What palace coup?

According to the rumours circulating this past week, Russian president Vladimir Putin was either ill, dead, a new father, or had been secretly thrown out of power by unknown forces in the Kremlin. Forbes magazine, for instance, ran an article entitled ‘Can Putin’s absence indicate a palace coup in Moscow?’ Forbes cited Putin’s former economics advisor Andrei Illarionov, who wrote of a ‘general’s plot’ which would result in the forcible retirement of Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev, and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper had a slightly different take on the matter. ‘Former FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev was behind the plot’, it claimed, referencing the ‘chairman of the pro-Kremlin National Islamic Committee, Geydar Dzhemal.’

We now know that none of this was true. This Monday Putin was around and about visiting St Petersburg. But the palace coup rumours did not come out of nowhere. For several months now, commentators have been speculating with increasing regularity that such a change of power was inevitable. Thus novelist Boris Akunin mused in The Interpreter in June last year that Putin’s rule would end either ‘in a palace coup or a social explosion’. The Interpreter’s Paul Goble later betted firmly on the former with an article claiming: ‘Interest in a Palace Coup against Putin Said Growing among Russian Elites’

Others have taken up the theme. In December 2014, for instance, Shaun Walker wrote for The Guardian that, ‘the Russian oil crash could threaten Putin with a palace coup.’ If the Russian economy collapsed, claimed Walker, there could be ‘splits’ among the elites: ‘even among those ideologically in tandem with Putin, if their vast wealth begins to be threatened, their loyalty may waver.’  ‘Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup,’ agreed Mark Galeotti this week. And Donald Jensen wrote in February that:

Although Putin appears firmly in charge, any threat to him at the moment lies in the corridors of power rather than in the streets. Western sanctions and the drop in oil prices demonstrate that Putin is no longer able to protect the economic interests of key members of the ruling class. … There is little doubt these disaffected oligarchs have begun to quietly consider a change in the regime’s leadership.’

Yet what this coup would consist of is unclear. Illarionov speaks of a ‘general’s plot’, but Galeotti denies that a military coup is possible and speaks instead of some ‘political’ action which might lead to Putin’s fall. This vagueness strongly suggests the palace coup is not a properly thought-out scenario. Moreover, no evidence is ever provided to justify Jensen’s claim that the Russian elite are considering a change of leader. With Putin’s approval rating currently at 88%, toppling him would be both extremely difficult and politically suicidal. In addition, the Ukrainian experience has surely demonstrated the catastrophic consequences which follow from running roughshod over constitutional technicalities. It is very hard to see who could benefit from an unconstitutional change of government. Russia’s economy is not doing very well at the moment, but the predicted 2-4% decline in GDP is hardly coup-worthy.

How then can one explain the current obsession with the possibility of a palace coup? The answer seems to lie in the abject failure of Russia’s liberal opposition to overthrow Putin by other means. Three years ago, there was great optimism that the demonstrations in Moscow which followed the 2011 Duma elections showed that the political tide had turned decisively against Russia’s ruler. This optimism proved to be mistaken. The opposition is as isolated and unpopular as ever, while Putin’s popularity has grown and grown. But as Nina Khrushcheva writes, ‘One hope remains, a palace coup.’ The talk of a coup thus appears to be the final straw of wishful thinking to which those opposed to Putin cling now that it is clear that they will never defeat him by legitimate political means or mass protests. Rather than being a sign of Putin’s political weakness, therefore, the rumours of a palace coup are a sign of his continuing strength.

Where is Vladimir Putin?

I gave a long interview yesterday to Corus 770 talk radio in Calgary about the ‘disappearance’ of Vladimir Putin and what it means (or doesn’t). You can listen to it here:


Under ‘Play Here’ press on 13 March and 10:00 pm, then drag the bar under the play and pause buttons to the 0730 minute mark, and listen away!

Friday object lesson #19: chess set

In keeping with the theme of strategy, and as Russia has produced many of the world’s greatest chess masters, this week’s object is a chess set. It is set up to show the Charles XII chess problem. This situation supposedly occurred in a game between King Charles XII of Sweden and his minister Christian Albert Grosthusen, undertaken while Charles was besieged by the Ottoman Army at Bender in 1713, having fled there after his defeat at the hands of Peter the Great at Poltava in 1709.

Supposedly, on viewing the situation, Charles (playing white – blue in this set) told Grosthusen that it was mate in three moves.


chess3 Continue reading Friday object lesson #19: chess set

Russian strategic culture

This week’s topic in my ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy’ class is strategic culture. We will look at the extent to which foreign policy decisions may be a product of culture rather than pure reason. The idea is that countries have certain preferences which are culturally determined. Give a Canadian and a Russian the same problem, and they will come up with different solutions, simply because they are accustomed to approaching problems in different ways and to favouring different types of solutions.

On the face of it, the idea of strategic culture seems fairly obvious. But when you try to pin down what people mean by culture, and what effects it actually has, you discover that it is rather amorphous, and you run the risk of ending up with a circular argument which says that x does y simply because x does y. This is not very useful.

Strategic culture is best thought of as a disposition towards certain policies. It frames policy debates by helping to decide what policy issues are considered important and what the acceptable options are for dealing with those issues. Alternatively, it can be described as a sort of lens through which policies are viewed. It reflects habits of behaviour, and depends upon a variety of factors, such as: history, geography, economy, ideology, and social and political structures.

So, is there such a thing as Russian strategic culture?

For such a thing to exist, we must assume some degree of stability over time, with a degree of continuity between the Soviet Union and the contemporary Russian Federation, and perhaps also some degree of continuity between the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia. Given the vast differences between those polities, this is quite a stretch. Nevertheless, it is not an impossible one. Ideology may have changed, but the history of modern Russia is linked to that of the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia, Russia’s geographical position remains unchanged, and there has been a degree of institutional continuity, which means that habits of decision making have been carried forward. The possibility of a strategic culture exists. But what might it consist of?

Scholarship on Russian strategic culture is rather scanty, but in so far as it exists, it makes the following claims:

  • Russia’s lack of natural borders has made it seek security through expansion. By its own nature, ‘Russia is a revisionist country,’ writes Marcos Degaut.
  • The same lack of natural borders has made Russia vulnerable to invasion. According to Norbert Eitelhuber, this has created a somewhat paranoid worldview ‘characterized on one hand by an almost obsessive perception of a general threat towards Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and on the other hand by great power aspirations as a response.’
  • Following from the previous point, Fritz W. Ermarth claims that, ‘Russian foreign policy culture has often expressed a puzzling combination of contradictory attitudes: defensiveness bordering on paranoia, on one hand, combined with assertiveness bordering on pugnacity, on the other. In the Russian mentality, both an inferiority complex and a superiority complex can be simultaneously on display.’
  • Russia’s history of resisting invasion has combined with its history of autocratic government to create a belief in the utility of military power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic growth has become more important in Russian thinking compared with military power but, says Degaut, ‘military strength … is still the chief institutional foundation of Russian statehood.’
  • Russian strategic culture is Realist rather than ideological in nature.

Some of this is highly debatable, most notably the idea that ‘Russia is a revisionist country’. Even the Soviet Union, after the Second World War, never used force for ‘revisionist’ or expansionary purposes, but only to prevent the overthrow of allied communist regimes  – e.g. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan – in other words, not to revise things but to keep them as they were.  As seen by its hostility to NATO expansion, its objections to Western doctrines of humanitarian intervention and preventive war, and its support for President Assad of Syria, Russia is far more interested in preserving the status-quo than in undermining it. Having experienced the traumas of revolution, it values stability.

Still, the idea that Russia desires to be respected as a great power is accurate, and there is some truth to the depiction of Russian strategic culture as Realist in nature, albeit Realism interpreted through the lens of ‘defensiveness bordering on paranoia … [and] assertiveness bordering on pugnacity.’ This makes Russia a player which needs to be handled with a degree of care – rather more care than has been the case in recent years, indeed. Confronting Russia, isolating it, and making it feel threatened, are likely to accentuate the defensiveness and increase the consequent pugnacious assertiveness. If Western states pursue such an approach they will find it counter-productive. Instead, as Eitelhuber concludes, the West should try to highlight ‘commonalities of interests, by reducing the points of friction, by alleviating Russian fears, and by channeling the interaction into a structured setting.’

Russian victory

Today (9 March) is the hundredth anniversary of one of the biggest victories ever achieved by the Russian Army – the capture of the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemsyl.

The history of the Eastern Front in the First World War is little known, even in Russia. If people have some knowledge of it, they have probably heard only of the catastrophic defeat at Tannenberg in August 1914, in which General Samsonov’s Second Army was surrounded and destroyed. Yet the Russian victory at Przemysl was on the same scale as the German one at Tannenberg.

Nicholas II, far right, visits Przemysl, April 1915
Nicholas II, far right, visits Przemysl, April 1915

The importance of Przemysl lay in its location astride the route westwards out of Galicia and into the Carpathian Mountains. The Russians first surrounded it in the summer of 1914 during their successful Galician offensive, only for the Austro-Hungarian Army to relieve it a short while later. After the Russians encircled it a second time in autumn 1914, the Austro-Hungarians made repeated efforts to relieve it again, but all such attempts foundered in the winter snows of the Carpathians. Deprived of supplies, the Przemysl garrison eventually had to surrender.

News of the victory reached the Russian Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) while Tsar Nicholas II was there. The Supreme Commander, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, rushed to give him the news, ‘out of breath and with tears in his eyes’, the Tsar told the Tsarina. The two men celebrated with champagne and a mass at the Stavka church. The Tsar then awarded the Grand Duke the Cross of St. George Second Class.

The Russians took 130,000 prisoners and captured 1,000 guns at Przemysl. It was possibly the most successful day any army ever had in the First World War.

The legitimate alternative

‘The primary struggle in an internal war is to mobilize people in a struggle for political control and legitimacy,’ says the American army’s pamphlet FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency. ‘Legitimacy is the main objective,’ it explains.

The Atlantic Council of Canada has just published a report on the conference at which I spoke last week on the subject of the war in Ukraine. The report notes correctly that several speakers criticized some of the actions of the Ukrainian government, but the author, Olga Radchenko, then counters this criticism with the comment that ‘Panelists failed to sufficiently address what alternative methods the central government could have employed to deal with an armed insurgency.’ Radchenko’s comment deserves an answer.

Governments naturally want to have a monopoly on the use of force within their territory. No self-respecting state is likely to sit back and do nothing about armed insurgency. It may therefore appear to be unfair to criticize the Ukrainian government for resorting to force to quell the uprising which took place in Donbass last year. But although that argument in favour of violence is superficially appealing, both the ethics of war and the optimal method of dealing with insurgency dictate that other alternatives be explored first.

Most (although not all) just war theorists would accept that there is a ‘presumption against war’. War is considered to be unjust unless the opposite can be proven. The burden of proof is therefore not upon those who would oppose it to show that there are better alternatives; rather it is on those who would wage it to show that there are none. Moreover, even though restoring order can be considered a ‘just cause’ for war, just cause alone is insufficient. Other criteria must also be met, such as having the legitimate authority to wage war, having a reasonable chance of success, and using violence only as a last resort.

Let us, however, put aside the ethics of the issue, and focus instead on the practicalities. What practical alternatives did the Ukrainian authorities have in spring 2014? In line with the advice of FM 3-24, the best alternatives would have been ones which enhanced the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Donbass. That would have meant, among other things, broadening the make-up of the government to include people who could reasonably be said to represent the rebellious areas; clearly disassociating the government from the far right groups, such as Right Sector, which had helped bring it to power; and giving firm assurances about the status of the Russian language.

Once protestors in the East seized buildings and weapons, and especially after the referendums in support of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics on 11 May 2014, the situation changed. The measures above would still have been useful, but more would have been required, in particular an effort to talk with the rebel leadership to find a political solution. That leadership was far from united, with a range of ambitions running from union with Russia to merely some concessions from Kiev about the Russian language and decentralization of power. The mass of the population probably stood far closer to the latter than the former. By striking a deal with the latter, the government had a good chance of detaching the population from the more extreme elements, and leaving them isolated. At that point, the insurgency would have been doomed. The opportunity for such a deal still existed even in late June when talks began between former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and representatives of the DPR and LPR. Instead, the talks were abandoned when President Poroshenko annulled his first ceasefire in early July, apparently in the belief that his army was strong enough to win a military victory.

Rodchenko’s use of the phrase ‘armed insurgency’ implies that what the Ukrainian government faced (and still faces) was from the outset a military problem, which therefore required (and requires) a military solution. But if we follow the advice of FM 3-24, then it is better to view it as having been (and still being) a legitimacy problem. In a similar analysis, Robert Thompson, author of the classic text Defeating Communist Insurgency wrote that insurgency is a political problem and that the solution must be political too. Military action which undermines the political solution is to be avoided, even if it is militarily advantageous. That implies that the wisest option for the Ukrainian government would have been to avoid military action and take measures to convince the population of the government’s legitimacy.

This remains true even today. The Ukrainian authorities maintain that the primary cause of the war in Donbass is Russian interference. But if the people of Donbass were to decide that the legitimate government of their region was the one in Kiev, then the Russians, deprived of any popular support, would have to leave. As FM 3-24 remarks, ‘Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy.’