Friday object lesson #13: KGB t-shirt

Last week I chaired a panel discussing Russia at the annual symposium of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies. In keeping with the intelligence theme, this week’s Friday object is a t-shirt I picked up at the airport in Moscow with the logo ‘I work in the KGB. And you?’  ‘No blabbering’ says the back of the shirt.

cropped kgb2

cropped t-shirt back

R2P in Ukraine?

Yesterday, I gave a talk on ‘The Folly of Military Intervention’ at McGill University. Afterwards, one of the students asked me a question about parallels between the wars in Kosovo in 1999 and Ukraine in 2014/15. As I answered, I found myself thinking about the scale of the humanitarian crises in both cases and what this means for supporters of so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’.

In 1999, NATO aircraft bombed Yugoslavia for three months. The aim, according to NATO leaders, was to coerce the Yugoslav government to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo. We were told that NATO’s campaign was a humanitarian intervention. The case of Kosovo was subsequently used to justify the concept of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), under which state sovereignty is limited and states have an obligation to protect the citizens of other countries if their rights are being attacked.

It is believed that prior to NATO’s war against Yugoslavia, about 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo. Roughly half of these were Serbs, dead at the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and half were Albanian Kosovars, killed by Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces. While eventually several hundred thousand Kosovars fled their homes to avoid the fighting, the vast majority of these did so only after NATO began its bombing.

According to the United Nations, over 5,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk provinces in the past year. It is not clear what percentage is military and what percentage civilian casualties, but it is obvious that the number of civilian deaths in the conflict has been very high. And the situation is getting worse. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights assesses that 262 people died in Eastern Ukraine between 13 and 21 January alone. Meanwhile, the High Commission for Refugees reports that there are now about half a million displaced persons from Donetsk and Lugansk within Ukraine, and that another 200,000 have fled to Russia. The towns and cities of Eastern Ukraine are subjected to daily bombardment from artillery and multiple launch rocket systems. Many of the people who remain there are without electricity and running water.

In short, the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine today is far worse than that in Kosovo prior to NATO’s 1999 intervention. Should the Russian Army invade Ukraine in force, drive the Ukrainian Army out of Donetsk and Lugansk, and bring the war to a rapid end? This, in principle, it is entirely capable of doing. R2P suggests that it should. In 1999, NATO killed about 1,500 Yugoslav civilians in the course of its bombing; it is unlikely that the civilian death toll from a Russian invasion would be much higher, and it might even be lower.

If R2P is valid, then its proponents should surely welcome such an intervention. In practice, I am sure that they wouldn’t. The point here is not to say that we should demand Russian humanitarian intervention in Ukraine; there are many reasons why that would be an extremely bad thing. Rather, the point is to show the absurdity of the humanitarian warriors’ position. Perhaps they can come up with a good explanation for why humanitarian intervention by NATO is justifiable but similar intervention by Russia in a far worse humanitarian situation would not be. I would be interested to hear it.

UPDATE: Brad Cabana (a fellow Canadian & former army captain) has just posted an argument on his blog that Russia should invade Ukraine. He makes his case well. As someone who has opposed the principle of humanitarian intervention ever since Kosovo, I cannot support it, if only in order to be consistent, but it seems to me to be entirely in line with R2P and thus to pose some real problems for the R2P crowd, who despite their alleged principles will no doubt be thoroughly against it:

Misperception in Russia-West Relations

This week in my class on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, we shall be examining the topic of misperception, on the grounds that it is the cause of many seemingly irrational decisions. We will look at:

  1. Misperceptions of others – this can take many forms, but states are particularly prone to misperceiving other states’ intentions, for instance seeing aggressive intent where none is present.
  2. Misperception of yourself – people and states tend to view themselves as benign, and also to over-estimate their own capabilities.
  3. Misperception of how other people perceive you – because you consider yourself to be benign, you may have great difficulty in believing that other people could view you and your actions differently.

It is worth noting that all three sorts of misperception are connected. You believe that what you are doing is a good thing, done for good reasons, even though in reality you may be doing harm (type #2 above). You believe that everybody else must understand that your motives are good (type #3). So, if they are doing things you don’t like, it is not because they are reacting to your actions, but because they are malevolent (type #1).

Let us see how this plays out in reality:

The West perceives a threat from Iran, and believes that Iran is building nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This is the first misperception. Iran isn’t building such weapons and certainly doesn’t have the means, let alone the intention, of nuking Europe. But the West has become paranoid about Iran, so the West believes that it is and does. The West, therefore also believes that it must do something to defend itself from this threat, which means building a missile defence shield in Europe.

The Russians look at this, and are perplexed. They know that the Iranian nuclear missile threat doesn’t exist, so they don’t believe the West when it says that the missile defence shield is to guard against Iran. But at this point, the Russians add a mistake of their own. They assume that Western leaders are rational actors, who wouldn’t be spending billions of dollars building a shield against a threat which doesn’t exist. Therefore, they conclude that the shield must be directed against Russia. This is the second misperception, and it leads to the Russians getting angry with the West.

The West then gets angry too. It knows that its intentions are defensive. It therefore believes that the Russians must know that too. This is the third misperception. The result is that the West doesn’t take seriously the Russian complaints. Relations between the two sides deteriorate still further.

We can see the same dynamic at work in other examples. NATO views itself as a ‘force for good’, and cannot see that on occasion it has acted aggressively (e.g. in Kosovo and Libya). It misperceives itself. Russia then misperceives NATO, fearing that NATO’s actions in those places could be indicative of aggressive intent against Russia. In reality, NATO has no intention of attacking Russia, but Russians are not so sure of that. Then NATO can’t understand how Russia feels. If Russia is against NATO expansion, that can’t be because of genuine fears about NATO, so it must be because of Russia’s own imperialist agenda in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Russia, meanwhile, perceives the annexation of Crimea as righting a historical wrong. It knows that it has no desire to annex parts of the Baltic States, so why should they worry? If NATO sends more troops to the Baltics, that must be part of NATO’s plans to undermine Russia, not a product of anything Russia has done.

In these situations there is no real, underlying reason for those involved to be at loggerheads. It is hard to know how to overcome this problem, but the solution perhaps lies in understanding it for what it is: a problem of misperception, not one of deeply incompatible interests.

Nothing is true

A few weeks ago, I criticised a report by Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev which alleged that Russia was using information as a weapon of war against the West. The problem with Weiss’s and Pomerantsev’s report, I argued, was that they were guilty of the same thing themselves, through a series of distortions which made Russia seem far more threatening than it really is. Having just read Pomerantsev’s new book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, I find myself thinking the same thing again.

Nothing is True is the author’s account of his time in Russia as a producer of reality TV shows. The book is as much about Pomerantsev as it is about Russia, and is shaped by his own profession. Russia, he seems to suggest, is like one of his TV programs, where the reality portrayed is never quite as real as it is made out to be. He moves through a world of surreal beings: the rap-loving, autocratic politician; the novel-writing gangster; the young model destroyed by a cult, all of whom exemplify the corruption that lies at the rotten heart of the largest country on Earth.

How much of what he describes is peculiar to Russia is very much open to question. Take, for instance, Pomerantsev’s account of the life of Ruslana Korshunova, a model who committed suicide after falling into the clutches of the cult-like ‘psychological training’ organization The Rose of the World. As Pomerantsev admits, The Rose of the World based its techniques on those practised by similar organizations in the United States. All his account really does, therefore, is demonstrate that vulnerable Russians fall prey to charlatans in exactly the same way that Americans do. It doesn’t show that there is something particularly rotten about Russia. Rather, the story seems to demonstrate the opposite.

What is most likely to attract readers to this book is its style. Pomerantsev’s prose is colourful and lively. Nothing is True is an entertaining read. But there is a reason why academics don’t write like this, and instead footnote everything so that they can justify what they are saying. That can make for very dull reading, but at least the reader can have some confidence in what is on the page. Here it often seems that the author sacrifices truth for style. He entertains through hyperbole and what sometimes appears to be invention.

One becomes aware of this just seven lines into the first page. Describing Moscow’s economic boom at the start of the 21st century, Pomerantsev writes, ‘Never had so much money flowed into so small a place in so short a time.’ This is not a promising start. In the first place, Moscow isn’t exactly ‘small’; and second, lots of other places have experienced enormous booms. Where is Pomerantsev’s evidence for his statement? He doesn’t provide any. It is pure hyperbole.

This isn’t an isolated example. This is just how Pomerantsev writes. ‘The only values in this new Ussuriysk were cars and cash’, he says (p. 27). The ‘only’ ones, for everybody in the entire city? Really? And how does he know? ‘Black Widows still make it up to Moscow with rhythmic regularity’, he writes  (p. 57). Actually, they don’t – attacks by female Chechen terrorists in Moscow are pretty rare (the last was in 2011, and you can count the total on the fingers of one hand), and in any case there is nothing ‘rhythmic’ about their timing. In Moscow, ‘There isn’t a building that we walk past that wasn’t the scene of execution squads, betrayals, mass murders.’ (p. 110). Seriously? Mass murder in every building in Moscow?? And so on, and so forth.

One might object that none of this matters – it is just decoration; the basic stories are true. This isn’t an academic treatise but a work of art, and not a photo-realist one moreover, but an impressionist one. Although it doesn’t show you reality, through its distortions it reveals the truth beneath in a way that only art can do. Well, maybe. However, Pomerantsev never tells us that that is what he is doing. For over 200 pages, he seeks to persuade us that nothing in Russia is quite what it seems. But his book isn’t quite what it seems either.

Hard pounding in Donbass

The war in Donbass is turning more and more into a war of artillery. Between May and August, large amounts of territory switched owners as first the government forces and then the rebels carried out dramatic manoeuvres. For the last few months, however, the front lines have hardly moved, and in the past week the volume of artillery fire has reached unprecedented levels. As the Duke of Wellington allegedly said at the Battle of Waterloo, ‘Hard pounding this, gentlemen, let us see who will pound the longest.’

The lack of manoeuvre, the dominance of the artillery, and the seemingly pointless battles over tiny pieces of territory – most notably Donetsk airport – increasingly resemble the First World War, with the important exception that combat is taking place not in the countryside but in cities. Civilians, therefore, are suffering in large numbers. A hundred years ago, generals dreamt of breaking through ‘the mud and blood to the green fields beyond’, as the motto of the Tank Corps put it. If the warring parties in Ukraine are unwilling to make peace, the only way for the suffering to end is for one or other of them to achieve this.

Right now, the rebels appear to have the initiative. In the past week, they have captured the new terminal of what remains of Donetsk airport, entered the nearby village of Peski, taken ‘checkpoint 31’ in Lugansk Province, and advanced a short distance towards Mariupol. This has been made possible by what appears to be a substantial increase in military support from Russia (above all, there must have been a supply of a copious volume of artillery shells). But is not clear how far Russia is willing to go. The signals are confusing. On the one hand, Russian officials have been uttering what sound like threats, saying that in escalating military activity the Ukrainians have made a blunder which they will regret; on the other hand, the Russian government has announced that it wishes to work to produce a new ceasefire. Russia seems to be willing to give the rebels what they need to avoid defeat, but it doesn’t seem to be willing to give them what they need for victory.

The resources available to the Ukrainian state far outweigh those available to the rebels – a population of some 40 million people, and huge stores of military equipment left over from the Soviet era (much of it in a poor state of repair, but theoretically usable given a bit of effort). Were Ukraine to wage total war, committing its entire population and economy, it could crush the rebellion (albeit with enormous bloodshed, and assuming that doing so did not provoke a massive Russian response). Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko recently announced a new round of conscription designed to increase the size of the armed forces to 250,000. This is not total war, and insufficient to defeat the rebels. Knowing that anything more would produce serious social, economic, and political problems, Kiev is still fighting its war half-heartedly.

Imperial Russia’s most famous military theorist, M.I. Dragomirov, commented that war consisted of two components: the physical and the moral. Put another way, war is a matter of mass and of will. The rebels have the will, but not the mass. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have the mass but not the will. For the stalemate to be broken by military means, one or other of these has to change.

Is irrationality a bad thing?

For the next three months, this blog will track my university course ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, with a post each week on the subject of that week’s class. The aim will be to analyze what makes politicians act in what seem to be irrational ways in their dealings with other countries.

Is irrationality a bad thing? That depends in part on how you define rationality. For the purpose of this post, I will limit myself to a definition which relates to process. A rational decision, according to this definition, is one reached on the basis of evidence rather than faith or emotion, and one for which the evidence has been weighed against several hypotheses to determine which best fits it. This is called ‘analytical reasoning’, and it is the sort of rational decision making which is taught in business schools and military academies – don’t prejudge the answer, collect as much evidence as possible, compare it objectively to several possible courses of action, analyze the costs and benefits of each course, and then pick the option which has the best cost-benefit ratio.

The reason for teaching businessmen and military officers to reason in this way is that it supposedly leads to the best results. It seems obvious that it should: after all, a better informed, properly reasoned plan of action should be better than a snap judgement. In his 1989 book Crucial Decisions: Leadership in Policymaking and Crisis Management Irving L. Janis argued that when political leaders use analytical decision making, they make better decisions. For instance, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 was a product of poor decision making processes in the American government, with President Kennedy failing to consult widely, consider alternatives, or analyze the likely outcome of his plan. By contrast, Kennedy succeeded in navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis precisely because he did use analytical reasoning.

Not everyone agrees with Janis, however. In class this week, we shall discuss Gary Klein’s 2011 book Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. Klein points out that experts rarely use analytical decision making. While data is important in making good decisions, the expert only needs a limited amount. Research suggests that anything beyond that actually undermines decision making. Horse racing experts, for instance, make better decisions about which horse will win a race if they have just four or five pieces of data about the horse and the race conditions than if they have many more. Also, good decision makers don’t actually consider lots of alternative courses of action. Generally, they consider only one or two. They follow not their reason but their ‘gut’, an instinct based on experience. The experienced fire fighter or pilot, facing a crisis, can act immediately and decisively, reasoning not analytically according to the model above but through analogy with his previous experience. Analytical reasoning, says Klein, has its place, but generally it isn’t the best way of doing things.

Is Janis or Klein right? It depends. The fire fighter encounters fires on a regular basis. He acquires enormous experience in a relatively predictable environment. He has numerous examples to compare to the one he is currently encountering. He also, quite probably, doesn’t have the time to engage in analytical decision making. Relying on his ‘gut’ may well be the best way to go.

That does not mean, however, that the same is true at the political level. Take, for instance, a finance minister tackling an economic recession: how many previous recessions has he experienced as finance minister? Given that these come around only once a decade or so, probably none. He doesn’t have the experience to rely on ‘gut’.  Moreover, economics is a lot more complex than fire: one recession is not necessarily at all like another.

Now, take things to the level of international affairs. Some more routine matters, such as international trade, may resemble each other sufficiently for a politician to gain real experience in them, but such matters tend to be extremely technical and not easily subject to instinct. Meanwhile, serious international crises are never the same twice. How much experience do Western politicians have which is relevant to dealing with the crisis in Ukraine? Not a lot – there haven’t been any cases similar to the Russian takeover of Crimea, and none of the current Western leaders were in power the last time there was a war in Europe (twenty years ago in the Balkans). Lacking experience of their own to refer to, politicians who fail to engage in analytical reasoning have to fall back on historical analogy. Modern Russia is thus the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union; Putin is Stalin or Hitler, etc. The problem is not only that these analogies are faulty, but that policies based upon them fail to take into account the actual circumstances of the present day. The result is policies which fail to achieve their stated aims.

In short, politics isn’t fire fighting, and politicians are not fire fighters. Politicians simply aren’t experts in the way that other professionals are, or at least their expertise is in politics and not in making decisions on specific issues. Their decision making instincts are not reliable in the way those of other professionals may be. I remain unconvinced, therefore, that relying on those instincts is better than relying on reason.

Cossacks: ‘Putin is our Emperor’

During the Russian Civil War, Atamanshchina bedevilled the anti-Bolshevik White Armies. The leaders – Atamans – of the Cossack forces which made up a large part of the White Armies often refused to take orders from the General Staff officers who notionally commanded them. Areas controlled by Cossack troops suffered numerous depredations, including pogroms. Atamanshchina came to symbolize all that was wrong about White rule, most notably its lack of central authority and its lawlessness.

In a recent post, I remarked that the future of the rebel republics in Ukraine depended upon their ability to centralize authority and build properly functioning states. The omens are not good. Atamanshchina appears to be alive and well today in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), with much of the LPR under the control of Cossack forces who refuse to accept the authority of the republic’s government led by Igor Plotnitsky. News reports in December that the main Cossack leader, Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn, had left the LPR and returned to Russia sparked speculation that he had been ordered out by someone powerful in Russia in an effort to strengthen Plotnitsky’s authority. Last week, though, Kozitsyn gave an interview claiming that he continues to command Cossack forces in the LPR, albeit from inside Russia. ‘Nobody has the right to deprive me of command’, Kozitsyn said.

In his interview Kozitsyn claimed that his troops control 80% of the LPR. He does not recognize the LPR, he said, ‘it is a utopia.’ Rather, he added, ‘We say that we are part of the Russian Empire. Today we recognize Putin as our Emperor.’ I wonder what Putin thinks of that.