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.