Fighting for nothing

Since February, some of the most intense and continuous fighting in Ukraine has been around the village of Shirokino, just east of Mariupol. Now, the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko, has declared that the village has ‘no military value whatsoever’.

Muzhenko’s statement drew howls of protests from Ukrainian soldiers and political activists, angry at the suggestion that blood had been shed for no purpose, but he is probably right. And Shirokino is hardly an isolated example. It is a sad fact that war often descends into bloody struggles for territory which has no tactical or strategic value, only symbolic importance. War is not a very rational endeavour, if one measures rationality in terms of material costs and benefits. Rather, as I examined in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, it is about honour as much as anything else. Why else keep attacking Passchendaele? Why else throw the Sixth Army deeper and deeper into Stalingrad? Why else keep on fighting the Taliban long after it has become obvious that you’re never going to defeat them? The answer is that honour, under whatever name you choose to give it – face, prestige, credibility, reputation, self-respect, pride – is at stake, and so you keep on at it, however unsuccessful it may be.

According to Clausewitz, war is a means of achieving a political objective. The tactics chosen will thus reflect the objective in question, which may change as the war develops. At the start of the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government’s object was to recapture its lost territories. It therefore focused its attention on capturing land and on strategic manoeuvres designed to destroy the enemy occupying that land. Now, though, it is quite obvious that recapturing the entirety of Donbass by military means is impossible. The objective, therefore, has changed. After the humiliating defeats at Ilovaisk in August 2014 and Debaltsevo in February 2015, restoring lost pride is the only objective achievable. And so, the Ukrainian Army fights over villages which have ‘no military value whatsoever’ because they come to symbolize that pride. It is, in a way, rather more logical than it initially seems.

This, then, is what the war in Ukraine has come down to: restoring Kiev’s damaged pride. Ever since the Minsk-2 agreement in February this year, both sides have been shelling each other daily, probing each other’s lines, and exchanging small arms fire, without gaining more than a few yards here and there. From a military point of view it doesn’t make sense. But from a political point of view, abiding strictly by the terms of Minsk-2 would have meant that Kiev would have had to accept a political settlement forced upon it by a victorious enemy. The current small-scale fighting doesn’t bring Ukraine any closer to a military victory, but it prevents that humiliation. If the warring parties in Ukraine weren’t fighting over Shirokino, they would have just have to fight over something else. In essence, fighting itself has become the aim. Muzhenko’s comment suggests that the General Staff don’t like this very much, and as a former army staff officer, I thoroughly sympathize. But given the prevailing political mood, I fear that there is very little that the General Staff can do about it, and the struggles over useless objectives will continue for some time yet.

CSIS misses the mark

This seems to be the season for reports about Russia. Hot on the footsteps of the Bow Group report last week, another volume has just landed in my mail box – a booklet from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) entitled Russia and the West: The Consequences of Renewed Rivalry. The report (which is available online) is a summary of a workshop held by CSIS’s Academic Outreach program. As the workshop was held under Chatham House rules, and as I wasn’t invited to the event, I can’t tell whose opinions are reflected in the document (though I could make some guesses). Also, the fact that what were probably 30-40 minute presentations have been reduced to 2-3 page summaries means a lot of sweeping generalizations and broad brush conclusions without much substantiation. As a result, the report is of limited use. Nevertheless, it does show what advice the academic community is giving government agencies in the West about Russia.

Some of it, such as the sections on the Russian intelligence community, business and politics in Russia, and the effects of sanctions, is o.k. Others parts are less sensible. The overall tone of the report is negative, putting the entire blame for current tensions in Russia-West relations, as well as for the war in Ukraine, on Russia. In the chapter on the Ukrainian conflict, there is a brief spark of recognition that things may be a bit more complicated than normally depicted, with a statement that, ‘Ukraine’s non-compliance with the [Minsk] agreement has now become glaringly obvious’, but this is little more than a blip in the general narrative.

This is clear from the first paragraph of the Executive Summary which states that after becoming president in 2012, ‘Instead of emphasising diplomatic initiatives, Putin introduced a comprehensive narrative of grievance which rejected post-World War Two security principles, revived traditional Russian imperialistic themes, and promoted an aggressive interpretation of Russia’s status’. Next, the chapter ‘Russia’s Self-Image and its Consequences’ states the following:

There is a clear historical link between Russia’s top-down form of government and Moscow’s imperial record. … That understanding includes the presumed right and need to dominate neighbouring regions. … What we have today is a set of legally protected myths which glorify the past. Stalin and the Great Fatherland War are its core elements. … The reality of rule by a narrow, self-interested and in part nervous cabal is by now imperfectly concealed. … Russian decision-makers have insisted with increasing vehemence that their principal antagonist is indeed the West. … It is hard for Western observers to grasp the meaning of such hollow narcissism. … Does Moscow really not understand why so many of its neighbours are afraid of it? … The logic of Russian policy is that the Kremlin should impose its rule by proxy on Kyiv. … Putin’s Kremlin is trying to force Russia into a mould that rejects its European heritage.

This reflects a common Western perception that autocratic, or at least imperfectly democratic, states are more aggressive than liberal democratic (i.e. Western) ones. And yet, most scholars who have studied the subject believe that while democracies rarely if ever fight each other, they are not in fact any less aggressive than other regime types. Martin Malia convincingly showed in his book Russia under Western Eyes that Russophobia in the West has rarely had any relation to the actual threat Russia has posed. When Russian leaders’ domestic policies have been viewed favourably, Western commentators have turned a blind eye to Russian imperialism, but when its leaders have been viewed as tyrannical, the West has vastly exaggerated the Russian danger to its security. Thus, public opinion in the West was vehemently anti-Russian during the reign of Nicholas I, even though Nicholas refrained from aggressive military actions, but it was very pro-Russian during the reign of Catherine the Great (perceived as an enlightened ruler) even though Russia expanded enormously. The idea that centralized and autocratic rule makes Russia a threat is without solid basis in fact.

Next, the idea that Stalin is a central part of Russia’s contemporary self-image is somewhat bizarre. Certainly, the Great Patriotic War plays an important role in Russian identity (as indeed does the Second World War in some Western nations), but Russians aren’t all neo-Stalinists. As for Russia’s alleged ‘hollow narcissism’, this charge is not entirely without foundation – Russian fears of Western hostility are, I believe, exaggerated, and there is a tendency for Russians to think that Western actions are directed against them when they are not. But there are some good reasons for it. Take, for instance, NATO’s proposed European anti-ballistic shield. I tend to the view that NATO planners really do see this as protecting Europe against Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles, and not as a tool against Russia. But I fully understand why Russians don’t agree. After all, the Iranian nuclear missile threat doesn’t exist. Accepting NATO’s claims means accepting that its leaders live in strange fantasy world. It’s easier to believe that they are rational, in which case, the anti-missile shield must have an alternative target, i.e. Russia. Russian fears do have some foundation. And while it is true that Russia’s rulers do not seem to realise how their actions in Ukraine might frighten some Europeans, this report makes it very clear that many in the West are equally incapable of seeing how Western actions might frighten Russia. This lack of self-awareness, on both sides of the Russian-Western divide, is a major cause of current tensions.

Finally, the claim that the Kremlin ‘is trying to force Russia into a mould that rejects its European heritage,’ is not untypical of comments in recent months which like to emphasize Russia’s alleged ‘turn to the East’, the supposed influence of Eurasianism, Putin’s increasing conservatism, and so on. But it is a huge exaggeration. The fact that Russia is trying to increase its ties with its Asian neighbours does not in any way mean that it wishes to cut its ties with Europe. On the contrary, President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and others have made it clear that this is not their intention. Moreover, Russia’s ‘European heritage’ is a cultural phenomenon which runs so deep that rejecting it is simply impossible.

The report’s final chapter concludes that ‘the relationship [between Russia and the West] is going to be cold, unproductive, and adversarial in certain areas, and will offer minimal opportunities for successful mutual cooperation.’ This fate can be avoided. But doing so will require a change in attitudes not only in Russia but also among those in the West who perpetuate negative stereotypes.

Blame Game

Given a choice between a simple explanation and a complex one, I favour the former. So, in time of war, if a shell lands behind the lines of one side, I tend to believe that it was fired by the other side, rather than being ‘friendly fire’, a ‘false flag operation’, or anything else. This means that when shells hit Donetsk, I consider that the Ukrainian Army is probably responsible, and when shells hit targets behind the Ukrainian lines, the rebels are probably responsible. This Sunday, artillery struck the Ukrainian-held Mariupol suburb of Sartana, killing two civilians. The logic above makes me believe that the army of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic is most likely to blame.

The locals seem to disagree, though. According to the Kyiv Post:

Local people at the scene, telling the Kyiv Post that the town had been shelled by the Ukrainian side, called on the media to ‘tell the truth.’ ‘If it had been the (Russian-separatist forces), they wouldn’t have left a stone standing here!’ said Natalia, a 43-year-old woman who was too afraid to give her full name. She blamed those who ‘danced on the Maidan,’ for the attack, adding that ‘the war will be finished and we will live in happiness as soon as the Ukrainian army is away from the Donbas.’ A dozen people around her supported her claims. Serhiy, 56, who also wouldn’t give his full name, showed a handful of shell fragments, saying they were from small-caliber mortar shells that couldn’t have come from separatist positions, as these were too far away.

The Kyiv Post’s Dzmity Halko adds: ‘I haven’t heard such embittered confidence that the Ukrainians are shelling them and that those who “danced on Maidan” are guilty of everything since the last time I was in the occupied territories last summer.’ When somebody asked ‘whether they didn’t think that it was just such aggressively pro-Russian sentiments that had brought war into the Ukrainian home, they flung insults at her. If there hadn’t been a large number of police in the village, it’s possible they would have beaten us up.’

This isn’t an isolated incident. In January and February of this year, rebel artillery devastated the town of Debaltsevo and the surrounding area during several weeks of combat. Yet when reporters entered Debaltsevo after rebel forces captured it, they found that the locals blamed the Ukrainian Army for the destruction. According to Business New Europe:

Town residents questioned by bne IntelliNews counter-intuitively blame the shelling and destruction of the town on the very Ukrainian forces that were ostensibly protecting the town – some perhaps out of confusion, others perhaps out of fear. According to [Debaltsevo inhabitant Sergei] Rudenko, the Ukrainian forces were responsible for shelling the town. ‘I saw with my own eyes how Ukrainian troops fired mortars which exploded within the town,’ he says. ‘And we saw in January and February when there was shelling every day how Ukrainian TV crews would be on the scene of any shell impact within minutes.’ ‘Everyone knows this in the town,’ he adds. ‘Ask anyone you want they will say the same.’ … Taxi driver Roman Maksimov, 31, who stayed in the cellar of a housing block during the shelling, tells bne IntelliNews a similar story: ‘Of course it was the Ukrainians that bombed here. … The Ukrainians wanted to make sure that not a stone was left unturned before they pulled out. And when they pulled out, we saw how their tanks fired on houses directly.’

It would appear that people who dislike the Ukrainian government and army believe that those institutions must be responsible for their suffering, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. But that begs the question of why they dislike the government and army so much. Sartana was ‘liberated’ from the rebels over a year ago. The Ukrainian authorities have had plenty of time to prove to its inhabitants that ‘Russian propaganda’ is false, and to win over their hearts and minds. And yet it seems that they have utterly failed to do so. A year of ‘liberation’ has left such a legacy of hostility that people yell abuse at journalists who dare to suggest that government forces are not to blame for their problems. This is a sobering thought.

Straight shooting from the UK

The Bow Group, ‘the United Kingdom’s oldest conservative think tank’, is as ‘Establishment’ an institution as one could hope to find. Its board includes prominent former Conservative cabinet ministers such as Norman Tebbit and Geoffrey Howe as well as right-wing academics like philosopher Roger Scruton. I was intrigued, therefore, to hear its chairman, Ben Harris-Quinney, announce last week that, ‘the theory of neo-liberal interventionism is bankrupt.’

The context of Harris-Quinney’s remarks was the publication of a new Bow Group report entitled ‘The Sanctions on Russia’. In the report’s introduction, editor Adriel Kasonta declares:

Given that many people in Ukraine actually consider themselves to be Russian, and that the justifications for sanctions may have shifted, it appears necessary to revise our approach to what could be considered one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. We might do worse than explore for [sic] a peaceful solution to this crisis, engaging EU member states and Russia in a meaningful and inclusive dialogue.

Continue reading Straight shooting from the UK

A bum rap

Things are so bad in Russia that people are reduced to stealing toilet paper, writes Paul Goble in an absorbing article in The Interpreter. Referring to the case of a 21-year old man who was arrested in Petrozavodsk after stealing a roll of toilet paper from the city’s Lotos Plaza shopping centre. Goble says that the incident indicates how ‘Russia’s poor are driven to despair by deteriorating economic conditions [and are] seeking to take care of themselves and their families by turning to crime.’ He cites Sergei Smirnov of the Higher School of Economics as suggesting that the situation is not yet so terrible as to cause social unrest, as many Russians still have money in reserve, but counters that ‘at a time when some Russians are forced to steal toilet paper, that may not be as much a reserve as Smirnov suggests.’

The Interpreter regularly plumbs the depths of Russophobia, and with this article hits rock bottom. It calls for a little bit of freshening ‘whataboutism’. A ten-second search for comparisons with other countries indicates that swiping a bit of loo roll is, as the British might say, a fairly ‘bog standard’ crime.

Take, for instance, the case of David Pinkham of Massachusetts, who ‘was caught out when police spotted him leaving Lawrence City Hall with a case of unused toilet paper. … Further investigations revealed he had even more about his person, with six rolls hidden down his pants. A police report stated that he “pulled six tightly folded toilet paper rolls from his buttocks and groin area” at the police station.’ And Pinkham is far from alone. Toilet paper stealing is in fact so common that many dispensers have anti-theft devices built into them. The problem got so acute at a Trenton, New Jersey, library that in 2013 it began rationing paper.

According to a newspaper report, ‘the rising cost of living’ was the most likely cause of Pinkham’s crime. And yet nobody has seen fit to turn his actions, or those of others, into an article entitled ‘How Bad Are Things for America’s Poor? Some Are Now Stealing Toilet Paper’, let alone suggest that the United States is on the brink of political revolution. Goble suggests that the Russian government’s policies are flushing the Russian economy rapidly down the drain. Maybe they are, but you can’t draw that conclusion from a single incident of petty thieving.


Friday object lesson #39: Ballet poster

During August, my object lessons will all have some connection with Russian ballet. This week’s object is a poster for a production of La Bayadѐre by the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet Company in Ottawa in February 2011. The poster was given by the company to my daughter after she successfully auditioned for a role as one of the girls in the Dance of the Golden Idol.



You can watch a very similar production of the Dance of the Golden Idol by the Bolshoi ballet here:




Three headlines

Three headlines have caught my eyes this week, all of them deserving a short commentary:

  1. Russia claims the North Pole.  The Russian government has just submitted a revised claim to parts of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole, in accordance with the process laid out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). You can read the executive summary of the claim here. To my surprise, so far the media here in Canada have been remarkably fair in their coverage of the issue. The Ottawa Citizen, for instance, cited Arctic affairs expert Professor Michael Byers saying that, ‘Russia showed surprising restraint in its new Arctic claim compared with Denmark’s provocative bid last year, and diplomats should be relieved that Russia has chosen to follow to international rules in its submission and not create tension in the area.’ Indeed, in putting forward its claim, Russia is following the procedure laid out by UNCLOS, and the matter is now in the hands of the United Nations. There is no cause for alarm.
  2. Russians are dying more and giving birth less. The last decade saw a significant improvement in Russia’s demographic situation, with Russians living longer and having more children. But, according to the Russian statistical service Rosstat, this trend has now been reversed. The death rate in the first quarter of 2015 was 5.2% more than a year previously, while the birth rate was 5.7% less. According to the Deputy Minister of Health, Veronica Skvortsov, ‘This is not because the population is getting older. The death rate is increasing among young people, aged 30 to 45 … For the first time in years the number of suicides and alcohol poisonings … have increased. This is a big problem.’ It is not clear yet whether this is a one-off or the start of a new negative trend, but either way it is undoubtedly bad news.
  3. Robert Conquest has died. During the Cold War, when the true nature of the Soviet Union’s communist regime remained disputed, the works of British historian Robert Conquest were revelatory. Books such as The Great Terror, The Nation Killers, and The Harvest of Sorrow exposed the enormous extent of Stalinist repression, and ensured that public opinion in the West would remain resolutely anti-Soviet. Like many other Cold Warriors, however, Conquest didn’t manage the transition to the post-Soviet era very well. Documents from newly opened archives revealed that some of his claims were exaggerated, but rather than accept this, he clung to his original position. As a result, his reputation suffered somewhat. Still, despite its faults, his work provided the foundation on which a generation of historians built. As a young man, I found his books enthralling, and they helped to inspire me to become a historian myself. Conquest was one of the giants of Soviet studies, and his death is a great loss to the field.