Russian conservatism talk

On Tuesday evening, I gave a talk at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) about my book. The text of my talk is below. It was delivered in English, with consecutive translation, but Q&A was in Russian.

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Mission creep

I’m in Moscow this week, and seeing that my hotel had some free copies of the newspaper Kommersant lying around, I picked one up to see what was in the news. The number one story was yesterday’s meeting in Sochi between the Russian and Turkish presidents. Conveniently, Kommersant included the full text of the agreement. This included the following points:

• ‘Both sides confirm their commitment to preserving Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity.’
• ‘They underline their determination to fight terrorism in all its forms.’
• ‘Starting at 1200 hrs on 23 October 2019, units of the Russian military police and the Syria border service will be deployed to the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border beyond the limits of Operation Peace Spring. They will assist the extraction of units and weapons of the YPG (i.e. Kurdish forces) to 30 km from the Syrian-Turkish border , which must be completed within 150 hours from 1200 hrs, 23 October 2019. From that moment, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will commence up to a depth of 10 km from the border.’

The Russian government will no doubt portray this as proof of the advantages of ‘jaw-jaw over war-war.’ Through diplomacy, they have ensured that the Turkish military offensive will come to an end, and that there will be no humanitarian disaster of the type which so many in the Western press had argued would be the likely result of Turkey’s actions. They have also gotten the Turks to confirm Syria’s ‘political unity and territorial integrity, and found a way of bringing the Syrian-Turkish border back under Syrian control. These can all be seen as significant achievements.

But they come at a price. The Russian military mission in Syria at first had clear goals: destroy terrorist groups and prevent the collapse of the existing regime. These goals have the advantage that one can easily determine when they’re achieved. But now Russia has taken on a new and completely open-ended commitment – guarding the Syrian border. How will we know when its purpose is achieved? We won’t.

There’s a phrase for this sort of thing – mission creep. It’s not very desirable. In the past I’ve suggested that the Russians might have a better understanding than their American rivals of the first principle of war – selection and maintenance of the aim. Perhaps I was wrong. Russia, it seems, is just as prone to mission creep as anyone else. It looks like the Russians might well be stuck in Syria for a very long time to come.

How peace became unthinkable

A couple of articles in the New York Times really struck me this Sunday. For they reveal with the utmost clarity the bizarre way that Americans view the world, especially the respectable folk of the ‘moderate’ Democratic left who write and read the New York Times.

First up was a front page article about the US withdrawal from northern Syria in the face of the newly commenced Turkish invasion. The withdrawal has driven good-thinking liberals into a really tizzy. Trump withdraws American troops from a country they had no legal right to be in in the first place! How dare he?! To express its indignation, The Times cited a series of experts who explained that the president’s decision would have serious consequences for America’s credibility (while ignoring the possibility that fighting a whole bunch of unwinnable wars might be rather worse for one’s reputation). Repeated promises by American leaders to reduce their country’s troop presence in the Middle East has had the result of ‘unnerving partners like Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies which rely on American protection’, The Times tells us. Why these countries can’t defend themselves given the vast amounts of money they spend on defence we aren’t told (Israel and Saudi Arabia are hardly military minnows). What we are told instead is that:

Critics say that Mr. Trump’s zigzagging in Middle Eastern politics has emboldened regional foes, unnerved American partners, and invited a variety of other regional or international players to seek to exert their influence. … ‘It is chaos’, said Michael Stephens, a scholar of the region at the Royal United Services Institute in London, ‘The region is in chaos because the hegemonic power does not seem to know what it wants to do, and so nobody else does.’

This really is the most palpable nonsense. Is the chaos in Iraq a product of the US not knowing what it wanted to do? Or is it a direct product of the USA knowing only too well what it wanted to do – invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein? Did the USA not know what it was doing when it supported regime change in Libya and Syria? Does it not know what’s it’s doing supporting the Saudis in their failed war in Yemen? Really? The chaos in the Middle East is due to the lack of American decisiveness and leadership?? Come on. This is ridiculous. But it tells us something about how The New York Times and the US establishment views itself and its military adventures – as necessary for world order. In this view of the world, American intervention is always benign; American withdrawal in circumstances short of absolute victory is inevitably bad, not just for America but for the world as a whole.

This attitude is so deeply entrenched that faced with somebody who argues the opposite, its believers are simply stumped. They can’t understand why anybody would challenge the obvious truth. It can’t be because they actually believe that the mainstream narrative is wrong – that would be incomprehensible. It must be because somebody somewhere is pulling their strings, probably some foreign power. And so it is that Trump completely baffles the liberal establishment. He doesn’t believe in America’s wars. He doesn’t see how ending them would be a disaster. There’s only one explanation – he must be a foreign agent.

But not just Trump. For in the second New York Times article, the newspaper takes on Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard thinks that America should be fighting fewer wars, a position which both the Times and much of the American left apparently find more than a little threatening. The overall sense of the article is well expressed by the headline: ‘Left Scratches Its Head and Far Right Swoons at Gabbard Campaign’. The first half of the headline confirms what I said above  – that the mainstream left finds an anti-war platform utterly baffling, and leaves it scratching its head. The second half of the title then shows how it plans to bring Gabbard down – by smearing her through association and insinuation.

And so we are told that Gabbard has little support among Democrats, but

Alt-right internet stars, white nationalists, libertarian activists and some of the biggest boosters of Mr. Trump heap praise on Gabbard. … Then there is 4chan, the notorioiusly toxic online message board, where some right-wing trolls and anti-Semites fawn over Ms. Gabbard … In April, the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, took credit for Ms. Gabbard’s qualification for the first two Democratic primary debates.

The Times provides not a jot of evidence to show that Gabbard herself is a ‘white nationalist’, ‘anti-Semite’, ‘neo-Nazi’, or the like. Moreover, they’re hardly the only people who favour non-interventionism. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Americans consider that their country needs to end its wars and bring its troops home. So why doesn’t the newspaper focus on the fact that Gabbard’s views are in line with a large segment of the American population, across the political spectrum? Why mention only the far right? The obvious answer is to blacken her name by association. Put her name in the same paragraph as words like ‘neo-Nazi’ and some of the mud will stick.

But there’s more. Her platform, we are told, ‘reminds some Democrats of the narrative pushed by Russian actors during the 2016 presidential campaign.’ Furthermore,

Democrats are on high alert about foreign interference in the next election and the D.N.C. [Democratic National Committee] is well aware of the frequent mentions of Gabbard in the Russian state news media. An independent analysis of Russian new media found that RT, the Kremlin-backed news agency, mentioned Ms. Gabbard frequently for a candidate polling in single digits … Disinformation experts have also pointed to instances of suspicious activity surrounding Ms. Gabbard’s campaign. … Laura Rosenberger, a former policy aide to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign … sees Ms. Gabbard as a useful vector for Russian efforts to sow division within the Democratic Party.

Putting aside the fact that this is speculation, the New York Times fails to provide any evidence that Gabbard herself has anything to do any alleged ‘suspicious activity’ or is in any way furthering Russian goals. This is a smear by insinuation. The Times lacks the courage to come right out and say ‘Gabbard is a Russian stooge’, so it merely insinuates it by throwing in some unsubstantiated and entirely irrelevant claims. This is a hatchet job masquerading as journalism.

The article quotes Jon Stolz, charmain of the liberal veterans organization, as saying that, ‘Tulsi is really running on antiwar message.’ But the message the Times wants to send comes at the end. For the article finishes with a quote from ‘pro-Israel activist’ Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. ‘I can’t figure her out,’ he says.

Let’s face it, an anti-war message is hardly complicated. But, according to the New York Times, when confronted by such a message, the ‘Left Scratches its Head’ and concludes that it just can’t ‘figure it out.’ If you want to know what’s wrong with American foreign policy thinking, you have the answer right there. War has become so normalized that peace has become unthinkable, so far outside the usual realm of experience as to be incomprehensible. It’s extremely sad.

Book review: Putin v. the People

I’d been struggling for several days thinking of how to review Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson’s book Putin v. the People, when I stumbled across a post on the blog Duck on Minerva which provided me with a way to do it. The post points out that political scientists are obsessed with methodology but spend very little time thinking about ontology. I normally avoid words like ontology and tell my students not to use them if they don’t want to be penalized, but here I’ll make an exception. Essentially what’s being said is that political scientists are deeply concerned about how they study things, but don’t often stop to reflect whether the things they’re studying are actually things at all.

Greene and Robertson seek to explain why the Russian people support Vladimir Putin. There’s a pretty simple explanation for this, well expressed today in the following tweet by Russia-based business journalist Ben Aris:


If we now go to back to issues of ontology and ask what the ‘thing’ is that Putin v the People studies, we discover that it isn’t this thing – it isn’t a Russia which has enormously improved in the past 20 years. Rather it’s something quite the opposite – a Russia with a pretty awful government, and with a people whose lives are fairly miserable, and who are experiencing an overall sense of ‘desperation’. It’s also a Russia in which there is a pervasive atmosphere of falsehood, which means that everyone is living in a world of ‘lies’ and ‘fantasy’. Thus the ‘thing’ which the authors of Putin v the People wish to explain – their research question, as it were – isn’t ‘Why do Russians support Putin given the “enormity of the improvements” their country has experienced under his leadership?’ but ‘Why do Russians support Putin given how much everything in Russia sucks?’ Of course, they don’t put it in quite those words, but the overall tone of the work very much comes across that way. And unsurprisingly, the answers the authors provide reflect the underlying negative ontology – i.e. the authors’ negative understanding of the nature of Russia’s being.

putin people

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Steinmeier mania

The Russian and Ukrainian media have been abuzz this week over the news that the Ukrainian government has accepted the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ which is meant to help regulate the reintegration of rebel Donbass into Ukraine. Supporters of foreign Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, as well as members of the Ukrainian far right, are denouncing the move as a betrayal. Others, though, hope that it is an important first step towards peace. In reality, however, I don’t think that the Ukrainian government’s decision adds up to very much. For sure, it’s a step forward, but only a very small one, and unworthy of either the hysterical denunciations or the fervent optimism.

The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 laid out the terms on which rebel Donbass would return to Ukrainian control. These included a ceasefire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, and the commencement of a ‘discussion’ on how to hold elections in Donbass and on the nature of Donbass’s future relationship with Ukraine. Following this, an amnesty would be granted, elections held, and constitutional reform undertaken and legislation passed to provide special status for rebel-held areas of Donbass. The day after elections, Ukraine would regain control of its border with Russia.

No sooner had it agreed to these terms than the Ukrainian government began to backtrack, insisting that it would not grant special status to Donbass, and also demanding that the rebels disarm and the border be placed under Ukrainian control prior to elections. This reversed the order of events required by the Minsk agreement. The Steinmeier formula, named after its author, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is meant in part to find a way out of this impasse. It says that once Ukraine has passed a law on special status for Donbass, local elections will be held, and the special status will come into effect on a temporary basis on the evening of the elections, and permanently once the OSCE has confirmed that the elections were carried out in accordance with international standards.

For hard-line Ukrainians, the Steinmeier formula is seen as capitulation as it admits that Donbass will have to get special status. However, even if the formula is accepted, the question remains of how and when the elections in question are meant to take place, and so get the ball rolling. And on this Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been very clear: the elections must take place under the supervision of the Ukrainian government, and can only take place once all rebel forces have been disbanded and the border has been restored to Ukrainian control. Zelensky also says that any special status for Donbass can only take the form of a law, not of a constitutional reform.

These conditions are completely unacceptable to the rebel leadership and its Russian patrons. First, the rebels insist that they must have a role in running the elections which, they say, they will only accept if held under the first-past-the-post system and not under the Ukrainian system of proportional representation. Second, disbanding their armed forces and handing over the border before any special status is conferred would amount to complete surrender and put the rebels entirely at Kiev’s mercy. This is clearly something they won’t do. And third, special status conferred by a law not by constitutional reform could be simply revoked by a parliamentary majority repealing the law. It provides very few guarantees for the future. This makes it something which is unlikely to be acceptable.

In short, while accepting the Steinmeier formula, Zelensky has imposed conditions which mean that it can never be put into practice. Viewing this, Baylor University’s Serhiy Kudelia remarks that either Zelensky is either ‘genuinely delusional’ or simply making a token concession in order to stay in the good books of his European allies while knowing full well that nothing will come of it.

I suspect the latter, though I think that it may also be a product of the restraints under which Zelensky is operating. Prior to this week’s decision, we witnessed the fiasco of foreign minister Vadim Pristaiko saying that he had agreed to the formula only for Ukraine’s chief negotiator, former president Leonid Kuchma, to then publicly refuse to do so. Eventually, it seems that Zelensky was able to get Kuchma to back down and sign the document, but it’s clear that even this small step was quite a struggle. Going any further would require Zelensky to fight a major political battle internally. It doesn’t look like he’s prepared to do so.

As I’ve said on many occasions, the peaceful reintegration of Donbass into Ukraine will only be possible if Kiev makes major concessions. It’s obvious that that’s not going to happen all at once. The best we can hope for is little steps which gradually move Kiev in the right direction. In so far as this constitutes such a step, it’s something to welcome. But I’m not overly confident that Ukraine’s internal political situation will permit further moves of the same sort, at least not for some time. I hope I’m wrong, but for now I don’t think that the Steinmeier decision changes very much at all. Peace remains a rather distant dream.