I’ll be travelling for the next couple of weeks. Blogging may be very light, though I will try to do something at some point.
Back in 2013, the CIA carried out an internal study to examine the history of the agency’s covert support for foreign rebel movements. It determined that covert intervention in foreign conflicts rarely if ever produced positive results. In fact, it could produce only one example of ‘success’ – the support given to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, although even that didn’t look too good given what happened later.
Despite having this information at hand, the Obama administration went ahead and decided to support the rebels in Syria. The results are now in: total, abject failure. Remember the 70,000 ‘moderate rebels’, which British Prime Minister David Cameron said existed in Syria? Where are they now? Nowhere to be seen. Yesterday, the last outpost of the alleged ‘moderates’, Idlib, fell to the armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is often described as an ‘affiliate’ of Al-Qaeda. As Gareth Porter reports in The American Conservative, the main consequence of the US decision to arm the Syrian ‘moderates’ has been to funnel thousands of weapons into the hands of Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, far from being overthrown, the government of Bashar al-Assad is rapidly increasing its control over the central and eastern parts of Syria, pushing deep into ISIS-held territory. American policy is in tatters.
Donald Trump’s decision last week to stop arming the Syrian rebels is, therefore, a welcome recognition of reality. The question which now arises is how far reality has managed to intrude into the thinking of the American security community. Is this just an admission of defeat in this particular instance, or is a different view of the world now beginning to make itself felt on US policy more generally?
Many non-interventionists supported Trump in last year’s presidential election because they hoped that he might make the second option a possibility. So far they have been disappointed, and sadly the evidence suggests that the decision on Syria represents a tactical retreat not a strategic rethink. A large segment of the American foreign policy community continues to think that every internal conflict everywhere in the world is somehow its business, obliging it to pick one side or the other as its ally and to support it by sending it weapons.
So it was that less than a week after the US said it would no longer supply arms to the Syrians, the new US ‘special representative for Ukraine’, Kurt Volker, said that the American government was reviewing whether to send weapons to Ukraine. American foreign policy thinking is clearly in a state of confusion. On the one hand, a US official said that the decision on Syria was ‘a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia.’ On the other hand, the same administration is considering a policy designed precisely to damage ties. It’s hard to make sense of it all.
Giving some details of what he had in mind, Volker said: ‘defensive weapons, ones that would allow Ukraine to defend itself, and to take out tanks for example.’ I’m guessing that would mean anti-tank weapons, like the TOW missiles which used to be supplied to the ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria. After all, you can’t just keep them sitting in storage boxes. If you’re not sending them to Syria, you gotta send them somewhere else. Right?
‘New Russia is dead! Long live Little Russia!’ Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), announced today the formation of a new state, Malorossiia, ‘Little Russia’ (the name by which Ukraine was known in the time of the Russian Empire). According to the rebel leader’s plan, Malorossiia will replace Ukraine, whose capital will move from Kiev to Donetsk. Ukraine will keep its current borders, but change its name, and be reformed into a federation, whose regions will have broad autonomy. At least, that is the idea.
It’s an odd one. Zakharchenko simply isn’t in a position to determine the future constitution of Ukraine, let alone its name, and I can’t in a hundred years imagine most Ukrainians accepting his proposal (while one can say for certain that a large chunk of them never would). Also, it appears that Zakharchenko forgot to consult his fellow rebels in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) before announcing his new project. The chair of the LPR parliament Vladimir Degtiarenko said that the LPR did not send any delegates to the conference at which the project was announced, and in any case didn’t support the idea. Malorussia, it seems, is dead at birth. The story rather undermines the idea that everything that happens in the DPR is dictated by puppet masters in the Kremlin. One would imagine that if the Kremlin was behind this, it would have bothered to check with the LPR first. So either this wasn’t the puppet masters’ idea, or they are bizarrely incompetent. It seems more likely that this was Zakharchenko’s own initiative, a conclusion which has left pundits scratching their heads and wondering what on earth he’s up to.
Over the past three years, Zakharchenko has seemingly adopted just about every conceivable position about the DPR’s future. Sometimes he’s in favour of joining the Russian Federation; other times he’s for the DPR’s independence; sometimes he says that he is committed to the Minsk process, and thus reintegration into Ukraine; other times he says that Minsk is dead and reintegration is no longer possible. Reading between the lines, it’s fairly clear that what he really wants to do is join Russia, but now he’s dropping that, and returning to the idea of rejoining Ukraine, but with a twist, namely that it won’t be Ukraine anymore.
A possible explanation for all this tacking hither and thither is that it represents Zakharchenko’s efforts to satisfy the various constituencies on which he depends. On the one hand, there’s his supporters in Donetsk, who for the most part, one imagines, have long since burnt their bridge with Ukraine and have no intention of going back. On the other hand, there’s the people paying the bills in Moscow, who, one suspects, would be only too happy to see the DPR vanish back into Ukraine if only some way could be found of doing so without losing face (which, of course, there isn’t, short of the extremely unlikely event of the total collapse of Ukraine and the DPR army marching into Kiev). Perhaps somebody in Moscow has made it clear to Zakharchenko that he should forget any ideas of unification with Russia, and so he’s come up with some hairbrained scheme of how he can imagine being back in one country with his former Ukrainian compatriots. It gets Moscow off his back while making it clear to the guys in Donetsk that he’s not planning to sell them down the river. This sort of makes some sense, but I can see this irritating Zakharchenko’s Muscovite sponsors as well as his LPR allies. And it has already gotten France pressuring the Kremlin to get Zakharchenko to back off, with the French Foreign Ministry declaring that the scheme is contrary to the Minsk agreements. I’m not sure that I see how the Malorossiia project is going to make the DPR’s life any easier.
Writing in Lenta.ru, journalist Igor Karmazin provides another explanation: the move is possibly connected to plans being discussed by the Ukrainian parliament to change the status of the war in Donbass. If the plans go ahead, the war will cease to be called an ‘anti-terrorist operation’. Instead, the Ukrainian government will recognize the DPR and LPR as being occupied by the Russian Army, and that Ukraine is thus in effect at war with Russia. Responsibility for the war zone will pass from the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to the Army. From the DPR’s point of view, this is seen as proof that the Ukrainian government has finally turned its back on Minsk, and that a return to full-scale war is inevitable. Given that, goes the logic, it makes sense for the DPR to prepare for war, including establishing a plan for its broader political objectives. Perhaps, suggests Karmazin, Zakharchenko also believes that the Ukranian ‘regime’ is bound to collapse, and is preparing the ground to seize power himself throughout the country. Maybe that’s right, but again, it’s just speculation.
In a way, none of this matters. Little Russia isn’t going to happen. But in another way, it does matter, as it sheds some light into what Ukraine’s rebels want, as well as the nature of their relationship with both Ukraine and Russia. The problem is interpreting that light. What does it all mean? Damned if I know. It’s all rather puzzling. I await enlightenment.
A couple of weeks ago, after attending a showing of the Russian TV talk show Vremia pokazhet, British journalist Angus Roxburgh complained that what he saw shocked even as hardened and cynical a Russia-watcher as him. ‘Xenophobia, fear, and intimidation’ were what he witnessed, he said.
I confess to be an occasional Vremia pokazhet watcher. It’s hard to understand what people are saying half the time, as the show tends to descend into a shouting match. But that’s kind of the point. There’s always a vigorous debate. It’s not just somebody spouting the official line, although it has to be said that the official line tends to win out when the dust settles. But let’s engage in a little bit of whataboutism. Would Mr Roxburgh be equally shocked if he spent some time watching American TV? Would he come across ‘xenophobia, fear, and intimidation’ there?
Let’s take a look.
A couple of days ago, CNN interviewed Congressman Mike Quigley. This is what Quigley had to say:
When you meet with any Russians, you’re meeting with Russian intelligence and therefore President Putin.
A couple of years ago I was pretty unkind about a report about Russia published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This report was the product of a workshop CSIS had held on the subject. I wasn’t invited to the workshop, nor was I to another one which CSIS held recently, also on the subject of Russia. But I have been sent a copy of the report, entitled Russian World-Views: Domestic Power Play and Foreign Behaviour. You can read it online here. It’s better than the last one, but I still have a few issues with it.
The report is a summary of the views expressed at the most recent workshop by four anonymous experts from Europe and North America (though, based on what they wrote, I’m pretty sure who some of them are). Because of this one shouldn’t read this document as representing CSIS’s official opinion, nor as that of the Government of Canada. It’s just what a bunch of people told CSIS. Still, it’s interesting in the sense that it gives one a flavour of the type of analysis that government officials receive.
This is too funny:
Every year, the US State Department releases a report on ‘Trafficking in Persons’. The 2017 report is now available. This is what it has to say about Russia:
The government generally did not undertake efforts to protect human trafficking victims and did not publicly report having identified or assisted victims. … During the reporting period, a homeless shelter run by the Russian Orthodox Church in Kitezh began accepting trafficking victims and offered them food and housing, though not medical or psychological care; the government did not provide financial support for the shelter.
Kitezh, by the way, is a mythical sunken city, the Russian equivalent of Atlantis (and not, as in Return of the Tomb Raider, hidden somewhere in the mountains of Siberia).
HT to that well-known source of ‘fake news’, RT, for bringing the story to my attention. I’ve checked it out. It’s true. You can access the entire State Department report here. The part of the report dealing with Russia is here.
Update: Citing RT, The Moscow Times reports that, ‘It is likely that the U.S. State Department’s report was referring to a shelter run by the Russian Orthodox Church called “Kitezh” in the village of Milyukovo close to Moscow. Perhaps the State Department mistook the shelter’s name for its location, surmised RT.’
Speaking on the ‘Rossiia’ TV channel, Metropolitan Ilarion, chairman of the department of external relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, declared:
It is my opinion that a person who is anointed to reign by priests, a person who receives not merely a mandate from electors to rule for a defined period, but receives sanction for his rule from God through the Church, and remains such for life until he passes power to his successor, is, of course, a form of government which is positively recommended by history and has many advantages compared with any electoral form of government.
No surprise here. The Orthodox Church has long had a preference for monarchy, although its bishops don’t normally proclaim it quite so openly. But who is to be Tsar? Aleksandr Prokhanov has an answer. Responding to Metropolitan Ilarion, he noted that the huge crowds which lined up in the Moscow rain recently to greet the relics of St Nicholas showed that the monarchical spirit was reviving in Russia, and that the time was right to raise the issue of restoring the monarchy. Ideally, the new Tsar would be a descendant of the Rurik and of the Romanovs, but there was no such person in Russia. A new dynasty would therefore have to be created. Prokhanov has a candidate in mind to start it:
It must be a special person; some kind of sign, some sort of sacrament, must be upon him. Vladimir Putin is such a person. In one of his addresses to the Federal Assembly he said that the sacred centre of Russian statehood, of Russian power, returned to Russia along with the return of the Crimea. He had in mind Khersones, where the baptism of Rus took place. And this magical, miraculous, mystical act, when the light of Orthodoxy poured through Prince Vladimir into all the vast expanses of Russia, first from the Carpathians to the Urals, and then beyond the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, this mystical act brought the holiness of Christ into Russian statehood. And the Crimea, restored to Russia by Putin, has brought this holiness into the very centre of Putin’s power, Putin’s statehood. That is why by this act, in some undefinable and undogmatic way, Putin carried the icon lamp of mysterious, mystical light into Russia, into the Kremlin, into his office, into his own mansion. He was chosen for this. He confirmed this choice. And in a very conditional way he was anointed, not by the Patriarch, not in the Uspenskii Cathedral, his coronation was accomplished without the presence of the Bishops. It was accomplished in a mysterious, mystical manner, when the lamp of Crimean Khersones returned in his hands to Russia. And he stood with this lamp, having lit it up with a mysterious light. Thus, in circles close to the Patriarch, in circles dreaming of monarchy, recognizing all the difficulties of restoring monarchy in Russia, more and more often one hears the name of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as a possible first monarch in the Putin dynasty.
Like a lot of Prokhanov’s stuff, this is all a bit OTT. And I’m sorry, Aleksandr, but I have news for you. It ain’t gonna happen. Putin has made it very clear that he has no interest in becoming Tsar, and besides the mass of the Russian population doesn’t seem too interested in the idea. Still, I think that I may use this quotation when I give a talk on the subject ‘Russia and Ukraine’ to the annual symposium of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies in September. For it gives a sense of how much some Russians value Vladimir Putin and the annexation/reunification of Crimea. For sure, most of them don’t view these things in the same kind of mystical-religious fashion, but they value them pretty highly nonetheless. The lesson I will draw is clear: if anybody really imagines that there will be ‘regime change’ in Russia, or that Russia will someday return Crimea to Ukraine, they’re living in an even stranger fantasyland than Aleksandr Prokhanov.