A matter of loyalty

Analysis of the recent clash between ships of the Ukrainian navy and the Russian Coast Guard near the Straits of Kerch has focused on the legal arguments of both sides as well as on the political motivations of the actors and the likely political and geostrategic implications. But hidden in it all is an interesting hint about the state of the Ukrainian armed forces which people seem to have missed.

Among those on those Ukrainian vessels who were captured by the Russians were officers from the Ukrainian security service, the SBU. This fact has been used by some as evidence that the Ukrainians were indeed engaged in nefarious activity in Russian waters and so were not entitled to ‘innocent passage’. If the SBU agents were intelligence personnel that might be the case. But in reality they are counter-intelligence officers. In other words, their task was not espionage, but security. As has been reported in the press,

The SBU agency said in a statement on Nov. 27 that the officers were fulfilling counterintelligence operations for the Ukrainian navy, in response to ‘psychological and physical pressure’ by Russian spy services.

So, what might be the ‘psychological and physical pressure’ being exerted on the Ukrainian navy which requires the presence of counter-intelligence on board ships? I can’t give a definite answer to that question, but one possibility is that somebody in authority is worried that Ukrainian sailors are being subjected to Russian ‘propaganda’ and that if left to their own devices, they might defect or might somehow pass messages to the Russians when passing close to the Russian coast. This explains the presence of SBU officers on board the ships – their purpose was to spy on the crew and enforce loyalty among it.

Leaders who trust their subordinates don’t need to do such a thing. And that’s why I think that this incident hints at something which analysts have failed to notice. Supporters of Euromaidan and the government which has ruled Ukraine ever since often like to say that the Ukrainian armed forces have improved dramatically since 2014 and that the war against ‘Russian aggression’ has solidified Ukrainian national identity, uniting the nation as never before. I recognize that my analysis of why the SBU had agents on board these ships is pure speculation, and may be wrong. But it makes sense to me, and if I’m right it suggests that Ukraine’s leaders don’t trust their troops very much. They may talk about the unity of the nation and the military, but deep in their hearts they don’t really believe it.

Lack of integrity

According to an article published by RT on Friday, the hacktivist group Anonymous has unearthed ‘a massive UK-led psyop to create a “large-scale information secret service” in Europe – all under the guise of countering “Russian propaganda.”’ As RT notes, Anonymous has made public documents allegedly originated by a project known as the Integrity Initiative (the ‘psyop’ in question). Despite RT’s breathless claims, I certainly wouldn’t call the uncovered operation ‘massive.’ Nor is it quite as scandalous as RT tries to make out, nor quite as secret, given that the project has a public website. Nevertheless, I do have some concerns about it.

On its website, the Integrity Initiative describes itself as:

a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. … our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous. … We are not a government body but we do work with government departments and agencies who share our aims.

In the leaked documents, the Integrity Initiative makes it clear that the ‘propaganda and disinformation’ which it has in mind is primarily Russian. Furthermore, the initiative not only works with government departments and agencies, but is largely financed by them. According to the documents revealed by Anonymous, the Integrity Initiative’s funding comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), NATO, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, the US State Department, Facebook, and the German business community. If this was a Russian project, we can have little doubt that Western commentators would denounce it as an ‘arm of the Kremlin’.

An Integrity Initiative handbook, which is among the items revealed by Anonymous, states that the project operates by forming ‘a cluster of well-informed people from the political, military, academic, journalistic and think-tank spheres, who will track and analyse examples of disinformation in their country and inform decision-makers and other interested parties about what is happening.’ This setup is unusual. Normally, academics, journalists, and think tankers operate independently from government. Here, they are collaborating. Among the British cluster members are members of Parliament, diplomats, Ministry of Defence staff, think tank personnel (from Chatham House, RUSI, Henry Jackson Society, etc), and journalists (from the BBC, The Times, and the Financial Times). The network also extends to academia, as the project is run in conjunction with the Free University of Brussels. As one of the leaked documents comments, this provides the benefit of ‘enhancing the academic respectability of the project’. As an academic, this makes me uneasy; I can’t help but feel that giving ‘academic respectability’ to secretive political projects isn’t what universities are for.

Beyond that, an application for funding from the FCO explains that the purpose of the initiative is ‘to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence. … Our programme to date has helped the UK to lead this process. Expanding this success will cement UK’s influence in N. America and in Europe post-Brexit.’ This makes it very clear that this is not a research project but a political one. Those joining the network aren’t neutral researchers, but active participants in a political campaign against Russia led by the British state and NATO. I have trouble understanding why either academics or journalists should consider this to be their job.

The project’s politics are made clear by its starting assumptions, as laid out in the funding request mentioned above. This document states:

Russia’s leaders say that Russia is at war with the West. The existence of democracy poses a threat to their dictatorial system. Undermining and ultimately destroying Western democratic institutions is Russia’s way of neutralising this ‘threat’. … … the Western system of democratic values will benefit for being protected against attack by those powers who would seek to overturn our system and all it stands for.

This statement is extreme even by current standards. For a start, I can’t recall any Russian ‘leader’ saying that ‘Russia is at war with the West’. Of course, that depends on how you define ‘leader’, but for all his frustration with the West, Putin avoids such language and continues to refer to Western states as ‘partners’. Furthermore, the idea that the Russian government’s aim is ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’ is patently absurd. I’m not aware of any Russian leader ever expressing any interest in ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’. As far as I can make out, Moscow isn’t in the slightest interested in what political systems other countries have. Likewise, the statement that Russia ‘seek[s] to overturn our system and all it stands for,’ is completely over the top – not merely unsubstantiated, but also entirely false. The Integrity Initiative’s politics amount to fearmongering.

Furthermore, as the leaked documents purport to show, the initiative engages in exactly the sort of ‘meddling’ in foreign affairs of which its members accuse Russia. In one instance, project members disliked the Spanish government’s choice for the post of director of Spain’s Department of Homeland Security. The Spanish ‘cluster’ set about lobbying against the candidate on social media, and eventually the Spanish government appointed somebody else. One can well imagine what the reaction would be if it turned out that a network of influential people who secretly belonged to a group funded by the Russian government had successfully lobbied to prevent the appointment of an official in Spain because Russia objected to him or her.

It’s a common complaint that Russian media are controlled by the state. By contrast, the Western media, and Western opinion formers, such as academics and think tank members, are considered to be independent and impartial. Yet in reality, the relationship between them is often far cozier than people understand, and sometimes far cozier than it ought to be. I’m sure that everybody involved in the Integrity Initiative believes that they are acting for the best. But if they have been secretly working with government officials in pursuit of political objectives, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people don’t trust them. There’s a reason why people turn to sources of information which are accused of peddling ‘fake news’: they don’t believe traditional sources. Projects like the Integrity Initiative help strengthen the impression of secret conspiracies and double standards. Far from solving the problem, therefore, they accentuate it,

Poking the bear

What sort of guy thinks that it is a good idea to deliberately provoke a nuclear-armed power? Answer: the sort of guy who writes for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a think-tank which claims that its purpose is to ‘bring about positive change in Central-East Europe and Russia by strengthening NATO’s frontline, better understanding the Kremlin’s strategic aims, promoting greater solidarity within the EU, and bolstering Atlanticism.’ CEPA ‘experts’ include the Economist’s Edward Lucas and the Power Vertical podcast’s Brian Whitmore. In short, it’s the kind of institution you go to if you think that Western politicians and journalists are being far too soft on the Russians. In line with its mission, every now and again CEPA brings out a report about the evils of Russian aggression and disinformation. Its latest, entitled Chaos as a Strategy: Putin’s ‘Promethean’ Gamble is a doozy.

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The authors of Chaos as a Strategy are CEPA president and CEO Peter Doran, and Senior Fellow and former diplomat Donald Jensen. Their report is a classic example of what I call ‘conceptual flipping’ – i.e. taking a concept created by one’s opponent and then flipping it around. As Ofer Fridman shows in his recent book, Russian thinkers such as Aleksandr Dugin and Igor Panarin were accusing the West of waging information warfare against Russia for years before Westerners took the idea, flipped it around (on the basis of the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’) and began to accuse Russia of the same. Similarly, for some time now, Russians (most notably Sergei Glazyev) have been accusing the West of deliberately sowing chaos around the world in order to weaken potential rivals and secure American hegemony. Glazyev calls this ‘world chaotic warfare’. Doran and Jensen now flip this over: Russia, they say, is using a ‘strategy of chaos’ against the West. Specifically,

In recent years, Russian leaders and strategists have developed a set of methods aimed at spreading disorder beyond their borders for strategic effect. Their goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems.

Doran and Jensen call this strategy of chaos ‘Promethean’, a term used by Polish leader Josef Pilsudski to describe the policy adopted by Poland toward Russia in the inter-war period. Whereas Glazyev’s ‘world chaotic war’ is primarily economic in nature, Doran and Jensen’s ‘Prometheanism’ is centered around disinformation and propaganda, these being seen as the primary tools used by the Kremlin to sow chaos in the West. Despite its claims to be revealing something novel, Chaos as a Strategy therefore rapidly disintegrates into a simple repetition of all the normal claims about Russian disinformation, hybrid warfare, the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, and the like. Consequently, I found its analysis of Russian behaviour very unoriginal and not in the slightest interesting. It’s just one more example of analysts leaping on the information warfare bandwagon without adding anything new.

What is somewhat interesting, and perhaps a little bit scary, is the report’s recommendations. Doran and Jensen are of the view that the West has been far too reactive in the face of Russian information warfare, and believe that it ought to be taking the initiative. They recommend that the West should:

Prioritize the sequencing of the ‘carrots and sticks’ offered to the Kremlin. Sticks first. This means initially increasing the penalties imposed on Russia for continued revisionist behavior and the sowing of chaos. We can start with tougher sanctions, wider travel bans, greater restrictions on access to the global financial system, and financial snap exercises. Presently, some of these tools are used – but they are underused in most cases. This needs to change. Particularly, in the domain of information warfare, the West must hit back harder. … Our responses for now should serve the shorter-term goal of forcing Russia to place more defense and less offense. For this purpose, we should lessen our preoccupation with ‘provoking’ the Kremlin. It is hardly a basis of sound policy to prioritize Putin’s peace of mind.

Back in my youth, we used to talk about the importance of ‘confidence building measures’. The idea was that potential enemies could reduce the chance of conflict by reassuring each other that they did not have hostile intent and thereby giving one another ‘peace of mind’. But now, supposedly sane foreign policy ‘experts’ think that it’s a good idea to provoke nuclear-armed powers and that peace of mind is dangerous. What these experts seem to want is the very opposite of confidence building – the creation of paranoid foreign leaders who are continued worried about their security. This is most foolish. Fear is not a good basis for decision-making. Inciting fear in others, therefore, is not a good idea, and especially not a good idea when those others have some powerful resources at their disposal.

The whole point of provocation is that incites the provoked party to do something stupid. Doran and Jensen seem to think that this will help the West. The logic is that of a zero-sum game – if the Russians harm themselves by reacting to our provocations, the West gains. But the world doesn’t work like that. When provoked, people don’t generally back down and surrender – they strike out even harder than before. In the process the person doing the provoking finds that the problem he was trying to eliminate has become worse rather than better. Perhaps your enemy goes down, but he takes you down with him.

The problem we face at the moment is that rather than framing issues in terms of disagreements and seeking to come up with mutually acceptable ways of resolving those disagreements, too many people on both sides of the current East-West divide are framing issues in terms of threat and thus of ‘enemies’. Consequently, they devise ‘solutions’ designed to weaken the ‘enemy’ rather than resolve the underlying problems. Such solutions are not solutions at all, but risk accelerating the cycle of escalation. This report is a striking case in point.

I’ve come across some fairly irresponsible policy proposals in the past few years, but ‘let’s worry less about provoking the Kremlin’ takes irresponsibility to a new level. It reveals that for some in the West, escalating the confrontation with Russia is a deliberate choice. Russians will of course notice this, consider their fears justified, and respond accordingly. That response may not help them, but they have sharp claws, and it certainly won’t help us either. Poking the bear has become a popular pastime of late. We shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end well.

 

Visualizing Russian conservatism

I’ve just finished doing the index for my book on Russian conservatism, and in the process I noticed that I had mentioned some names and terms much more often than I thought I had. Peter the Great, for instance, is the second most mentioned person in the book (Nicholas I is the most), and that’s odd because I don’t discuss him or his reign at all. In fact the book starts in the early 1800s, about 100 years after Peter. But it seems that the shadow he cast had such a powerful effect on nineteenth century Russian conservatives (who to a large degree were reacting against the process of Westernization that Peter set in motion) that his name kept cropping up regardless.

That got me thinking. It turns out that the index provides quite a useful tool in determining what persons and subjects my book addresses, and thus determining who and what are really important. So, with that thought in mind, I set about quantifying Russian conservatism by totalling the number of mentions people and ideas get in the book, and then producing some word clouds. The results provide a visual rendition of Russian conservatism past and present.

The first world cloud shows the persons and institutions which were most often mentioned in the book. The first thing which strikes one is the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church. Beyond that, though, this word cloud is perhaps rather misleading as the most prominent names aren’t those of conservative philosophers but of Russian tsars, e.g. Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Alexander I, I, and III, and of the Communist Party and Vladimir Putin. In short, the dominant figures are Russia’s rulers. Yet, except for Nicholas I and Putin, I say very little about any of them. They get a lot of mentions, but they’re mostly in passing, as a way of providing context.

But that itself reveals something. An ideology like liberalism can be seen as abstract and absolute, that is to say that it embodies certain absolute, abstract ideas which are considered valid regardless of time and place. Conservatism by contrast is relative; it is what is called a ‘positional’ or ‘situational’ ideology – i.e. it depends on the given situation. Another way of looking at it is as a ‘reactive’ ideology – i.e. it’s a reaction to whatever is happening in the time in question. In short, with conservatism, context matters.

Word Art1a

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Get them while they’re young

It’s said that if you want to win people’s hearts and minds you should ‘get them while they’re young’. It’s a lesson that the Russian state seems to have learnt, at least if the Daily Mail is to be believed. Masha and the Bear is a popular cartoon for young children, produced in Russia, but translated into other languages and shown around the world. It might seem like harmless stuff, but appearances can be deceiving. For in fact, Masha and the Bear is a devious work of Russian propaganda. As the Daily Mail tells us:

A Russian-made children’s cartoon show has been accused of being part of the Putin propaganda machine. Masha and the Bear focuses on the relationship between a slight but imposing young girl and her protector, a huge bear. In one Masha even dons a Soviet border guard’s hat as she repels invaders from the Bear’s carrot patch.

Critics said this was a metaphor for how Russia protects its borders.

Last year, Finland’s top newspaper – Helsingin Sanomat – quoted a lecturer at Tallinn University’s Communication School as claiming that the bear symbolised Russia and was designed to place a positive image of the country in children’s minds.

The lecturer, Priit Hobemagi, said that the series was a ‘beautifully presented’ part of a campaign that is dangerous for Estonian national security. Anthony Glees, an intelligence expert from The University of Buckingham told The Times: ‘Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.’

masha
Masha defends Russia’s borders

The Daily Mail concludes:

Russia’s state media have refuted the claims from the likes of Estonia and Lithuania. They have also branded the concerns in the Baltic states as ‘pathological’ Russophobia. The company who produce the popular cartoon, Animaccord, said the show is an independent project that has never received state funding.

This is one of those stories where any sort of commentary seems  superfluous. Its absurdity speaks for itself. One day, historians are going to look back on this period of our history and shake their heads in astonishment.

 

The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

Cooktown, Australia, is about 6,650 kilometres from Russia. You might imagine that it’s as safe from Russian invasion as anywhere on the globe. But, as I learnt this week, its inhabitants haven’t always been convinced of that. I thought it was worth sharing the story.

cooktown

Continue reading The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

The final casualty

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the end of fighting in the First World War.

A few miles from my family home in south Wales is a small village with the seemingly unpronounceable name of Kilgwrrwg. Just outside the village is a tiny church. You can’t reach it by road, but have to brave the sheep and molehills and trudge several hundred yards through a typically wet and muddy Welsh field to get there. When you do, you find a little piece of British history. For outside the church is the grave of Able Seaman Richard Morgan, who died 100 years ago today on the morning of 11 November 1918.

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We know little of Richard Morgan, other than that he was a woodcutter who volunteered for service in 1916. No photograph of him survives. He drowned after the small boat he was on capsized. It is believed that he was the last British serviceman to die prior to the armistice which brought fighting in the First World War to an end. He was, therefore, the final casualty in what most now believe was an utterly futile war. So, if you’re ever in the region, perhaps consider taking a short hike across the fields to Kilgwrrwg church, pay homage to Richard Morgan, and contemplate the folly of man.

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Kilgwrrwg church

 

 

The liberal international order

The Holy Roman Empire, it’s often said, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The same might be said about the so-called ‘liberal international order’ – it’s neither liberal, nor international, nor an order. That might be a little unfair, but it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the system governing international relations is really quite what the proponents of the ‘liberal international order’ imagine it to be (democratic values, free trade, international institutions, international law, and the like). Whatever the answer, a lot of people are saying that the existing system is in crisis due to a resurgent Russia, a rising China, and far-right populism in Europe. Of course, if the liberal international order doesn’t exist, it can hardly be in crisis, but discussions of the matter are nonetheless revealing as they tell us quite a lot about how the advocates of this system truly view it.

This thought came to mind after attending a talk today by John Herbst and Daniel Fried. Herbst was at one point American ambassador to Ukraine; Fried was Assistant Secretary of State for Europe. Both men now work for the Atlantic Council, and their presentations were pretty much what you’d expect from that organization: ‘Kremlin aggression’, ‘Kremlin aggression’, and ‘Kremlin aggression’, with occasional references instead to ‘Russian aggression’, and the odd nod to concepts such as the ‘Putin regime’, ‘corrupt kleptocracy’, ‘hybrid war’, and ‘the Gerasimov doctrine’. It’s striking how men with such enormous diplomatic experience can have such an unsophisticated view of international affairs, in which their chosen enemies are entirely to blame for the problems of the world and are apparently motivated solely by malice rather than any type of legitimate interests which we might have to take into consideration.

But that’s by the by. Along the way, both Herbst and Fried had a lot to say about the ‘liberal international order’, which they felt was under threat for all the reasons mentioned above. And then Herbst said something quite interesting. Talking about Ukraine, he remarked that he was confident that reform would continue even if current frontrunner Yulia Timoshenko wins next year’s Ukrainian presidential election. Timoshenko is running a campaign based in part on rejection of much of the proposed reform program. But, Herbst pointed out, Ukraine is in desperate need of money. So we needn’t worry, he said, for the West can use the IMF ‘to bash her on the head’ (or words to that effect) to force Timoshenko and the Ukrainian parliament to enact the reforms that the West deems necessary.

And there’s the ‘liberal international order’ for you. Unwittingly, Herbst let the cat out of the bag and told us something important about how members of the Western establishment view the purpose of international institutions – not as institutions designed to facilitate foreign governments’ efforts to pursue the policies they wish to pursue, but as tools of the West to force them to do what the West wants them to do. In other words, the liberal international order, isn’t really international, but an extension of Western power. As you will notice, there’s also very little about this which is ‘liberal’. Forcing foreign governments to do things they were elected not to do doesn’t have a whole lot in common with democracy. (Though it’s hardly exceptional – think of the Greeks, for instance.) And it’s hard to see how it’s compatible with freedom either – after all, you’re not really free if you have to do what foreign governments tell you to do. Whatever its theoretical principles, when put into practice in this way, the liberal international order is simply a codeword for what those on the left like to call ‘imperialism’.

And that’s a shame. At heart, I’m a typical Western liberal democrat. I believe in the theoretical principles of liberal international order – free trade, international institutions, respect for international law, and all that. To some extent, I think they are indeed part of the practice of the international system, and it would be great if they could be practiced in an even more perfect way. But they’re not going to be if the states with the most power don’t respect them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that reform in Ukraine is a bad idea. But you can’t preach freedom, democracy, and all the rest of it, if what you  practice is something very different. When ‘liberal international order’ is just code for ‘bash her on the head’ till she does what we want, the liberal international order is in trouble. But the root of the trouble doesn’t lie without; it lies within.

Putin sees and hears it all

I’m not a fan of the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank that has the reputation of consisting of uber-hawkish neo-conservatives. Henry Jackson members come across as the kind of guys who even now think that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. You can judge their credibility by the fact that their guest speaker today is Timothy Snyder, who’s giving a talk about his truly awful book The Road to Unfreedom – you know, the one which says that Putin’s a fascist because he quotes Ivan Ilyin. In short, the Henry Jackson Society isn’t the sort of place you should visit if you want to be well informed about Russia. Unfortunately, however, you have to pay a bit of attention to what it’s saying. For it represents the viewpoint of an extreme, but not unimportant, segment of Britain’s ruling elite.

The Society’s Russia & Eurasia Studies Centre has just come out with a new report. Its title Putin Sees and Hears it All: How Russia’s Intelligence Agencies Menace the UK gives the gist – Putin’s espionage network is massive and growing, and Russia’s evil dictator ‘sees and hears it all’. He truly is all knowing!

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Continue reading Putin sees and hears it all

Assumptions

Assumptions are extremely important. If they’re wrong, everything which follows is probably wrong too. So when analysts don’t make their assumptions clear to policy makers, but instead try to pass them off as facts, there’s a great danger that poor decisions will result.

What brings this to mind is a new report by Duncan Allan, published by Chatham House and entitled Managed Confrontation: UK Policy Towards Russia After the Salisbury Attack. The report claims that,

The nerve agent attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury … was a UK policy failure. Following the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006, the UK government failed to deter another life threatening attack … Russian decision makers saw the UK as lacking purpose and resolve because its firm rhetoric was not matched by its actions.

Although the British government has acted more robustly after the attempted murder of the Skripals, Mr Duncan thinks that the response is still not tough enough and ‘there is a danger that the UK’s actions are again perceived to be out of line with its rhetoric and will thus prove ineffective as a deterrent.’ Duncan urges the government to resort to ‘deterrence by punishment’ by making it clear to Russia that in the face of future attacks it will use the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia to ‘exact a direct cost by sanctioning members of Russia’s elite and their interests’ According to Duncan there is a ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. By pressuring the latter, Britain can dissuade the former from misbehaving. This will inevitably harm the British financial sector, which does considerable business with rich Russians, but ‘the state’s duty to ensure the security of its citizens surely comes before the interests of a branch of the economy.’ For too long, Duncan claims, Britain has tried to have the best of both worlds – speaking out against Russia while continuing to do business with it. Consequently, Britain has signalled weakness, and so encouraged Russian attacks. ’ Up to now, says Duncan, Britain has ‘lacked credibility’. This needs to change.

What are the assumptions here? First, that Russia considers Britain weak. And second, that this perception encouraged the Russian state to poison Sergey Skripal. Allan Duncan portrays these as facts. They are not. He provides no evidence for either the one or the other. They are assumptions. So too is the idea which lies behind this report that there is such a thing as ‘credibility’ – one’s reputation for being willing to take robust action – and that the possession of ‘credibility’ deters hostile acts. Finally, Mr Duncan’s argument rests on an assumption that ‘deterrence by punishment’ actually works, which in turn rests on assumptions that a) Russians will correctly interpret the signals that Britain is trying to send, and b) Russian elites will respond to British pressure by successfully pressuring their own government, and c) the Russian government will respond to that pressure in the manner desired by the British. All these assumptions may, of course, be true. But as no evidence is produced to say whether they are indeed correct, one must conclude that they might equally be wrong. Consequently, the policy recommendations are without value.

Let’s take a closer look. Was the attack on Sergey Skripal a product of Russian perceptions of British lack of credibility? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. To say one way or the other, one would have to know what was going on in the brain of whoever ordered the operation. Since we don’t actually have any information about that, Mr Duncan’s claim cannot be treated as a serious basis for a major policy decision. Furthermore, as I have pointed out before in this blog, historical and political science research suggests that ‘credibility’ is a greatly overestimated virtue. Such evidence as we have about the way politicians come to their decisions suggests that considerations of whether a foreign state is likely to respond to a given action are rarely based on perceptions of how that state and its leaders have responded in the past, and whether they are credible, strong, determined actors, but rather on considerations of whether they are capable of responding and of whether the matter in question is of sufficient interest for them to be likely to want to respond. In short, when people worry about their credibility, they do so for no good reason. This undermines the entire logic of Mr Duncan’s report.

As I have also often said, misperceptions play an extremely important role in international conflicts. A lot of international relations is about sending signals to other states. The problem is that the message received is very often not at all what the person sending the signal assumed would be received. Mr Duncan assumes that punishment will be understood by Russian leaders as being punishment. That’s a very unwise assumption in my opinion. In the current political climate, in which Russians see themselves as the aggrieved party, I doubt that they will interpret being sanctioned by Britain as being punished for their own misdeeds and therefore feel deterred from further such misdeeds in the future. It’s just as possible that they will see this as further proof that the Brits are out to get them come what may and that there is absolutely no point in modifying their behaviour in the way the Brits desire, because they won’t get anything in return. Whether they’re right or wrong to feel that way is neither here nor there. If that’s how they feel then Mr Duncan’s proposal isn’t going to have the desired effect. It might even backfire and encourage even more hostile behaviour.

And then there’s the matter of the ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. Is this actually a thing? Duncan assumes a) that the business sector has a powerful influence over the Russian state and b) that business will pressure the state into changing its behaviour if financial interests overseas are threatened. Yet, the business sector in Russia is rather separate from the security organs whom the British consider responsible for the Skripal poisoning. Do rich Russians with accounts in the UK really have a say in what the GRU does? I have my doubts. Meanwhile, the example of anti-Russian sanctions to date provides no evidence in support of assumption b) above. On the contrary, as Richard Connolly has shown, the way the state-business relationship works in Russia is that when the business elite is hurt by sanctions, the state comes to its rescue and redirects resources so that business’s losses are covered. This might harm the economy as a whole, but it protects the targeted sectors. At the same time, it increases those sectors’ dependence on the state, making them less and less capable of pressuring the state to alter its political direction. The idea that ‘punishment’ of Russian businessmen results in changes in the behaviour of the Russian state is most definitely unproven, and may in fact be entirely false.

Obviously, if another attack on British soil were to be attributed to the Russian state, it would be politically impossible for the British government not to react, and I’m certainly not saying that it would be wrong to do so. But one shouldn’t imagine that punishing Russian businessmen for the alleged sins of their state will somehow prevent such an attack by enhancing British ‘credibility’. Allan Duncan calls for ‘managed confrontation’ with Russia. But by focusing on confrontation rather than on finding ways to eliminate conflict, there is a danger that his proposals will simply drive an ever bigger wedge between East and West. In this way, rather than enhancing British security, Duncan’s approach may serve merely to undermine it.