Book review: the lands in between

I’m told that the famous British journalist Bernard Levin was once fired from his job as a theatre critic after he failed to write about the play he’d been told to review but instead filed an article detailing the walk he’d taken after he left the play half way through. It was Levin’s way of saying how terrible the play had been.

I’m tempted to take the same approach with Mitchell Orenstein’s book The Lands in Between: Russia vs the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War, recently published by Oxford University Press (OUP). Is it really worth giving it attention it doesn’t deserve? It would be much more entertaining to tell you instead about my outing last Friday to Sergiev Posad. But I promised OUP that I would review it (though after this one, I doubt that they’ll send me any more books to read!). So I shall. If nothing else, it will serve to demonstrate what sort of stuff is now being propagated by serious publishing houses and how exactly the architects of the ‘New Cold War’ go about spreading fear among the general population.


Orenstein’s thesis is that politics in ‘the lands in between’ Russia and Western Europe (i.e. states such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova) are a precursor of what we in the Western world can expect to experience in our own countries. In the face of aggressive Russian ‘hybrid war’, politics in the lands in between has become increasingly polarized between two civilizational projects – that of the ‘peaceful’, democratic European Union; and that of the ‘Soviet Union 2.0’, Orenstein’s name for the authoritarian ‘Russian empire’ (the Soviet Union and Russia being apparently coterminous). Influential ‘power brokers’ exploit the polarization produced by the competition between these two projects by playing both sides off against each other, in the process corrupting and undermining both liberalism and democracy. As Russian hybrid war expands beyond the ‘lands in between’ into Western Europe and North America, it is producing the same results there, creating a new ‘politics of polarization’ and elevating ‘oligarchs and power brokers’. In short, due to the malign influence of Russia, the West is bit by bit turning into Moldova.

To make this argument, Orenstein resorts to well-established Russophobic stereotypes. ‘Russians have ears everywhere’; ‘Russia has a time-honored tradition of imperial aggression’; Russia is a ‘kleptocratic, mafia state’; and so on. Rather amusingly, he remarks that, ‘The Russian government constantly tries to frighten Russians into believing that the West is out to get Russia’, while himself doing his utmost to frighten Westerners into believing that Russia is out to get them. Russia, he says, ‘has launched an all-out hybrid war’ on the West. It aims to ‘promote xenophobic extremism, and destabilize Western democracies’ in order to ‘destroy the EU from within’. Russia’s evil plans need to be taken seriously – ‘it is very possible,’ Orenstein says, ‘that Russia’s attempts to undermine Western institutions will succeed.’ Thanks to Russia, ‘We find ourselves on the brink of civil war’.

This is decidedly alarmist stuff. But it rests on very shaky ground. Orenstein’s methodology is to repeat uncritically every allegation made about Russian aggression, without ever attempting to analyze the accuracy of the claims in question. Thus we get the by now mandatory mentions of the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’; assertions about Donald Trump’s ‘collusion’ with the Russian government; claims that Brexit was a ‘Russian victory’; association of Vladimir Putin with ‘fascist thinkers such as Ivan Ilyin and Alexander Dugin’; and so on. As anybody who follows this blog will know, they’re all bunk.

Now to be fair, for the most part Orenstein doesn’t say that such things are actually true. Rather, he says that somebody else has ‘alleged’ or ‘claimed’ that they are. Thus we are told that ‘It was alleged that key Trump advisers, including Paul Manafort, met to arrange Russian assistance to the [Trump] campaign’; that a ‘German-based researcher’ ‘alleged’ that ‘systema’ fight clubs are fronts for Russian military intelligence; that ‘Some speculate whether Russia might someday seek to invade the Baltic States’; that a former Hungarian spy, ‘alleged that the Orban government was facilitating Russian intelligence operations against the EU’; that ‘some have claimed that the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, has Russian business ties’; that ‘a number of reports have suggested that Russia had a hand in financing the Brexit campaign’; and so on. What Orenstein doesn’t tell readers is that many of these allegations are entirely unsubstantiated or even false. Take Brexit, for instance. It is indeed true that people have ‘suggested’ that Russia funded the Brexit campaign via businessman Arron Banks, but no evidence to support this claim has ever been produced. Orenstein doesn’t provide that information. He simply allows the allegations to pile up, as if they were all entirely accurate.

He also resorts to other tricks. He conflates the USSR and the Russian Federation, speaking of the ‘Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ in 1968. He also sometimes makes claims which don’t fit with the evidence provided in the sources he cites. For instance, he claims that ‘Russian military jets were intercepted 110 times in 2016 by NATO jets for violating NATO airspace’. In fact, the cited source (an article in Newsweek) actually says, ‘Russian military aircraft near the Baltic Sea were intercepted by NATO jets 110 times in 2016. … The vast majority of the interceptions were made before any incursion into sovereign allied airspace.’

This isn’t the only occasion on which Orenstein appears not to have bothered checking his information. For instance, he writes that, ‘On September 17, 2009, the Obama administration announced that it was dropping plans for a missile defence system in Poland and Czechia.’ In fact, the administration merely reconfigured the proposed system. As then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at the time, ‘Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing.’

In another example, Orenstein states that, ‘The United States announced that it has evidence that Russian launched an unusual sonic or microwave attack on its embassy staff and their families in Cuba. … These attacks are meant to warn or frighten Western states.’ If he had bothered to check this story, he would have known that the cause of the ‘sonic attacks’ remains unknown, although various theories, such as that the sounds were produced by crickets, have been proposed. In yet another case, Orenstein writes that, ‘One Russian exercise in 2009 simulated a tactical nuclear strike on Warsaw and subsequent invasion.’ But as Chatham House’s Keir Giles (himself the author of a Russophobic book) points out, ‘it is commonly accepted, but not necessarily true, that Zapad-2009 ended with a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw. … All Western analysis quoting this as fact can be traced back to a single news report [in the Daily Telegraph], which did not in fact suggest that an attack on Poland had been simulated—this suggestion only came in the headline, which was added later.’

In short, things are not quite how Orenstein portrays them. One gets the strong impression of a woeful lack of fact checking. The method is simply to pick any anti-Russian allegation and repeat it without attempting to determine whether it is true, let alone warn readers that it might not be. This is not what one would expect in a work published by OUP, which in the world of academic publishing is as prestigious as it gets and whose name is supposedly a guarantee of high quality research.

In any case, Orenstein’s central thesis suffers from a serious internal contradiction. On the one hand, he says that geopolitical competition is polarizing European politics, forcing people to choose between Russia and the West; on the other hand, he says that the result is the rise of ‘power brokers’ who play both sides off against each other. But either Europeans are dividing between Russia and the West, or they’re not. They can’t be doing both at the same time. Furthermore, Orenstein lists a whole load of examples which suggest that they’re not polarizing in quite the way he says they are. Belarus is a case in point, but as he also writes, ‘Azerbaijan too has carefully managed relations with both sides’, refusing to join either Eurasian Economic Union or to conclude a free trade agreement with the EU. And he continues, ‘Armenia likewise has sought to follow a path between Russia and the EU which is remarkable for its flexibility.’ Clearly, there’s much more going on in ‘the lands in between’ other than geopolitics.

Politics in fact remains largely domestic. The idea that it’s all about Russia and the West is a gross oversimplification. As for the idea that Western states are all becoming like Moldova, I must admit that I am rather lost for words. I don’t see it at all. Besides which, this past week we’ve seen ‘pro-Russian’ and ‘pro-EU’ parties in Moldova coming together to form a common front against the previous government. This puts rather a massive hole in Orenstein’s argument that ‘geopolitics has become the number-one political issue in these countries. … The main issue in national politics is whether to join Soviet Union 2.0 or to achieve national independence in an EU framework.’ Apparently, it’s not.

The only thing I can say in favour of this book is that on occasion it is unintentionally amusing. I liked, for instance, the assertion that, ‘Russian propaganda has also tried to convince Central Europeans that the United States is conspiring to sell Europe expensive American gas, rather than cheap Russian gas.’ I guess, then, that the fact that something is ‘Russian propaganda’ doesn’t mean that it’s disinformation. Even better, though, was this gem which comes right at the end of the book:

The lands in between face a stark choice of trying to leave the Russian empire behind and fighting for their independence or being reincorporated into Soviet Union 2.0. If they choose independence, they must follow the dictates of the European Union, engaging in a thorough transformation of their economies and governance.

‘If they choose independence, they must follow the dictates of the European Union’. You gotta laugh. It’s not enough to make me a Brexiteer, but almost…

The Lands in Between begins with a quotation from what was possibly the worst book about Russia published in 2018 – Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom. Snyder and Orenstein are clearly birds of a feather. They share the view that good (the West) and evil (Russia) are locked in a geopolitical battle, in which the latter is insidiously undermining the former and is on the cusp of destroying it. In this sense they are the exact parallels of the Russian authors I wrote about in my last post. Together they peddle similar phobias, feeding off each other, and stimulating fear on both sides of the current East-West divide. Starikov and co. on the one side, and Snyder, Orenstein, and their ilk on the other, are all one and the same in my view. I’ve had it up to here with them, Russian and Western equally. Perhaps I should have written about my trip to Sergiev Posad, after all.

31 thoughts on “Book review: the lands in between”

  1. paul – thanks for this.. it seems like a whole edifice on allegations has been in development for a number of years, right into the skripal and mueller investigation which are like the candles on the cake of it all.. many who bother with the western msm are eating this cake 24/7 unaware of what the ingredients are that have gone into baking it… your book review summarizes it for anyone lucky enough to read your commentary..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. OUP. Dang. It’s like when Yale University Press published Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire.
    I’d be lying if I said my respect for OUP didn’t decrease after reading this review.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I take it that my comment in the previous blogpost got “buried” in the filter in the name of “deconfliction”. Oh, well. You have the right to do it, Professor.

    “Snyder and Orenstein are clearly birds of a feather. “

    Gevalt-gevalt! What an unbridled Anti-semitism, Professor!


    1. Snyder isn’t Jewish. Actually he’s come under intense criticism for believing decidedly indifferent about the Holocaust but very sympathetic to the fate of Baltic and Ukrainian nationalists:

      Click to access Omer-Bartovs-review-of-Bloodlands.pdf

      Please don’t start with anti-semitic tropes and cliches.


      1. “Snyder isn’t Jewish”

        Timothy David Snyder son of Estel Eugene Snyder? Maybe. Maybe.

        “Please don’t start with anti-semitic tropes and cliches.”

        Where have you seen me doing it?


    2. If you read Snyder’s biography you’ll see he isn’t Jewish by any stretch of the imagination. Also a German name in a person means nothing. Many Jews have German names because a lot of Eastern European Jews are descended from German Jews who lived as far west as the Rhineland and came to Poland then Russia.
      Also trying to find ‘hidden’ Jews is classic behaviour of a certain kind. And I am utterly baffled by this idea that there is some ‘Jewish’ conspiracy against Russia. Given that the people who hate Russia hate Jews – and for many of the same reasons – this is not a coherent conspiracy and certainly one with no basis in any kind of historical or contemporary reality.


      1. “If you read Snyder’s biography”

        This is impossible, because such “biography” does not exist. Only tidbits from different interviews. This is not a “biography”. Biography, a real one, would take into accounts his ancestors on both parts of his family to 5th generation (at least). Do you have a link to such biography?

        “Also trying to find ‘hidden’ Jews is classic behaviour of a certain kind”

        What kind?

        “And I am utterly baffled by this idea that there is some ‘Jewish’ conspiracy against Russia.”

        Who said that?

        “Given that the people who hate Russia hate Jews – and for many of the same reasons – this is not a coherent conspiracy and certainly one with no basis in any kind of historical or contemporary reality.”

        So, you are denying that there are ethnic Jews who hate Russia and the Russians?


      2. Why 5 generations? Why not 10 generations? And why even focus on Judaism in a family history when it is a religion? You might as well focus on Orthodox faith as a metric of anti-Russian sentiment by that logic as the Soviet regime was an atheistic regime and many Russians self identify as atheists.

        And really you are using an article by a Russo-Jewish author complaining of other people of a Russo-Jewish background spouting Russophobia as proof of some Jewish conspiracy?

        Also if Snyder is ‘Jewish’, albeit the way you use the term everybody of European descent is probably Jewish, he has a funny way of showing it. In the article I linked Israeli historian Omer Bartov complains how Synder ignores or excuses the complicity of people in the so-called ‘Bloodlands’ in the Holocaust, which Bartov himself like many other historians links with the anti-Russian genocide. And for the Jews in the region it was a double whammy as many of the non-Russians in the area identified them both as ‘Russians’ and ‘Jews’ and in the minds of many of the ultranationalists ‘Russian’ and ‘Jew’ are one and the same?

        So Lyttenburgh, in any of your sudden anti-semitic outbursts did you consider any of that? Or did you just decide to say whatever thought happened to form in your head at the time?


      3. “Why 5 generations? Why not 10 generations?”

        Nah, 10+ generations are reserved for truly famous people. Like, on my shelf I have numerous biographies. Admiral Kolchak’s begins with his 18th c. ancestors, who were Albanian pasha’s serving the Ottomans. The biography of general Vrangel delves deep into the past, starting with different branches of Vrangels, how they intertwined, and which were among his direct ancestors.

        “And why even focus on Judaism”

        I did not ONCE mentioned person’s religion persuasion in my comments, dewittbourchie. I’m talking about ethnicity.

        “You might as well focus on Orthodox faith as a metric of anti-Russian sentiment by that logic as the Soviet regime was an atheistic regime and many Russians self identify as atheists”

        That’s faulty logic at work. One – Orthodox Christianity is not monopolized by the Russians (e.g. Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs etc.). Two – see above, so quit this strawman.

        “And really you are using an article by a Russo-Jewish author complaining of other people of a Russo-Jewish background spouting Russophobia as proof of some Jewish conspiracy?”

        Another strawman. Where did I claimed there is “some Jewish conspiracy?” Also – did you read the article? Your opinion on its contents, if you may.

        “Also if Snyder is ‘Jewish’, albeit the way you use the term everybody of European descent is probably Jewish”

        That’s Highly Unlikely ™. Also – don’t put words into my mouth.

        “in the minds of many of the ultranationalists ‘Russian’ and ‘Jew’ are one and the same?”

        Yes. Because, ultimately, for any nationalist/natzional-liberal, Soviet = Russian, therefore all those somehow elevated by the Soviet power = Russians.

        How’s your Ukrainian, dewittbourchie? Enough to get the gist of this:

        “So Lyttenburgh, in any of your sudden anti-semitic outbursts”

        Please, point out what you consider “anti-semitic outbursts” from what I’ve wrote.

        Now, attention please. You ignored the following:

        – That there is no biography of Tymothy D. Snyder in existence, yet you recommended me to read it.

        – You didn’t describe what kind of “classic behaviour” is “trying to find hidden Jews”, neither did you provide any proof that it is even a thing

        – You failed to provide ANY kind of proof, that I promote “Jewish’ conspiracy against Russia”, yet you wrote (several times already) about it as if it was a fact.

        – You avoided question, whether there are ethnic Jews engaging in highly publicized Russophobia.

        I’m patient, dewittbourchier. And hopeful. So I hope to get real answers from you next time – not just your ordinary strawmen.


      4. Someone’s biography is distinct from a published biography. I have a biography, you do too.

        There is no such ethnic group as ‘Jew.’ Jew is a religious descriptor not an ethnicity.

        You say I did not read your articles, but I did. Yasha Levine is one of my favourite authors, but I am certain you did not read mine. If you had you wouldn’t say I was pro-Ukrainian. Or has rubbishing Snyder and ‘The Bloodlands’ become pro-Ukrainian?


      5. “Someone’s biography is distinct from a published biography. I have a biography, you do too.”

        Once again, I repeat: Do you have a link to such biography [of Snyder]? Because you also said, and I quote: “If you read Snyder’s biography” (c). Do you even know what is a biography?

        “There is no such ethnic group as ‘Jew.’ Jew is a religious descriptor not an ethnicity.”

        There is. The practitioner of the Judaism, the religion, might not be an ethnic Jew, and vice verse – and ethnic Jew might not be Judaist. Jew =/= Judaist.

        “If you had you wouldn’t say I was pro-Ukrainian”

        Have you no shame, dewittbourchier? Why are you lying? Where did I say that?

        Also – how about addressing all other of your inane claims and lies?


  4. I liked the story about ‘Russia’ shipping American blacks to Africa, turning them into commandos, and then shipping them back to establish a pan-African state in the US southern states.

    It’s been alleged, claimed, and reported. Apparently produced by ‘Putin’s critic’ and ‘opposition figure’ Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

    And it didn’t make it into the book? How disappointing.


    1. Thanks for the link. If you hadn’t shared it I would have thought it would have come from some crazy site like Info Wars. This is utterly dope. Who really allows themselves to be taken in by such fever dreams? Utterly deplorable.


    1. Just a few graphs into the tale, we read, ‘The documents were obtained through the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative project funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky. NBC News has not independently verified the materials, but forensic analysis by the Dossier Center appeared to substantiate the communications.’
      This is what passes for journalism, eh?


  5. As for the idea that Western states are all becoming like Moldova, I must admit that I am rather lost for words.

    pattern wise it seems rather present. As usual in variations. Full discovery, I am not on board of limited intake of refugees … that would need much longer reflection.

    But the US changed due to immigrants inflow into whatever South American nation seemed pretty frequent in arguments t on SST lately.


  6. Once again, I don’t understand Professor’s outrage at his own side. I understand fully well, why he despises Starikov and his literary output – Russia is not allowed to fight back (and fight back appropriately low) in the information warfare.

    But listen to your own Masters of the (Western) Opinion! According to them:

    A) The West is the Best thing that ever happened to Humanity at large
    B) Therefore – The West can Do No Wrong
    C) Russia attacked the Beating Heart of the West in 2016
    D) Therefore – there is a state of War between the West and Russia.
    E) This War, either hybrid or not, must be waged, and everyone must do their part.

    Listen to various talking heads, read comments and op-eds. These people call Russia the Enemy. No one really questions whether it’s legitimate or even legal to do so. Russia is the Enemy – period. There is a (hybrid) War with Russia – period. If there is a war, there must be a war propaganda. This book is just another example of it.

    THEREFORE, it would be much better instead of wry indignation, try to seriously assess does the book deliver on being top-tier (after all, it bears Oxford’s brand of approval) a propaganda materiel.

    Rate the style. The overall writing must be very simple, highly digestible so that the book could be consumed by the broadest category of the Westerners.

    Rate the plausibility. Best propaganda is a proverbial Alchemical Great Work™, containing in equilibrium enough doses of truth so that consumers would believe it, but also enough lies so that to implant the right thoughts.

    Rate the accessibility. Who are the prime targets of this work of propaganda? Is the price/copies ratio and the medium of distribution sufficient to cover them all?

    Rate the defensibility. How easily are the “facts” within could be disproved by and large? Do the combination of the factors mentioned above make the target consumership still defense and (religiously) believe in the “facts” even after presented with the proof to the contrary?

    And other stuff. C’mon, Professor – you were an officer in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces once! By jingo, time to Do Your Part once again!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Paul, thank you for the “unintentionally amusing” review of The Lands in Between. I think you should do a better job, however, policing the Jew-baiting tactics of your frequent commentators to your site. Particularly, there was one commentator who thought that when you said Tim Snyder and I are “birds of a feather,” you meant that Tim Snyder and I were both Jewish. He wanted to go back five generations in Tim’s family to check. I think that will be a hopeless task, as he is not Jewish, as you probably know. But you did nothing to address this, even though you clearly read the comments and left you own below this exchange. I mention that because when you get anti-Semitic and Jew-baiting frequent commentators on your website, it is a quick clue-off that you are attracting the conspiratorially-minded to your work. In this case, the conspiracy you are pushing is that contemporary Russia under Putin is completely blameless and yet “Russophobes” (like myself) are making up all manner of accusations because of our irrational hatred of Russia. Nothing we say could possibly be true. Therefore, we must have ulterior motives for saying it, such as being owned by the military industrial complex, in the grip of some bizarre ideology, etc. The idea that we have done careful and specific research over a decade and come to a different conclusion from you is excluded as a possibility. Yet there is plenty of evidence that Russia has sought to promote a polarizing and extremist politics in Europe — look at the recent recordings in Italy of a Lega representative’s negotiations for Kremlin funding.
    The fact that you choose to ignore or debunk everything, rather than take it seriously, makes you a conspiracy theorist too. One notable example is that you seem to think that the Mueller report says that Russia did not intervene in the US 2016 election, when it clearly says that Russia did launch a sustained attack. I dare you to read the Mueller report and write a book review of it. Perhaps that too will be amusing reading. It is, by the way, a best seller on US-Russia relations.

    Here is a link to my review of Stephen F. Cohen’s book on the hybrid war between Russia and the US and several other similar works, for your further amusement:–orenstein-2019-05?barrier=accesspaylog


    1. Dear Mitchell,

      Thanks for taking time to respond to my review. I don’t, of course, expect you to have been happy with what I wrote, but I stand by it.

      I note that you concentrate your ire on what was written in the comments section by one persistent troll. In the first place, the specific comments were rebutted by others, so not requiring any comment by me, and second some nonsense written by a commentator doesn’t undermine the solidity of my review.

      You maintain that, ‘, the conspiracy you are pushing is that contemporary Russia under Putin is completely blameless’. This is nonsense, and something I have never done. On the contrary, I have consistently stated that both Russia and the West have contributed to the current crisis in relations – in so doing, I merely counter the prevailing narrative that everything is entirely Russia’s fault. If you read back in this blog, you will find this to be the case. I have never deemed Russia blameless, and never will, for the simple fact that it would be inaccurate and silly to do so.

      It is striking that you fail to rebut any of the specific criticisms I made of your book, particularly of factual errors. Instead of attacking me, as you do, if you wish to defend your book it is necessary to address those criticisms and explain why I am wrong. Your failure to do so, and your resort to ad hominem attacks (that I am a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – despite the fact that this blog consistently rejects conspiracy theories), suggests that you are unable to do so. For that reason, the criticisms must stand.


      1. Hey, Lyttenburgh is a brilliant commenter (or brilliant troll, if you prefer). And getting carried away occasionally is inherent in the nature of this medium.


      2. Mitchell,

        I have made my position re. anti-Semitism very clear in this post denouncing the Russia Insider and Saker blogs:

        Anti-Semitic comments are very rare on this blog. I have only come across a couple of them ever. When I do see them, I delete them. In this case it was unnecessary A) because I interpreted the initial comment not as anti-Semitic but as accusing me of anti-Semitism (albeit perhaps inadvertently), and B) somebody else had already called out the comment before I read it. I can assure you that had anything been written in this thread which I considered a derogatory statement concerning Jews, it would have been deleted.

        In essence, your accusations against me of tolerating extremist language are unfair.

        Beyond that, I find it interesting that you do not refute the inaccuracies and distortions in your book that I pointed out in my review. You just complain that I am cherrypicking a ‘few’ inaccuracies and as such am trollling. I am not. In my opinion, there are far too many such inaccuracies. It is not a case of there being a ‘few’, but of a pattern of factual errors. The overall impression is of poor fact checking. Moreover, the errors of fact always point in the same direction – that is to say, you always err on the side of Russia being made to look more dangerous and never the other way. This suggests a strong bias and a tendency to be less than critical in your treatment of sources. (For instance, on the matter of violations of airspace, yes Russian aircraft do on occasion violate foreign airspace, but so too do Western countries’ aircraft. The Danish minister of defence recently admitted that his own country’s aircraft actually violate Swedish airspace more often than the Russians do! Ignoring this sort of detail and singling out Russia is indicative of a strong and unscholarly bias)

        These same problems can be see in some of the analytical frameworks you make references to, for instance your apparently approving mentions of Timothy Snyder’s book ‘Road to Unfreedom’ (see my review of it, plus those in The Nation magazine and on H-Net). You say that I am wrong in accusing you of using ‘stereotypes’, but I stand by that. Imperial ‘aggression’, for instance, is no more a Russian thing than it is a British one, or a French one, or a Spanish one, or an American one for that matter. There are indeed commentators who have called Russia a ‘kleptocracy’, but there are also highly reputed academics who say that this label is false (e.g. Richard Sakwa). A nuanced analysis would take these complexities into consideration.



  8. Paul, thanks for your response. I will respond as you request, but I ask that you do as I request and take a stronger line against anti-semitism and Jew-baiting in your moderated blog. Apparently, you approve all the commentary, am I right, but yet you continue to allow obvious anti-semites and Jew-baiters to be part of this community, without comment from you, which amounts to support of their outrageous views, sorry. It is a blind spot that you need to remedy.

    If you have trolls on your webpage, isn’t that why you have a moderated blog, to block their offensive drivel? And their defenders? You need to do this to keep credibility, IMO. I would like to see a strong statement from you that anti-semitism and Jew-baiting is not appropriate on your blog. You should take a stronger stance, rather than publishing it without comment.

    I appreciate that you say that, “I have consistently stated that both Russia and the West have contributed to the current crisis in relations.” However, in your commentary on my book, you reject all my findings about Russia’s contributions to this crisis and seek to debunk them by stating that Orenstein “resorts to well-established Russophobic stereotypes, ‘Russians have ears everywhere’; ‘Russia has a time-honored tradition of imperial aggression’; Russia is a ‘kleptocratic, mafia state’.”

    Yet, these are not “stereotypes” but research findings. The first comes from interviews from high-level officials in Brussels. As a historian of imperial Russia, I am surprised that you think it is controversial to say that Russia has a time-honored tradition of imperial aggression. And the finding that Russia is a kleptocratic state is the subject of a careful book written by Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy, and the mafia state concept comes from a multi-year research project and book written by Balint Magyar. Yet you treat these as “stereotypes.”

    So, I have a lot to say in defense of my book, its accuracy, its basis in serious scholarship, and in reality. I am just not certain that you are paying attention. In particular, I am surprised that you failed to mention in your review that I too “have consistently stated that both Russia and the West have contributed to the current crisis in relations.” You fail to mention that the center of my analysis is that BOTH sides are to blame for the failure of understanding. I argue that the actions of both sides are at the root of the security dilemma in Europe. Europe has done things that aggravate Russian threat perceptions. For instance, on p. 24, “Russia, after the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, began to perceive EU democratic promotion in former Soviet states, including Russia itself, as an existential threat to the Putin regime.”

    So, I see your review as an attempt to discredit a narrative that you don’t like for some ideological reason. You accuse me of, “repeat[ing] uncritically every allegation made about Russian aggression, without ever attempting to analyze the accuracy of the claims in question,” trying to make me out as an ideologue. Yet I have carefully studied the role of Russia in funding extremist parties in Europe, something you apparently believe is happening. I have carefully studied the role of Russia’s attempt to use energy geopolitics to influence politics in Europe, something you presumably also believe happened.

    One of the reasons I did not previously debunk your debunking of the book is that you did not take aim at any of the central theses of the book, but only picked and chose a few instances where you believe the news articles I relied on may have been inaccurate or partial. I don’t think you have disputed seriously that Russia believes itself to be involved in a hybrid war with the US, that it seeks to interfere with Western elections, that it funds extremist parties in Western elections.

    In obvious trolling fashion, you take aim instead at a number of disconnected items that you cherry pick just challenge them in an attempt to convince the reader that the arguments are not solid. So, for instance, you say that I am inaccurate to say that Russia seeks to invade NATO airspace in the Baltics. You point out that most of these incursion attempts are met by NATO jets PRIOR to the Russian planes actually getting inside NATO airspace, which is common practice. Really? Does that change the fact that Russia is frequently using military flight incursions to warn the West or threaten the Baltics?

    Anyway, the bottom line is that your review is a big troll. I would encourage you to read the book, address the main arguments, and try to avoid dismissing the mountain of evidence I present there as “stereotypes.” Also, you might read the EU chapter and talk about my analysis of how the EU has sought to deal with the perceived Russian threat, the sanctions regime (apparently you did not disagree with or read that part of the book).

    And if you want to prove that you are not a troll, then I would further advise you to speak out against the anti-semitic and Jew-baiting trolls and their sympathizers who populate your discussion board.

    Best, Mitchell.


  9. Dear Paul, thank you for your reasoned response. I read the blogpost you recommended, where you responded to anti-semitism on another blog by delinking to it. In that post, you write, “Moderation; nuance; balance – those are the values which we need to bring to the discussion, and those are the values which I hope this blog succeeds in promoting.”

    But I do not find that you brought those values to your review of my work. Quite the opposite, you seek to trash the work by calling it laughable, unintentionally funny, based on stereotypes, etc., and not dealing with any of the central arguments of the book, which are:

    1. Russia is waging a hybrid war on the West.
    2. While there are important academic disputes about when (not if) this happened, I take the position that it started prior to Putin’s 2007 Munich Security Conference speech.
    3. Russia uses a wide variety of methods, including funding extremist parties in the West, covert methods (about which we probably have imperfect information), oil geopolitics, hacking, social media influence campaigns (which are well documented in the Mueller report), and, to a limited extent, also military threats and attacks (such as nuclear saber-rattling and air space intrusions).
    4. Academics have different perspectives on why this happened, some blame Putin, some blame the West, some blame deep history and Russia’s long-term troubled relations with the West. I suspect that most of these academic perspectives have merit, but it is hard to adjudicate, so I look at proximate causes and find that the best way to look at this is as a security dilemma, in which the actions of both sides are aggravating the situation.
    5. In particular, Russia around 2007 began to believe that it was facing an existential threat from the West and began to wage a “hybrid war.” I note that the terminology is disputed, but this is a convenient label for the wide variety of mostly non-military methods by which it is fought.
    6. After a considerable delay, the West began to respond. In several ways, responding to Russian gas shutoffs with the “third energy package” of measures, and, after the Crimea invasion, through sanctions. This response has been stronger than many suppose.
    7. Western responses have only further escalated the conflict and the Kremlin (or Russia) has not backed down.
    8. As a result, countries in between Russia and the EU have been put under severe pressure, as two large neighbors compete for influence in their territory.
    9. This puts pressure on countries to choose EU membership or Eurasian Economic Union membership, what some in the region do, in fact, call a “civilizational choice” (actually, Putin and the Orthodox Church have also used this terminology).
    10. As a result, politics has become increasingly polarized in these countries.
    11. Paradoxically, this increases the economic returns to “power brokers” who seek to transcend these divides and take rents from both sides. Some of the top oligarchs and politicians in these countries find that they can increase their independence of maneuver by playing Russia and the West off against one another (though this is perilous in the case of Plahotniuc, for instance).
    12. Strangely, as more countries are caught up in this conflict, this politics of polarization and power brokers is more evident in Central Europe, Western Europe, and North America.

    I mention all this by way of saying that you do not, in your review, address many of the key points in the book. Anyway, for me, it remains completely unclear which of these arguments you agree with (and believe are adequately supported) and which you disagree with. I suspect that you agree with quite a lot of them, and for that reason chose not to include them in your review.

    Instead, as in your response, you allege that I rely on distorted press reports and that I don’t filter them adequately (fact check) or am biased in the ones I select.

    Now, you do devote an entire paragraph of your review to noting that I do note, where I judged it reasonable, that I was discussing unverified claims I found reported in reputable newspapers, but I was not confident enough in accepting as proven fact. However, you attribute nefarious motives to me in doing so, calling this one of the “tricks” I use to paint Russia in a poor light. Or maybe just good scholarly practice to talk about the value of your sources?

    You note four instances that you believe indicate that I am playing fast and loose with the facts:

    1. The previously mentioned issue of increased Russian violations of Baltic airspace (which is absolutely true, I stand by that). Your response that this is akin to Danish violations of Swedish airspace is absurd. Russian intrusions are not innocent, they are meant to send a message and they are increasing in number.

    2. That the Obama administration dropped plans for missile defense in Czech Republic and Poland. You say the US did not, but merely reconfigured it. Noted that there are many disputes about this; I have discussed this issue extensively with Obama administration officials and Polish officials. I stand by my claims. My understanding is that the reconfigured missile defense units were stationed in other countries, Romania I think, though I would have to check on that, so you probably just missed that nuance.

    3. The sonic attacks in Cuba. What I reported there was factually completely accurate, the US did release a statement blaming Russia. I don’t think I took it on face value, or said it did happen, but reported it as I thought it was relevant. I admit to being skeptical about the crickets theory, but I suppose that is possible too.

    4. Zapad 2009 simulating a nuclear attack on Warsaw. Here you may have me. I was not aware that everything came from one news article, and will look into that. However, I would point out that this was not the only instance of Russia using war games to simulate nuclear attacks. Apparently, the same happened in Vostok-18. And the book contains a short discussion of the Russian escalate to de-escalate nuclear strategy, by which it plans to use smaller nuclear warheads in Europe to stop a potential attacker in its tracks. I am assured by former US officials that this is real, and explains why this type of attack remains a part of Russian war games training.

    So, I reject your unfounded accusations about playing fast and loose with the facts. Because the book is intended for a “crossover” and more general readership, I use endnotes and do not go deeply into any one issue in the book, preferring instead to offer a general overview. But if you want to talk facts, I can certainly provide additional documentation for every claim in the book. In most case, I could probably have written five pages, but constrained myself to a single paragraph.

    I appreciate your reasoned response to the above. In particular, I am curious to find out which specific claims I make in the book you agree with and which you disagree with, which did not come through clearly in your review.

    I also appreciate your comments about the strange coincidence in which most of the previous responses to your review devolved into a weird discussion about anti-semitic innuendos, which was certainly unfortunate.


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