Russia: both malevolent and super-efficient

In his 1969 book The Hitler State, German historian Martin Broszat described how the supposedly highly centralized Nazi state was in fact decidedly anarchic. The Fuhrer, wishing to concentrate all power in his own hands, operated a system of divide and rule designed to prevent his subordinates from combining in ways which might thwart his own will. Rather than coming together to make collective decisions, each ministry operated separately with each minister reporting directly to the supreme leader. The effect was to give ministers an enormous amount of independence to pursue policies at odds with what other ministers might want, resulting in continuous power struggles which were determined by access to Hitler. The extreme centralization of power in fact diffused it and made it next to impossible to coordinate activities across government.

This problem of government operating in unconnected silos is hardly unique to Nazi Germany. A few years ago when counter-insurgency theory was all the rage in some Western states, there was a lot of talk about the ‘whole of government approach’, and the need to get all parts of government to push in the same direction. The fact that this idea became so popular was an indication that it wasn’t actually happening. Even highly advanced Western states with relatively efficient bureaucratic systems struggle with this problem. But there is some reason to suspect that it is worse in more autocratic states, precisely because autocratic rulers seek to retain their power to have the final word by dividing government up into silos. As historian David Macdonald has pointed out, this was very much the case in Imperial Russia, where Tsars resisted all attempts to produce ‘united government’.

Despite this, there is a tendency to regard Russia as possessing some super-efficient government system in which all the levers of state power can be coordinated as part of a common strategy in a thoroughly integrated fashion. I mentioned this tendency in my last post, which discussed the writing of the Institute of Statecraft’s Chris Donnelly. Today a copy of the magazine Diplomat & International Canada landed on my desk, and in it I find yet another example of this logic, in the form of an article by Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council.

Blank nails home all the same points as Donnelly: Russia is at war with the West; it’s innately aggressive and expansionist; and it’s extraordinarily effective at combining all the elements of statecraft into an integrated strategy. He cites George Kennan as saying that ‘political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its objectives.’ Russia is doing this, we are told. According to Blank, ‘Russia employs all the instruments of state power in an unrelenting, multidimensional, relatively synchronized and global environment to force the West to accept it as equal in status to the Soviet Union.’ He then proceeds to list all the various means which Russia is employing to this end – military, political, economic, informational, cyber, and so on.

I find this approach curious. I’ve never regarded the Russian state as particularly efficient. It strikes me as odd, therefore, that its most vocal opponents seem to consider it to be such a beacon of competent governance, especially since they also like to emphasize the state’s autocratic nature. As I mentioned above, the ‘whole of government’ approach doesn’t fit easily with autocracy. Commentators such as Donnelly and Blank want to describe Russia as both autocratic and remarkably adept at integrated governmental strategy. In my mind, that combination just doesn’t work.

Blank and co. also seem to suffer from a certain schizophrenia regarding the cause of ‘Russian aggression’. On the one hand, they blame the system of government. Thus, Blank says that, ‘the state of siege in Moscow’s relations with the West flows directly from the nature of the regime itself.’ An aggressive foreign policy is seen as necessary to divert public attention from the internal failings of the authoritarian regime, while efforts to discredit Western democracy are required to undermine the idea that Russia should develop in a more democratic direction. On the other hand, the same commentators as say this also often push the story that Russian aggression is an inherent part of the country’s character. Blank therefore writes:

As Catherine the Great stated, ‘I have no way to defend my frontiers other than to expand them.’ As Russian writers deeply believe, if Russia is not this kind of great power – and it can be no other in their view – it will cease to exist.

But here we run into a contradiction – if the problem is in Russia’s DNA, to use James Clapper’s phrase, then the nature of the regime has nothing to do with it at all, and even a liberal democratic Russian government would be just as ‘aggressive’ as that of Vladimir Putin. One gets the impression that the approach is just to throw down every possible idea which could be made to paint Russia as threatening, regardless of its coherence.

For what it’s worth, my own take on the issue is as follows. First, the idea that Russia is innately aggressive and expansionist is false. While Russia has certainly acted aggressively on occasions, its historical record in that regard isn’t obviously any worse than that of other major European states. Second, there’s no clear connection between regime type and aggression, either in Russia’s case or more generally; current East-West tensions owe much to clashing interests and the structure of the European security system, factors which won’t change no matter who rules in the Kremlin. And third, Russia shows no signs of being particularly brilliant in terms of strategic planning and integrated government; rather, it’s thrashing around in an often incoherent fashion, not in accordance to some master plan but in reaction to others and in an often improvised way.  The idea of Russia as both malevolent and super-efficient may be useful as a way of scaring people, but it has very little to do with reality.

45 thoughts on “Russia: both malevolent and super-efficient”

  1. I’m glad you read my article or rather misread it. Nowhere did I say Russia was unduly efficient. But it is committed to this strategy of “political warfare”. And yes it is the genes of Russian autocracy since Lenin though some would go earlier. Before you write such articles it might help to restudy Russ
    ian history and distinguish among authors , and lastly not put words in their mouth


    1. “And yes it is the genes of Russian autocracy since Lenin


      Pick one, for genetics hardly apply to the political science… Unless, of course, you have an INCREDIBLY good argument to support this claim, monsieur Blank

      Liked by 3 people

      1. ‘as for internaoitnal law there is Ukraine, the INF trreaty etc. as for the others if you want the evidence I’d be happy to send it to you although I doubt youwould accept it’. Given that I wrote that Russia on occasion breaks international law, citing me some examples of breaches doesn’t prove your point. In your article you said that, ‘‘Neither does international law mean anything to Russia’. That’s a very bold claim and would require you to show that Russia doesn’t respect international law at all. I very much doubt you can prove that.

        Of course, Russia isn’t the only state which occasionally breaks international law. Even Canada, where I live, has sometimes done things which are decidedly dubious in terms of international law (the Estai case, for instance). That doesn’t mean that international law doesn’t ‘mean anything’ for all those other states who sometimes break it.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. “just study some Soviet history”

        Hmm… Every time someone asks you for proof, you pretend as if they didn’t study Russian/Soviet history, or that their quality of learning is beneath your own stellar high one

        Tell you what, monsieur Blank. Let us compare notes and see how either of us handles and understands the data – that way we will eliminate any misunderstanding, come to the common terms and also present you with a chance to bask in your intellectual gory. Ooops, I mean – glory.

        How about that?

        Liked by 2 people

    2. When you say that ‘Russia employs all the instruments of state power in an unrelenting, multidimensional, relatively synchronized and global environment’, that is indeed implying an ability to coordinate the various parts of the state towards common goals in an efficient manner.

      As for anything being in ‘the genes’, it’s a statement which I think rather condemns you.

      I could have, if I had chosen, gone through your article and pointed out the statements in it which I considered inaccurate or thoroughly unsubstantiated. There are many. Let’s take just a couple:

      ‘Neither does international law mean anything to Russia’ (p. 45). Really, nothing at all? Certainly, Russia, like other major states, sometimes breaks international law. But that doesn’t mean that international law means nothing to them all. Indeed, what’s interesting is that even when breaking international law, states, including Russia, justify their actions in terms of international law. Moreover, some occasional breaches of the law don’t mean that they don’t abide by the law 99% of the time. Your statement is a massive exaggeration.

      And: ‘the revival of the Russian biological warfare capability … Russia is breaking almost every arms control treaty on the books. .. Exercises going back several years confirm that Moscow expects its troops to have to fight through chemical and nuclear-warfare strikes. And, that means it is preparing to launch them’. What’s your evidence for any of that? Where’s the evidence of a ‘revived biological warfare capability’ or that Russia is ‘preparing to launch’ nuclear or chemical warfare attacks (the latter of which it couldn’t do due to the lack of military chemical weapons, as confirmed by OPCW).

      There is much, much more.

      Finally, You demand that I ‘restudy Russian history’. Of course, I study it for a living, and my reading of it is far removed from yours. You can appeal to it all you wish; it doesn’t make it so.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. as for internaoitnal law there is Ukraine, the INF trreaty etc. as for the others if you want the evidence I’d be happy to send it to you although I doubt youwould accept it


      2. What about Ukraine Stephen?

        Coup against its democratically elected president, after he signed an internationally brokered power sharing agreement?

        Crimea? Compare with northern Cyprus and Kosovo. Hypocrisy duly noted.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh yes, and I was a student in the Soviet Union too, so I experienced the place at first hand (didn’t make me a fan, I have to say).But maybe that doesn’t count either.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. paul.. you are too humble while this buffoon talks down to you… fact is, you hit the nail on the head in your article and he resents that.. and it exposes him for the shill he is..

        Liked by 2 people

    3. Stephen Blank, what is your take on the U.S. coup to overthrow Venezuelan government? Is this the new norm in the “U.S. led rules based liberal order”?

      If that is so, would it be alright for Russia to invade and annex entire Ukraine, Mr Blank?


    4. Care to offer some evidence that you are the “real” Stephen Blank and not some internet troll? It’s easy to pose as russophobic U.S. propagandist pushing the usual anti Russian diatribe on internet.


      1. This “coup” occurred with the support of Laitn American States After Maduro and his thugs invalidated elections and brought the country to the breaking point. Neither haas the U.S. invaded. Does that resemble Ukraine in 2014? Not unless you believe Russian propaganda


      1. this bit, I have to admit is rather fascinating:
        Other actors’ violations of international law and practice, such as the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reveal the affinities between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as shown when they high-fived at the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires. They also co-operate in establishing an energy cartel to rescue their economies.

        Can you explain? Beyond the fact that maybe Putin, the person, may have felt a certain amount of sympathy for someone else ostracized on international podiums, like, let’s say, he once did on the G8/G7?

        You are American, I understand, he should have shunned him, like others shunned him at one point in time? Why? Seriously?


    5. Of course Russia is aggressive & expansionist. Look how close the autocratic bastards put their country to NATO’s ever-advancing military bases.
      Besides aggressively expanding NATO, unilaterally abrogating arms-control treaties and installing hostile regimes in countries on Russia’s borders, the US since 2001 has overthrown regimes (or tried to) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.
      In each of those countries we’ve started endless wars and spread chaos, horror and misery in the name of ‘liberal democracy.’ It’s plain we’ve targeted Russia for regime change too – or at least put the Kremlin in a position where assuming otherwise would be the height of folly.
      I hope this very brief historical review satisfies your patronizing advice to Mr Robinson – and makes you think twice about trying to gaslight us NATO skeptics.


  2. “But there is some reason to suspect that it is worse in more autocratic states, precisely because autocratic rulers seek to retain their power to have the final word by dividing government up into silos. ”

    Hmm. So, the systems with the clear “vertical of power” are inherently chaotic.

    Does it mean, then, that anarchic systems are inherently well ordered?

    Yes, Proudhon was right: anarchy is the mother of order!


    1. I use the word ‘autocracy’ deliberately in its literal meaning of ‘rule by one man’ (which of course is an ideal, as no state can be ruled by just one man!). Autocracy isn’t the same as authoritarianism, or even the ‘vertical of power’. It’s just a description of where power lies, and its extreme concentration in one individual. As such autocracy is incompatible with collective decision making – as soon as you have collective decision making, you no longer have autocracy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To be fair, I admit that my theoretical model is open to challenge, but I think that you can make the same basic critiques of Blank’s piece even without the model – it adheres to a deterministic view of Russia as inherently aggressive, while ascribing to the Russian state an unusual capacity to coordinate all the instruments of state power in a cohesive strategy, neither of which claim is supported by firm evidence and neither of which stands up to close scrutiny.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, certainly no collective decision making. But then you say that it makes it “next to impossible to coordinate activities”… That it’s inefficient…

        Jeez, I don’t know. Why do they pay hundreds of millions to all those CEO stars every year? Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes, corporations and governments are different beasts, and yet, in my industry and many others there are many similarities with this negative effect of over-concentration of power in the CEO.

        Of course I’m biased here since I work in a research intensive industry that relies constantly making new things, but I see the increased salaries of the CEO as a big negative, and as a direct correlation with increased short-term quarterly thinking to increase shareholder value. Frequent layoffs mean whoever is left over is a careerist ‘yes-person’ and will not talk back to their boss. That’s why giant purchases of companies whose technology is garbage happen regularly these days; the researchers with experience to know better are either too scared to speak back, or have been laid off 10 years ago. And those tens of billions of dollars are just written off as an expected ‘industry risk’ because many of the smart people who would have mitigated that risk are not there.

        The big salary also means that the CEO can retire in five years and never worry about his (and it is a he around these parts) actions having consequences for the company and workers, as long as shareholder value was increased during his tenure, long term research and independent minded staff that guarantee the future can get cut.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. it is hard to take someone with the last name ‘blank’ seriously, but after reading his comment in the comment section, this is even more the case! what blank and donnelly state could be reversed very easily and i think is a more accurate statement on what is taking place today..”The West, under USA/UK leadership is at war with Russia; it’s innately aggressive and expansionist; and it’s extraordinarily effective at combining all the elements of statecraft into an integrated strategy.” perhaps mr Blank is being paid by the same shills running the unintegrity initiative? it sure looks like it… these folks can’t even do convincing propaganda.. not sure why any gov’t would want to fund them..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s because of ‘silos’ in the government. There are 11 intelligence agencies, or who knows how many, and they don’t really talk to each other, and some of the upstart ones decide to also take action against Russia to protect democracy, so they fund competing rebel groups in shithole countries, or think tanks in normal countries. And there are only so many experts on Russia around, but there is too much money and the agency need to have some results to show to the big guy on top and prove that they are better than the other agency, and maybe in the next budget the CIA will get less and they will get more. So, they hire whomever and tell them to produce and often you get sub-par results, but its rationalized away by saying that ‘what did you expect, the enemy has a super efficient government structure compared to us, that’s why we need more money’ or ‘well, the IQ in the US is slowly going down anyways so maybe no one will notice the logical fallacies in the target audience’.

      That’s why you have these failures from time to time. Very inefficient autocratic intelligence system funding all sorts of opinion makers often being at odds with each other. Still, to use the example of Nazi Germany from earlier, they still did pretty well economically and territoriality speaking despite all the inefficiencies. Just don’t start an information war against Russia and maybe things will work out.

      Oh wait…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “It is hard to take someone with the last name ‘blank’ seriously, but after reading his comment in the comment section, this is even more the case!”

      I heavily suspect that our “Stephen Blank” here in the comment section is actually Joe Smith the internet troll. From what I know of the actual Stephen Blank, I don’t think he would descend to the childishness and name-calling of our commenter. In retrospect, there have been a couple other similar cases in the past (eg. Amy Knight) where I have the same suspicion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe you’re right, Ryan. Hadn’t occurred to me. He did reply suspiciously rapidly. Perhaps I’ve been duped by a troll. Then again, some people are just very thin-skinned.


      2. Fair enough, weak argument no doubt. Concerning your first paragraph that is. So what?

        From what I know of the actual Stephen Blank, I don’t think he would descend to the childishness and name-calling of our commenter.

        For the record, I do not really care if the “Stephen Blank” surfacing here is real, a supporter, or simply a jester looking for entertainment. As far as I am concerned even Paul could have invented him for our shared entertainment. As some type of “devil’s advocate”. :::

        Admittedly, i looked a bit into the history of the posh publication. The whole volume is freely available online. It’s late owner and present publisher. What made them choose Blank vs. let’s say Dmitri Trenin, no expert on the topic, but someone he cites for the 2019 outlook? Was he chosen since he could be relied on to add all those bits and pieces and maybe even some more? What’s your take?

        Click to access Diplomat_JAN_2019.pdf

        What would you suggest, I should read of Blank? His article wasn’t exactly an advertisement for this author.

        i am no expert in either the game of glossy publications, diplomacy or political forecasts. Neither on trolls. I find the troll debate partly boring. And yes, strictly, I guess I wouldn’t mind to follow debates in comment sections on a higher communicative level, but then how to handle nitwits like me? We should be closed out?


  4. regarding stephen blank.. his name was on the list of integrity initiative members –
    his response? “Stephen Blank, Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, called the leak “utter nonsense.” meanwhile – integrity initiative confirmed the release of it’s documents shortly after they were released… so, taking anything stephen blank has to say, must be taken with a good grain of salt..

    Liked by 3 people

    1. How familiar are you with him? Offhand, it wouldn’t surprise if it’s him, while not ruling out the possibility that it isn’t.

      Recently, the actual Joel Harding acknowledged his presence in a thread at this venue.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Professor, I understand that you do not take “review orders” from anyone – you have busy schedule and established interests in certain topics, besides, hey – it’s me daring to recommend *you* we are talking about. But, given your past interest in the situation in the Eastern Ukraine (which you covered – at length – in your numerous blogposts), I assumed that the following article will be of interest both to you and to fellow members of the commentariat.

    One reading this article might be surprised that the author is an American – one Jonathan Brunson. Because, judging by the content and, especially judging by the insistent terminology, one might imagine, that the real author was щирый та справжній pureblooded racially Ukrainian nationalists going by a name Stepan Tarasovich Hitlerchuk (nee Moses Adolfovich Goebbelsohn, Ukro-Canadian diaspora).

    Implementing the Minsk Agreements Might Drive Ukraine to Civil War. That’s Been Russia’s Plan All Along

    Just three quotes:

    “Despite Ukraine’s many good reasons to be skeptical of Minsk, it remains the only official format for brokering peace in the Donbas conflict. It is, however, diplomatic theater because neither Kyiv nor Washington wants to implement it — they just say so publicly to neutralize criticism. Kyiv rightly suspects every outcome is to Moscow’s benefit and hence recoils. Why Western allies don’t is the real question.”

    “Donbas has also now twice flirted with secession. Its gambit during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution resulted in constitutional changes benefiting Ukraine’s pro-Russian fifth column, laying the basis for renewed conflict 10 years later in 2014. It is not in the national interest of a stable, coherent democracy reorienting West to reintegrate Donbas again.”

    “Can Ukraine implement Minsk? No. Does Ukraine want to reintegrate residents of pro-Russian breakaways Crimea and Donbas? No. Do anti-Ukrainian separatists want to reunify with Ukraine? No. Ukrainian patriots think Minsk is designed to destroy their country. Ukrainians — especially the nationalist activist part of civil society — care a lot about the damage they claim Minsk could inflict on their country, and remain prone to revolutionary rhetoric a mere five years after their last unfinished revolution. Only a pro-Russian government would ever dare to implement Minsk as currently written — and that might spark a real civil war.”

    Wow. Honesty is such a beautiful thing, innit? Feel free to ignore it if this is beyond the current format of your blog and interests.


    1. The title is kind of a laugh – ‘IMPLEMENTING THE MINSK AGREEMENTS MIGHT DRIVE UKRAINE TO CIVIL WAR.’ – as if there wasn’t a civil war already.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, but, I quote, “the Kremlin’s narrative of the conflict as a civil war instead of an act of Russian aggression” is a big no-no. Those are not proper racial Ukrainians fighting against Kiev loyalists – those are Checheno-Buryats and various primitive natives of the “Donbabve”.

        And the person who writes this is, as her his Twitter acc, is pro “peacebuilding, political warfare, social justice, and virtue signaling. Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable”. I mean – the most (just add LGBT+ rainbow) progressive and handshakable Westerner possible, right?


      2. His response to an article posted by Andreas Umland on ‘linked in’ without comment
        Germany Sidelines Ukraine, Negotiates With Russia on the Kerch Strait

        Jonathan Brunson Peacebuilding and political warfare

        “The bridge precludes the passage of large-tonnage vessels underneath its arch.” Russia intentionally cut off its own access to deep water Azov ports and naval bases at Taganrog, Rostov, and Yeysk?
        Responding to response
        Gregor Smith
        Gregor Smith Founder and CEO at Oklahoma Foundation For Energy Research and Solar Utility Innovation

        Wow, that is an interesting thought!!

        JB:After Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution, Russia invaded its vulnerable neighbor to stop Ukraine’s Western realignment and consolidation of its century-old movement to liberate itself from pro-Russian political forces, which Ukrainian activists deem internal occupation.

        The most interesting thing about the article was the linked excerpt from Mykhailo Minakov recent publication. Andreas Umland is one of the three persons without which the book wouldn’t have been published. The author tells us in the foreword. Among others Umland may have got the publisher interested. Interesting ibidem distributed via Columbia University Press.

        Revolutionary Cycles: Dialectics of Liberation and Liberty in Ukraine
        Mykhailo Minakov, December 2017

        Otherwise I agree. At points “fuck Europe” was on my mind. That was no doubt a more prominent voice at US State. Brunson worked for State in the Ukraine at the time.
        His linked in article suggests he may be looking for employers, semi-irony alert. As information-warrior, OSiNT/HUMINT specialist?

        See, he linked his article twice there, as of today. And it is reprinted quite a bit over the web too.


    2. “Does Ukraine want to reintegrate residents of pro-Russian breakaways Crimea and Donbas? No.”

      Yeah. There is actually more in this sentence than it sounds. The plan is to kill the undesirable residents, and to use the territory “as a resource”. As explained by journalist Bogdan Butkevych (still there, still a journalist in good standing), back in 2014. Hromadske TV, April 29th, 2014. You can find video on youtube.


  6. Beyond that, the article largely tells us what we already knew – that Kiev has absolutely no intention of implementing Minsk, but also doesn’t have any other ideas about how to bring the war to an end – ergo it will likely dribble along in its current form for a long yet.


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