Taking the offensive

Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j’attaque. (Ferdinand Foch)

From my personal point of view, 2017 was pretty good. From the point of view of the main topic of this blog – Russia-Western relations – it certainly was not. This time last year I commented that the good thing about being at rock bottom was that you can only go up. Russian-Western relations were so bad, I felt that they had to start improving.

Well, I was wrong about that. I completely failed to predict the way that Donald Trump’s opponents would latch onto the Russian interference/collusion narrative and turn it into a tool to undermine the Trump presidency by continually shouting ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’. The idea of improving relations with Russia has now become so politically toxic that I fear that things might actually get somewhat worse. The prospect of the US Congress imposing harsh sanctions against Russia in early 2018 is very real. I am hopeful that it won’t happen, but one cannot be sure of anything any more. Reason and evidence have been thrown out of the window as a result of an atmosphere of hysteria unlike any I can remember even in the early 1980s.

Given this, I won’t make any predictions for 2018. In the meantime, all of us who care about making the world a safer place should all do our own tiny little bit to calm people down and restore a bit of sanity. Our efforts are unlikely to make much of a difference, but we have an obligation to use what little strength we have to try. Eventually, a window of opportunity will open and, if you’ll excuse the plethora of mixed metaphors, it’s important that somebody prepares the ground in advance.

For that reason, in the spirit of Ferdinand Foch, this blog will continue on the offensive throughout 2018. The worse the situation the more vital it is that we press on forward. One blog is, of course, just a small drop in the ocean of the internet, but every little counts. Readership of Irrussianality increased by about 40% in 2017. Let’s hope for similar progress in the year to come.

I encourage all of you to do what you can to spread the word of reason.

Happy New Year!

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sanctions: the evidence

In my recent post about the Canadian House of Commons defence committee’s report on Ukraine, I complained that the committee had recommended strengthening sanctions against Russia without producing any evidence that sanctions were an effective tool in changing Russian behaviour. As luck would have it, I have acquired a copy of a recent report which analyzes the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy. I thought, therefore, that I should share the report’s conclusions with you.

Before doing so, it’s first necessary to point out that damaging the Russian economy isn’t the ultimate point of sanctions. If sanctions are to have any meaningful purpose, then that purpose has to be to change Russian behaviour, specifically vis-à-vis Ukraine, given that Ukraine was the pretext for the sanctions. That said, sanctions aren’t going to make Russia change its behaviour if they don’t damage the Russian economy. Coercion has to hurt if it is to coerce. No pain, no gain, as it were. So are they hurting?

The report I have in hand is entitled ‘What difference have sanctions made and is that about to change?’ It was published in September by Macro Advisory Eurasia-Russia Consulting which describes itself as ‘the leading independent macroeconomic and political strategy firm specialising in the Eurasia region, including Russia and the CIS states.’ The report concludes that, ‘it is impossible to say categorically that sanctions have either significantly contributed to the economic decline [in Russia since 2014] or that they have helped the economy survive what would otherwise have been a more severe recession.’ However, the report’s authors tend more towards the latter option, saying that ‘sanctions helped in many respects.’

According to the report, the Russian economy was slowing down even before 2014. The major cause of the subsequent recession was the collapse in the oil price. The impact of sanctions was very small. However, sanctions did affect the way that the Russian government responded to the oil-price-driven recession. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, the government reacted by spending large amounts of its reserves on propping up the ruble, and also by increasing government spending more generally in a type of Keynseian counter-cyclical strategy. In 2014, it abandoned this policy. Instead it allowed the ruble to become a free-floating currency, while it also exercised a tight monetary policy designed to drive down inflation.

The report’s authors credit this latter strategy with preventing the post-2014 recession from becoming as deep as many feared it would be. They write:

Sanctions removed, or made more difficult, the soft options of borrowing and spending … The combination forced the state to be much more fiscally disciplined and more flexible with monetary policy. The ruble free float would not have happened without sanctions. … the decision to stop supporting the currency was the single most important action taken by the government and one of the key reasons why sectors, such as agriculture, have become more competitive and started to grow. … [Therefore] it can be argued that the 2014 sanctions actually helped Russia avoid a steeper recession and a more severe financial crisis.

The report says also that the sanctions forced the oil and gas sector to become more efficient, resulting in an increase, not a decrease, in production after 2014. In general, says the report,

Russia is in good financial shape. … Russia is the sixth-lowest indebted nation and has the sixth-largest financial reserves. … As a result of the sanctions, Russia was forced to repay $250 bn of external debt between 2014 and 2016. That represented 12.5% of pre-devaluation GDP and 25% of post-devaluation GDP. Not many countries in the world could have done that and still avoid a catastrophic crisis. It shows the resilience in the macro-economic and social-political system.

What then of the future?

On this Macro Advisory is a little more cautious. It claims that a lot depends upon the effects of the latest sanctions legislation passed by the US Congress. With this legislation, Congress has effectively seized control of sanctions from the president. Given past experience (e.g. with Cuba, Iran, and the Jackson-Vanik amendment which imposed sanctions against the USSR), the likelihood is that the existing sanctions against Russia will remain for a very long time, regardless of what happens with US-Russia relations more broadly. The new legislation is disturbing, moreover, because it contains stipulations which could be used to dramatically increase sanctions against Russia in the future. This possibility creates a degree of uncertainty which deters foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia. Currently FDI in Russia is rising again, but that could easily change. A much harsher sanctions regime is possible, and that, says the report, could have a negative effect on the Russian economy.

The report lays out three possibilities. The first involves a relaxation of sanctions by European powers. The second sees sanctions remaining as they are. The third envisages much tighter US sanctions. The report assesses that in the first scenario, growth in Russian GDP will pick up to 3.0% by 2020, accelerating to 4.5% by the end of Putin’s final term in office in 2024. In the second scenario, growth will gradually rise to 3.0% by 2022 and remain roughly constant at that level thereafter. In the third scenario, growth will drop to 0.8% by 2020 before increasing to 2.3% by 2024.

Personally, I suspect that scenario two is the most likely – things will continue on much as they are. If the authors are correct, therefore, we should expect that, barring some external shock such as another global recession, during Putin’s final term in office the Russian economy will experience steady if not extremely rapid growth, ending up with three years of 3.0% growth per annum. That’s not enough to catch up with the West, but it’s not bad either, and certainly sufficient to put a noticeable amount of extra money in Russians’ pockets. If that’s really true, then economically speaking Putin’s last years will be a moderate success from an economic point of view.

Of course, these are all just projections and, as we know, economists often get their projections wrong. Nevertheless, none of this is good news for those who think that sanctions are an effective tool against ‘Russian aggression’ or who imagine that the collapse of the ‘Putin regime’ is just around the corner.

Crackpot theory no. 9: Assume the worst

As I was typing my last blog post, an objection to it occurred to me. It goes something like this: ‘For sure, Russia at present has no intention of cutting underwater communications cables, but we believe that it has the capacity to do so, and so we must assume the worst and put in place defences against it, just in case.’

I call this the ‘assume the worst theory of international relations.’ Its underlying principle is ‘better safe than sorry.’

It’s a theory which is pretty commonly held, and used to justify defence budgets around the world. Vladimir Putin is a believer. On two occasions he has quoted Otto von Bismarck as saying that it is not intentions which matter but capabilities. British Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach’s statement about Russia’s anti-underwater cable capability can be seen as following the same logic.

Superficially, the assume the worst theory makes senses. After all, why not take measures for your safety? Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? But measures always impose costs, and if the measures aren’t required then it isn’t a good idea to waste resources on them. Moreover, it just isn’t true that threat is a matter solely of capability, divorced from all intention. If any country in the world has the capacity to cut underwater cables, then it’s the Americans. But Mr Peach doesn’t cite America as a threat to British communications. This is because he’s confident that the Americans won’t ever use that capability against the United Kingdom. Behind the ‘assume the worst’ logic is another assumption, one made about the people and things you seek to protect yourself against. You don’t assume the worst about everybody and everything. It would be absurd to do so.

In any case, successful human relations rely on a degree of trust, in other words on not assuming the worst about others. Also, successful human endeavour always requires a degree of risk. Were we to apply to the assume the worst theory to everything we did we would find it impossible to do anything. As one writer put it, if cavemen had assumed the worst about fire, they’d have banned it, and we’d still be living in very cold caves.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the theory is that in reality assuming the worst doesn’t necessarily help prevent it. Indeed it can have the opposite effect. It is precisely by assuming the worst that people ensure that the worst comes about.

This year we are still in the midst of commemorations of the 100th anniversay of the First World War, a war which begun precisely because two major political leaders – Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – followed the advice of their generals to assume the worst about the international situation.

As Christopher Clark has pointed out in his book The Sleepwalkers, European politicians were well aware prior to 1914 of the likely scenario which would produce a general European war. They knew that a war between Austria and Serbia could escalate into a war between Austria and Russia, and thus into a war between Germany and Russia and so also Germany and France. This scenario was quite commonly discussed, and it was the knowledge that this was how things could turn out which made sure that they did turn out that way.

When Austria issued an ultimatum against Serbia, Russian generals, being well acquainted with the scenario above, immediately began to assume the worst and to argue that the Russian state must take measures to defend itself in case the worst came about. As historian Bruce Menning has discovered, the Russian Army knew that in the event of war with Serbia, the Austrians would also secretly mobilize their forces along the border with Russia. Russia’s mobilization plans depended upon railways which ran close to the Austrian border. The generals, therefore argued that if Austria mobilized against Serbia, Russia must also mobilize against Austria, just in case. Russian ministers, meanwhile, were also aware of the potential war scenario. They therefore assumed that if Austria was preparing war against Serbia, it must also be preparing for the larger war which the scenario said would follow, and if that was the case, it must be because Germany was pushing Austria into war. The ministers assumed the worst about the way events would go and about German intentions. They therefore coaxed the Tsar into ordering a mobilization of the Russian army. At first this was to be just against Austria, but the generals insisted that – again, assuming the worst – it must also be against Germany.

At this point, the German generals told the Kaiser that while Russian mobilization didn’t necessarily mean Russia was going to attack, Germany couldn’t take that chance. Germany could only win a war against France and Russia if it struck first. If it let Russia mobilize without a response, then if the worst came to pass, Germany would be destroyed. It had to assume the worst and declare war.

Returning to the story about Britain, Russia, and the underwater cables, we can see how repeated stories about the potential Russian ‘threat’ push Western states into hostile rhetoric and actions, and so pretty much ensure that Russia does indeed end up being an enemy. One could say the same also about talk in Russia about the ‘Western threat’. Assuming the worst is often a very bad idea. Instead of thinking of what one should do if the worst comes about, it is better to think about how to prevent that happening in the first place, and that means ramping down the talk about threats, not ramping it up.

The latest ‘existential threat’

Following the revelation that ‘Russia-linked accounts’ (an extremely broad category) spent a massive £0.75 on Facebook advertisements related to the Brexit referendum in the UK, I was amused to read in the Globe and Mail this morning that ‘Privacy officials in Britain and British Columbia are investigating how a Canadian technology company may have helped sway last year’s Brexit vote.’ There I was thinking that ‘Putin dunnit’, and it turns out it was Canada! Who’d have thought it?

All the recent hype about Russian hacking, Russian ‘information warfare’, Russian internet trolls, and the like makes it sound as if the Russians pretty much dominate the internet. At the very least, if the vast number of Russia-related stories are to be believed, Russians are certainly using the internet to exercise outsized influence on world politics. Supposedly, by manipulating online news, sending out adverts on Twitter and Facebook, and generally trolling web users, they have managed, it is said, to get Donald Trump elected; swing British voters in favour of Brexit; persuade the Dutch to support a referendum aimed at blocking Ukrainian entry into the EU; sow chaos and enhance racial tensions in American society; and influence elections in Germany and France, among other things. The internet, apparently, has been thoroughly ‘weaponized’ by Russia to enormous effect.

What then are we to make of a declaration yesterday by the British Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, that Russia could ‘catastrophically’ damage the British economy by severing underwater communiations cables and so cutting Britain off from the internet? According to the BBC, Peach ‘said Nato had prioritised the protection of the cables “in response to the threat posed by the modernisation of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships”.’ The BBC then quotes Conservative MP Rishi Sunak as saying that an attack on the underwater cables would pose an ‘existential threat to our security.’

I have a simple question for the Air Chief Marshal and Mr Sunak – ‘why would Russia want to shut down the internet?’ If there was an all-out war between Britain and Russia, then obviously destroying Britain’s communications would make sense, but short of that amazingly unlikely scenario, what would be the point? The BBC cites former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Admiral James Stavridis as saying, ‘It is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world’s economy.’ Russia is part of the world economy too. In what way would breaking that economy’s ‘backbone’ help it?

And besides, haven’t we been told again and again in recent months just how successful the Russians have been in using modern digital communications to influence the rest of the world? If that’s all true, then why would Russia want to sabotage them? Surely the Russian government wants people in Britain to be able to access its trolls’ many messages?

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t rationally believe that Russia is using the internet with stunning success for nefarious purposes, and also believe that Russia might want to shut it down.

So what’s this all about? There’s a clue in the BBC article. It says that Peach declared that the UK needed to ‘match and understand Russian fleet modernisation,’ and then notes that, ‘Britain certainly doesn’t have enough ships, submarines and aircraft to mount a constant watch.’ And now it’s clear. This is a pitch for more money for the British military. Since the end of the Cold War, the military has struggled to find a purpose. For a while, it was to act as a ‘force for good’, changing the world for the better by bombing it. That hasn’t turned out so well in places such as Iraq, Afthanistan, and Libya. Humanitarian intervention, regime change, and the like are no longer very persuasive arguments for higher defence spending. So the military has gone back to exaggerating external dangers and hyping up the ‘existential threat’ posed by Russia. Frankly, it’s more than a little bit irresponsible.

What’s the objective, and how does this help achieve it?

Today the Canadian government announced that it had added Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which is a list of countries deemed to be permitted destinations for the export of firearms. This does not necessarily mean that Canadian companies will immediately start exporting weapons to Ukraine, but it does mean that they are now allowed to do so.

Ukraine, of course, is hardly short of firearms. It’s hard to see what difference a few from Canada will make. Nevertheless, one can see this as another victory for Canada’s Ukrainian lobby, coming just a day after the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence issued a report on Ukraine which included a recommendation to add Ukraine to this list. The report drew heavily on statements by Ukrainian officials, the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, and some other Canadian-Ukrainian activitists such as Taras Kuzio and Lubomyr Luciuk. The fact that the government acted on one of its recommendations within a day must be something of a record for speed.

There’s a lot wrong with the standing committee’s report, which you can read here. I won’t bother listing all its problems, but they include a poor understanding of the origins and nature of the war in Donbass, and an extremely one-sided perspective on all issues relating to Ukraine and Russia. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. What concerns me is the detachment of the policy recommendations from any clear objective, and the lack of evidence to support the recommendations.

When presenting any policy proposals, what one needs to do is first explain one’s objective, and second explain how the recommended policies will help one to achieve the objective. If the objective isn’t credible, and if the policies won’t help one achieve it, then the recommendations are worthless. In this case, the defence committee report recommends, among other things, that:

  • Canada expand its training and support of the Ukrainian army.
  • Increase its commitment to the OCSE monitoring mission in Donbass.
  • Advocate for a ‘peacekeeping mission in Ukraine that respects its territorial integrity’.
  • ‘Provide lethal weapons to Ukraine … provided that Ukraine demonstrate that it is actively working to eliminate corruption.’
  • Add Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List.
  • Encourage cooperation between Ukrainian and Canadian defence industries.
  • Assign members of the Canadian Armed Forces to Ukraine’s cyber-security operations.
  • Expand sanctions against Russia.

My question to the committee is this: ‘What is this all meant to achieve?’ The report doesn’t actually lay out any objectives, so we can’t tell whether these recommendations are relevant or how one could measure their success. This is a pretty serious failing.

About the only place where there is a hint of the committee’s idea of what it hopes for is a section entitled ‘Conflict Resolution and Prevention in Ukraine’. In that section, we are told that , ‘Canada and the international community are trying to find peaceful solutions to the conflict in Ukraine’ So, the committee wants to promote peace in Ukraine. But what does the committee think a peaceful solution would look like? That’s not clear, as the report doesn’t say. But it does cite Paul Grod as follows:

Mr. Grod noted that, as long as Russia is not prepared to ‘have a resolution and stop the ongoing conflict and military aggression,’ Minsk II will never be implemented. In his opinion, Minsk II is ‘stale-dated’ and the ‘simple way’ to ‘bring peace and stability’ to Ukraine is ‘to force Russia’s hand to remove their military, their equipment, and their financing of the separatists’ in the Donbas region; Russia must agree ‘to stop the war in Ukraine.’

In other words, the objective is the total surrender of rebel Donbass, and the chosen means of achieving this end is ‘to force Russia’s hand’ – i.e. coercion.

This is dumb. It’s dumb because it is totally unachievable. The rebels in Donbass aren’t just going to give up. The report says that the rebels have 35,000 men under arms. I have never heard of an undefeated army of that size simply deciding one day that they’ve had enough and will lay down their arms to their enemies and put themselves at their mercy. It won’t happen. The report seems to think that everything depends on Russia, and that if Russia can simply be coerced sufficiently it will abandon Donbass. It won’t. Russia won’t stop supporting the rebels without receiving something extremely tangible in return. Complete Ukrainian victory of the sort apparently favoured by the defence committee is a fantasy.

The report says that, ‘Witnesses told the Committee that Canada and the international community must stand together in trying to find a peaceful solution to the armed conflict in Ukraine.’ So, if a peaceful solution can’t take the form of the total surrender of Donbass, what could it take the form of? The only two alternatives are: a) a negotiated peace settlement, and b) a complete ceasefire, perhaps enforced by peacekeepers, dividing the sides and in effect freezing the conflict. Will the report’s recommendations help achieve either of those?

The answer is no. A negotiated settlement would have to take the form of something like Minsk II, but unconditional support of Ukraine of the sort proposed by the committee doesn’t provide any incentives to Kiev to change its current policy of refusing to enact the Minsk provisions. The report’s recommendations merely encourage Kiev to carry on its current course. The recommendations therefore undermine peace, not promote it.

As for the frozen conflict option, the Canadian recommendations are equally irrelevant. The report spends a lot of time talking about a potential peacekeeping operation. This is absurd. There is currently no peace to keep. In any event, the committee totally supports the Kiev government’s line on what a peacekeeping operation should consist of – forces deployed throughout the rebel republics, including on the border with Russia. Neither the rebels nor Russia will ever agree to this. It’s pointless proposing it. Insisting on this formula serves only to rule out the possibility of an alternative which could actually stop the killing – a peacekeeping force along the front lines. By rejecting this latter formula, the Canadian committee is once again working against peace, not in favour of it.

What we see here, therefore, is a stubborn refusal to choose achievable objectives combined with recommendations which are in any case detached from any objective, and without the provision of any evidence that the recommendations can help produce successful results. The committee, for instance, favours increased sanctions versus Russia without providing any data which shows that sanctions have in any way altered Russian behaviour in a desired way, justifying the decision solely on the basis of unbacked assertions by certain interested parties. This is not ‘evidence-based policy.’

There was a time when Canada was seen as a peacekeeper and an ‘honest broker’ in international relations. Alas, those days are in the past.

Dolphin hunting in Lugansk

The ‘investigative journalism’ website Bellingcat has caused another stir this week by claiming to have identified a Russian general who operated in the rebel Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) in Ukraine in summer 2014. Several radio intercepts from the period involve a Russian operating under the codename ‘Dolphin’ (‘Delfin’ in Russian). By comparing the intercepts with a recorded telephone conversation, Bellingcat has come to the conclusion that Dolphin is a Russian general, Nikolai Tkachev, who officially retired from the Russian Army in 2010 but who has since held a number of military-related positions, including being an advisor to the Syrian army and for the past few years heading a military school in Yekaterinburg.

Because the Dutch commission investigating the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 has expressed interest in Dolphin’s identity, the Bellingcat report is being widely touted as further evidence of direct Russian involvement in the MH-17 affair. Indeed, Bellingcat titles its report “Russian Colonel General Identified as Key MH-17 Figure.”

I’m not qualified to comment on Bellingcat’s methodology, and so won’t express an opinion on whether Tkachev really is Dolphin, but I have a few things to say about other aspects of the affair:

1) The fact that there was a retired Russian general codenamed Dolphin helping rebels in Lugansk in 2014 is hardly news. It has been known for some time.

2) More broadly, the fact that there were individual Russian servicemen, and ex-servicemen, helping out the rebellion as so-called ‘vacationers’ is also hardly news. It’s necessary here to draw a distinction between individual vacationers and entire Russian military units. While we don’t have evidence for the latter in Donbass until August 2014, the presence of the former is not seriously disputed. Whether Dolphin was Tkachev or somebody else isn’t a matter of great importance in terms of our general understanding of what happened in Ukraine in summer 2014.

3) There is nothing in the radio intercepts linking Dolphin to MH-17. The MH-17 headlines are a red-herring. Bellingcat’s revelations, even if true, don’t add anything to our knowledge of Russian involvement, or non-involvement, in the MH-17 affair.

That leaves the question of what Dolphin was doing in Lugansk, and this is what I think is truly revealing. To answer this question, Bellingcat relies heavily on the reporting of Russian blogger Colonel Cassad. I don’t have a problem with that – in summer 2014, I found Cassad extremely well informed about events in the rebel republics, and he had a knack of getting things right when others were well off the mark. Despite his open pro-rebel sympathies, he developed a well-earned reputation for reliability. The fact that even Bellingcat trusts him is telling.

Via Colonel Cassad, Bellingcat quotes one-time rebel leader Igor Strelkov as saying: ‘Delfin’ and ‘Elbrus’ [another ‘vacationer] were involved in the coordination of separatist units in the LNR and partly in the DNR.’ Bellingcat then says,

In a 3 January 2015 blog post, Colonel Cassad described the chaotic situation in the LNR during summer 2014, describing Delfin as a figure sent by Moscow to bring order to the situation in Luhansk: ‘The shooting and murders in the LNR are an entirely logical reflection of the more anarchic nature of the local republic (in comparison with the DNR), where in the summer there were more than twenty different military formation in Luhansk that were not subordinate to anyone. Neither Bolotov [note: now-deceased leader of the LNR from May to August 2014] nor those who were sent from Moscow (this was in fact the reason why ‘Elbrus’ and ‘Delfin’ failed) were able to handle this.’

Let’s break this down. The situation in the LNR in summer 2014 was ‘anarchic’. There were a large number of rebel militias which ‘were not subordinate to anyone’. A Russian general arrived to try to bring some order to the chaos and ‘failed’. Moreover, he failed precisely because he was sent from Moscow (and so, one must assume, was seen as an outsider and lacked authority).

In other words – and this is the crucial point – what all this proves is that Moscow was quite definitely not in control of the rebellion in Lugansk in summer 2014. In fact, it’s obvious that nobody was. Instead, there were a plethora of locally-raised militia who did their own thing regardless of what Moscow wanted.

As I’ve said before, this matters, because if you can’t understand the origins of the conflict correctly, then you have no chance of finding a solution. The narrative which clearly emerges from the Bellingcat report (rather against Bellingcat’s desire, I suspect) fatally undermines the concept that the war in Donbass is entirely the product of ‘Russian aggression’.

Unfortunately, some in Ukraine are now doing their best to suppress this truth. A bill is now being considered by the Ukrainian parliament which would make it a criminal offence to deny ‘Russian aggression’. Rada Deputy Anton Gerashchenko, who is pushing the bill, has made it clear that he sees it as a way of silencing those who would call the war in Donbass ‘a civil war’.  We must hope that the bill never becomes law. If it does, it will become impossible for Ukrainians to address the truth of what has happened to their country.