1 October 2014

In Putin’s Shadow

Quick post, but there’s a very good article by Peter Pomerantsev over at The Atlantic on Russia’s new breed of information warfare. Of particular note is the speed at which the Kremlin has managed to manufacture into importance the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ as a term to define the sections of Ukraine that Russia threatens to separate from Ukraine, or annex outright. Pomerantsev’s points about wanton unreality, and the general attack on the notion of objectivity reminded me, in a tangential fashion, of one of my favourite quotes on power from the A Song of Ice and Fireseries. Before continuing, I’d like to point out that this is in no way an attempt to say that anything from George R.R. Martin’s pen is directly relevant to the situation in Ukraine. Rather, it’s an interesting way to think about the interaction between power and truth, and that interaction is important in regards to Ukraine. No “What can Buffy the Vampire Slayer tell us about people dying in Donetsk?”, etc. Since the quote is well reproduced in Game of Thrones, I’ve included the clip below (Safe for work, unlike half the programme, and spoiler free):

For those without headphones at work, the books don’t delve into the riddle’s answer (although arguably the entire series is an attempt at one). Varys (a royal advisor, of sorts) tells Tyrion:

In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me- who lives and who dies?

In the TV version, this conversation continues:

Tyrion Lannister: Depends on the sellsword.
Lord Varys: Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.
Tyrion Lannister: He has a sword, the power of life and death.
Lord Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?
Tyrion Lannister: I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.
Lord Varys: Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.

In my mind, if we think of the riddle as a question of power, then the answer to the riddle lies outside its formal structure. The person with the true power is Varys, because Varys is the person able to set the categories and terms which constitute the riddle itself. This is similar to the control of belief and ideology epitomised in George Orwell’s 1984. But as a comparison to Russia’s information war, a 1984 comparison doesn’t work. Russia exercises power in setting the terms of debate, but it doesn’t control this in a unilateral fashion. Russia’s power lies in its ability to destroy or undermine faith in the truth of any basic ‘assumed’ categories present in the narratives of others. Where this connects to Pomerantsev’s piece is that he highlights the Kremlin’s ability (via Russia Today and other media channels) to introduce an inescapable element of doubt into almost every area of the debate. In other words, Russia doesn’t need to persuade, instead by coughing up enough static, it can attack the basis of discussion itself.

Controlling narratives, undermining basic precepts for discussion – it’s hard to say which is more powerful. Although nihilistic, the latter might be more important. After all, Varys’s riddle is only a puzzle if one believes that kings are the ultimate political authority, priests are holy and that merchants are rich. If one can’t trust those three basic ideas as true, then the riddle is unsolvable. The best answer to a world order dominated by rich western states which set the terms might be to destroy the assumptions upon which it operates.

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