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.


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.


11 thoughts on “Poking the bear”

  1. Thank you for being a voice of sanity. During my days as a child a similar tone was used. I did feel safe because JFK said he would talk to the other side. He did and put in place the first nuclear weapons test treaty. No more testing nukes in the atmosphere and oceans. The western media is making a fortune spreading fear every minute of the day. Trump caught my attention early in the election campaign when he said he would create a good relationship with Russia. You’ve written a good article to be shared.


  2. Welp, at least they are not proposing anything new. It’s not like the West hasn’t been poking the bear all this time. What was the last “confidence-building measure” undertaken by them? Medvedev-Obama’s perezagruzka could have been one, but even that was screwed up so quickly. Other than that? Maybe some minor ones, vastly outweighed by the pokes.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think that these western warmongers are playing with fire and do not even realise it. During cold war1 people were genuinely frightened of nuclear war and therefore both sides talked in order to avoid a catastrophe. The talks had disagreements, but underneath that was a basic respect for the other side.

    I do not see this now, this may be due to the collapse that Russia had in the 1990’s which had a subliminal affect on western politicians views of Russia not being capable of threatening them. This is coupled with an Anglo core belief that wars are something we do to other people, ( this belief is not shared by continental Europeans who have suffered in war in living memory)

    The scope for miscalculation is huge

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Today I received this information in a widely distributed email entitled Canada Commemorates Holodomor Memorial Day…

    “The Ukrainian nation was condemned to death by starvation because of the Ukrainian people’s aspiration for independence, and their desire to maintain their culture and traditions and speak their language.”

    This is written by “responsible” people, “knowledgeable” people.

    Oh, I think they realize they are playing with fire… and will do what they can to get the blaze going…


  5. [Clicks “International Advisory Council” at their site]

    Late Zbigniew Brzezinski. Madeleine K. Albright. Anne Applebaum. Carl Bildt. Timothy Garton Ash. Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ivan Krastev and other thoroughly Russophobic propacondoms.


    I have only one (eternal) question – who funds these fine gents propagating hatred and calling for war? Because every single one of them professional Russophobes is too well-fed to be doing it pro bono.

    Consider this short dramedy in 3 Acts – “A tale about Peter who cried “PUTIN!””

    Act 1 – Everything Is possible.

    “The report is pretty much standard Lucas/Pomerantsev fare… The authors make a number of policy recommendations designed to counter this ‘Russian propaganda’…First, Lucas and Pomerantsev propose what looks rather like censorship. ‘A strong regulator is key to ensuring broadcasters maintain journalistic standards’, they write…

    Second, Lucas and Pomarentsev suggest the creation of what they call a ‘working group on historical and psychological trauma’ designed to counter the Russian narrative about Nazi collaborators in the Second World War…

    A third proposal in this report is perhaps even more bizarre. Citing efforts to deradicalize Islamic militants, Lucas and Pomerantsev write that, ‘Similar initiatives should be undertaken with radicalized, pro-Kremlin supporters, those on the far left and the far right, and Russian speakers.’ Are they suggesting anti-brainwashing programs for people who watch RT or read Russia Insider? I really don’t know what to make of this.”

    Act 2 – Nothing is True

    “In a May 17, 2015 post at Pando.com, Mark Ames — a former resident of Moscow, editor of the city’s (now defunct) English-language paper Exile and former Russia Today reporter[20] — questioned whether Pomerantsev was transparent with his motives regarding Russia. He condemns Pomerantsev for associating with colleagues with anti-Putin positions; including Legatum’s Chris Chandler, Jeffrey Gedmin, Anne Applebaum, Ben Judah, and Bill Browder. Writing in Forbes magazine, Melik Kaylan responded to the criticisms:

    The attacks suffer from egregious factual inaccuracies. Pomerantsev is not nor has ever been a ‘lobbyist’ for anyone. To say this about Pomerantsev is like saying Orwell was a paid lobbyist against totalitarian systems.”

    Act 3 – Your taxpayer money at work.

    From Integrity Initiative, which, of course, is totally not a “lobbyst” for anyone:


  6. Not to mention that the author who claims credit for ‘inventing’ the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ admits he simply made it up, while in search of an appropriately ‘snappy’ phrase which would increase his readability, and wishes he had never mentioned it.


    So long as Russia remains on a different maturity plane than the west – thus far, about as difficult as a spelling bee versus Honey Boo Boo – there is not very much to worry about, at least in my opinion. The west absolutely insists on Russia taking the first swing, so that it can be the aggrieved victim who only regretfully responds with the appropriate amount of force to a violent provocation it could no longer ignore. Accordingly, it keeps trotting out variations on these schoolyard taunts, hoping Russia will take the bait and rush at them, screaming, so that they can get down to the business of ‘defending themselves from aggression’. Since Russia, by and large, is a nation of adults, it so far views the west’s increasingly belligerent attempts to start a fight with the chilly contempt they deserve.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. The CEPA article you deconstruct above made me think of a quote that caught my eye last February, in an article about the US Navy sending two Burke-class guided missile destroyers into the Black Sea:
    ‘A US military official told CNN that the decision to deploy both the Carney and the Ross to the Black Sea was part of an effort to “desensitize Russia” to the presence of US military forces in the Black Sea, which sits between Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Western Asia.’
    The CNN report didn’t challenge this foray into magical thinking. If it occurred to the official, the CNN reporter or editors that a military adventure in a foreign power’s sphere of influence isn’t a passive irritant like ragweed pollen, it’s not mentioned. How terrifying: The US/NATO foreign-policy pseudo-intelligentsia seems to think that the world actually works that way.
    Remember when hacks used to be skeptical of military confrontation? I’m in recovery from journalism, clean & sober now for over two decades. It’s the Antabuse-like effect of sickening twaddle like this that keeps me on the wagon.

    Liked by 1 person

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