Book reviews on the Russian military

As paranoia concerning all things Russia continues to grip much of the Western world, it’s worth spending some time examining the Russian military, and its purpose, capabilities, and understanding of war. Fortunately, two recently published books provide us with an opportunity to do so, and I have therefore decided to review them together.

The first is Oscar Jonsson’s The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace, which argues that in recent years the Russian understanding of war has undergone a fundamental change. Since around 2012, Russian military thinkers have become increasingly convinced that non-military means of political influence, such as economic sanctions and information/propaganda, can be as powerful in their impact as military means, and that therefore the boundaries between war and peace are ‘blurring’.


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This week’s lunacy

It is a strange world we live in. At least, it is if you live in the world of political commentary. I don’t know if it was always this odd, or it’s just me getting old and cynical, but it feels as if it gets more and more unhinged every year. This week in particular was a gem, with so much bizarre, wacky reporting flitting across my screen that it’s hard to pick out just one example to analyze in depth. Instead, I’ve decided to highlight several of the weirdest bits of writing I came across in the past few days. Here they are:

Continue reading This week’s lunacy

Sick trash

I’d never heard of the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group (EASLG) until today, even though it turns out that one of its members has the office next door to mine. Its website says that it seeks to respond to the challenge of East-West tensions by convening ‘former and current officials and experts from a group of Euro-Atlantic states and the European union to test ideas and develop proposals for improving security in areas of existential common interest’. It hopes thereby to ‘generate trust through dialogue.’

It’s hard to object to any of this, but its latest statement, entitled ‘Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region’, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The ‘twelve steps’ the EASLG proposes to improve security in Eastern Ukraine are generally pretty uninspiring, being largely of the ‘set up a working group to explore’ variety, or of such a vaguely aspirational nature as to be almost worthless (e.g. ‘Advance reconstruction of Donbas … An essential first step is to conduct a credible needs assessment for the Donbas region to inform a strategy for its social-economic recovery.’ Sounds nice, but in reality doesn’t amount to a hill of beans).

For the most part, these proposals attempt to treat the symptoms of the war in Ukraine without addressing the root causes. In a sense, that’s fine, as symptoms need treating, but it’s sticking plaster when the patient needs some invasive surgery. At the end of its statement, though, the EASLG does go one step further with ‘Step 12: Launch a new national dialogue about identity’, saying:

A new, inclusive national dialogue across Ukraine is desirable and could be launched as soon as possible. … Efforts should be made to engage with perspectives from Ukraine’s neighbors, especially Poland, Hungary, and Russia. This dialogue should address themes of history and national memory, language, identity, and minority experience. It should include tolerance and respect for ethnic and religious minorities … in order to increase engagement, inclusiveness, and social cohesion.

This is admirably trendy and woke, but in the Ukrainian context somewhat explosive, as it implicitly challenges the identity politics of the post-Maidan regime. Unsurprisingly, it’s gone down like a lead balloon in Kiev. The notorious website Mirotvorets even went so far as to add former German ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger to its blacklist of enemies of Ukraine for having had the temerity to sign the EASLG statement and thus ‘taking part in Russia’s propaganda events aimed against Ukraine.’ Katherine Quinn-Judge of the International Crisis Group commented on Twitter,  ‘As the idea of dialogue becomes more mainstream, backlash to the concept grows fiercer.’ ‘In Ukraine, prominent pro-Western politicians, civic activists, and media, have called Step 12 “a provocation” and “dangerous”,’ she added

Quinn-Judge comes across as generally sympathetic to the Ukrainian narrative about the war in Donbass, endorsing the idea that it’s largely a product of ‘Russian aggression’. But she also recognizes that the war has an internal, social dimension which the Ukrainian government and its elite-level supporters refuse to acknowledge. Consequently, they also reject any sort of dialogue, either with Russia or with the rebels in Donbass. As Quinn-Judge notes in another Tweet:

An advisor to one of Ukraine’s most powerful pol[itician]s told us recently of his concern about talk of dialogue in international and domestic circles. ‘We have all long ago agreed among ourselves. We need to return our territory, and then work with that sick – sick –  population.’

This isn’t an isolated example. Quinn-Judge follows up with a couple more similar statements:

Social resentments underpin some opposition to disengagement, for example. An activist in [government-controlled] Shchastye told me recently that she feared disengagement and the reopening of the bridge linking the isolated town to [rebel-held] Luhansk: ‘I don’t want all that trash coming over here.’

In 2017, a woman working with frontline families told me why she didn’t want reintegration. ‘These [the population of rebel-held Donbass] are people with a minimum level of human development, people raised by their TVs. Okay, so we live together, then what? We’re trying to build a completely new society.’

And there once again you have it – one of the primary causes of the war in Ukraine: the contempt with which the post-Maidan government and its activist supporters regard a significant portion of their fellow citizens, the ‘sick trash’ of Donbass with their ‘minimum level of human development’. You can fiddle with treating Donbass’ symptoms as much as you like, à la EASLG, but unless you tackle this fundamental problem, the disease will keep on ravaging the subject for a long time to come. In due course, I suggest, the only realistic cure will be to remove the patient entirely from the cause of infection.

Communists for God

Discussions about amending the Russian constitution continue. As I mentioned previously, the Russian government has submitted a formal proposal to the State Duma, providing details on how the government believes the constitution should be changed. The proposal has already passed its first reading. In the meantime, however, all sorts of other people have thrown out all sorts of other ideas to tack onto the government’s proposal. Many of these are being discussed in the commission that Vladimir Putin set up to discuss the issue, and it seems possible that some of the ideas will end up before the Duma when the bill to amend the constitution comes up for its second reading in the coming weeks.

Today, for instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad reported that Putin had reacted positively to a suggestion by the Director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovskii that the constitution should be amended to strengthen the idea that ‘culture is Russia’s unique inheritance, which is preserved by the state.’ Responding to Piotrovskii, Putin said that culture ‘is the nation’s DNA, which makes us the multinational Russian [Rossiiskii] people, and shows our originality. We’re thinking of how to do that.’

One integral feature of most cultures is religion. And so it should perhaps not come as a surprise that some people want to include God in the Russian constitution. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church made this proposal a week or so ago, and it rapidly gathered support in influential circles. TV talk show host Vladimir Solovyov, for instance, boosted the idea on his evening show, and now the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, has said that he has no objection. Asked about including God in the constitution’s preamble, Zyuganov commented that,

It’s an image that is in line with the main moral and spiritual values of our state. … When I studied the Bible, the Epistles of Paul the Apostle […] it contains the main slogan of communism: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat.’ As a matter of fact, we borrowed a lot in the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism from the Bible. And if anyone tries to say otherwise, they just have to put those documents side by side.

It may seem odd that the Communists are turning to God, but it’s hardly the first time Zyuganov has done this. In fact, he’s been attempting to fuse communism and Christianity for the best part of three decades. And back in 2014 Patriarch Kirill recognized the Communist leader’s devotion to the Church by awarding him an order ‘for glory and honour’. With the Communists on board (or at least not opposed), the Patriarch’s proposed constitutional amendment has at least some chance of success.

I think that this case is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows what happens when the Russian government invites the public for input into fundamental issues connected to the nature and purpose of the state. The government’s own proposal pretty much preserves the liberal autocratic nature of the constitution. But once civil society, including Mr Piotrovskii and Patriarch Kirill, were asked for their ideas, they started introducing matters which the guardians of the liberal autocracy had never considered – most notably, issues of culture and religion start raising their head. It perhaps gives one a sense of the direction Russian politics might take if it indeed became less autocratic.

Second, much has been written in the past 20 years about the alleged political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Academic studies which I’ve read on the topic suggest that this influence isn’t nearly as great as often claimed. The fate of Patriarch Kirill’s proposal to include God in the constitution will, therefore, be a very valuable case study to determine just how much pull the Church really has. Far from everybody supports Kirill’s amendment. According to Interfax, ‘Russian State Duma Committee on State Building and Legislation Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov has opposed this initiative.’ Putin himself has remained silent on the matter. It will be interesting to see who wins.

How goes the war?

This week brought a bunch of news about the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have been directly involved in fighting the Taleban for over 18 years. In Syria, they’ve attempted to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad with the help of proxies in various forms, who are now holed up in an ever-shrinking enclave in Idlib province. And in Yemen, they’ve been backing the Saudis in their attempt to reinstall Adrabbun Mansar Hadi as president in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, now under the control of the Houthis. So, how go America’s wars?

First, Afghanistan:

A few days ago, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released his latest quarterly report to the US Congress. According to an email I got from SIGAR’s office, the key points of this report include the following:

  • Enemy-initiated attacks (EIA) and effective enemy-initiated attacks (EIA resulting in casualties) during the fourth quarter of 2019 exceeded same-period levels in every year since recording began in 2010.
  • The month of the Afghan presidential election (September 2019) saw the highest number of EIA in any month since June 2012, and the highest number of effective enemy-initiated attacks (EEIA) since recording began in January 2010. The high level of violence continued after the presidential election; October 2019 had the second highest number of EIA in any month since July 2013.
  • According to the UNODC, the overall value of opiates available for export in Afghanistan in 2018 (between $1.1 billion and $2.1 billion) was much larger than the combined value of all of the country’s licit exports ($875 million).
  • As of December 18, conflicts had induced 427,043 Afghans to flee their homes in 2019 (compared to 356,297 Afghans during the same period in 2018).
  • Between November 2019 and March 2020, an estimated 11.3 million Afghans – more than one-third of the country’s population – are anticipated to face acute food insecurity.

I think that gives a good enough impression. Eighteen years on, things aren’t going so well in Afghanistan.

So what about Syria?

Continue reading How goes the war?