Crackpot theory no. 7: hearts and minds

The great Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz remarked that, ‘Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.’

For Clausewitz, the primary aim of war was the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, and there was only one sure method of achieving this objective: combat. In recent years, however, Western military forces have attempted to do what Clausewitz warned against – defeat the enemy ‘without too much bloodshed’. Following the failure of initial counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, counterinsurgency theorists convinced NATO leaders that the key to victory in Afghanistan  was a ‘whole of government’ approach. Military force would be combined with humanitarian aid and economic development projects, which would win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Aghans and persuade them to support the Afghan government and NATO rather than the Taliban. NATO would win not by killing people but by being nice to them.

How has this theory worked out in practice?

Not very well, is the answer.

John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), is responsible for auditing the $113 billion which the United States has spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan. Citing SIGAR’s new quarterly report to the US Congress, the latest update sent out by his office contains a particularly eye-popping statement:

Since 2003, USAID has spent at least $2.3 billion on stability programs in Afghanistan. The findings of a USAID-contracted, third-party evaluation program on the impacts of its stabilization projects raise worrying questions. The MISTI [Measuring Impacts of Stabilization Initiatives] program reported, for example, that villages receiving USAID stability projects scored lower on stability—an aggregate measure of whether the projects strengthened perceptions of good governance and effective service delivery—than similar villages that received no such assistance. And some villages reportedly under Taliban control that received USAID stability projects subsequently showed greater pro-Taliban support.

Why was this? According to SIGAR’s quarterly report, USAID says that raised expectations are to blame. Aid projects tend to raise villagers’ hopes of an improved quality of life. When their expectations ae not fully met, they become embittered.

There may be something to this explanation, but I’m not sure that it is the whole story. After all, it begs the question of why the projects fail to meet expectations. I would not be surprised if that is because the projects are often ill-conceived, disrupt existing practices and power structures, and are driven by perceived short-term security needs rather than the real requirements of local inhabitants.

SIGAR’s quarterly report [pages 118-120] also points to another factor. Apparently, USAID’s ‘Stability in Key Areas’ (SIKA) programs have improved ‘community cohesion, resiliency, and perceptions of local leaders’, but ‘at the expense of government officials’. Years ago, I heard complaints that in its haste to win ‘hearts and minds’, NATO was bypassing Afghan government institutions and officials (often deemed corrupt and/or incompetent), with the result that the aid was doing nothing to solve the fundamental problem of central government legitimacy which lay at the heart of the insurgency. These complaints may have been right.

SIGAR’s report suggests that ‘hearts and minds’ stability projects don’t win hearts and minds, but actually make matters worse. If confirmed, this finding is a terrible blow to counterinsurgency theory. The belief that one can win wars by building schools and digging wells has apparently turned out not to be true.

Friday book #4: Court of Nicholas II

Next along my bookshelf is this week’s Friday book: Greg King’s 2006 The Court of the Last Tsar: Pomp, Power, and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II. The book is divided into five parts: ‘Personalities’, which examines the royal family, its servants, and the various military, administrative, and clerical members of the Court; ‘Palaces’, which looks at the Winter Palace, Tsarskoe Selo, Peterhof, and the Moscow palaces; ‘Possessions’, which describes the royal family’s jewelry, art, and so on; ‘Pageantry’, which looks at Imperial ceremonies such as funerals, weddings and coronations; and ‘Pleasures’, which examines Imperial balls, state visits, and the annual outings to the Crimea.


Putin on communism

On Monday, Vladimir Putin followed up last week’s denunciation of Lenin with a long exposition on what he thought of communism. Given that Putin’s political ideology is a matter of considerable, often ill-informed, speculation, his answer to a question about Lenin at the regional forum of the All-Russian Popular Front in Stavropol is a really important ideological statement. So below is my (somewhat quick and rough) translation of the key segment.

My own interpretation of this statement is that Putin:

  • approves of socialist ideas (equality etc) in the abstract, but feels that communism failed to put them into practice.
  • disapproves of Soviet methods of government, particularly political and religious repression, and definitely doesn’t like Lenin.
  • sees some advantages in state intervention in the economy, but not on the scale practised by communism. He comes across as favouring a European-style mixed economic system.
  • is willing to countenance limited regional autonomy, but nothing more, and is strongly opposed to confederal ideas of a state made up of equal members. He strongly opposes regional secession.
  • regards Ukraine as an artificial construct.
  • puts a great emphasis on the state and the harm that communism did to it in Russia. Again and again, Putin returns to the state and the idea of statehood (gosudarstvennost’). A strong state emerges as a primary value.

Anyway, this is what Putin had to say:

[When I worked in the KGB] I wasn’t one of those who became a party member because I had to, but I can’t say either that I was an ideological party member, my attitude towards it was one of caution. Unlike many public servants I wasn’t a public servant with a party point of view. But unlike many of them I didn’t throw away my party card, I didn’t burn it. … It’s still lying around somewhere.

I liked a lot, and still like, communist and socialist ideas. If you look at the Code for the building of communism, which was widely distributed in the Soviet Union, it strongly resembles the Bible. This is not a joke, it’s like an excerpt from the Bible. The ideas are good: equality, brotherhood, happiness, but the practical embodiment of these remarkable ideas were far from those laid out by socialist utopians like [Henri de] Saint Simon and [Robert] Owen. Our country did not resemble the City of the Sun.

Everyone accused the Tsarist regime of repressions. But what did the establishment of Soviet power begin with? Mass repressions. I won’t talk about the scale, but simply of the most appalling example: the destruction and shooting of the Imperial family together with their children. Perhaps there was some idea that it was necessary to eradicate, as it were, any possible heirs. But why kill Doctor Botkin? Why kill the servants, people generally of proletarian origin? For what purpose? In order to cover up the crime.

Remember, we didn’t use to think about this much. Very well, they fought against people who resisted Soviet power with arms in their hands, but why kill the priests? In 1918 alone, they shot 3,000 priests, and in ten years 10,000 of them. In the Don region, they threw hundreds under the ice. When you start to think about it, and you get new information, you evaluate many things differently.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, in one of his letters to Molotov, I think, wrote – I can’t quote him exactly – that the more reactionary representatives of the bourgeoisie and the priesthood we shoot, the better. You know, this approach doesn’t tally with some of our former ideas about the essence of power.

And the role of the communist, Bolshevik party in the collapse of the front in the First World War is well known. What was the result? We lost to a country which lost, since several months later Germany surrendered, and we ended up losing to losers, a unique occurrence in history. And for what purpose? For the sake of seizing power. How should we, knowing this today, evaluate this situation which brought enormous, simply colossal, losses to the country.

And then there’s the economy. Why did they move to the New Economic Policy (NEP)? Because the existing requisitioning of farm produce wasn’t working, it couldn’t. It couldn’t supply the large towns with food. So they moved to a market economy, then quickly got rid of it.

You know, what I am saying now are my personal deductions, my own analysis. A planned economy has definite advantages, it allows general state resources to be concentrated to fulfil very important tasks. In this way, health care questions were resolved – an undoubted service of the communist party of that time. So also were questions of education solved – an undoubted service of the communist party of that time. So were decided questions of defence industrialization. I think that without this concentration of general state resources, the Soviet Union could not have prepared for war with Nazi Germany. And there was a great probability of defeat with catastrophic consequences for our statehood, for the Russian people and for the peoples of the Soviet Union. So these are all definite pluses. But in the final analysis, insensitivity to changes, insensitivity to technological revolutions, to new technological structures led to economic collapse.

And finally, the most important thing, which is why I said that we must look in a different way at the ideas which the then leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, formulated. What were we talking about? What was I talking about? About how a mine was placed under the building of our statehood. What did I mean? This: I had in mind the discussion between Stalin and Lenin about how to build the new state, the Soviet Union.

If you are a historian, you should know that Stalin formulated the idea of a future Soviet Union based on autonomy. In accordance with this idea, all the subjects of the future state should join the USSR on the basis of autonomy with broad powers. Lenin criticized Stalin’s position and said that it was inopportune and incorrect. Moreover, he promoted the idea of the entry of all the future subjects of this state – and there were then four: Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and southern Russia, the Caucasian Federation as it was called, you know better than me.

So he, Lenin, said that the state, the Soviet Union, should be formed on the principle, as he said (I may be mistaken, but the idea is clear), of complete equality with the right of secession from the Soviet Union. And this was a slow-acting mine under the building of our statehood. Moreover, the ethnicities of a multinational but in essence unitary state were given boundaries and territories, and these boundaries were drawn completely arbitrarily, and in general without any foundation. Take Ukraine. Why was it given Donbass? To increase the percentage of proletarians in Ukraine, in order to have social support there. It’s such gibberish, you understand? And it’s not the only example, there are many more.

Cultural autonomy is one thing, autonomy with broad state powers is another, and the right to secede is a third. In the final analysis, this combined with ineffective economic and social policies led to the state’s collapse. And this is a slow-acting mine. And what is it if it is not a slow-acting mine? That’s exactly what it is. And bearing in mind the possibilities of today, we must simply attentively analyze everything which happened in the past. But one can’t smear everything which happened in the past with black paint or look at everything which happens today in bright colours. One must attentively and objectively analyze it in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and to build our state, economy, and society in such a way that the state only gets stronger.

Autonomy v. Sobornost’

Vladimir Putin recently shocked a lot of people with an unscripted denunciation of Lenin. This should not have come as such a surprise. Although Western commentators often describe Putin as an ex-KGB agent keen to restore the Soviet Union, in reality he has repeatedly made it clear that he regards communism as a failed model of development which brought Russia mostly harm. You can’t be a fan of both Ivan Ilyin and Lenin.

What interests me is the specific reason Putin gave for denouncing the former Soviet leader. According to Interfax (with a little help in translation from my research assistant Oxana):

Vladimir Putin spoke sharply about the ideas and actions of Vladimir Lenin in an exchange with Mikhail Kovalchuk … who recited Boris Pasternak’s poem ‘High disease’,  in which the author analyzed the October Revolution. The poem went: «As I saw him in waking life, I thought, I thought, I thought endlessly what right did he have to be so bold and speak on everyone’s behalf».

«The answer was: he ruled the minds and through them, he ruled the country», continued the poem, which Kovalchuk used to suggest that academia should be able to rule the minds in particular areas.

«I agree that minds should be managed. The important thing here is to make sure that these ideas yield good results, as opposed to what Vladimir Lenin ended up with. Because at the end of the day, these ideas led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were a lot of ideas like autonomy, etc. They laid an atomic bomb under the building named Russia and it went off. And suddenly no need for any world revolution. That was the extent of Lenin’s management of ideas» — said Vladimir Putin as a closing remark of the meeting.

It is clear from this that Putin blames the collapse of the Soviet Union on the federal system introduced by Lenin after the revolution. In Putin’s eyes, it seems, Russia is rightly a multinational but unitary state. The loss of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is highly regrettable, and the concept of ‘autonomy’ is to blame.

Now compare this to a speech given by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on 22 January to mark Unity Day (Den’ sobornosti). In his speech Poroshenko said,

Sobornost’, dear compatriots, is a unitary state structure. It is a categorical prohibition of the import of ideas of federalism which are destructive and unacceptable for Ukraine. Sobornost’, at the end of the day, is when at the decisive moment of colossal trials, like now, right and left, conservatives and liberals, cosmopolitans and nationalists, put behind them any type of ‘ism’ which divides them, and stand side by side for the sake of Ukraine.

As a historian, I find his emphasis on sobornost’ curious. Poroshenko claims to lead a government dedicated to Westernization. But sobornost’ is the essence of Slavophilism, which is normally seen as standing in direct opposition to Westernization. The concept’s originators, Ivan Kireevsky and Aleksey Khomiakov, viewed sobornost’  as encapsulating the sense of spiritual community which supposedly distinguishes collective-minded Russians from individualistic, atomized Westerners. If sobornost’ really is the quality which Poroshenko seeks for Ukraine, he’s not actually a Westernizer at all.

And, then there is Poroshenko’s statement about federalism. We are often told that Ukraine has made a ‘civilizational choice’ to reject Russia and Putin, and all that they supposedly stand for. In fact, it seems as if Putin and Poroshenko are in absolute accord about what a state should look like.

Friday book #3: Imperial palaces

The third in my new Friday series is a boxed set of books about four Russian Imperial palaces in the vicinity of St Petersburg.

palaces box set

The books contain many prints of 18th and 19th century watercolours, paintings, and engravings of the palaces at Gachina, Pavlovsk, Peterhof, and Tsarskoe Selo. Below is one picture from each of the four books:

green corner room gachina
The Green Corner Room, Gachina (E.P. Hau, 1880)
An outing in front of the Pil Tower, Pavlovsk (artist unknown, c. 1820)
pyramid peterhof
Perspective elevation of the Great Water Pyramid, Peterhof (P.A. de Saint-Hilaire, 1774)
The State Drawing Room in the Alexander Palace, Tsarskoe Selo (L. Premazzi, 1854)

Skinny jeans and the Russian soul

My blogging is a little light at the moment due a fractured hand. So, in lieu of a long post, slowly tapped out with one hand, here’s a new hit video by Russian pop group ‘Leningrad’. In this, a girl, amidst a lot of swearing, sings of ‘Louboutins and f***ing awesome jeans’ as she struggles to squeeze into a pair of the latter. At one point, a person I assume is her mother reminds her that her grandmother lived through the siege of Leningrad. ‘Granny survived, but I’m screwed’ comes the reply, as the girl laments her allegedly terrible figure.

People often speak of the ‘Russian soul’ which supposedly differentiates spiritually-minded Russians from more shallow, materialistic Westerners. Similarly, in the past couple of years there has been a lot of talk about Russians becoming more conservative and turning to traditional values while the West becomes increasingly decadent. Not all Russians, obviously!

Friday book #2: Soviet Porcelain

The second book in my new Friday series is another catalogue, this one from an exhibition in Toronto about 20 years ago of porcelain produced in the early years of the Soviet Union and subsequently collected by Craig and Kay Tuber. As the catalogue explains, following the Bolshevik seizure of power, ‘the workers of the State Porcelain Factory in Petrograd redirected the purpose of aristocratic tableware from the embellishment of banquets to the promotion of urgent social concerns’. The result was a unique and quite striking form of propaganda.


On the whole, I’m not a great porcelain fan, but I do like early Soviet art, particularly the work of Suprematists like Kazimir Malevich. The first decade of Soviet rule witnessed an exciting revolution in artistic forms. Then, sadly, Joseph  Stalin and his crony Andrei Zhdanov brought it all to an end by insisting that artists conform to the third-rate standards of Socialist Realism. By the end of the 1920s, the great days of Soviet porcelain were over.

Here are a couple of items from the exhibition as shown in the book:

Mikhail Adamovich, ‘Lenin with star’, 1921
Vladimir Lebedev, ‘Pravda’, no date

Taking Ukraine’s carrot

Ukraine, we are often told, has made a choice – to become a ‘European’ country, and in this way to decisively cut its historical ties to ‘non-European’ Russia. But what if Europe (in the form of the European Union (EU)) turns Ukraine away?

This has always been more likely than supporters of Ukraine’s post-Maidan government have been willing to admit. Ukraine’s situation is somewhat analogous to that of Turkey – even if the country were to fulfill all the demands that the EU makes of it, there is a very good chance that the Union would deny it membership anyway. The same applies to membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). ‘Europe’ is like a carrot dangling always out of the reach of a Ukrainian donkey.

Ukraine & Europe

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