi Amin's hand at Jomo Kenyatta's funeral in 1978. As a kid, I couldn't understand why everyone else was sucking up to this monster. A few months later, Amin annexed part of Tanzania. The Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere responded by invading Uganda and overthrowing Amin. This earned Nyerere the condemnation of the Organisation of African Unity, which - as far as I know - had offered no criticism of Amin when he was killing tens of thousands of his own people. Such is international diplomacy. I'm well aware that international - or interpersonal - relations cannot exist without large doses of hypocrisy, but there is a limit and sometimes straight-talking is refreshing. An overdose of diplomacy can be fatal too. In the case of the Organisation of African Unity, decades of twofaced behaviour earned it such a reputation as a dictators' club that eventually it had to be disbanded and replaced by the African Union.

(NB: I'm also aware Charles shook Robert Mugabe's hand by mistake at Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005.)