Looking for better in 2016

In Western countries the end of the Cold War led to a huge decline in interest in Russia. Russian studies departments at universities shut down in droves. Fewer and fewer people studied Russia’s history, language, and politics. In the years since, Russia has repeatedly surprised the West, most specifically in the past two years by annexing Crimea and intervening militarily in Syria, but more generally by not putting good relations with the Western world at the top of its priorities. Flabbergasted by what is seen as Russian ‘unpredictability’, ‘aggression’, and ‘authoritarianism’, some people are beginning to think that perhaps cutting back on Russian studies wasn’t such a good idea.

In February 2015, the European Union Committee of the British House of Lords asserted that the UK had badly misread Russian intentions, and ‘blamed Foreign Office cuts, which it said led to fewer Russian experts working there.’ A few days later, the UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee also ‘concluded a lack of Russian speakers in the Foreign Office left Britain’s diplomats ill-equipped to anticipate the events in Ukraine.’ And yesterday (30 December), the Washington Post reported that in the United States:

Experts, lawmakers and former administration officials describe a national security apparatus that, once teeming with experienced Russia specialists, including at the highest levels of decision-making, now relies on [a] looser regime of more junior experts who lack the reach to directly influence policy. The result, they say, is a series of missed opportunities to anticipate Moscow’s recent moves in areas such as Ukraine and Syria, even when clues were readily available. … experts point to a lack of funds for foreign language instruction at universities, a reduction in funding for cultural exchange programs with former Soviet states and the recent evisceration of a grant program for advanced research on Russia and its neighbors as signs of why the government is having trouble developing a corps of Russia specialists.

One can easily understand why people might think that the lack of understanding of Russia stems from a penury of Russian ‘experts’, and that investing more resources into Russian studies might solve the problem. Yet there is, in fact, no shortage of ‘experts’ currently carrying out analysis of Russian affairs. In the past year, I have drawn readers’ attention to a considerable number of books, articles, reports, and speeches about Russia. I have reviewed books by Garry Kasparov, Marvin Kalb, Walter Laqueur, Oleg Khlevniuk, Richard Sakwa, and Peter Pomerantsev; looked at reports and articles produced by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and prominent think tanks like the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and examined articles in both academic and non-academic journals, such as Foreign Policy and Slavic Review. The problem is not one of quantity. It is one of quality. Although once in a while I have found something to praise – such as Richard Sakwa’s book Frontline Ukraine – a lot of the time it has been my opinion that what I have read is of very low quality.

There are, of course, many scholars doing excellent research on various aspects of Russian history, politics, and philosophy, but relatively little of this research reaches the general public. In mass media and think tanks, the past 12 months have seen much more bad analysis than good. Since starting this blog, I have concentrated on critiquing the former rather than praising the latter. In the year to come, I will try to change tack a bit, and seek out more of the better stuff as well.

Happy New Year!


Christmas cheer

Some good Christmas news for the ailing Russian economy: according to Bloomberg Businessweek, the producers of hit Russian childrens’ TV show Masha and the Bear ‘are planning a licensing push into everything from yogurt to burgers to plush animals. … Sales of licensed goods from Masha and the Bear could reach $300 million next year as the Russian cartoon’s popularity soars.’

In case any of you haven’t seen the show, here is the English version of its Christmas song, ‘One, two, three, light the Christmas tree.’

Happy holidays to you all.

Democracy ≠ Liberalism

Conspiracy theorists who imagine that the world is run by Freemasons, Zionists, or the Illuminati have it all wrong. The people really pulling the strings are graduates of St Antony’s College, Oxford, many of whom have infiltrated the foreign ministries of countries around the world. Being a member of this global conspiracy, I received this week the college’s annual newsletter, ‘The Antonian’. An article by Dan Healy, the Director of St Antony’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre, entitled ‘Irreconcilable Foes? LGBT Russians and their government?’, looks at ‘the roots of the 2013 law banning “propaganda among minors for non-traditional sexual relations”.’ It contains an interesting lesson about Russian democracy.

Healy explains that the roots of the legislation ‘might be found in the early 2000s, when conservative-nationalists and religious lobbyists in the Duma began calling for such a law. … The Russian MPs’ crude early versions of their ban on “propaganda for homosexualism” were rejected.’ Rebuffed nationally, conservatives moved their campaign to the local level. According to Healy, by 2012, ‘Local authorities around the country had enacted their own versions of “gay propaganda” bans and from Novosibirsk the Duma received a formal request for a national ban.’ At this point the Kremlin finally abandoned its opposition, perhaps because President Vladimir Putin had himself become more conservative and/or perhaps because the government recognized the public mood and wanted to score popularity points.

Normally, the Western press casts the blame for the 2013 law on Putin personally. What I find interesting about Healy’s description is that it shows something rather different. The Kremlin initially resisted the policy, but in the end succumbed to perceived public demand. This reveals: first, that Russia is perhaps more democratic than people make it out to be; and second, that democracy in Russia does not necessarily equate with liberalism.

Nowadays, people in the West assume that more democracy equals more liberty. I think that in the longer term that does tend to be true. But not always. Often, the elites who govern Western democracies are more liberal than many or most of the people they represent, as seen for instance with opposition to the death penalty and support for immigration. Also, some of the more important advances in human rights have come not from legislatures, but from the courts – in other words, from the non-elected part of constitutional systems. If governments in Western countries accurately reflected the desires of their peoples, they might well be much less liberal than they are.

Americans often forget that their founding fathers were actually rather suspicious of democracy, which they felt would lead to mob rule and was thus injurious to liberty. They therefore devised a semi-democratic, semi-monarchical, constitution. Similarly, 19th century Russian liberal conservative thinkers believed that only an autocratic government could bring about liberal reform – democratic governments would in practice prove to be reactionary. I don’t think that they were entirely right about that, but as the example above shows, they weren’t entirely wrong either.

In a 2004 letter, imprisoned Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote that, ‘Putin is probably neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he is still more liberal and democratic than 70 percent of our country’s population’. If Putin is now less liberal, that means that he has become closer to the people he represents, not the opposite. A recent article by the University of Copenhagen’s Matthew Del Santo highlights this:

Mikhail Remizov, director of Russia’s Institute of National Strategy, shares this view, saying in a recent interview: ‘Russian democracy must by definition be conservative, populist, nationalist and protectionist’. Until 2012, he said, the conservatives ‘who really enjoy the sympathies of the majority of the nation occupied the place of an opposition. Real power remained in the hands of the neo-liberal elite that had run the country since the 1990s’. This has now changed. ‘Putin is falsely presented as a nationalist’, said Remizov. ‘In a Russian context, he’s a sovereigntist. But in general, the agenda of the Kremlin today is formed by the opposition of the 2000s: the conservative, patriotic majority.’

None of this is meant to say that democracy is a bad thing; it has many advantages above and beyond its capacity to deliver liberal reform. Not least of these advantages is improved accountability. Rather, the point is that Russia’s government consists of a curious mix of democratic and non-democratic elements, and Healy’s article draws our attention to the uncomfortable fact that some of the aspects of Russian behaviour that we in the West don’t like are due more to the former than to the latter.

Putin. Hitler. Dictator. Evil.

Former world chess champion and current Russian opposition politician Garry Kasparov has a new book out, entitled Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped.  Russians aren’t its target audience. Rather, it is aimed at readers in the Western world who might be thinking that it would be better if their countries talked to Russia and tried to find common ground in order to solve mutual problems. Forget it, says Kasparov. Don’t be deluded. Talking is a sign of weakness, and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin will exploit any weakness to expand his ‘dictatorship’ and ‘invade’ even more neighbouring countries. The West, Kasparov argues, has to abandon its ‘cowardice’ and unite firmly against Russia and Putin before it is too late and ‘winter’ arrives.

Kasparov advances this thesis by means of a rapid history of Russian politics from the late Soviet era onwards, interspersed with personal anecdotes. But although the book is notionally about Russia, it is really about Putin, with whom Kasparov appears to be obsessed. In fact, Winter is Coming is little more than a prolonged expression of hatred against the Russian president. The title of this blog post tells you all you really need to know about it. Kasparov thinks that Putin is Hitler; he is a dictator; and he is evil. In fact, the word ‘Hitler’ appears 32 times in the book. Kasparov also regularly uses words such as ‘dictator’, ‘dictatorship’, ‘totalitarianism’, ‘autocrat’, and ‘despotism’, and pursuing another theme, likes to talk about ‘appeasement’, ‘appeasers’, and ‘Chamberlain’. Subtlety is not his forte.

Thus we learn from Kasparov that:

Continue reading Putin. Hitler. Dictator. Evil.

‘The alternative reality of propaganda’

One of the advantages of working at a university is having access to a large number of academic journals. In this post, therefore, I will take the opportunity to highlight a couple of recent articles from these.

The first is from the latest edition of Survival, the journal of a prominent British think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The author is Elizabeth Pond, described as ‘a Berlin-based journalist and author’, who worked for 20 years for the Christian Science Monitor and in 1981 published a book about the Soviet Union entitled From the Yaroslavsky Station. Entitled ‘Will Ukraine Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory?’ the article begins with the words: ‘In holding Russia’s military behemoth to a stalemate in President Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on Ukraine, Kiev has won an improbable victory.’ According to Pond:

Continue reading ‘The alternative reality of propaganda’

A couple of things

I have published a piece on the CIPS blog about the IMF’s decision to change its rules so that Ukraine does not have to repay its $3 billion debt to Russia. You can read it here.

Also, I did an interview in my shaky Russian this morning via Skype with Sergei Veselovskii of News Front. You can watch it below. Next time I do a Skype interview, I will try not to bob my head so much!

Peace or justice?

Which is more important – peace or justice? According to the standard interpretation of Just War Theory, there is a ‘presumption against war’; the harm war does is so great that anybody wishing to wage it has to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt, and peace – defined as ‘an absence of war’ – is a supreme value. Some philosophers, however, claim that there is no presumption against war. Rather there is a ‘presumption against injustice’. In this view, an absence of war (‘negative peace’) is not true peace at all. In order to produce a ‘positive peace’, in which justice flourishes, it is permissible to fight.

An interesting new survey reveals that the inhabitants of different countries have very different attitudes towards this issue. According to the Halifax/IPSOS Global Snapshot, produced for the 2015 Halifax International Security Forum, ‘over 70% of Americans and Chinese – more than any other country – believe that under certain conditions, war is necessary to achieve justice … [but] only 38% of Russians agree with that statement.’ I have been unable to copy the chart used in the Global Snapshot Report, but have entered the data into an Excel spreadsheet to produce a version which shows the main results, as follows:

Percentage saying that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (Halifax-IPSOS)
Percentage saying that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (Halifax-IPSOS)

A number of things come out of this. First, the Anglosphere (the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and to some extent India) is remarkably belligerent. Second, Hispanic countries (Mexico, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina) seem remarkably peace-loving. Third, Russia is a lot less inclined to wage war for some interpretation of ‘justice’ than most Western states. How do we explain these differences?

Power may have something to do with it. The United States, China, and Saudi Arabia are, probably not coincidentally, the first, second, and third largest spenders on defence in the world, while the UK is fifth. It would appear that having a lot of weapons may create, or spring from, an inclination to use them. But that wouldn’t explain why Russia and Japan (4th largest and 7th largest spenders respectively) are so much less inclined to use force than the USA and China. There appear to be some missing variables.

Culture and history are obvious candidates to fill the gap. As I have mentioned in previous posts, ‘just war’ isn’t part of the Russian philosophical tradition. War is seen as a tragic necessity, fought for reasons of security and not as a means of pursuing ‘justice’. By contrast, the modern Western philosophy of universal human rights means that it is relatively easy for Western Europeans and North Americans to regard war as something which can bring justice to the world. The religious zeal of the Saudis may perhaps give them a somewhat similar attitude. Overall, I speculate that countries which prefer peace to justice either haven’t had much experience with war (Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico), and so haven’t got into the bad habit of thinking that it might be a good idea, or have had really bad experiences with war (Japan, Spain, Germany, and Russia), and so have learnt the hard way that war doesn’t bring justice and is best avoided.

What obviously isn’t true is the much beloved neoconservative idea that democracies are peace-loving. Some are, but some aren’t. And Russians, it appears, value peace more highly than Americans.

The Folly of Military Intervention

Last Friday I gave a talk at the University of Ottawa for the Institute of Liberal Studies on the subject ‘The Folly of Military Intervention’. Give that at this moment the British House of Commons is debating whether to join the war in Syria, this seems a good time to post the talk, which was filmed by one of the audience (the first couple of minutes are missing). You can watch it below.