A surprising sort of success

According to a new report by Princeton University’s Andrew Moravcsik, ‘Western policy to block Russian assertiveness in Ukraine has been surprisingly successful.’

The report, entitled Lessons from Ukraine: Why a Europe-led Economic Strategy is Succeeding, is published by the Transatlantic Academy, which describes itself as ‘a research institution devoted to creating common approaches to the long-term challenges facing Europe and North America.’ In a chapter entitled ‘Ukraine as a Western Policy Success’, the report says that ‘the current outcome in Ukraine, a “frozen conflict”, is in many respects a failure rather than a victory for Moscow, and a positive outcome for the West. … It is essential to remember that just two years ago, most observers … expected Russia to prevail easily.’ But, ‘Putin did not succeed’, and Russia ‘reversed its military advances, trimmed its ambitions, and eventually reverted to economic and diplomatic haggling with the West.’

‘Western policy success’ is thus measured not in terms of any positive gains by the West, but in terms of alleged ‘Russian failure’. This takes three forms, Moravcsik writes: 1) ‘Russia’s military was stalemated in the eastern Ukraine’; 2) ‘the Kremlin achieved few major political objectives in eastern Ukraine’; and 3) ‘with the insurgency in eastern Ukraine essentially over … Moscow’s only remaining alternative has been to negotiate with Ukraine and Europe using energy, trade, finance, domestic political influence, propaganda, and diplomacy.’

I can agree with number 2 of these: Russia certainly hasn’t gained anything out of the war in Donbass. But the other two propositions don’t match the facts. Russia’s military wasn’t stalemated – Ukraine’s was. It began the war against the insurgency in Donbass with a massive military advantage over its opponents, but in the end it failed to defeat them. Direct Russian military intervention in Donbass was brief, and was certainly not halted because of the efforts of the Ukrainian military. The Russians halted because they chose to halt, a fact which demonstrates the very limited nature of Russian objectives.

As I pointed out in an article in the journal European Politics and Society, ‘Moscow has largely been reacting to events and trying to gain some control of a process which was originally almost entirely outside of its control. Its primary aim has been to get the Ukrainian government to negotiate directly with the rebels, in order to produce a permanent peace settlement’. In that, the Kremlin has not succeeded. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about Moscow’s failure to ‘prevail’, when it wasn’t ever actually pursuing some broader objective of destroying Ukraine or the like. Moreover, since what Russia did want was precisely a return to negotiation, Moravcsik’s point 3 can hardly be said to constitute a failure.

In any case, it isn’t sensible to define Western ‘success’ purely in terms of Russian ‘failure’, as if international politics is entirely a zero-sum game. We must define success instead in terms of achieving some positive results for Western countries. It is hard to see what those might be. Moravcsik says that, ‘For Western governments, the ideal outcome would be for states of the former Soviet Union to evolve into prosperous market-oriented, democratic regimes able to control their own territorial sovereignty and cooperate with the West.’ In those terms, European policy towards Ukraine, from the time it pressed an EU association agreement on Ukraine, through its support of the Maidan revolution to today, has been entirely unsuccessful. Ukraine is now less prosperous, not obviously any more democratic, certainly not able to control its territory, and still divided about its relationship with the West, as shown by recent opinion polls indicating that support for NATO membership among Ukrainians has once again fallen below 50%.

The only real success Moravcsik can point to is that the Ukrainian economy has not completely collapsed because of the financial aid European countries have given, and indeed it is true that the provision of financial aid has had a more positive effect on the situation in Ukraine than anything else Western states have done. The one strong point of this report is that it makes this clear. Moravcsik pours some welcome cold water on NATO hawks who see Russia as a military threat which requires a firm military response. Commenting on the very limited extent of Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, he writes:

The obvious lesson from Ukraine is that Putin lacks the political will to fight a major war even under the most propitious of circumstances. … If the Kremlin was unwilling to tolerate even modest expenditures of blood, treasure, and prestige to sustain a modest military advance in support of a majority Russian-speaking population in a small corner of Ukraine for a few weeks, why should we expect that it would attack even a weak NATO ally like Latvia or Estonia, let alone a heavily armed, strongly anti-Russian country without a substantial Russian minority, such as Poland?

Given that the answer to this question is that Russia wouldn’t do such a thing, Moravcsik concludes that Europe should focus on supporting Ukraine economically, rather than on resisting or deterring Russia militarily. This is a sound conclusion – a flourishing Ukrainian economy is in everybody’s interests (including Russia’s), and helping that economy would be far more productive than wasting yet more money on defence. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Ukraine, whose GDP per capita is a third of that of Gabon, is suddenly going to turn into Switzerland. Nor we should kid ourselves that Western policy in Ukraine has been anything other than a failure.

We must learn to ask forgiveness

The defiance shown by captured Ukrainian volunteer Nadia Savchenko when she was on trial in Russia for allegedly murdering two journalists (by directing artillery fire onto them) made her a hero for some in Ukraine and a symbol of resistance to ‘Russian aggression’. On the other side of the conflict, many regarded her as a war criminal and a militant nationalist. It was to be expected when she returned to Ukraine after being pardoned by Vladimir Putin that she would add her voice to those urging an escalation in the war and that she would resist calls for political concessions to the rebels in Donbass.

The reality has been very different. Savchenko has become a voice for peace. Among other things, she has called upon the Ukrainian government to talk to rebel leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky. And on Thursday, she shocked many by suggesting that Ukrainians needed to ask forgiveness from the people of Donbass. As Gazeta.ru reports, Savchenko told TV Channel 5:

We must start speaking with one another. We must start hearing one another. We will have to forgive a lot. And we will possibly also have to ask forgiveness. Not possibly, definitely. We need to learn to ask forgiveness and to forgive. Otherwise, there will not be peace.

Savchenko’s suggestion that there is guilt on both sides of the war in Ukraine has outraged nationalist politicians. Member of Parliament Anton Gerashchenko, for instance, replied: ‘You, Nadya, can and should ask forgiveness from Givi and Motorola, or other Russians who have come onto our land to kill and rape, but we will not ask forgiveness from occupiers and terrorists.’ Savchenko was a ‘Trojan horse’ sent by Putin to Ukraine, Gerashchenko remarked.

Given this reaction, I very much doubt that anyone in power in Ukraine will act upon Savchenko’s words. But the fact that somebody is saying them is most welcome.

Book Review: Lysenko’s Ghost

The name of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko conjures up images of fraudulent science and Stalinist repression. Lysenko is best known as a supporter of the theory of ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’, which holds that characteristics which a plant or animal has acquired during its life can be passed down to future generations. Lysenko denounced Soviet geneticists who claimed that genes, not environmental factors, determined characteristics. As a direct or indirect result of Lysenko’s denunciations, many of the Soviet Union’s leading geneticists were arrested and the development of Soviet genetics was held back for years.

For decades, geneticists rejected the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. However, as American scientist Loren Graham points out in his recent book Lysenko’s Ghost, discoveries in the relatively new field of epigenetics  suggest that ‘the effects of an organism’s life experiences can in some instances become inheritable.’ According to epigenetics, ‘modifications to the DNA molecule that do not affect its sequence (such as the attachment of certain chemical groups) can affect gene activity, for example, by turning genes “on” or “off”. These modifications can be environmentally induced, and in some instances, they can be passed on to subsequent generations.’  For instance, grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the wartime famine in the Netherlands suffer from a range of medical problems which appear to be the result of chemicals which attached themselves to their grandmothers’ DNA during the famine.

All this prompts Graham to ask, ‘Was Lysenko right after all?’ To answer that question, Graham examines the history of the theory of inherited acquired characteristics, analyzes Lysenko’s work, and then puts it into the context of epigenetics.

lysenkos ghost

Continue reading Book Review: Lysenko’s Ghost

A letter to Boris

Dear Boris,

Our paths have crossed intermittently over the past four decades, at school and university, and then when you were editor of The Spectator. Congratulations on becoming Britain’s Foreign Secretary! As Russia is my area of specialization, I hope that you won’t consider it presumptuous of me to offer you some advice on Anglo-Russian relations.

  1. Consult people other than the usual Russian ‘experts’. I know from previous encounters that you have an open mind. Consult widely. People like Bill Browder, Ed Lucas, Peter Pomerantsev, and Luke Harding dominate the discourse about Russia in the UK, but they present a very one sided, and rather exaggerated, view of Russia. Read instead what people such as Richard Sakwa and Mary Dejevsky are saying. They are far from being ‘Kremlin stooges’, and they will provide you with a far more nuanced picture.
  2. Remember that Russia is more than Vladimir Putin. There is a tendency to personify our issues with Russia, to make it out that everything we dislike is the fault of Vladimir Putin, and that if he were to leave office Russia would start acting very differently. This is incorrect. Russia is rather more democratic than people imagine, in the sense that government policy reflects public opinion reasonably well. If anything, in the realm of foreign policy, Putin is slightly more moderate than a lot of the Russian public. There is next to no pressure on him to act in a more friendly way towards the West. On the contrary, the main opposition parties – the Communists, Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, and Just Russia – continually urge him to take a harder line. Putin doesn’t do so, because he has to seriously consider the costs and benefits of his actions, but you should not imagine that whoever succeeds him will be free to suddenly change policy in a pro-Western direction.
  3. The ‘Putin Regime’ is not about to collapse, and even if it does the ‘liberals’ will not come to power. Do not imagine that pressuring Russia through sanctions or any other mechanism will cause the ‘regime’ to fall apart and a liberal, pro-Western government to come to power. Not only does Putin remain very popular, but Russia is proving to be surprisingly resilient in the face of Western sanctions and low oil prices. After two years of recession, the economy is predicted to start growing again, the demographic situation is improving, and surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever before. A collapse of the current system of government is most unlikely. But even if, due to some massive unforeseeable shock, it does fall apart, do not think that those who call themselves the ‘liberal opposition’ will take power afterwards. They have almost no support among the Russian public; they are widely despised and you shouldn’t pay much attention to them. The ‘Putin regime’ is probably about as friendly a government as the West can expect to face for the immediate future.
  4. Don’t lecture Russians. Simply put, the majority of Russians, and certainly those who run the country, don’t think that you have the slightest moral right to lecture them about anything. If you denounce ‘aggression’ in Ukraine, they will simply point to your own support for the disastrous invasion of Iraq and for the bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya. From their point of view, you and the country you represent are guilty of more repeated aggressions than them. Moral posturing will only alienate Russians; it will help not you solve problems of mutual interest.
  5. Think about how Western actions look from Russia’s point of view. Remember that Russians have legitimate interests, and legitimate reasons for seeing things the way they do. For instance, you may think that British and NATO policies are purely defensive, but there are good reasons why Russians might view them differently. Take missile defence. You may imagine that it is defending Europe from Iran, but Russians simply don’t believe it, particularly in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal. NATO’s explanations make no sense to them at all. Similarly, NATO expansion and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine look very different from where the Russians stand.

I know, Boris, that you are an extremely intelligent chap. I know too that you want to do what is good for Britain. I wish you the very best in your term as Foreign Secretary.



Friday book # 27: White Siberia

This week’s book examines the politics of the White movement in Siberia during the Russian Civil War. Author N.G.O. Pereira concludes with the words:

Nothing could be a better indication of the total reversal in values and judgements since 1985 than that Kolchak, portrayed for decades as the worst of the White bandits, is now depicted as the gallant and chivalrous knight who died a martyr-patriot, fulfilling his officer’s oath to a great and restored rodina (homeland). The truth, once again, lies somewhere between the two extremes.

white siberia

The persistence of bad ideas

My last post drew attention to the strange worldview of some of the Western world’s most senior military officers. Further evidence of that strangeness came with the publication yesterday of another book by a retired officer, Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn. Flynn has co-authored The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the War against Radical Islam and its Allies with Michael Ledeen of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Until his retirement in August 2014, Flynn was Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the largest of the many U.S. intelligence organizations. He is currently considered one of the favourites to be Donald Trump’s Vice Presidential running mate. He is also occasionally described as ‘pro-Russian’ due to the fact that he has appeared on the English-language Russian television channel RT. Sputnik News assesses that, compared to Hillary Clinton,

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn also has a much more optimistic view of Russia’s potential relationship with the United States, much like his counterpart Donald Trump, calling on the two sides to join forces in the Middle East to bring about peace and stability while advocating for the US to take steps to deescalate tensions along Russia’s western border.

The introduction to Flynn’s new book suggests something different, however. Flynn writes that his purpose is:

To show you the war being waged against us. This administration has forbidden us to describe our enemies properly and clearly: they are Radical Islamists. They are not alone, and are allied with countries and groups who, though not religious fanatics, share their hatred of the West, particularly the United States and Israel. Those allies include North Korea, Russia, China, Cuba, and Venezuela.

Later in the book, Flynn states:

When it is said that Russia would make an ideal partner for fighting Radical Islam, it behooves us to remember that the Russians haven’t been very effective at fighting jihadis on their own territory, and are in cahoots with the Iranians. In Syria, the two allies have loudly proclaimed they are waging war against ISIS, but in reality the great bulk of their efforts are aimed at the opponents of the Assad regime.

The terrorists, says Flynn, ‘must be denied safe havens, and countries which shelter them have to be issued a brutal choice: either eliminate the Radical Islamists or you risk direct attack yourselves. … We can’t afford to be gulled by foreign countries that publicly declare their friendship, but then work in cahoots with our enemies.’

‘Most Americans mistakenly believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind, while war is some weird aberration. Actually, it’s the other way around’, Flynn says.  He recommends that the United States wage unrelenting war against its enemies and their allies, and warns that this war may last a very long time. ‘I dare say that most Americans don’t realize that the religious and political transformations of Europe that we call the Reformation entailed hundreds of years of very bloody struggle’, he writes, adding that, ‘The world badly needs an Islamic Reformation, and we should not be surprised if violence is involved.’

If this sounds like a return to some of the crazier policies of the Bush years, that should come as no surprise. Flynn’s co-author Michael Ledeen is a well-known neo-conservative who was an outspoken supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Looking at the chaos that the Americans have created in the Middle East, Russians often charge that this is deliberate policy. I have always maintained that it is more a product of stupidity. But Ledeen is the sort of person who makes me think that the Russians might have a point.  According to Wikipedia:

In 2002 Ledeen criticized the views of former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, writing: ‘He fears that if we attack Iraq “I think we could have an explosion in the Middle East. It could turn the whole region into a cauldron and destroy the War on Terror.” One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today. … That’s our mission in the war against terror.’

What all this demonstrates is the extraordinary persistence of bad ideas. The United States has been waging war in the Middle East for 15 years, and the results have been overwhelmingly negative. One might imagine that the response would be to reconsider. Instead, Flynn and Ledeen propose that Americans double down on their past failures. One might also imagine that, given their track record of proposing disastrous policies, people like Ledeen would have long ago been cast out of the corridors of power. Instead, we see Ledeen co-authoring a book with a possible future Vice President. It is a remarkable testament to the lack of accountability which has accompanied the War on Terror.

Flynn’s and Ledeen’s opinions may be a little extreme even by Washington standards – but only a little. They are obviously close enough to the mainstream to be considered acceptable, and for Flynn to be a serious contender for the post of Vice President. In these circumstances, one should not expect the election of either Clinton or Trump to produce a serious re-evaluation of the fundamentals of American foreign policy.

Book Review: War with Russia

As NATO wraps up its summit meeting in Warsaw, it will no doubt be patting itself on the back for displaying ‘unity’ and ‘resolve’ in the face of ‘Russian aggression’, in particular by agreeing to station a semi-permanent garrison of four battalions in Poland and the Baltic States. If we are to believe NATO’s former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Sir Richard Shirreff, such displays of strength are exactly what are needed to ‘deter’ Russia and prevent war. That is the message of a novel he has just published, entitled 2017. War with Russia. An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command.


Continue reading Book Review: War with Russia

Friday book # 26: Duelling Russian Style

This week’s book examines the history of duelling following its introduction into Russia in the 18th century. Author Irina Reyfman proposes the thesis that duelling served to protect individual rights. As the cover blurb says:

The book argues that the Russian duel acquired its enduring prestige because it served to define and to defend personal autonomy in a hierarchical state that lacked legal guarantees against corporal punishment. To fight a tradition that tolerated superiors’ punching and slapping their subordinates, Russian duelists embraced raw violence and incorporated it into dueling procedure, thus replacing the hierarchical – and therefore humiliating – violence of corporal punishment with the equalizing violence of the duel.