A recent London Calling episode featured one of those signature exchanges between Toby Young and James Delingpole which on this occasion centred on my recent piece about whether or not NATO ‘provoked’ Russia into invading Ukraine. James said he didn’t need to read that piece, insisting that his interview with the retired Swiss military intelligence officer Col. Jacques Baud in a recent Delingpod episode provided all the support he needed for the ‘NATO provocation’ theory of the war.
I decided to delve into that interview.
First off, being curious by nature, I looked up Jacques Baud online and discovered that in 2020 he went on Russian state TV to say there is “no history of poisoning by the Russian secret services”, that the Skripals simply had a bad case of “food poisoning” and that Alexei Navalny was poisoned not by the state but by some “mafia” people around him. He wasn’t challenged on any of these controversial claims and, regrettably, the Delingpod interview is in a similar vein.
A key claim made by Baud, both to Delingpole and elsewhere, is that Ukraine’s armed forces have been thoroughly infiltrated by ‘far-right’ ultra-nationalists, and consequently that Russian ‘denazification’ was and is a legitimate Russian goal. Baud cites Reuters as having said there are 102,000 ‘far-right extremists’ in the Ukrainian armed forces, a figure that he appears to have considered ‘too good to check’. The Reuters article in fact says there were 102,000 ‘paramilitary’ soldiers in 2022, which isn’t quite the same as ‘far-right extremists’. The ultimate source for this number, of which Baud is seemingly unaware, is the 2022 edition of IISS’s Military Balance, which makes an estimate of 102,000 troops in the Ukrainian ‘Gendarmerie and Paramilitary’ forces, which consist of the National Guard (60,000) and the Border Guard (42,000).
The National Guard was formed from a core of 33,000 Internal Troops personnel in 2014 and was later expanded to include some volunteer battalions, including the Azov Battalion (with pre-war numbers perhaps approaching 2,500 troops) and the Donbas Battalion (~900), although not the ‘Right Sector’ (~5,000 strong). Of course we know that some members of Azov (at least) are far-right or neo-Nazi, but Baud is essentially making the ludicrous claim that everyone in every unit of the National and Border Guard has ultra-nationalistic, far-right political beliefs.
To smear everyone in the Ukrainian National Guard in this way is like the BBC’s smearing of UKIP as a ‘far-right’ organisation. Even if we just consider the so-called volunteer battalions (perhaps a few thousand in total), the notion that anyone volunteering to defend their country must be ‘far-right’ or ‘ultra-nationalist’ (rather than just patriotic or nationalist) isn’t credible, and it’s notable that James in particular has railed against ginned-up fears of the so-called ‘far-right’ plenty of times in the past – even making reference to this in the same London Calling podcast.
However, let’s try to establish the true extent of far-right ‘infiltration’ of the armed forces of Ukraine. We can do no better than by digging up the only other source that Baud makes reference to, which is a Jerusalem Post article that itself references a George Washington University report focusing on a far-right group called ‘Centuria’ that has supposedly infiltrated the Ukrainian armed forces. Baud calls this ‘disturbing’, but I have to admit I didn’t read the full 93 pages because I was disturbed by a spontaneous fit of giggles halfway down the first page. Perhaps I can illustrate my misgivings with some quotes:
[Centuria …] has attracted multiple members, including [some] now serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine
That’s multiple members – more than one. And some are in the military.
One apparent member of the group […] attended an 11-month Officer Training Course at […] Sandhurst […]. Another apparent member […] attended the 30th International Week held by the German Army Officers’ Academy […] in Dresden
That’s exactly two with a military background.
Despite this, Baud goes on to make claims about the power of these supposedly ‘far-right’ Ukrainian paramilitary forces in influencing and coercing Zelenskyy’s Government against seeking peace with Russia through threats of a coup or assassination. I’m intending to address these claims (as well as those surrounding Maidan 2014) on another occasion, but suffice it to say they also border on fantasy.
It’s worth noting here that the coalition of ‘far-right’ political parties garnered only 315,568 votes in the 2019 parliamentary elections in Ukraine (2.2% of votes cast, 0.9% of registered voters), gaining a total of one seat for the leader of Svoboda, whose paramilitary Sich Battalion has a total of 50 members. The threat from the Ukrainian far-right is not zero, but even if one doesn’t consider Putin himself to be the arch ultra-nationalist, we should bear in mind that Russia has its own far-right problems, and ironically the founder (and still apparently the leader) of the Wagner Group, which was sent to assassinate the notably-Jewish Zelenskyy, looks to have Nazi sympathies himself.
Baud implausibly asserts that all this supposed far-right infiltration explains why Zelenskyy’s ‘Holocaust comparison’ speech to the Knesset went down like a cup of cold sick, and why Israel isn’t providing much in the way of support to Ukraine. In fact, it was not that Knesset members believe Ukrainian armed forces are full of ‘far-right extremists’ (although plainly Azov is quite far-right, and some MKs will have been aware of a recent neo-Nazi march in Kyiv); rather, the reaction to the speech focused on the false comparison between the current war and the Holocaust, and the fact that Zelenskyy failed to make reference to the elephant in the room – that the Holocaust partly took place on Ukrainian soil. However, Israel has other considerations, such as their large Russian-speaking population and the situation in Syria – although the latter, at least, seems to be highly fluid.
Considering all of this, I find Baud’s assessment to be misinformed and misleading. The fundamental problem is that he’s clearly an intelligent and articulate man who can string together factoids into a coherent and persuasive-sounding whole – which is pernicious, when those facts are wrong. But I would still urge readers to listen to the interview: it’s informative for its clever-sounding, insidious mendacity.
Another key point Baud tries to establish is that “Ukraine started this” and he builds a narrative that: (1) Ukraine began shelling the Donbas on February 16th 2022 in an attempt to provoke a Russian invasion; (2) Joe Biden knew this was the plan, and due to intolerable provocation (3) the Russian parliament and then (4) Putin was forced unwillingly into action. He begins this thread at sixteen minutes into the podcast by saying:
In March 2021, President Zelensky issued a law to reconquer, by military means, Crimea and the south of Ukraine, meaning that they were preparing an offensive to attack Crimea and the Donbas.
[T]he basis of the strategy is the implementation of a complex of measures of a diplomatic, military, economic, informational, humanitarian and other nature with a parallel strengthening of defense capability and the development of European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Ukraine considers the political and diplomatic path to be a priority in resolving the conflict.
To suggest that this represented a prelude to a military re-conquest of Ukraine’s internationally-recognised territories is not terribly serious – it seems perfectly reasonable for Ukraine to have a strategy for what they’d need to do (e.g. build civil institutions, hold elections, etc.) in the event that Ukraine could – diplomatically or otherwise – ‘deoccupy’ Crimea. Baud goes on to say:
And [on] February 11th you may remember that Joe Biden said he knew that Russia would attack on the 16th of February. Now how could he know that? In fact, he knew that because he knew that the Ukrainians had planned to start their offensive on the 16th of February, and if you look at what the observers of the OSCE have reported from the 16th of February onwards, you see a dramatic increase of shelling from [the] Ukrainian side into the Donbas that forced the Donbas authorities to evacuate the Donbas population because they were under heavy artillery fire.
It seems obvious to a layman such as me that the U.S. could well have been aware of Russia’s intentions using well-established intelligence collection methods, such as signals intelligence gathered from the ~150,000 Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian border whom we now know to have been using insecure mobile phones – making Baud’s statement a telling solecism from a former intelligence officer. However, more to the point, it’s simply not true that Biden predicted February 16th to be the invasion date. In fact, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was reported to have said on February 11th:
Now, we can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour but what we can say is that there is a credible prospect that a Russian military action would take place, even before the end of the Olympics [on Feb 20th].
Reading the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reports from the period, it’s clear there was a marked uptick in ceasefire violations (with ‘explosions’ – everything from RPGs to artillery – recorded at about 20 times the previous 30-day average), although it’s not possible to determine from these reports alone precisely who was responsible for the majority of the fire, or who started it – with both sides making accusations, and explosions reported on both sides of the line of contact. However, the OSCE maps suggest it was roughly an even exchange from both sides. You’d expect one side to respond to shelling from the other, and that seems to be what happened.
But Baud strongly implies that the OSCE reports blame Ukraine for the shelling, which is patently false, and which is again very telling because I’m confident he’s actually read the reports. The reason I can be confident is because he makes an interesting mistake, saying that on one particular day (February 18th) the rate of shelling was 40 times previous levels. But it’s clear he’s referring to one of the daily reports that actually covers two days of reporting, which is why his number is double the correct figure. Consequently, he has no excuse for suggesting the OSCE blamed the shelling on Ukraine.
As to the Russian evacuation of Donbas civilians which Baud claims was the direct result of Ukrainian shelling, there’s compelling evidence that Russia pre-planned the evacuation on or before the 16th as a pretext for the full-scale invasion, and indeed it seems that Donbas residents were confused as to the reasons – or the need – for an evacuation.
Baud’s narrative breaks down still further when he asserts that it was only after the supposed Ukrainian shelling that the Russian Duma voted to implore Putin to recognise the Donbas territories. In fact, this happened on February 15th. Then – remarkably quickly – on February 16th Russia put its claim to the UN Security Council. This was part of a planned strategy to establish the legal fiction, under Article 51 of the UN Charter, that Russia was merely defending the supposedly-independent states of Donetsk and Luhansk from outside aggression.
But if Baud is correct that the full-scale Russian invasion on the 24th was an unplanned and necessary response, it was rather convenient that those hordes of Russian troops just happened to be on Ukraine’s borders at the right time, and doubly convenient that – despite claiming on the 15th that they were withdrawing forces – Russia secretly moved another 7,000 troops to the area just before the 16th, in time for the start of these completely unexpected hostilities.
Baud may be cynically hoping that critics of Western foreign policy won’t be bothered to do their own research and will simply nod their heads sagely, feeling themselves privy to secret knowledge and safe in their titanium-lined bunker of naïveté. Sadly, it’s not clear that’s a bad strategy. But with events like the massacres in Bucha (which Baud has also denied), the rapes, forced deportations and the deliberate bombardment of non-military targets, it’s reached the point where those too cocksure to examine the facts look a lot like a modern-day Walter Duranty, albeit without the Pulitzer and with only the stench of death surrounding them.