Book review: The road to unfreedom

Timothy Snyder doesn’t like Donald Trump. Really, really doesn’t like him. He fears that under Trump, American (and also European) democracy may collapse into some sort of nasty fascist tyranny. And he wants us all to know who is to blame for this terrible state of affairs, so that we can defend ourselves against it while there is still time. And who is to blame? You know the answer, of course. It’s Russia.

Snyder explains all this in his new book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. You will have to excuse me. This is going to be a very long review. Snyder is quite a high profile intellectual in the United States. He’s doing a tour of the country, selling this book, and giving talks and media interviews. I doubt that many Trump supporters will read his book, but a fair number of middle class, liberal intellectuals will, and no doubt many of them will suck it all up, not realizing that they’re being conned. For that reason, The Road to Unfreedom requires a detailed response. Unfortunately, there’s so much wrong with it that I can’t adequately deal with it in just a few lines. So, it’s going to take a little time. Please bear with me.

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Continue reading Book review: The road to unfreedom

‘Foreign’ Minister

Chrystia Freeland gives a new meaning to the title ‘Foreign Minister’. Normally, it means the person in charge of a state’s dealings with foreign countries. In Canada’s case, however, it sometimes seems to mean something rather different – namely, the minister who represents the interests of a foreign country. For on occasion Ms Freeland appears to be less the foreign minister of Canada and more the foreign minister of Ukraine.

This week, Canada is hosting a meeting of foreign ministers of the G7. But on this occasion, Freeland has made it into something of a G8 by inviting along her Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin. As The Globe and Mail reports:

Russia is using Ukraine as a test ground for its information war against Western democracy, Ukraine’s foreign minister told G7 ministers meeting here on Sunday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chystia Freeland wants the disruptive influence of Russia on the West to be a top agenda item, and she set the table – literally – for Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin to deliver that message to her G7 counterparts.

Freeland invited Klimkin to be part of Sunday’s talks, hosting him and other ministers at her home for a traditional brunch that was prepared by her own children.

“It was amazing how she organized it, in the sense of creating this friendly atmosphere of hospitality with ministers sitting around the table with her kids what they had personally prepared,” Klimkin told The Canadian Press in an interview Sunday afternoon.

Their conversation was decidedly less festive, with Klimkin pressing the G7 to make a strong, unified stand against what he described as Kremlin efforts to destabilize democracy through election interference and other cyber-meddling.

He called this part of a bigger war “against the democratic transatlantic community.” Supporting Ukraine, he said, should be seen “as a part of a bigger pattern.

“Fighting along with Ukraine would give an immense asset to the whole democratic community in the sense of understanding Russian efforts to destabilize the western world.”

Freeland views the clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time, and she has singled out Russian President Vladimir Putin as a major disrupter.

The G7 consists of Canada, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. These countries have some serious issues to deal with: trade relations (particularly due to the renegotiation of NAFTA, Brexit, and the recent round of protectionist measures taken by the USA and China against each other); climate change and environmental issues more generally; terrorism and international security, including the wars in Syria and Iraq; and so on. Yet Ms Freeland, in setting the G7’s agenda, has put Ukraine at the top of the list.

To say the least, it’s a rather odd choice. The future of Ukraine is hardly a vital Canadian national interest; not only is it far, far away, but bilateral trade between the two countries is a pathetic $260 million a year. The decision to promote the topic can only reflect Ms Freeland’s own personal connections to Ukraine and her consequent desire to get the G7 to take action against Russia. This becomes clear in the phrases above which say that, ‘Freeland wants the disruptive influence of Russia on the West to be a top agenda item … Freeland views the clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time, and she has singled out Russian President Vladimir Putin as a major disrupter.’

G7 members take turns chairing and hosting the meetings, so a country only gets to set the agenda once every seven times. You’d have thought that you’d use this rare opportunity to turn conversation to matters which are really vital national interests. Instead, Canada has chosen to use it to focus on Ukraine and on whipping up anti-Russian sentiment. It is extremely hard to see how this serves the Canadian national interest.

The only explanations I can come up with is that either Freeland is blinded to Canadian national interests due to her Western Ukrainian nationalist sentiments, or she really believes all that guff about Ukraine being in the front line of a Russian-led assault designed to transplant democracy with authoritarianism, and so actually does imagine that Canadian democracy is in peril because of the malign influence of Russia. If it’s the former, she subordinating Canadian interests to those of a particular foreign government. If it’s the latter, she is, in my opinion, quite deluded.

Take, for instance, the war in Syria. This does not fit Freeland’s idea of a ‘clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time’. On the one side in Syria, there is the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. One can argue about this, but just for the simplicity’s sake, let’s take it as given that this side doesn’t consist of bastions of liberal democracy. But who’s on the other side? The USA, Britain, and France, plus a whole bunch of jihadists of various unpleasant sorts, plus the increasingly ‘authoritarian’ Turkey, plus the decidedly undemocratic Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So, how is this a war of ‘democracy’ versus ‘authoritarianism’. It clearly isn’t, as the democracies are acting in alliance with quite definitely non-democratic actors.

Then, there’s the war in Yemen: Iran supposedly backing the Houthi rebels, and Britain and the USA backing Saudi Arabia. Again, given that the democracies are working hand in hand with the Saudis, how can this be described as democracy versus authoritarianism?

One could go on and on. The authoritarianism/democracy dichotomy is not a good model for describing international relations. And it isn’t a good model for describing what’s happening in Ukraine either. The toppling of Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 was certainly not a democratic process, and the post-Maidan government has not exactly been a paradigm of liberal democratic government. In today’s Kyiv Post, I see the headline ‘US State Department calls for anti-graft court, slams human rights violations in Ukraine.’ Meanwhile, another of today’s Ukraine-related headlines reads: ‘Ukrainian neo-Nazi C14 vigilantes drive out Roma families, burn their homes.’ The article which follows reveals that this wasn’t a ‘vigilante’ attack after all: the neo-Nazis responsible were members of the National Guard working in cooperation with the local administration.

Somehow, I doubt that we’ll ever see Chrystia Freeland condemning any of this. Canada’s foreign foreign minister would have us believe that Ukraine is the frontline of a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Forgive me, but I’m not buying what she’s selling.

Well, duh!

There are times when you read something so obvious that all you can say in response is ‘Well, duh!’ The sad thing, however, is that the blindingly obvious often isn’t so blindingly obvious to those who dispense our hard earned tax dollars. We need somebody to gather the evidence and prove the point so that people can’t ignore what they really ought to know anyway. So, thank goodness for John Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), whose reports I have often featured on this blog. SIGAR’s latest report, entitled ‘Private Sector Development and Economic Growth: Lessons from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan’,  is now out, and below are some of the highlights:

— U.S. financial aid practices, at times, encouraged corruption, complicated the challenges of coordination within and between U.S. agencies, and kept non-viable Afghan enterprises afloat.

— The U.S. government and stakeholders failed to understand the relationships between corrupt strongmen and powerholders, and the speed at which Afghanistan could transition to a Western-style market economy.

— Senior technical experts often lack expertise in Afghanistan or even in post-conflict or developing economies, and were unable to provide effective guidance and support.

— The simple existence of laws and regulations is insufficient; it is how they are implemented by courts, government officials, and police that matters. Many laws introduced to promote economic activity were not accompanied by plans to build or modify the institutions needed to apply them, and Afghanistan’s weak judicial system left even the best-crafted laws vulnerable to manipulation.

— The U.S. government’s provision of direct financial support to enterprises sometimes created dependent, commercially nonviable entities, as well as disincentives for businesses to use local financial and technical services.

— Assistance provided to Afghan institutions and firms relied mainly on Western technocratic models that often failed to consider how powerful Afghan social groups and institutions influenced public policy and the functioning of markets.

— Due to a lack of understanding and uneven enforcement of market principles, the market economy was conflated with unfair competition, monopolization of markets by politically well-connected firms, unfair trade practices by regional neighbors, and administrative corruption.

— Rapid opening up to trade allowed Afghan consumers access to cheaper imported goods, but the opening of the country’s borders before Afghan goods were competitive with imports hurt domestic producers.

— Fear of government regulatory and tax-collecting institutions reinforced Afghan firms’ historical inclination to stay informal and small rather than risk expanding, hampering both government revenues and private investment.

Well, duh!  What amazes me is that anybody thought it might turn out any differently. Stripped down to its essence, the lessons here are:

  • Massive foreign aid produces corruption in the recipient country.
  • Aid encourages inefficient economic practices.
  • Formal institutions, such as laws, depend upon informal institutions, such as local customs and social structures.
  • Informal institutions in foreign countries like Afghanistan aren’t the same as in the West
  • Foreign advisors don’t understand these specificities.
  • Consequently, trying to turn those countries into copies of the West by slapping down Western institutions there and flooding them with Western advisors and money doesn’t work.

Well, duh!

None of this is particularly novel. SIGAR is to be thanked for drawing it once again to our attention. Sadly, I don’t get the impression that anybody in power is listening.

Garbage in, garbage out

Every now and again the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) holds a seminar to which it invites outside ‘experts’. It then publishes a report on what was said, minus any names so you don’t know who was involved. I never get invited to these (I’m either insufficiently expert or prone to saying the wrong things), but I do get sent the reports. The latest volume arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and I have finally gotten around to reading it. Its title is ‘Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation’, and it summarizes the results of a seminar held in Ottawa last November.

Those of you who have been following discussions of this subject over the past few years will probably need to read no further than the title. You’ll already know what’s in the report: Western democracy is under threat from ‘Russian disinformation’, as the Russian Federation uses RT, internet trolls, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to subvert our populations’ faith in their own media and governments and to support Russia’s nefarious international policies. ‘Who Said What?’ does spend a little bit of time talking about other countries, specifically China and the Philippines, but the majority of the report is clearly focused on Russia since, as the Executive Summary claims, ‘The most skilled national purveyor of falsehoods is Russia.’ According to the report, Russia:

directs an extensive network of Internet trolls and bot networks which generate and spread material across the web. Their activities are intensified by the support of diplomats, state-controlled media outlets such as RT and Sputnik … Working together, these agents of the Russian state can create a false story and ensure it reaches the segment population most likely to be influenced by it through Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. They also appear to corroborate the story through news agency interviews featuring phoney experts, forged documents, and doctored photos and videos. … Russia stands out for its highly organised strategy of using disinformation to interfere with the political systems of other countries. … Operations against Western populations aim to weaken resistance to Russian state objectives. In supporting Syria, Russia has used disinformation to cover the brutality of its attacks on civilian populations. … Russian disinformation machinery is explicitly weaponised as a resource for future wars, weakening a target country’s sense of danger and diminishing the will to resist.

This is all fairly boilerplate stuff which has been said many times. What marks this report out, though, is some of the more extreme statements which accompany it, which give an indication of the type of experts CSIS has seen fit to invite. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

No good interest is served by representing the Kremlin’s activities as Russia versus the West. In fact, the Kremlin’s main adversary has always been, and still is, Russia itself. Virtually every type of action it has undertaken against the West was first implemented in Russia, against the Russian people, and against Russia’s many ethnic, national, and religious minorities.

Hmm. I’d be interested to see the evidence backing this claim, particularly the idea that the Kremlin views Russia’s minorities as ‘adversaries’. Certainly, one doesn’t get the impression that this particular ‘expert’ is a neutral academic researcher. The same could be said of the author of the next set of comments who remarks first that ‘Russia’s current disinformation campaign against the West is more dangerous and sophisticated than ever before’, and second that ‘Every Russian citizen … is now part of a centralized vertical responsible for the state’s information security.’ The second statement is a particularly bold claim, conjuring up a picture of Russia as a totalitarian state in which every citizen is participating as a robotic arm of the Kremlin’s information machine, a quite bizarre image for which no evidence is produced.

Other extreme claims include one that, ‘Coupled with breath-taking militarism … Russia’s measures in the domain of information security have transformed Kaliningrad into a laboratory for testing future warfare’. Another states that it is a ‘myth’ that Russia is fighting terrorism (including ISIS) in Syria, and also says that Russia’s military campaign in Syria was carried out with ‘great brutality and immense suffering. Far from shortening the war, it exacerbated it’. The report then goes on to say that ‘the verified proof … suggests that the Assad government and its allies, including Russia, did indeed have a policy of targeting Syria’s hospitals’. And so on.

Of course, one may wonder how it can be that ‘the verified proof … suggests’. Proof proves. It doesn’t ‘suggest’. And one may wonder also who is doing the disinformation here. Is it the Russians, or is it CSIS’s experts?

At the end of the chapter about Russia and Syria, the report says that ‘What is required is an approach that empowers individuals not only to discover information about Putin’s war in Syria, but also to verify the information themselves.’ I’m all for allowing people to verify information. But that requires them to have access to a large variety of different sources, including those which challenge one another. Yet in a later chapter about Ukraine, somebody who is clearly a member of the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake relates with some satisfaction that, ‘An important step in disconnecting Ukrainians from Russia’s propaganda pipeline was the removal from air of 75 Russian TV channels’ as well as ‘a decree blocking Russian social networks from operating in Ukraine.’ It appears that allowing people ‘to verify the information themselves’ does not include allowing them to verify the claims of those who are hostile to Russia; in fact people must be prevented from doing so.

Interestingly, the only attempt to define disinformation in this report is a sentence which says, ‘Disinformation … is aggressive marketing of information in support of political objectives.’ This is a very odd definition. ‘Marketing of information in support of political objectives’ is what all politicians and political actors do all the time. By this definition, all politics, all diplomacy, everything, is disinformation. It doesn’t even matter if what the Russians are saying is true. They are marketing information for political purposes, and that cannot be tolerated.

The reason it can’t be tolerated is because the West is good and Russia is bad. This is an objective truth which cannot be contested. The report notes that, ‘Certain truths need to be inculcated in each generation, first among them that there is such a thing as truth – that there is an objective reality that cannot be wished away.’ I agree that there is an objective reality. The Syrian Arab Army dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine on Douma. Or it didn’t. Both statements can’t be true. But it’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. We don’t know the truth until we observe it. And in a lot of cases, especially those concerning international politics, we don’t ever get to observe it, or at least any more than a small part of it, and we have to draw conclusions based on limited, often unreliable, information. And then, we have to decide which information is important, and which isn’t, and decide how to fit it all together into a coherent narrative. At that point biases inevitably come into play and ‘truth’ starts becoming a lot more subjective. In such circumstances, what’s dangerous is not a multiplicity of competing narratives, but rather people who set themselves up as holders of the absolute truth and seek to control information in order to stop others getting hold of ‘untruth’. That is the path to totalitarianism.

Alas, there’s more than a whiff of that in this report. About the only restrained element in the document is a chapter on Brexit which concludes that, ‘Analyses of the Brexit botnet did not find strong evidence of widespread “fake news” dispersion.’ Otherwise, the experts consulted by CSIS adopt extreme positions and are so certain of the truth of their own narratives, despite (or perhaps because of) their extreme nature, that they are intolerant of alternatives.

For sure, there’s an awful lot of garbage on the internet, as well as on television, and in our newspapers. But I’m not inclined to trust those who would appoint themselves guardians of what I should and should not read, especially since my own research indicates to me that a lot of what they say is garbage too.

Playing at war

So, the Americans, British, and French have done their bit, and fired off 100 or so missiles at Syria. After all the fears expressed by pundits that this could be the start of World War III, it’s turned out to be a bit of a nothing-burger. That’s not to downplay the symbolic significance of the Western states’ assault on Syria, in which they acted as judge, juror, and executioner while the investigation into the alleged misdemeanour was still ongoing and chemical weapons inspectors were on their way to the site of the supposed incident. But, if early reports are to be believed, nobody was killed in the attack and the physical damage is fairly minimal. The Brits fired a mere 8 missiles; the French only 12. Those are hardly significant numbers. Given that the Brits and Americans have been meddling in the war in Syria for several years now, arming and training various groups, and bombing targets on their behalf (including occasionally bombing the Syrian Arab Army), this doesn’t really constitute much by way of escalation. Tomorrow, the Syrians will brush off the dust, and things will go back to the way they were. Russia (along with Iran) will continue to back the Syrian government, and the latter’s forces will continue to advance and regain more and more territory. It is most unlikely that this assault will have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the struggle in Syria.

What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’

This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would  have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.

Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process

These endless wars allow politicians to claim that they are being ‘strong’, or more precisely fend off complaints that they are ‘weak’. But they don’t make Britain, America, or France any safer, while those at the receiving end of Western militarism suffer greatly because of it. As far as Syria and Russia are concerned, I suspect that the net result of the latest assault will be to reinforce Russian perceptions that the West is hell-bent on a policy of military and political aggression in which Syria is the front line. They will conclude that Russia must see the war in Syria through to a successful conclusion, and also that the Western states, despite all their bluster, don’t possess the will to stop it. One can therefore expect Russia to press on, and because it has the superior will, it will most likely succeed.

Unprecedented destruction

In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:

The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.

It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a

level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.

That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:

With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.

I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo.  Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria.  ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.

Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.

Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.

In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.

Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.

So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?

The loneliness of the half-breed

Vladislav Surkov, long considered an important ideological figure within the ‘Putin regime’, has previously been described as a ‘relative Westernizer’ among Vladimir Putin’s advisors. But even he is apparently now fed up with the West. In an article published yesterday in Russia in Global Affairs, Surkov declares that Russia is neither of the West nor of the East. Instead it stands alone.

The events of 2014 (the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine) marked a turning point, Surkov argues,

the completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilization, to join the “good family” of European peoples. From 2014 onwards, a new long era, the epoch of 14+, stretches into a future in which we will experience a hundred (two  hundred? three hundred?) years of geopolitical loneliness.

Surkov states that for the past 400 years, the Russian elite have tried to Westernize their country, following whatever trend seemed to be most in fashion in the rest of Europe, be it socialism a hundred years ago or the ideology of the free market in the 1990s. None of this has led the West to accept Russia as one of its own. The problem, says Surkov, is that

Despite the external similarities of the Russian and European cultural models, their softwares are incompatible and their connectors dissimilar. You can’t make a common system out of them.

That does not mean that Russia should turn east, Surkov says. Russia has done that in the past, during the era of the Mongol ‘yoke’. That left its mark on Russia, but in the end Russia moved on. Thus, Surkov writes:

Russia moved East for 400 years, and then moved West for another 400. Neither the one nor the other took root. We have gone down both paths. Now we need the ideology of a third path, a third type of civilization, a third world, a third Rome … And yet, we can hardly be called a third civilization. Rather, we are dual one, a mixture of both East and West. Both European and Asian at the same time, and thus neither completely Asian or European. Our cultural and geopolitical identity resembles that of somebody born of a mixed marriage. He’s a relative everywhere, but nowhere is he a native. He’s one of his own among strangers, but a stranger among his own. … Russia is a western-eastern half-breed country.

It’s time to recognize this reality, Surkov argues. This doesn’t mean total isolation. Russia will continue to trade, to exchange scientific knowledge, to participate in multilateral organizations, and the like. But it should do so ‘without denying its own self.’

Surkov’s article will no doubt get a negative reception among Western commentators, and be spun to argue that Russia is bent on confrontation with the West. After all, if you’re not with us, you must be against us. But it’s worth noting that Surkov at no point condemns the West nor argues that Russia should be trying to undermine Western hegemony. He simply argues that Russia and the West are doomed to go their separate ways. This is far removed from the ambitious Eurasianist designs of the likes of Alexander Dugin, who argue that Russia should lead a grand international coalition to overturn the existing international order. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that Surkov avoids using the term ‘Eurasia’ to describe Russia and also directly denies that Russia is a ‘third civilization’, thus failing to endorse a key Eurasianist concept.

Rather than Eurasianism, with its often expansionist, anti-Western ambitions, Surkov’s view of Russia’s place in the world seems closer to that of the late Vadim Tsymbursky and his idea of ‘Island Russia’ into which Russia should retreat. That is keeping with the editorial line of Russia in Global Affairs, which in recent times has published a number of Tsymbursky-inspired pieces, such as articles by Boris Mezhuev on the idea of ‘civilizational realism’ and an essay by Nikolai Spassky, entitled ‘Island of Russia’.  These bear witness to a growing isolationist trend in Russian geopolitical thought. ‘Isolationist’ isn’t actually a very good word, because as Surkov points out, separation from the West doesn’t mean that Russia won’t still be connected with the wider world. Perhaps the word he chooses to use – ‘loneliness’ (odinochestvo) – might be better. But whatever word one uses, the point is the same. If Surkov’s article, and others in Russia in Global Affairs, are anything to go by, Russia’s elite aren’t looking for a conflict with the West, but are increasingly convinced that partnership is impossible and that Russia will have to learn to live on its own. People in the West should not find that threatening, but personally I do find it more than a little bit regrettable.