Get them while they’re young

It’s said that if you want to win people’s hearts and minds you should ‘get them while they’re young’. It’s a lesson that the Russian state seems to have learnt, at least if the Daily Mail is to be believed. Masha and the Bear is a popular cartoon for young children, produced in Russia, but translated into other languages and shown around the world. It might seem like harmless stuff, but appearances can be deceiving. For in fact, Masha and the Bear is a devious work of Russian propaganda. As the Daily Mail tells us:

A Russian-made children’s cartoon show has been accused of being part of the Putin propaganda machine. Masha and the Bear focuses on the relationship between a slight but imposing young girl and her protector, a huge bear. In one Masha even dons a Soviet border guard’s hat as she repels invaders from the Bear’s carrot patch.

Critics said this was a metaphor for how Russia protects its borders.

Last year, Finland’s top newspaper – Helsingin Sanomat – quoted a lecturer at Tallinn University’s Communication School as claiming that the bear symbolised Russia and was designed to place a positive image of the country in children’s minds.

The lecturer, Priit Hobemagi, said that the series was a ‘beautifully presented’ part of a campaign that is dangerous for Estonian national security. Anthony Glees, an intelligence expert from The University of Buckingham told The Times: ‘Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.’

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Masha defends Russia’s borders

The Daily Mail concludes:

Russia’s state media have refuted the claims from the likes of Estonia and Lithuania. They have also branded the concerns in the Baltic states as ‘pathological’ Russophobia. The company who produce the popular cartoon, Animaccord, said the show is an independent project that has never received state funding.

This is one of those stories where any sort of commentary seems  superfluous. Its absurdity speaks for itself. One day, historians are going to look back on this period of our history and shake their heads in astonishment.

 

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The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

Cooktown, Australia, is about 6,650 kilometres from Russia. You might imagine that it’s as safe from Russian invasion as anywhere on the globe. But, as I learnt this week, its inhabitants haven’t always been convinced of that. I thought it was worth sharing the story.

cooktown

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The final casualty

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the end of fighting in the First World War.

A few miles from my family home in south Wales is a small village with the seemingly unpronounceable name of Kilgwrrwg. Just outside the village is a tiny church. You can’t reach it by road, but have to brave the sheep and molehills and trudge several hundred yards through a typically wet and muddy Welsh field to get there. When you do, you find a little piece of British history. For outside the church is the grave of Able Seaman Richard Morgan, who died 100 years ago today on the morning of 11 November 1918.

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We know little of Richard Morgan, other than that he was a woodcutter who volunteered for service in 1916. No photograph of him survives. He drowned after the small boat he was on capsized. It is believed that he was the last British serviceman to die prior to the armistice which brought fighting in the First World War to an end. He was, therefore, the final casualty in what most now believe was an utterly futile war. So, if you’re ever in the region, perhaps consider taking a short hike across the fields to Kilgwrrwg church, pay homage to Richard Morgan, and contemplate the folly of man.

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Kilgwrrwg church

 

 

The liberal international order

The Holy Roman Empire, it’s often said, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The same might be said about the so-called ‘liberal international order’ – it’s neither liberal, nor international, nor an order. That might be a little unfair, but it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the system governing international relations is really quite what the proponents of the ‘liberal international order’ imagine it to be (democratic values, free trade, international institutions, international law, and the like). Whatever the answer, a lot of people are saying that the existing system is in crisis due to a resurgent Russia, a rising China, and far-right populism in Europe. Of course, if the liberal international order doesn’t exist, it can hardly be in crisis, but discussions of the matter are nonetheless revealing as they tell us quite a lot about how the advocates of this system truly view it.

This thought came to mind after attending a talk today by John Herbst and Daniel Fried. Herbst was at one point American ambassador to Ukraine; Fried was Assistant Secretary of State for Europe. Both men now work for the Atlantic Council, and their presentations were pretty much what you’d expect from that organization: ‘Kremlin aggression’, ‘Kremlin aggression’, and ‘Kremlin aggression’, with occasional references instead to ‘Russian aggression’, and the odd nod to concepts such as the ‘Putin regime’, ‘corrupt kleptocracy’, ‘hybrid war’, and ‘the Gerasimov doctrine’. It’s striking how men with such enormous diplomatic experience can have such an unsophisticated view of international affairs, in which their chosen enemies are entirely to blame for the problems of the world and are apparently motivated solely by malice rather than any type of legitimate interests which we might have to take into consideration.

But that’s by the by. Along the way, both Herbst and Fried had a lot to say about the ‘liberal international order’, which they felt was under threat for all the reasons mentioned above. And then Herbst said something quite interesting. Talking about Ukraine, he remarked that he was confident that reform would continue even if current frontrunner Yulia Timoshenko wins next year’s Ukrainian presidential election. Timoshenko is running a campaign based in part on rejection of much of the proposed reform program. But, Herbst pointed out, Ukraine is in desperate need of money. So we needn’t worry, he said, for the West can use the IMF ‘to bash her on the head’ (or words to that effect) to force Timoshenko and the Ukrainian parliament to enact the reforms that the West deems necessary.

And there’s the ‘liberal international order’ for you. Unwittingly, Herbst let the cat out of the bag and told us something important about how members of the Western establishment view the purpose of international institutions – not as institutions designed to facilitate foreign governments’ efforts to pursue the policies they wish to pursue, but as tools of the West to force them to do what the West wants them to do. In other words, the liberal international order, isn’t really international, but an extension of Western power. As you will notice, there’s also very little about this which is ‘liberal’. Forcing foreign governments to do things they were elected not to do doesn’t have a whole lot in common with democracy. (Though it’s hardly exceptional – think of the Greeks, for instance.) And it’s hard to see how it’s compatible with freedom either – after all, you’re not really free if you have to do what foreign governments tell you to do. Whatever its theoretical principles, when put into practice in this way, the liberal international order is simply a codeword for what those on the left like to call ‘imperialism’.

And that’s a shame. At heart, I’m a typical Western liberal democrat. I believe in the theoretical principles of liberal international order – free trade, international institutions, respect for international law, and all that. To some extent, I think they are indeed part of the practice of the international system, and it would be great if they could be practiced in an even more perfect way. But they’re not going to be if the states with the most power don’t respect them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that reform in Ukraine is a bad idea. But you can’t preach freedom, democracy, and all the rest of it, if what you  practice is something very different. When ‘liberal international order’ is just code for ‘bash her on the head’ till she does what we want, the liberal international order is in trouble. But the root of the trouble doesn’t lie without; it lies within.

Putin sees and hears it all

I’m not a fan of the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank that has the reputation of consisting of uber-hawkish neo-conservatives. Henry Jackson members come across as the kind of guys who even now think that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. You can judge their credibility by the fact that their guest speaker today is Timothy Snyder, who’s giving a talk about his truly awful book The Road to Unfreedom – you know, the one which says that Putin’s a fascist because he quotes Ivan Ilyin. In short, the Henry Jackson Society isn’t the sort of place you should visit if you want to be well informed about Russia. Unfortunately, however, you have to pay a bit of attention to what it’s saying. For it represents the viewpoint of an extreme, but not unimportant, segment of Britain’s ruling elite.

The Society’s Russia & Eurasia Studies Centre has just come out with a new report. Its title Putin Sees and Hears it All: How Russia’s Intelligence Agencies Menace the UK gives the gist – Putin’s espionage network is massive and growing, and Russia’s evil dictator ‘sees and hears it all’. He truly is all knowing!

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Assumptions

Assumptions are extremely important. If they’re wrong, everything which follows is probably wrong too. So when analysts don’t make their assumptions clear to policy makers, but instead try to pass them off as facts, there’s a great danger that poor decisions will result.

What brings this to mind is a new report by Duncan Allan, published by Chatham House and entitled Managed Confrontation: UK Policy Towards Russia After the Salisbury Attack. The report claims that,

The nerve agent attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury … was a UK policy failure. Following the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006, the UK government failed to deter another life threatening attack … Russian decision makers saw the UK as lacking purpose and resolve because its firm rhetoric was not matched by its actions.

Although the British government has acted more robustly after the attempted murder of the Skripals, Mr Duncan thinks that the response is still not tough enough and ‘there is a danger that the UK’s actions are again perceived to be out of line with its rhetoric and will thus prove ineffective as a deterrent.’ Duncan urges the government to resort to ‘deterrence by punishment’ by making it clear to Russia that in the face of future attacks it will use the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia to ‘exact a direct cost by sanctioning members of Russia’s elite and their interests’ According to Duncan there is a ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. By pressuring the latter, Britain can dissuade the former from misbehaving. This will inevitably harm the British financial sector, which does considerable business with rich Russians, but ‘the state’s duty to ensure the security of its citizens surely comes before the interests of a branch of the economy.’ For too long, Duncan claims, Britain has tried to have the best of both worlds – speaking out against Russia while continuing to do business with it. Consequently, Britain has signalled weakness, and so encouraged Russian attacks. ’ Up to now, says Duncan, Britain has ‘lacked credibility’. This needs to change.

What are the assumptions here? First, that Russia considers Britain weak. And second, that this perception encouraged the Russian state to poison Sergey Skripal. Allan Duncan portrays these as facts. They are not. He provides no evidence for either the one or the other. They are assumptions. So too is the idea which lies behind this report that there is such a thing as ‘credibility’ – one’s reputation for being willing to take robust action – and that the possession of ‘credibility’ deters hostile acts. Finally, Mr Duncan’s argument rests on an assumption that ‘deterrence by punishment’ actually works, which in turn rests on assumptions that a) Russians will correctly interpret the signals that Britain is trying to send, and b) Russian elites will respond to British pressure by successfully pressuring their own government, and c) the Russian government will respond to that pressure in the manner desired by the British. All these assumptions may, of course, be true. But as no evidence is produced to say whether they are indeed correct, one must conclude that they might equally be wrong. Consequently, the policy recommendations are without value.

Let’s take a closer look. Was the attack on Sergey Skripal a product of Russian perceptions of British lack of credibility? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. To say one way or the other, one would have to know what was going on in the brain of whoever ordered the operation. Since we don’t actually have any information about that, Mr Duncan’s claim cannot be treated as a serious basis for a major policy decision. Furthermore, as I have pointed out before in this blog, historical and political science research suggests that ‘credibility’ is a greatly overestimated virtue. Such evidence as we have about the way politicians come to their decisions suggests that considerations of whether a foreign state is likely to respond to a given action are rarely based on perceptions of how that state and its leaders have responded in the past, and whether they are credible, strong, determined actors, but rather on considerations of whether they are capable of responding and of whether the matter in question is of sufficient interest for them to be likely to want to respond. In short, when people worry about their credibility, they do so for no good reason. This undermines the entire logic of Mr Duncan’s report.

As I have also often said, misperceptions play an extremely important role in international conflicts. A lot of international relations is about sending signals to other states. The problem is that the message received is very often not at all what the person sending the signal assumed would be received. Mr Duncan assumes that punishment will be understood by Russian leaders as being punishment. That’s a very unwise assumption in my opinion. In the current political climate, in which Russians see themselves as the aggrieved party, I doubt that they will interpret being sanctioned by Britain as being punished for their own misdeeds and therefore feel deterred from further such misdeeds in the future. It’s just as possible that they will see this as further proof that the Brits are out to get them come what may and that there is absolutely no point in modifying their behaviour in the way the Brits desire, because they won’t get anything in return. Whether they’re right or wrong to feel that way is neither here nor there. If that’s how they feel then Mr Duncan’s proposal isn’t going to have the desired effect. It might even backfire and encourage even more hostile behaviour.

And then there’s the matter of the ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. Is this actually a thing? Duncan assumes a) that the business sector has a powerful influence over the Russian state and b) that business will pressure the state into changing its behaviour if financial interests overseas are threatened. Yet, the business sector in Russia is rather separate from the security organs whom the British consider responsible for the Skripal poisoning. Do rich Russians with accounts in the UK really have a say in what the GRU does? I have my doubts. Meanwhile, the example of anti-Russian sanctions to date provides no evidence in support of assumption b) above. On the contrary, as Richard Connolly has shown, the way the state-business relationship works in Russia is that when the business elite is hurt by sanctions, the state comes to its rescue and redirects resources so that business’s losses are covered. This might harm the economy as a whole, but it protects the targeted sectors. At the same time, it increases those sectors’ dependence on the state, making them less and less capable of pressuring the state to alter its political direction. The idea that ‘punishment’ of Russian businessmen results in changes in the behaviour of the Russian state is most definitely unproven, and may in fact be entirely false.

Obviously, if another attack on British soil were to be attributed to the Russian state, it would be politically impossible for the British government not to react, and I’m certainly not saying that it would be wrong to do so. But one shouldn’t imagine that punishing Russian businessmen for the alleged sins of their state will somehow prevent such an attack by enhancing British ‘credibility’. Allan Duncan calls for ‘managed confrontation’ with Russia. But by focusing on confrontation rather than on finding ways to eliminate conflict, there is a danger that his proposals will simply drive an ever bigger wedge between East and West. In this way, rather than enhancing British security, Duncan’s approach may serve merely to undermine it.

Book of the year prize 2018

Barring the publication of something quite remarkable in the next couple of months, I can now announce the winner of the 2018 prize for ‘best book about Russia I’ve read this year’ – Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence and Politicisation by Ofer Fridman, a research fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Actually, the title Russian Hybrid Warfare is a bit misleading, as the book is not exclusively about Russia. Rather it’s about hybrid warfare in general, and more specifically about how it has been conceptualized and politicized in both Russia and the West. Readers will come away with a good understanding of how the term ‘hybrid war’ came into being, what people mean by it, and how it has been used, or more correctly misused, by various actors to serve their own political and bureaucratic interests. Russian Hybrid Warfare is succinct, solidly researched, clearly written and jargon-free, devoid of obvious political biases (a rarity in discussions of Russia these days), challenges clichés, and brings nuance and understanding to a field of study too often characterized by black and white simplicities. The one weakness of the book is that it is a little repetitious; Fridman enjoys saying the same thing more than once; he likes to tell us what he’s already told us; he says things over and over. But apart from that, I found nothing to fault. I realize that strategic theory isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but given how hybrid warfare has become part and parcel of public discourse in the past few years, everyone with an interest in international security should give this book a read.

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Russia, the West, and the world

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