Book Review: The Russia Anxiety

It seems that scarcely a day goes by without a major news story which in some way or another portrays Russia as the international bogeyman. Just yesterday, for instance, we had a completely pointless story in The Observer about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting an ‘ex-KGB agent’ (actually newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev) at a party in Italy. Meanwhile, today’s copy of The Times reports that an as-yet-to-be-published British parliamentary report says that, ‘Russian interference may have had an impact on the Brexit referendum, but the effect was “unquantifiable”.’

What both these stories have in common is that they’re utterly meaningless. Prime Minister meets newspaper owner! So what? And what does it tells us that interference ‘may’ have had some impact, or may not, and that anyway it’s ‘unquantifiable’? Nothing at all. So why were these stories published? The logical answer is that it’s because putting ‘Russia’ into a story automatically lends it some air of malign mystery and makes it look like something untoward is going on. In other words, such stories make headlines not because they’re truly newsworthy but because they tap into what British academic Mark Smith calls ‘the Russian Anxiety’.

In his new book ‘The Russian Anxiety: And How History Can Resolve it’, Smith describes the anxiety as a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard. Sometimes, Westerners fear Russia; other times they just view it with contempt (‘a gas station masquerading as a country’); and other times they prefer to ignore it entirely. The anxiety takes the form of a cycle: fear turns into contempt, then disregard, then back into fear again. And it ‘comes and goes’ according to circumstances. Still, says Smith, ‘The Russia Anxiety is a historically deep-seated feature of international relations’, and it has a very negative effect on how Western states treat Russia, creating tensions which do not need to exist.

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Trump is killing Ukrainians!

Ukrainians are dying, and it’s Donald Trump’s fault. That’s the message of an article in The Washington Post today by well-known columnist David Ignatius.

As I’m sure you all know, US president Donald Trump’s troubled relationship with Ukraine is the grounds on which his political enemies are seeking to impeach him. The basic charge is that Trump abused his office by making military aid to Ukraine conditional on the Ukrainian government investigating his Democratic Party rival Joe Biden. Ignatius, however, argues that Trump’s behaviour is worse than that. For by treating military aid ‘as a personal political tool’, Trump has been playing with peoples’ lives.

This, says Ignatius, is entirely typical of how Trump behaves. Again and again, he has displayed ‘fecklessness’ in his foreign policy by refusing to stand up for allies like ‘the Syrian Kurds, and the South Koreans, and America’s NATO partners in Europe’. The Russians are stepping into the void Trump has created, and ordinary people are suffering as a result. As Ignatius says, in Ukraine

a low-level conflict continues. Here are some details from recent OSCE cease-fire monitoring reports: On Oct. 5, a man and a woman died after a grenade exploded in their apartment in Kurakhove; on Oct. 24, a man was injured by shrapnel near Luhansk; on Nov. 1, a man was injured by shelling in Spartak.

As you watch the impeachment hearings, remember this basic fact: While Trump was playing politics on Ukraine, people who depended on U.S. military aid were getting killed and wounded.

The insinuation here is pretty clear: Trump is killing Ukrainians. But is this true?

In the first place, no concrete evidence has been produced by Ignatius or anyone else to show that what was apparently a very short delay in the provision of aid has had any impact on the military situation in eastern Ukraine. And second, the exact examples Ignatius provides are not quite what he makes them out to be. Indeed, on first reading them, they immediately struck me as a little fishy. So I looked them up on the website of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). This is what the OSCE had to say about the first case Ignatius mentions – the grenade in government-controlled Kurakhove:

The SMM followed up on reports that a man and a woman died after a grenade exploded inside their apartment on the second floor of a six-storey apartment building in 22 Pivdennyi district in Kurakhove (government-controlled, 40km west of Donetsk), about 16km from the contact line. On 7 October, medical staff at the hospital morgue in Krasnohorivka (government-controlled, 21km west of Donetsk) told the SMM that the bodies of a man and a woman (in their forties) had been brought to the morgue in the afternoon of 5 October with fatal injuries from an explosive device. On 4 November, a police representative in Kurakhove confirmed that a couple had died as the result of a detonation of a grenade inside their apartment on 5 October, and that it had opened a criminal investigation.

It’s hard to tell exactly what happened here, but it obviously wasn’t a case of rebel shelling. It sounds more like some idiot playing around with a grenade in his apartment, though there could be other explanations. But one thing one can say for sure is that a slightly faster delivery of US military aid to Ukraine wouldn’t have done this couple any good.

So let’s move on to the second case on Ignatius’ list – a man injured by shrapnel near Luhansk on 24 October. Oddly, I couldn’t find this in the OSCE reports despite searching for the words ‘shrapnel’ and ‘Luhansk’. But it’s worth mentioning that Luhansk isn’t in government controlled territory, so if someone was injured by shrapnel there on 24 October, US military aid to Ukraine wouldn’t have done him or her any good either.

But although I couldn’t find this case, a search for ‘shrapnel’ in the OSCE reports for October did bring up three others, as follows:

  • ‘three firefighters (men, 34, 32, and 36 years old) injured by shelling in the Trudivski area of Donetsk city’s Petrovskyi district (non-governmentcontrolled, 15km south-west of Donetsk city centre) on 11 September.’
  • ‘On 4 October, the SMM saw a man (aged 37) in Staromykhailivka (non-governmentcontrolled, 15km west of Donetsk) with a small injury to his face who told the SMM that on the afternoon of 3 October, while he was in the backyard of his house at 9 Haharina Street (about 2.5km from the contact line) in Staromykhailivka, he heard shooting and started running towards his house. According to him, as he was entering the house, he heard a loud explosion, felt heat on his face, and realized he was injured.’
  • ‘The SMM followed up on reports of a man injured on 25 October due to an explosion at his house at 39 Komsomolska Street in Mineralne (non-government-controlled, 10km north-east of Donetsk), about 2.5km from the contact line. … The man told the SMM that, on the evening of 25 October, as he was about to exit his house, he heard a loud explosion, which injured him.’

Here we have three instances of shrapnel injuries reported by the OSCE in October. What do they have in common? The injuries were all suffered by people in non-government held territory. In other words, they were all almost certainly victims of shelling by government forces. Yet Ignatius tells us that these were ‘people who depended on U.S. military aid.’

WTF?!

And it gets worse, because we also have the final case Ignatius mentions – ‘a man injured by shelling in Spartak’. This is what the OSCE has to say about that:

  • ‘On 9 November, at the Donetsk Regional Trauma Hospital, the SMM saw a man (40 years old) with bandages on his left leg and right upper arm. He told the Mission that on the morning of 1 November he had been outside his house at Pryvokzalna Street in Spartak (non-government controlled, 9km north of Donetsk) when he heard the sound of two explosions and fell to the ground.’

Again, therefore, this took place in non-government controlled territory. And so it turns out that not a single one of the victims of war mentioned by David Ignatius was injured as a result of rebel fire – the injuries were all either self-inflicted or the consequence of the Ukrainian military firing on civilians in rebel-held territory. If Ignatius’ argument is that these people need protecting and that President Trump has a moral duty to provide military assistance to the armed forces which are defending them, then the only logical conclusion is that the United States is providing aid to the wrong side.

Or perhaps the argument is just completely bogus in the first place.

Friday object lesson no. 53: ERA

As a one-off, I am reprising my Friday object lesson series in order to show you all a little something I was given when in Moscow a couple of weeks ago.

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What I find interesting about this is the acronym at the bottom – ERA. This stands for ‘Era Rossiiskoi Armii’ (Era of the Russian Army). You can’t imagine the Russian military creating such a self-confident slogan 10 years ago, after what was generally considered a less than stellar performance against the much weaker Georgian army. And you certainly can’t imagine it 20 years ago, in the midst of the Chechen wars. It’s a sign of how times have changed. The Russian military’s performance in the war in Syria (and perhaps also in Ukraine) has put a new spring in its step. Let’s hope that confidence doesn’t turn into arrogance.

Russians for Wexit

Those infernal Russians are spreading their interfering tentacles wider and wider. At least, that’s what the Washington Post would have us believe, with a screeching headline this week: ‘Russia has turned its interfering attentions to Africa’. Meanwhile, the long-running saga of alleged Russian interference in Brexit is making news due to a refusal by the British government to release a report on the topic. Buzzfeed says that anonymous sources within British intelligence told it that the report will say that no evidence was found of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, But do you trust anonymous Buzzfeed sources? We shall have to wait and see.

But if there are some doubts about Russia’s role in Brexit, we now have evidence of something just as bad, and for Canadians like me, closer to home  – Russian interference in Wexit.

WEXIT??? What’s Wexit, you ask. As well you might. For no doubt by now you’re more than a little confused.

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Mission creep

I’m in Moscow this week, and seeing that my hotel had some free copies of the newspaper Kommersant lying around, I picked one up to see what was in the news. The number one story was yesterday’s meeting in Sochi between the Russian and Turkish presidents. Conveniently, Kommersant included the full text of the agreement. This included the following points:

• ‘Both sides confirm their commitment to preserving Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity.’
• ‘They underline their determination to fight terrorism in all its forms.’
• ‘Starting at 1200 hrs on 23 October 2019, units of the Russian military police and the Syria border service will be deployed to the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border beyond the limits of Operation Peace Spring. They will assist the extraction of units and weapons of the YPG (i.e. Kurdish forces) to 30 km from the Syrian-Turkish border , which must be completed within 150 hours from 1200 hrs, 23 October 2019. From that moment, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will commence up to a depth of 10 km from the border.’

The Russian government will no doubt portray this as proof of the advantages of ‘jaw-jaw over war-war.’ Through diplomacy, they have ensured that the Turkish military offensive will come to an end, and that there will be no humanitarian disaster of the type which so many in the Western press had argued would be the likely result of Turkey’s actions. They have also gotten the Turks to confirm Syria’s ‘political unity and territorial integrity, and found a way of bringing the Syrian-Turkish border back under Syrian control. These can all be seen as significant achievements.

But they come at a price. The Russian military mission in Syria at first had clear goals: destroy terrorist groups and prevent the collapse of the existing regime. These goals have the advantage that one can easily determine when they’re achieved. But now Russia has taken on a new and completely open-ended commitment – guarding the Syrian border. How will we know when its purpose is achieved? We won’t.

There’s a phrase for this sort of thing – mission creep. It’s not very desirable. In the past I’ve suggested that the Russians might have a better understanding than their American rivals of the first principle of war – selection and maintenance of the aim. Perhaps I was wrong. Russia, it seems, is just as prone to mission creep as anyone else. It looks like the Russians might well be stuck in Syria for a very long time to come.

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