A lack of self-confidence

We have become decadent, politically correct, and weak, some people say. Our demise is all but inevitable. And yet, our societies are actually much stronger than the doomsayers imagine. Economically, we continue to prosper; politically, we are stable; morally, we are probably doing better than ever before – we treat each other better and we harm each other less than possibly at any other time in history. Far from being weak and decadent, we are strong and healthy. If only we could accept that, we would avoid many terrible mistakes.

The same is true of Russia. Many Western observers describe the current Russian state as fragile. Sooner or later, they say, political or economic discontent will bring the ‘regime’ tumbling down. Sadly, it seems that the Russian state shares this point of view. As a result, rather than permitting and encouraging the maximum amount of political discourse and opposition, it has sought to place limits upon it. In particular, it has moved to restrict the influence of outside forces in Russian civil society, for fear that they might incite a ‘colour revolution’. The latest manifestation of this is the announcement on Monday that, ‘The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has recognized as undesirable several foreign non-profit organizations, such as the Open Society Foundation and the Assistance Foundation in Russia.’ According to Interfax:

This decision was taken, following an address by the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly to the Russian general prosecutor, foreign minister and justice minister to inspect the organizations, which were put on the so-called “patriotic stop-list”,’ spokesperson of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office Marina Gridneva told Interfax on Nov. 30. She recalled that the ‘stop-list’ was approved by the Federation Council resolution as of July 8 this year, in which the activity of the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation) is paid attention to. ‘It was found out that the activity of the Open Society Foundations and the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation poses a threat to the foundations of the Russian constitutional system and security of the state,’ she said.

The Soros Foundation is a particular bugbear of critics of American ‘imperialism’. Soros’ support for self-styled liberal democratic opposition movements has been seen as playing an important part in events such as the Georgian Rose Revolution of 2003 and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004. Many believe that Soros would like to encourage something similar in Russia. But even if this is true, it does not mean that banning the Open Society Institute is justified, let alone a good idea. Liberal democratic societies tolerate all sorts of organizations which don’t like liberal democracy or the prevailing social norms. That is part of what liberty entails. Moreover, the fact that an institution would in principle like to change the political system doesn’t mean that it actually can. Perhaps if the Russian state really is as fragile as some people think, then its worries might be justified. But I don’t believe that it is.

There is certainly some discontent in Russia with the political system, but looking at the data of the Levada Centre, we see that a majority of Russians approve not only of President Vladimir Putin, but also of the government more generally, and that they think that their country is moving in the right direction. Despite predictions that the current economic recession would ruin the state’s finances and cause massive social discontent, the Russian economy has proven to be surprisingly resilient and is due to return to growth next year. There have been a few protests against economic hardship (e.g. from truck drivers), but not many. Russia is not a country on the verge of revolution. Neither Soros nor anybody else is going to bring about ‘regime change’ in Russia.

But designating non-governmental organizations as ‘foreign entities’ and placing them on ‘patriotic stop-lists’ is harmful. Martin Malia pointed out in his book Russia Under Western Eyes that Western perceptions of the ‘Russian threat’ are largely about how Western elites view internal Russian politics. When they see Russian rulers as relatively ‘enlightened’, the West doesn’t fear Russia; but when they see them as becoming more ‘autocratic’, then the West believes that Russia is dangerous and has to be resisted. Banning NGOs falls into the ‘autocratic’ framework. It makes Russia look bad, and strengthens anti-Russian feeling.

In other words, just as Western states over-react to the terrorist ‘threat’ out of fear of seeming weak, the Russian state is over-reacting to the danger of colour revolutions, and in the process is shooting itself in the foot. It would be better if everybody could just have a bit more self-confidence.

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Russia’s endgame in donbass

On Wednesday, I gave a talk to the Centre of International Policy Studies (CIPS) on the subject, ‘Russia’s Endgame in Donbass’. You can read an abbreviated version of my talk on the CIPS blog here.

Somebody in the audience filmed the talk and has posted it on YouTube. You can watch it by clicking on the screen below. The Q&A is on the screen after.

Double Standards

In a previous post, I defended the practice of whataboutism. Its success, I think, owes a lot to a widespread belief that Western states are hypocritical and abide by double standards, condemning others for things that they do themselves.

This week the Turks shot down a Russian airplane over Syria. The facts are disputed. Turkey claims that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds, and that it was given multiple warnings before being shot down. The Russians deny entering Turkish airspace, and the rescued navigator of the plane says that no warnings were given.

I can’t say who is telling the truth, but if it is the Turks, then they, and their NATO allies, are guilty of double standards. After the Syrians shot down a Turkish plane which had violated Syrian airspace in 2012, Turkish president Abdullah Gul complained that, ‘it is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over [national] borders’, and the then Turkish Prime Minister (now President), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, remarked that, ‘a short term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.’ NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen agreed that, ‘It is another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms.’ According to the BBC, ‘in a letter to the UN Security Council, Turkey described the shooting down of its reconnaissance plane as a “hostile act” and “a serious threat to peace and security in the region”.’ Yet, this week, Turkey and NATO took a very different line. It was the very short term violation of Turkish airspace by the Russians which was the ‘hostile act’, and the Turkish action which was entirely justified. ‘We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO Ally, Turkey,’ said Secretary General Rasmussen.

This double standard should not surprise us. Nowadays, it is quite routine. The question I want to pose is whether it can somehow be justified. Many Western human rights activists and philosophers think that the answer is yes. For the past 20 years, the intellectual movement in the West has been away from an international order based on equal, sovereign nations and towards one in which states which are deemed liberal democracies (by us in the West, of course), or are friendly to the West, enjoy greater rights than those who are deemed otherwise. Not all nations are equal.

Take the views of Canadian philosopher Brian Orend, a prominent just war theorist. In his book The Morality of War, Orend argues that states do not exist for themselves, but to safeguard and promote the rights of their citizens. ‘Minimally just states’, which manage to do so to at least some degree, merit full sovereign rights. But those which are not ‘minimally just’ have no rights at all. They forfeit the right not to be attacked. Apply this to the Syrian airplane cases, and you can see how the one shooting was seen as justified and the other was not. Syria, in the eyes of its critics, is not a ‘minimally just state’. As such, it has no sovereign rights, and so is not entitled to shoot down aircraft which violate its airspace. Turkey, by contrast, is at least ‘minimally just’, and so does have a right to self-defence. A double standard exists, because a double standard should exist.

This is, I believe, very dangerous logic. Orend, like most human rights thinkers, imagines that there is a universal moral law which defines what is ‘minimally just’. The problem is that not everybody agrees. The ideologues of the Islamic State, for instance, imagine that their system is more just than ours. If being ‘minimally just’ gives you latitude to do things which others cannot, then everybody gets that latitude, because everybody thinks that they are just. The only way that we can restrain action in war, and in international affairs more generally, is to treat all as equal.

Moreover, those who promote double standards seem to imagine that states and peoples who are deemed not to have full rights will simply accept their inferior status without protest. This is not the case. People notice hypocrisy. They resent double standards. They are likely not to submit, but to resist, just as Russia is currently refusing to accept the double standards of the West and is striking back in an effort to restore a system based on sovereign equality. Ultimately, an order based upon inequality cannot be a stable or peaceful order. Western states have ignored this fact for too long, and are now paying the price.

In short, if the Syrians were wrong to shoot down a Turkish plane which flew over Syria for several minutes, the Turks were wrong to shoot down a Russian plane which flew over Turkey for 17 seconds.

Imperial Gamble

Two years ago this week, protests began in Kiev against the government of Viktor Yanukovich. Their result has been the dismemberment of Ukraine, a war in Donbass, and a series of economic sanctions levied by Western powers against the Russian Federation. In discussing Western responses to the Ukrainian crisis, journalist Marvin Kalb remarks in his new book Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Brookings Institution Press, 2015) that, ‘What was not done was for high-level policymakers to study, if only briefly, the long and intricate history of Russian-Ukrainian relations. … In all this history, Ukraine, as Russia’s “little brother”, lived in a close but uncomfortable and contentious relationship with its “big brother”. One always was tied to the other, a record of intertwined interconnections.’

Kalb’s book attempts to make up for this deficit by charting the history of Russia and Ukraine from the time of Kievan Rus through to today, and then seeking to explain why Russia has acted the way that it has, and what all this might mean for the future. In principle, this is quite a good approach. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Continue reading Imperial Gamble

The facts about terrorism

The recent attacks in Paris have once again got everybody fretting about the terrible scale of Islamic terrorism, and the extraordinary danger it poses to Western, in particular European, society. But how dangerous is terrorism really? The chart below from Maclean’s magazine, based on the statistics of the Global Terrorism Database, provides the answer:

eu terrorism1

Continue reading The facts about terrorism

God and Joan of Arc

On 5 August 1914, just a few days into the First World War, the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, met the French ambassador to St Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, and promised him that the Russians would come to France’s aid by attacking Germany. According to the Frenchman, the Grand Duke finished their conversation with a flourish, announcing, ‘God and Joan of Arc are with us! We shall win.’

The Franco-Russian alliance dated back to 1892, and by 1914 had become an extremely tight one. The Russians fulfilled their promise and attacked German East Prussia in August 1914, an assault which ended in catastrophic defeats at Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. ‘We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies’, the Grand Duke told the French military attaché, General de la Guiche.

1893 political cartoon depicting the Franco-Russian Alliance
1893 political cartoon depicting the Franco-Russian Alliance

Today, Russia and France are getting back together again. According to RT:

The Russian president has issued orders for Russia’s Moskva cruiser, covering the Russian base in Latakia from the Mediterranean Sea, to work together with a French naval group led by flagship Charles De Gaulle, a 26 fighter-jet aircraft carrier, which is departing for Syria this week. ‘The French naval group, led by the air carrier, will soon reach your area of operations. We need to establish direct contact with it, and treat it as an ally,’ the Russian president said. ‘We need to develop a joint action plan for both sea and air operations.’ The Kremlin said that the parameters for a joint mission had been agreed upon by Putin and French President Francois Hollande, following a personal phone call. ‘The two leaders focused their attention on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in combating terrorism,’ a Kremlin statement said. ‘This includes closer ties and joint operations between the military command and intelligence services of Russia and France in Syria.’

‘Russia is shifting because today Russian cruise missiles hit Raqqa,’ French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening, ‘Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible.’

As these quotations testify, Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria is already reaping diplomatic dividends. It is no longer possible to talk of Russia being ‘isolated’. If Franco-Russian efforts to coordinate their military campaigns bear fruit, then the West will find it increasingly hard to portray Russia as a dangerous threat to Western security. With many economists predicting that the Russian economy will come out of recession in 2016, anti-Kremlin activists who had hoped that a combination of diplomatic isolation and economic collapse would lead to the rapid fall of the ‘Putin regime’ are going to be very disappointed.

Nevertheless, I would caution against making too much of the possible new Franco-Russian Entente. Military cooperation in Syria does not equate to a formal alliance. At best it is a temporary matter of mutual convenience. It breaks the diplomatic ice, but doesn’t do much more than that. Although in the long term it may contribute towards a broader thaw in relations, I consider it unlikely that it will do so in the shorter term. Russia will probably not receive any quid pro quo for cooperating with France in the form of a relaxation of economic sanctions. I expect that European powers will refuse to link Syria with Ukraine.

Perhaps more importantly, gaining the favour of the French is not the same as gaining the favour of the Americans. Franco-Russian military cooperation might lead to some coordination of political objectives in Syria, in terms of seeking a peace settlement which avoids the defeat of the current government, but although the Russians might be able to persuade France of the value of such an objective, I consider it less probable that they will able to persuade the United States. Washington will more probably continue to pursue its policy of supporting anti-Assad forces. In short, while some sort of Franco-Russian entente is possible, a truly ‘grand coalition’ involving not only Russia and France, but also the United States and other Western states, remains a distant dream.