Moderation, nuance, balance

I have updated my blogroll, deleting one redundant link to a site which doesn’t seem to have posted anything new for months, and adding a couple of new links: to Meduza and The Duran. The fact that I’m connecting to both those sites, despite their very different politics, is indicative of my desire to listen to a broad variety of viewpoints concerning Russia. To that end, I have long since listed on my blogroll a bunch of websites whose content I almost always vehemently disagree with. I doubt, for instance, that ‘The Power Vertical’ has ever said anything I could remotely endorse. But it’s important that we don’t live in a ‘filter bubble’ in which we block out people whose views don’t coincide with our own.  Truth comes through dialogue, engagement, and discussion, not censorship.

That said, there are limits. Being on my blogroll isn’t an endorsement, but it is a recognition that the site in question is at least not entirely un-respectable. There are websites which discuss Russia and international affairs, which I’m not prepared to link to. I have, for instance, never put The Saker on my blogroll due to its incessant talk of ‘Anglo-Zionist’ conspiracies. That is not something I wish to be associated with.

With this in mind, I have removed the connection to Russia Insider as a response to Charles Bausmann’s ill-judged recent article about Jews. I don’t think that I can stop Russia Insider reprinting my articles if it wishes, but henceforth I will no longer encourage people to visit that site.

Countering the widespread nonsense being spoken and printed about Russia is hard enough as it is. It becomes harder when those wishing  to do so make extremist statements and thereby taint others engaged in similar activity by association. Moderation; nuance; balance – those are the values which we need to bring to the discussion, and those are the values which I hope this blog succeeds in promoting.


Moscow conference

At the start of September I spoke at a conference in Moscow dedicated to exploring the current tensions in Russia-West relations. Paul Grenier has now produced an excellent summary of the conference proceedings for The American Conservative. You can read it here.

Conference participants raised a lot of really interesting ideas. I don’t agree with them all, but I thoroughly recommend Paul Grenier’s piece to you all, so that you can decide for yourselves. On top of that, his analysis raises a host of questions for future consideration:

  • Is there an ideological/philosophical divide lying at the root of current Russia-West tensions? In my own presentation, I suggested that perhaps there is: Russia and the West seem to have very different conceptions of what constitutes a ‘rules-based international order’. If this is the case, then our current difficulties are rather deeper than many people imagine and can’t be resolved simply by compromising over certain material interests. Instead, they require us to find some way of reaching philosophical agreement – not an easy task.
  • But is agreement even possible? Boris Mezhuev’s idea of ‘civilizational realism’ rests on an assumption that it isn’t, and that the only way for Russia and the West to live in peace is to recognize each other as separate civilizations, in effect to agree to disagree.
  • Is there any way that the West would ever ‘agree to disagree’? Western liberalism is essentially universalistic. I have my doubts that it could ever accept ‘civilizational realism’ as this would mean accepting that Western liberalism is not applicable to all. That puts us in an impasse: Russia and West appear to be philosophically divided; they can’t reach agreement, but they also can’t agree to disagree. I have to admit that I’m not sure how we get out of this.
  • Is the answer to be found in some sort of ‘post-liberal politics’? Is the only solution to our problems a re-imagination of what it means to be liberal, as James Carden suggests? Does it require a disassociation of globalization from Westernization, as Nicolai Petro says? Richard Sakwa raises an important issue, in explaining that the West doesn’t truly believe in dialogue. Globalization to date has largely been about spreading Western standards and modes of operation; it hasn’t involve a genuine exchange of ideas between different parts of the globe. Do we need, then, to abandon liberalism, as Adrian Pabst claims? (If we do, I’m not sure that we are capable of it.)

As I said in the conclusion of my own presentation to the conference, we don’t have any great answers to these questions, but at least conferences like this help us define what the questions are. It’s an important first step. Many thanks to Paul Grenier for  organizing our  meeting in Moscow, and to him and The American Conservative for making our deliberations available to a wide audience.

War propaganda

Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, obliges states to impose certain restrictions on freedom of speech. The article was the product of a long debate among UN members. Countries from the Soviet bloc and many non-aligned nations, notably Brazil, were keen to include a prohibition on propaganda for war, and also to make it as broadly defined as possible – that is to say to ban not just incitement of war, but propaganda on behalf of war more generally. Western states, by contrast, were rather more reluctant to include the provision, and in so far as they were willing to accept it, wanted to limit it just to incitement. In the end, the West lost the debate. The final wording of Article 20 states clearly: “Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.”

In the aftermath of the Covenant, communist countries in many cases enacted suitable provisions in their domestic law. For instance, a Soviet law entitled ‘The Defence of Peace’ stated that ‘war propaganda’ of any sort was a criminal offence. East Germany similarly made propaganda for a war an offence punishable by up to eight years in prison. To this day, many post-communist states retain similar provisions in their law. Moldova’s constitutions, for instance, prohibits incitement to war; Armenia’s constitution bans speech ‘for the purposes of  … propaganda for violence and war’; and the criminal codes in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzia, and Latvia similarly ban any ‘advocacy for war’.  Some other countries, such as Morocco and Kenya have also enacted legislation to this end. Apart from Germany, however, states in the Western world have not met their obligation under the Covenant.

In the English speaking world, meanwhile, propaganda for war is not only not prohibited, but actually quite respectable, and scarily common. Take, for instance, an article published this week by Foreign Policy magazine, and entitled ‘It’s time to bomb North Korea.’ I wish that I could say that this is an isolated case, but it isn’t. Over the past two decades, the American and British press has published no shortage of articles calling for a military attack on this country or that.  To use just the example of the New York Times, in March 2015 it published a piece by John Bolton entitled ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’; in 2012, it printed an article by Michael Doran and Max Boot entitled ‘5 Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now’; in 2011, it ran several op-eds urging Western powers to intervene in Libya (such as this and this); and of course in 2003, it famously supported the invasion of Iraq. And that’s just one newspaper. It’s a story repeated across the Western media. There must have been hundreds of articles in different outlets urging the bombing or invasion of countries such as Yugoslavia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

It has been argued that enacting a prohibition on war propaganda as required by the International Covenant is impossible as the term ‘war propaganda’ cannot be properly defined. But this is a poor argument. In the past 15 years, numerous Western states have enacted laws prohibiting incitement to terrorism and in some cases, such as the British 2006 Terrorism Act, even the ‘glorification of terrorism’. Just suggesting that terrorism might on occasion be justified is sufficient to get you locked up in some countries. In Canada, for example, it is a crime to ‘advocate’ terrorism. Yet, you can advocate for war as much as you like.

This is despite the obvious fact that war is far more damaging than terrorism. The number of people killed by terrorists in the past 20 years pales into insignificance when compared to number killed in the wars which states, including those in the Western world, have started. It is a serious crime to advocate for the killing of a few. But advocating for the killing of human beings en masse is quite all right.

Sadly, in the English-speaking world, war propaganda isn’t just respectable; it’s mainstream. It shouldn’t be.

Taking the offensive

Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j’attaque. (Ferdinand Foch)

From my personal point of view, 2017 was pretty good. From the point of view of the main topic of this blog – Russia-Western relations – it certainly was not. This time last year I commented that the good thing about being at rock bottom was that you can only go up. Russian-Western relations were so bad, I felt that they had to start improving.

Well, I was wrong about that. I completely failed to predict the way that Donald Trump’s opponents would latch onto the Russian interference/collusion narrative and turn it into a tool to undermine the Trump presidency by continually shouting ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’. The idea of improving relations with Russia has now become so politically toxic that I fear that things might actually get somewhat worse. The prospect of the US Congress imposing harsh sanctions against Russia in early 2018 is very real. I am hopeful that it won’t happen, but one cannot be sure of anything any more. Reason and evidence have been thrown out of the window as a result of an atmosphere of hysteria unlike any I can remember even in the early 1980s.

Given this, I won’t make any predictions for 2018. In the meantime, all of us who care about making the world a safer place should all do our own tiny little bit to calm people down and restore a bit of sanity. Our efforts are unlikely to make much of a difference, but we have an obligation to use what little strength we have to try. Eventually, a window of opportunity will open and, if you’ll excuse the plethora of mixed metaphors, it’s important that somebody prepares the ground in advance.

For that reason, in the spirit of Ferdinand Foch, this blog will continue on the offensive throughout 2018. The worse the situation the more vital it is that we press on forward. One blog is, of course, just a small drop in the ocean of the internet, but every little counts. Readership of Irrussianality increased by about 40% in 2017. Let’s hope for similar progress in the year to come.

I encourage all of you to do what you can to spread the word of reason.

Happy New Year!

sanctions: the evidence

In my recent post about the Canadian House of Commons defence committee’s report on Ukraine, I complained that the committee had recommended strengthening sanctions against Russia without producing any evidence that sanctions were an effective tool in changing Russian behaviour. As luck would have it, I have acquired a copy of a recent report which analyzes the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy. I thought, therefore, that I should share the report’s conclusions with you.

Before doing so, it’s first necessary to point out that damaging the Russian economy isn’t the ultimate point of sanctions. If sanctions are to have any meaningful purpose, then that purpose has to be to change Russian behaviour, specifically vis-à-vis Ukraine, given that Ukraine was the pretext for the sanctions. That said, sanctions aren’t going to make Russia change its behaviour if they don’t damage the Russian economy. Coercion has to hurt if it is to coerce. No pain, no gain, as it were. So are they hurting?

The report I have in hand is entitled ‘What difference have sanctions made and is that about to change?’ It was published in September by Macro Advisory Eurasia-Russia Consulting which describes itself as ‘the leading independent macroeconomic and political strategy firm specialising in the Eurasia region, including Russia and the CIS states.’ The report concludes that, ‘it is impossible to say categorically that sanctions have either significantly contributed to the economic decline [in Russia since 2014] or that they have helped the economy survive what would otherwise have been a more severe recession.’ However, the report’s authors tend more towards the latter option, saying that ‘sanctions helped in many respects.’

According to the report, the Russian economy was slowing down even before 2014. The major cause of the subsequent recession was the collapse in the oil price. The impact of sanctions was very small. However, sanctions did affect the way that the Russian government responded to the oil-price-driven recession. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, the government reacted by spending large amounts of its reserves on propping up the ruble, and also by increasing government spending more generally in a type of Keynseian counter-cyclical strategy. In 2014, it abandoned this policy. Instead it allowed the ruble to become a free-floating currency, while it also exercised a tight monetary policy designed to drive down inflation.

The report’s authors credit this latter strategy with preventing the post-2014 recession from becoming as deep as many feared it would be. They write:

Sanctions removed, or made more difficult, the soft options of borrowing and spending … The combination forced the state to be much more fiscally disciplined and more flexible with monetary policy. The ruble free float would not have happened without sanctions. … the decision to stop supporting the currency was the single most important action taken by the government and one of the key reasons why sectors, such as agriculture, have become more competitive and started to grow. … [Therefore] it can be argued that the 2014 sanctions actually helped Russia avoid a steeper recession and a more severe financial crisis.

The report says also that the sanctions forced the oil and gas sector to become more efficient, resulting in an increase, not a decrease, in production after 2014. In general, says the report,

Russia is in good financial shape. … Russia is the sixth-lowest indebted nation and has the sixth-largest financial reserves. … As a result of the sanctions, Russia was forced to repay $250 bn of external debt between 2014 and 2016. That represented 12.5% of pre-devaluation GDP and 25% of post-devaluation GDP. Not many countries in the world could have done that and still avoid a catastrophic crisis. It shows the resilience in the macro-economic and social-political system.

What then of the future?

On this Macro Advisory is a little more cautious. It claims that a lot depends upon the effects of the latest sanctions legislation passed by the US Congress. With this legislation, Congress has effectively seized control of sanctions from the president. Given past experience (e.g. with Cuba, Iran, and the Jackson-Vanik amendment which imposed sanctions against the USSR), the likelihood is that the existing sanctions against Russia will remain for a very long time, regardless of what happens with US-Russia relations more broadly. The new legislation is disturbing, moreover, because it contains stipulations which could be used to dramatically increase sanctions against Russia in the future. This possibility creates a degree of uncertainty which deters foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia. Currently FDI in Russia is rising again, but that could easily change. A much harsher sanctions regime is possible, and that, says the report, could have a negative effect on the Russian economy.

The report lays out three possibilities. The first involves a relaxation of sanctions by European powers. The second sees sanctions remaining as they are. The third envisages much tighter US sanctions. The report assesses that in the first scenario, growth in Russian GDP will pick up to 3.0% by 2020, accelerating to 4.5% by the end of Putin’s final term in office in 2024. In the second scenario, growth will gradually rise to 3.0% by 2022 and remain roughly constant at that level thereafter. In the third scenario, growth will drop to 0.8% by 2020 before increasing to 2.3% by 2024.

Personally, I suspect that scenario two is the most likely – things will continue on much as they are. If the authors are correct, therefore, we should expect that, barring some external shock such as another global recession, during Putin’s final term in office the Russian economy will experience steady if not extremely rapid growth, ending up with three years of 3.0% growth per annum. That’s not enough to catch up with the West, but it’s not bad either, and certainly sufficient to put a noticeable amount of extra money in Russians’ pockets. If that’s really true, then economically speaking Putin’s last years will be a moderate success from an economic point of view.

Of course, these are all just projections and, as we know, economists often get their projections wrong. Nevertheless, none of this is good news for those who think that sanctions are an effective tool against ‘Russian aggression’ or who imagine that the collapse of the ‘Putin regime’ is just around the corner.

Crackpot theory no. 9: Assume the worst

As I was typing my last blog post, an objection to it occurred to me. It goes something like this: ‘For sure, Russia at present has no intention of cutting underwater communications cables, but we believe that it has the capacity to do so, and so we must assume the worst and put in place defences against it, just in case.’

I call this the ‘assume the worst theory of international relations.’ Its underlying principle is ‘better safe than sorry.’

It’s a theory which is pretty commonly held, and used to justify defence budgets around the world. Vladimir Putin is a believer. On two occasions he has quoted Otto von Bismarck as saying that it is not intentions which matter but capabilities. British Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach’s statement about Russia’s anti-underwater cable capability can be seen as following the same logic.

Superficially, the assume the worst theory makes senses. After all, why not take measures for your safety? Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? But measures always impose costs, and if the measures aren’t required then it isn’t a good idea to waste resources on them. Moreover, it just isn’t true that threat is a matter solely of capability, divorced from all intention. If any country in the world has the capacity to cut underwater cables, then it’s the Americans. But Mr Peach doesn’t cite America as a threat to British communications. This is because he’s confident that the Americans won’t ever use that capability against the United Kingdom. Behind the ‘assume the worst’ logic is another assumption, one made about the people and things you seek to protect yourself against. You don’t assume the worst about everybody and everything. It would be absurd to do so.

In any case, successful human relations rely on a degree of trust, in other words on not assuming the worst about others. Also, successful human endeavour always requires a degree of risk. Were we to apply to the assume the worst theory to everything we did we would find it impossible to do anything. As one writer put it, if cavemen had assumed the worst about fire, they’d have banned it, and we’d still be living in very cold caves.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the theory is that in reality assuming the worst doesn’t necessarily help prevent it. Indeed it can have the opposite effect. It is precisely by assuming the worst that people ensure that the worst comes about.

This year we are still in the midst of commemorations of the 100th anniversay of the First World War, a war which begun precisely because two major political leaders – Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – followed the advice of their generals to assume the worst about the international situation.

As Christopher Clark has pointed out in his book The Sleepwalkers, European politicians were well aware prior to 1914 of the likely scenario which would produce a general European war. They knew that a war between Austria and Serbia could escalate into a war between Austria and Russia, and thus into a war between Germany and Russia and so also Germany and France. This scenario was quite commonly discussed, and it was the knowledge that this was how things could turn out which made sure that they did turn out that way.

When Austria issued an ultimatum against Serbia, Russian generals, being well acquainted with the scenario above, immediately began to assume the worst and to argue that the Russian state must take measures to defend itself in case the worst came about. As historian Bruce Menning has discovered, the Russian Army knew that in the event of war with Serbia, the Austrians would also secretly mobilize their forces along the border with Russia. Russia’s mobilization plans depended upon railways which ran close to the Austrian border. The generals, therefore argued that if Austria mobilized against Serbia, Russia must also mobilize against Austria, just in case. Russian ministers, meanwhile, were also aware of the potential war scenario. They therefore assumed that if Austria was preparing war against Serbia, it must also be preparing for the larger war which the scenario said would follow, and if that was the case, it must be because Germany was pushing Austria into war. The ministers assumed the worst about the way events would go and about German intentions. They therefore coaxed the Tsar into ordering a mobilization of the Russian army. At first this was to be just against Austria, but the generals insisted that – again, assuming the worst – it must also be against Germany.

At this point, the German generals told the Kaiser that while Russian mobilization didn’t necessarily mean Russia was going to attack, Germany couldn’t take that chance. Germany could only win a war against France and Russia if it struck first. If it let Russia mobilize without a response, then if the worst came to pass, Germany would be destroyed. It had to assume the worst and declare war.

Returning to the story about Britain, Russia, and the underwater cables, we can see how repeated stories about the potential Russian ‘threat’ push Western states into hostile rhetoric and actions, and so pretty much ensure that Russia does indeed end up being an enemy. One could say the same also about talk in Russia about the ‘Western threat’. Assuming the worst is often a very bad idea. Instead of thinking of what one should do if the worst comes about, it is better to think about how to prevent that happening in the first place, and that means ramping down the talk about threats, not ramping it up.

Russia, the West, and the world

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