Book of the year prize 2018

Barring the publication of something quite remarkable in the next couple of months, I can now announce the winner of the 2018 prize for ‘best book about Russia I’ve read this year’ – Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence and Politicisation by Ofer Fridman, a research fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Actually, the title Russian Hybrid Warfare is a bit misleading, as the book is not exclusively about Russia. Rather it’s about hybrid warfare in general, and more specifically about how it has been conceptualized and politicized in both Russia and the West. Readers will come away with a good understanding of how the term ‘hybrid war’ came into being, what people mean by it, and how it has been used, or more correctly misused, by various actors to serve their own political and bureaucratic interests. Russian Hybrid Warfare is succinct, solidly researched, clearly written and jargon-free, devoid of obvious political biases (a rarity in discussions of Russia these days), challenges clichés, and brings nuance and understanding to a field of study too often characterized by black and white simplicities. The one weakness of the book is that it is a little repetitious; Fridman enjoys saying the same thing more than once; he likes to tell us what he’s already told us; he says things over and over. But apart from that, I found nothing to fault. I realize that strategic theory isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but given how hybrid warfare has become part and parcel of public discourse in the past few years, everyone with an interest in international security should give this book a read.

fridman

Continue reading Book of the year prize 2018

Book Review: Creating Russophobia

Russophobia – literally, fear of Russia, but more commonly understood as dislike or hatred of Russia – is not a new phenomenon. Academics have written a number of books about how citizens of various Western countries have viewed Russia over the centuries – Marshall Poe on early modern European perceptions of Russia, James Casteel on Russia in the imagination of Germans, David Fogelsong on Americans’ missionary attitude towards Russia, and so on. But until now the general phenomenon of Russophobia has never been comprehensively analyzed. This gap in the literature, as we academics like to say, has now been filled by Swiss journalist Guy Mettan, with his 2017 book Creating Russophobia: From the Great Religious Schism to Anti-Putin Hysteria. Or at least, partially filled, for while Mettan’s work contains much which is perceptive, it also suffers from certain biases which, I think, will make it more of a starting point for future studies of Russophobia than the definitive, final word on the subject.

A former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tribune de Genève, Mettan is an intelligent and well-informed observer who deserves to be taken seriously. He’s also very much a Russophile, as shown by the fact that he was granted Russian citizenship in the mid-1990s by the administration of President Boris Yeltsin. He complains of ‘widespread prejudices, cartloads of clichés and systematic anti-Russian biases of most western media,’ and states that the purpose of his book is ‘convincing readers that there is no need to hate Russia.’ While Creating Russophobia is founded on detailed research into centuries’ worth of Western writings on Russia, it is not, therefore, a neutral academic book, but one with a definite political purpose.

mettan

Continue reading Book Review: Creating Russophobia

Damn the torpedoes!

British democracy is in peril. Russian Twitter bots, Facebook advertisements, and ‘fake news’ on RT have contributed to Brexit, boosted opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, and undermined Britons’ faith in their system of government. If you don’t believe me, here are just a few headlines which have appeared in the British media in the past couple of years:

  •  ‘Clear evidence Russia interfered in 2015 UK election, says former Labour minister,’ The Independent, 21 February 2017.
  • ‘Here’s the first evidence Russia used Twitter to influence Brexit,’ Wired.co.uk, 10 November 2017.
  • ‘Theresa May accuses Vladimir Putin of election meddling,’ BBC, 14 November 2017.
  • ‘Russian bid to influence Brexit vote detailed in new US Senate report,’ The Guardian, 10 January 2018.
  • ‘Exposed: Russian Twitter bots tried to swing general election for Jeremy Corbyn,’ Sunday Times, 29 April 2018.
  • ‘Why isn’t there greater outrage about Russia’s involvement in Brexit?’ The Guardian, 17 June 2018.
  • ‘Russia is waging a blatant disinformation war using Kremlin-funded RT,’ Daily Mail, 18 September 2018.
  • ‘Russian interference goes beyond spying to the very heart of Britain’ The Guardian, 7 October 2018.

As regular readers of this blog will recall, the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee decided to investigate these matters. In an interim report issued in July, it declared that:

We are faced with a crisis concerning the use of data, the manipulation of our data, and the targeting of pernicious views. In particular, we heard evidence of Russian state-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK through social media. … In this rapidly changing digital world, our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose. … Our democracy is at risk.

The British government has now given its official response to this report, which you can read here. In this, the government says:

As noted by the Committee, the Prime Minister stated that Russia is seeking to weaponise information, … We want to reiterate, however, that the Government has not seen evidence of successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia.

The government is not saying that the Russian state has not tried to influence people in Britain. But it is saying that it has no evidence to suggest that any efforts to do so have been successful. In other words, it’s telling the committee that its claims about Russian electoral interference amount to a big fuss about nothing. Our democracy is not at risk, after all. Still, the government declares that it ‘has committed over £100m over five years to tackling the threat of Russian State disinformation internationally.’ Clearly it wants to cover its backside by not appearing complacent, but one has to wonder why it thinks that if Russian propaganda is so unsuccessful, British propaganda (for that is what in effect is being discussed) is either needed or is likely to have any effect.

The Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Damian Collins, was not happy with the government’s response. He declared:

The government’s response to our interim report on disinformation and ‘fake news’ is disappointing and a missed opportunity. It uses other ongoing investigations to further delay desperately needed announcements on the ongoing issues of harmful and misleading content being spread through social media. We need to see a more coordinated approach across government to combat campaigns of disinformation being organised by Russian agencies seeking to disrupt and undermine our democracy.

In other news, I note that the British police declared this month that they ‘will not investigate allegations of Russian state interference in the 2016 EU referendum.’ The police commented that, ‘International bodies and states cannot commit criminal offences’ under electoral legislation, and that ‘truthfulness during the campaign “is not a criminal offence per se and therefore not a police matter”.’ Clearly, the British police have better things to do than waste their time chasing chimeras. Mr Collins and his committee, by contrast, seem to be determined to press on regardless. To misquote Admiral Farragut, ‘Damn the evidence, full speed ahead!’

Book Review: Pillars of the Profession

Historians Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff were born within a few days of each other in 1923, Pipes in Poland, and Raeff in the Soviet Union. After they left the lands of their birth (Pipes in 1939, and Raeff, aged only 3, in 1926), they found their way to America, where in due course they enrolled as PhD students together at Harvard University. Subsequently, Pipes wrote 20 books and 85 scholarly articles and book chapters; Raeff 7 books and 86 scholarly articles and book chapters. The University of Illinois’s Jonathan Daly remarks that they ‘must be counted among the most prolific scholars in the English language ever to focus on Russian history.’ For 58 years, from 1950 to Raeff’s death in 2008, they were also regular correspondents (minus a 14 year hiatus from 1959 to 1973 following what appears to have been a serious personal rift). Now, Jonathan Daly has collected and edited the Pipes-Raeff letters in a volume entitled Pillars of the Profession: The Correspondence of Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff, which is to be published by Brill next month. Given that I was rather a fan of Pipes in my youth (especially his two volumes on the Russian revolution), and that Raeff’s book Russia Abroad is one of the key works in the history of the Russian emigration, which was also the topic of my doctoral thesis, I snapped up the opportunity to get a copy of Daly’s book. I’m glad I did.

pillars
Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff together at a conference in Italy in the 1950s – third row from the front.

Continue reading Book Review: Pillars of the Profession

Some other Russian isms

In the comments section of my last post, I was asked what other Russian ideologies might be, and how they contrast with conservatism. So here’s a brief stab at an answer:

  1. Westernism/liberalism.

From the time that the Slavophiles split with the ‘Westernizers’ in the 1840s, there has been a sharp divide between those who think that Russia is distinct from the West and should follow its own separate path of development, and those who believe that Russia should integrate itself more fully with the West so as ultimately to merge with it. It is worth noting, however, that the term ‘West’ is rather ill-defined. There isn’t, and never has been, a single model of economic, social, and political development which one call definitively ‘Western’. Russian ‘Westernizers’ haven’t so much wanted Russia to copy ‘the West’ as wanted Russia to copy one particular version of the West, namely whatever version has been considered the most ‘progressive’ at the time. In the mid-nineteenth century, this meant liberalism; later, it meant socialism; nowadays, it means liberalism again, or perhaps even neo-liberalism. In geopolitical terms, this today means accepting US hegemony. In domestic political terms, it means supporting liberal democracy (though just what that means is not often well explained). In philosophical/moral terms, it means advocating the most ‘progressive’ interpretations of human rights. And in economic terms it means free trade, free market economics, and deepening the process of globalization by furthering Russia’s integration into the global economy.

  1. Statism/Realism.

Statists believe that a strong state is a prerequisite for a stable, powerful, and prosperous Russia. Statism is not incompatible with Westernism/liberalism, and many (though far from all) Statists would in principle agree with Western liberal ideas such as democracy, free markets, and the like. But whereas the Westernizers/liberals give their ideological commitments top priority, the Statists put the interests of the state first and are therefore willing to sacrifice so-called ‘Western values’ if state interests demand it. Statists thus reject the Westernizers’ universalism, and are pragmatists rather than ideologues. In terms of foreign policy this makes them Realists – i.e. they determine policy according to material interests not abstract values. On the whole, Statists/Realists consider Russia to be a European country, historically, culturally, and politically. They dismiss the idea that Russia is a distinct civilization. Instead, they recognize that Russia’s primary interests lie in having good ties with Europe. But that does not mean that they believe that Russia should subordinate itself to other European states. Rather, the Statists’/Realists’ objective is for Russia to be recognized as an equal in a European concert of powers, thereby enabling it to live in peace with its neighbours while enjoying international respect and an ability to promote and protect its interests. In the late Soviet era, this idea took the form of Mikhail Gorbachev’s proposal for a Europe stretching ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’. While many Statists/ Realists are coming round to the belief that such a Europe is not in practice possible, it remains the ideal which I think most of them would like to see.

  1. Cosmism.

In the struggle for the title ‘most eccentric Russian philosopher’, there is no shortage of competition, but in my view the certain winner is the founder of Cosmism, Nikolai Fyodorov, an impoverished late-Imperial librarian who gave away all his money, lived off tea and bread, and slept on a wooden chest. Fyodorov proposed that the ‘common task’ of mankind was to physically resurrect the dead – all of them, every last man or woman who had ever lived – a task which would require the development of advanced technology to colonize the stars while searching for the cosmic dust into which our ancestors had dissolved. Despite his extreme eccentricity, Fyodorov had a surprising influence on great Russian thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Vladimir Vernadskii, and has enjoyed something of a revival in post-Soviet Russia. Modern cosmists don’t believe in scouring space for the cosmic dust of our ancestors (though some are into ideas such transhumanism), but they share the belief that mankind has a ‘common task’. Cosmism thus lends itself to a certain form of cosmopolitanism. Technology is assigned an important role as the tool which will enable mankind to turn swords into ploughshares and to unite in a peaceful, common future. Cosmism fits well with Soviet concepts of internationalism as well as with memories of the ‘great leaps forward’ in Soviet technology, and thus with views that Russia must once again become the centre of technological progress and through that lead humanity forward to a radiant future.

Of all these –isms, Statism/Realism is the one which, in my opinion, most accurately describes that pursued by Russia’s rulers, both in the past and today. Conservatism, Westernism/liberalism, and Cosmism all influence public and elite opinion to some degree (Cosmism least of all), but ultimately, I think, the Russian state bases its policies primarily on determinations of interests rather than ideology. In some respects, such as their recognition of Russia as a European state, the Statists/Realists are closer to the Westernizers/liberals than to the conservatives, but in other respects – namely, their pragmatic rejection of universal values, and consequent insistence that Russia has a right to independent development – they are closer to the conservatives. The policies adopted by the Russian state may therefore be seen as essentially centrist in terms of the Russian political spectrum. Analysts who insist of portraying the ‘Putin regime’ as in some way ‘extremist’ are, therefore, very much wide of the mark.

UPDATE: As if on cue, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared today, ‘Russia, of course, can never allow itself the luxury of turning its face to Europe and its back to Asia, or vice versa. Culturally speaking, of course, Russia is part of European civilization.’ This confirms, I think, what I said about the Statists above.

Conservatism and Russian IR Theory

Last week I gave a talk to the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa on the topic ‘Conservatism and Russian International Relations Theory.’ You can watch it here:

For those of you who don’t have time to watch the whole thing, here is a summary:

Continue reading Conservatism and Russian IR Theory

The inability to see

I spend most of my time on this blog mocking all the exaggerated nonsense which passes for political commentary nowadays. It’s a rare day that I come across something which is both stimulating and well-written. Fortunately, this is one of those days. Via Facebook (which has its uses), I was pointed in the direction of an excellent article by Patrick Lawrence in this summer’s edition of the magazine Raritan Quarterly, of which I had not previously been aware. I can recommend it to you all, and you can find it here.

In my last post, I made fun of the demand that people should learn less about history and culture. Those making this demand clearly fear that an understanding of context will undermine the simple narratives they are peddling. This is how Putinversteher (someone who understands Putin) became a dirty word. Understanding is a bad thing. Patrick Lawrence comments in his article that,

None of our prevailing versions of Putin has any context. There is no trace of Russian history, political culture, national priorities, or national identity in any of them. In conversation I call this POLO, the power of leaving out, for it is perniciously effective. Leaving out context is an old trick among the propagandists – and of our press, we must at last recognize. It now turns our discourse into irrational nonsense.

Amen to that! But what is the context that we need to understand in this case? Lawrence argues that it relates to the fact that Russia was ‘a late developer’ compared to that part of the world which we call the West. This created a problem for Russians, as they had to answer the question ‘Was to modernize to Westernize?’ Answering that question in turn required them to engage in some soul-searching ‘for believable accounts of identity’. In response, says Lawrence, the great majority of Russians came to a common opinion: ‘Russians had to cut their own path into the modern. It was to be theirs alone, sui generis. They would have to think it through and make it.’

As it happens, this is an important theme in my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism. Lawrence makes the point, however, by citing examples from what one might call the political ‘left’ of Russian history – Alexander Herzen and the lesser known Mikhail Mikhailovsky. The fact that one can use examples from throughout the Russian political spectrum to make this point confirms its basic validity. While seeking to modernize, Russians have also sought to preserve (and one might even say, create) their own identity, in other words to modernize in their own way, while preserving what they value from their past. ‘There is plenty to suggest Vladimir Putin is well acquainted with this notion,’ writes Lawrence, ‘This modernizer is consistently attentive to the unmodern, and the unmodern in Russia is vast.’ [As an aside, I note that this sounds remarkably similar to Alexander Dugin’s idea of the archeomodern.]

According to Lawrence, this explains much of Putin’s behaviour. On the one hand, Putin wishes to modernize Russia. On the other hand, he is well aware that he governs a deeply conservative country in which people, as Lawrence says, ‘value order … above democracy’, and following the economic and social collapse of the 1990s (another vital piece of context) ‘want life to improve … but want little to do with Western neoliberalism.’ Governing in such a situation, ‘requires constant acts of balance,’ notes Lawrence. Putin isn’t an all-powerful autocrat. He ‘needs to build a broad consensus to get anything done.’ This explains many of his actions. The infamous legislation prohibiting the ‘propaganda of untraditional sexual practices’ to minors, for instance, can be seen as a kind of compromise which aimed to appease the conservative mood of the public while not going too far in the direction of a form of social control Putin is not actually interested in. Similarly in foreign policy, Putin’s instincts were initially pro-Western and he still insists on calling Western states his ‘partners’, but he is under consistent pressure from critics at home who ‘complain he is too slow in protecting Russia’s interests against the West’s repeated challenges to them.’ ‘These internal complaints’, notes Lawrence, ‘are part of the domestic politics Putin must manage.’

Seen this way, the policies Putin pursues can be seen as a response to Russia’s historical and domestic political context, not, as they are normally portrayed in the West, as the products of his own personal, malicious personality. And while Putin’s government is not democratic, in the purely procedural sense that we tend to understand it, Lawrence notes that ‘the majority of Russians consider that he acts broadly within Russian tradition.’ Putin’s rule, therefore, fits with a model of legitimacy in which ‘legitimacy tends to derive less from participatory political processes than from the provision of security, services, sound infrastructure, and altogether the prospects of well-being within the polity.’

Lawrence concludes that Western commentators are so obsessed with ‘the need to believe’ that they have acquired an ‘inability (or refusal) to see’ along with an inability to think. Alas, I think that this is all too true.