First, I have another piece on RT, this time discussing the legal and geopolitical ins and outs of the recent US naval incursion in the Peter of the Great Bay near Vladivostok. You can read it here.
Second, I will be participating in the online Zoom event below on Wednesday. Run by the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy, the event will be moderated by Anatol Lieven, and involve myself, Marlene Laruelle; James Carden; Boris Mezhuev; and Richard Sakwa. You are all welcome to join in to listen to the discussion and pose questions.
Politics, Tragedy, Sovereignty: Online Panel Discussion on the Meaning of Today’s Russia
Russian Disinformation. Russian Disinformation. Russian Disinformation. How many time have you heard that over the past four years?
But what about British disinformation?
Much of the current Russia paranoia began with the claims that Donald Trump was recruited by Russian intelligence years ago as a sleeper agent, and then given a leg-up into the presidency of the United States with the help of the GRU. The claims of ‘collusion’ were repeated over and over, and yet at the end of the day none of them could be substantiated. And where did it all start? In the now notorious dossier assembled by former British spook Christopher Steele.
Steele, it has now been revealed, got his information from a guy called Igor Danchenko. He in his turn got a lot of it from a former classmate, Olga Galkina, described as an alcoholic ‘disgruntled PR executive living in Cyprus’, and as such obviously a well-informed source with intimate knowledge of the Kremlin’s innermost secrets.
In short, the Steele dossier was a load of hokum, commissioned by a British Black PR operative and then fabricated by some random Russian émigrés with no access to anything of value. And yet, millions believed it.
And then, we have the story of Brexit. Ever since the 2016 referendum which resulted in Britain leaving the European Union, we have been repeatedly told that the victory of the Leave campaign was made possible by ‘Russian interference’. Most significantly, it was claimed that the Russian government illicitly funded the Leave campaign by funneling money through the campaign’s most significant financial backer, businessman Arron Banks.
Leading the charge against Russia and Banks was journalist Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer (as the Sunday version of The Guardian is known). ‘We know that the Russian government offered money to Arron Banks’, she said. ‘I am not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government’, she added, ‘I say he lied about his contact with the Russian government. Because he did.’
But it turns out that it was Cadwalladr who had a tricky relationship with the truth. Angered by her assertions, Arron Banks sued her for libel. Three weeks ago, she publicly backed down from one of her accusations. ‘On 22 Oct 2020,’ she said, ‘I tweeted that Arron had been found to have broken the law. I accept he has not. I regret making this false statement, which I have deleted. I undertake not to repeat it. I apologise to Arron for the upset and distress caused.’
This week Cadwalladr went further. The judge in the libel trial ruled that the meaning of her statement that Banks had lied about his relationship with the Russians was that he had lied about taking money from Russia, and that she had intended this as a statement of fact, not a call for further investigation. In the face of this judgement, Cadwalladr withdrew her ‘truth’ defence and has been ordered to pay Banks’ costs relating to this aspect of the case. In this way she in effect conceded that she was not willing to defend as fact the proposition that Russia financed Leave via Banks. While Cadwalladr continues to fight the case using a ‘public interest’ defence, the withdrawal of the truth argument is a dramatic concession.
The Banks story is not the only problematic aspect of Cadwalladr’s reporting. The journalist earned international plaudits and a prestigious Orwell prize for her report on how the British firm Cambridge Analytica supposedly used big data dredged up out of Facebook to help both the Leave campaign and Donald Trump win victories in 2016. This too had a Russian connection. In a 2018 article for The Observer Cadwalladr described how, ‘Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University academic who orchestrated the harvesting of Facebook data, had previously unreported ties a Russian university. … Cambridge Analytica, the data firm he worked with … also attracted interest from a key Russian firm with links to the Kremlin.’
Others jumped on the Russia-Cambridge connection. ‘The Facebook data farmed by Cambridge Analytica was accessed from Russia’, claimed British MP Damien Collins, head of the House of Commons Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. In this capacity, he then published a report outlining allegations of Russian propaganda and meddling in British affairs, including unsubstantiated insinuations that Russian money had influenced the Brexit campaign via Mr Banks.
And yet, all this was false too. The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) spent over two years investigating Cambridge Analytica, including its alleged role in the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, and its supposed ties to Russian government influence operations. Having completed its investigation, the ICO reported that apart from a single Russian IP address in data connected to Cambridge Analytica, it had found no evidence of Russian involvement with the company. Moreover, it concluded that claims of the company’s enormous influence were ‘hype’, unjustified by the facts.
In other words, just like the Steele dossier, the whole story about Russia influencing the outcome of the Brexit referendum was made-up nonsense.
And yet, it has had an enormous influence. The allegations that Russia ‘interfered’ in Brexit have been repeated again and again – in parliamentary reports, newspaper articles, scholarly journals, books, social media, and so on. Despite their falsehood, they have enjoyed a spread and influence that Russian ‘meddlers’ could only dream of.
Will the peddlers of British disinformation repent? Will they now pen scores of articles admitting that they were wrong? Will they give evidence to parliament denouncing the scourge of false stories about Russia emanating from the British media and MPs?
Of course not. Ms Cadwalladr’s humiliation will get a few lines buried somewhere deep in some newspapers’ inner pages, and will then be forgotten. Meanwhile, the original claims will remain uncorrected in the many documents that repeat them, and the myth of Russian interference in Brexit will trundle on as a basis for denouncing the threat emanating from the East. The damage has been done. Ms Cadwalladr has been discredited, but someone else will soon be found to pick up the torch.
In my latest article for RT (which you can read here) I take a shot at the plethora of reports ranking countries for their freedom, happiness, and so on. I’ve made use of these reports myself in the past, and don’t think that they are worthless, but one definitely needs to treat them with a lot of care, in particular because they tend to contain a lot of pro-Western bias.
In the article, I discuss a new report ranking states for religious repression, and note that in this area Russia deserves some criticism, especially for what I call its ‘despicable’ and ‘appalling mistreatment’ of Jehovah’s Witnesses. So, I thought it would be worth spending a bit more time on the topic.
The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is truly preposterous. The religion has been deemed an ‘extremist’ organization, in accordance with the Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity. What determines ‘extremism’ under the law is the subject’s motivation – an activity is extremist if motivated by ‘ideological, political, racial, national, or religious enmity, as well as hatred or enmity towards a social group’. The law also lists various specific activities which qualify as extremism, such as ‘public justification of terrorism’, ‘incitement of social, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred’, ‘propaganda of exclusiveness’, the catch-all ‘mass distribution of materials known to be extremist, their production and possession for the purposes of distribution’, and somewhat scarily, criticism of ‘federal and local governments and officials, official policies, laws, ideas, religious and political organizations’.
The legislation requires the government to maintain a list of extremist materials and allows for the prohibition of organizations who foment extremism. Those banned include several Russian nationalist and Muslim organizations, the Church of Scientology, and the Jehovah Witnesses.
Quite why the latter two organizations are ‘extremist’ under the terms of the legislation I cannot begin to fathom. One can challenge the validity of their beliefs, but to say that they are motivated by ‘ideological, political, racial, or religious enmity’ is absurd. Charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses involve purely peaceful activities without any ‘public justification of terrorism’, ‘incitement of social, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred’, or anything else of the sort. Those arrested are guilty of nothing more than meeting to discuss the Bible or possessing religious literature. About a dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned, for terms of up to 4 years (or in the case of one Dane, Dennis Christensen, 6 years). The contrast between the severity of the sentences and the total lack of threat these people pose to public order is deeply disturbing.
In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, finding that a police raid on a religious service in 2006 had violated Articles 5 (right to liberty and security) and 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, in 2017 the Russian Supreme Court upheld the ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since then, repression of the group has continued, including raids in multiple regions of the country this Tuesday. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation justified the raids by claiming that a new branch of the religion had opened in Moscow, and had held ‘secret gatherings’ and studied ‘religious literature’. In others words, a handful of people had met in the privacy of their homes and discussed the Bible. One might imagine that the police have more serious issues to deal with.
Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the only ones to have suffered under the extremism laws, whose terms are interpreted so flexibly as to be able catch just about anybody whom the authorities take a dislike to. There is some evidence that senior officials are aware of the problem. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for instance, has stated publicly that the definition of extremism is too broad, while President Putin has said that equating religious organizations to terrorist and other similar groups is a mistake. Nevertheless, the repressions continue.
This in turn reveals something about how Russian operates. Extremism legislation is hardly unique to the Russian Federation. Such laws proliferated worldwide in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the USA in September 2001. But in Western countries, these laws tend to be applied in a saner fashion. In Russia, laws are all too often applied in an erratic and arbitrary way, oppressing people who pose no danger to society as a whole. Many of the complaints made about Russia in the West are much exaggerated. But in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian state’s behaviour is both unjustifiable and counter-productive, as their persecution induces unwarranted suffering while serving no social purpose whatsoever.
I thought that readers might be interested in the latest job opening at Pravda:
Donald Trump’s America remains one of the biggest stories in the world.
It sends out its armies, its drones, and its agents around the world to kill its enemies. It has its cyber agents sow chaos and disharmony, undermining and overthrowing regimes, while promoting its faux version of democracy. It has deployed private military contractors around the globe to secretly spread its influence. At home, its hospitals are filling up fast with Covid patients as its president hides out on the golf course.
If that sounds like a place you want to cover, then we have good news. We will have an opening for a new correspondent. We are eager to hear from those interested in taking on one of the most legendary postings at Pravda. We are looking for someone who will embrace the prospect of traversing 9 time zones to track a populace that is growing increasingly frustrated with an economy dragged down by corruption, cronyism and excessive reliance on the military industrial complex.
And of course, we are on the cusp of a new, less Putin-friendly president in the US, which should only raise the temperature between Washington and Moscow.
The successful candidate should have a knack for different types of storytelling. Those interested should apply via Workday.
Good to see that the Russian press is looking for a correspondent with a balanced view of things!
Sorry! I got that wrong. This isn’t the advert for a US correspondent at Pravda. It’s the ad for a Russian correspondent at the New York Times. Well, you know how they used to say that ‘There’s no truth in Pravda, and no news in Izvestiya‘? My mistake – but an easy one to make.
I’m guessing that national newspapers have largely given up fact-checking their authors. It’s time consuming and costly, and it’s a competitive business and profit margins are slim. Who needs it? And so, our newspapers happily churn out story after story alleging Russian misinformation while themselves publishing blatant misinformation about the Russian Federation, its leaders, and its policies.
Take Canada’s own beloved National Post, excerpts from which are syndicated in local newspapers across the country, including our capital city’s Ottawa Citizen. The Post likes to publish the works of one Diane Francis, an American-born Canadian journalist whose political leanings can be surmised from the fact that she is said to be a ‘non-resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.’ No doubt she’s done some great work through the years, to justify her many awards. But when it comes to Russia she has some serious problems getting her facts right.
This is clear from her latest gem, which appeared today with the headline ‘Putin is playing chess with the West – and he’s winning.’ Francis begins:
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been very, very busy lately playing geopolitical chess, as America plays checkers.
Talk about cliché! Putin plays chess while we play checkers – how many times have I heard that one?! But I’m not interested in Francis’s lack of stylistic originality, so much as her tenuous grasp of reality. For this is what she has to say:
As the US election campaign dominated the headlines all summer and fall, millions more people were placed under the boot of Russia in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh … [In Belarus] Now Moscow controls its economy, media and police forces … [In Nagorno-Karabakh] Russian troops are nothing more than an occupying force executing a de facto takeover of territory.
Where does Francis get this stuff?? I’m damned if I know. How precisely does Russia now control the Belarusian economy?? Has Moscow bought out the Minsk Tractor Factory, the Belaruskali potash company, Belavia airlines, or anything else? If so, Diane Francis is apparently the only person in the world to know about it.
What about the other claims? Does Moscow now control the Belarusian media? A few weeks ago there was an allegation that after several hundred Belarusian TV workers walked off the job, a similar number of Russians were flown in to replace them. No solid evidence to back the allegation has ever been provided, and it seems somewhat improbable that Russian state TV has that many spare people lying around. As for Moscow controlling the Belarusian police, again that appears to be something entirely in Diane Francis’s imagination. Back in August, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that he could send police to Belarus if they were needed, but nothing ever came of it. The Belarusian police seem to be managing perfectly well on their own (as far as the authorities are concerned) and remain decidedly under the control of their own president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Which leaves us Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian peacekeepers there are ‘an occupying force executing a de facto takeover of territory’, Francis tells us, bringing ‘millions more under the boot of Russia’. I’m kind of wondering whose territory it is that she thinks Russia has taken over – Azerbaijan’s or Armenia’s?? I also wonder how she thinks that 1,960 soldiers, with no civilian administrators, can control a territory the size of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fact that they are there as a means of bringing peace to the region and preventing the inevitable bloodshed which would have resulted if the war had continued, passes Ms Francis by. So too does the fact that both the parties to the conflict – Azerbaijan and Armenia – consent to the Russians’ presence.
If that was all that this article got wrong, it would be bad enough, but sadly it isn’t. For Ms Francis tells us that,
Putin also expanded his presence in Syria, Libya and the Arctic, and will certainly do so in Afghanistan if Trump pulls American troops out.
I have to say that I’m not aware of a recent expansion of the Russian presence in Syria (the Arctic in question is in any case part of Russia – and as for Libya, it depends on whether you count the mercenaries of the Wagner Company). In reality, the Russian military footprint in Syria isn’t notably larger than it has been at any other point in the last five years. As for Russian troops storming into Afghanistan if the Americans leave, all I can say is that nothing is impossible but to say that this will ‘certainly’ happen is bizarre to say the least. One imagines that Russians have little appetite for a second Afghan war. Meanwhile, the Russian government has repeatedly made it clear that it would prefer if the Americans stayed in Afghanistan.
And then finally, Ms Francis comes out with this whopper of a falsehood. telling us that Russia’s ‘takeover’ of Nagorno-Karabakh
is similar to what the Kremlin did in Ukraine in 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and killed tens of thousands of people.
Whoa, Whoa. Stop for a moment. Russia ‘killed tens of thousands of people’ in Crimea’??? Since when? The last time I looked into this, the death toll in the Russian annexation of Crimea was one person, not tens of thousands. But what’s the difference when there’s propaganda to be spread?
Methinks that Ms Francis is probably confusing the takeover of Crimea with the war in Donbass, but even if you accept that explanation for her curious statement, it is still far from the truth. So far about 13,000 people have been killed in Donbass. That’s bad, but it’s not ‘tens of thousands’. Ukrainian military deaths amount to 4,500. Rebel military deaths are somewhere in the same region, though possibly a bit higher. Of the 13,000 dead, it’s also reckoned that maybe around 3,500 are civilians, the vast mass of whom were on the rebel side of the frontline and so the victims of Ukrainian, not rebel or Russian, shelling. In other words, most of those killed in the war have been killed by the Ukrainian army. ‘Russia’ is not free of guilt, but ‘killed tens of thousands of people’ it most certainly has not.
Nor is Russia responsible, as Ms Francis claims late in her article, for the fact that ‘This fall, Ukraine’s anticorruption efforts came to a sudden halt’. Francis claims that this was ‘due to attacks by Russian-backed media outlets, politicians and oligarchs, as well as Russian-influenced judges.’ That would be Ukraine’s Constitutional Court. Where is the evidence that its judges are in the pay of the Kremlin?? Once again, I’m damned if I know. Ms Francis certainly isn’t telling.
Discussing such falsehoods before, I’ve noted that even though it’s one article it’s still worth pointing out its errors. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people read this junk. They take its claims as truth. But they’re not; they’re false, pure and simple. Publishing this stuff, without any effort to check its facts, is highly irresponsible, fanning fears and hatreds, and contributing to a worsening of international relations. Although it almost certainly won’t, the National Post, and other outlets like it, should consider this long and hard.
‘In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up its military and propaganda campaign around the world,’ Ms Francis tells us, warning also of the dangers of ‘Russian disinformation campaigns’. It strikes me that if she’s after propaganda and disinformation, she should start by looking a little closer to home.
This weekend marks the one hundredth anniversary of the evacuation of Crimea by the White Russian Army of General Pyotr Wrangel. Although some sporadic fighting continued elsewhere in Russia for a few months thereafter, the evacuation marked the defeat of the last substantial White military force and so brought an effective end to the Russian Civil War.
Resistance to communist rule began almost immediately after Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized power in the Russian capital Petrograd in November 1917, although it took a while for the resistance to gather strength. The initial centre of opposition was in southern Russia in the region of the Don and Kuban Cossacks, where Cossack forces allied with former Imperial army officers who formed the Volunteer Army. Together in due course, the Volunteers and Cossacks created the Armed Forces of Southern Russia (AFSR), led by General Anton Denikin. This was one of three main formations in the ‘White’ armies (so-called to distinguish them from the revolutionary ‘Reds’), the others being led by Admiral Kolchak in Siberia and General Iudenich in the Baltic region.
Denikin resigned as commander of the AFSR in early 1920 following a decisive defeat at the hands of the Red Army. He was succeeded by General Wrangel, who renamed the AFSR as the ‘Russian Army’. All that remained under the control of the Russian Army was, however, the peninsula of Crimea. After Poland invaded Russia in 1920, Wrangel was able to slightly expand his territory into southern Ukraine, but his position remained precarious.
Wrangel had a reputation as a reactionary, being known in Bolshevik propaganda as the ‘Black Baron’. Belying this reputation, as ruler of Crimea Wrangel pursued what were called ‘leftist policies in rightist hands’. Denikin had largely ignored administrative, social, and economic issues, focusing on fighting the war. Historians have much criticized him for this, as this neglect is said to have contributed to chaos behind the White lines, which fatally weakened their cause.
Wrangel learnt from this and set about establishing a sound administration in the Crimea and enacting economic reforms, particularly in terms of giving peasants ownership of the land they tilled. In this he was helped by his Prime Minister, Alexander Krivoshein, who previously as Minister of Agriculture had been considered the most liberal of all the ministers in the pre-war Tsarist government. Other liberals also came to Wrangel’s assistance, an example being the philosopher and economist Pyotr Struve, who in his youth had been on quite chummy terms with Lenin and other Marxists and had even drafted the first manifesto of the Russian Social Democratic Party (which later morphed into the Communist Party). In 1920 he became Wrangel’s foreign minister.
None of this was sufficient to save the Whites. Once Poland and the Bolsheviks made peace, the latter were able to transfer their forces to the south to crush the Whites. By 4 November 1920, they were ready to attack.
Wrangel was relying on the fact that Crimea is separated from southern Ukraine by only a very narrow strip of land (known as the Perekop) to compensate for his relative military weakness, as it would be difficult for the Red Army to amass many forces in such a confined space. Unfortunately for the Whites, an early onset of winter froze the shallow water of the Sea of Azov on the northeastern side of Crimea, allowing the Red cavalry to penetrate into the rear of the Whites. Within a few days of the start of the Red offensive, the position of the Whites in the Crimea had become untenable. On 13 November Wrangel ordered his troops to start embarking on the vessels of the Russian navy and to abandon Crimea. Over the next five days, nearly the entire army was successfully evacuated, and made sail for Constantinople and a life in exile. The Whites were defeated.
Nikolai Turoverov, an officer in the Life Guards Ataman Regiment, who had served in the White Army throughout the entire length of the civil war, described the final moments before evacuation in his poem ‘Crimea’:
Уходили мы из Крыма Среди дыма и огня, Я с кормы все время мимо В своего стрелял коня. А он плыл, изнемогая, За высокою кормой, Все не веря, все не зная, Что прощается со мной. Сколько раз одной могилы Ожидали мы в бою. Конь все плыл, теряя силы, Веря в преданность мою. Мой денщик стрелял не мимо, Покраснела чуть вода… Уходящий берег Крыма Я запомнил навсегда.
So, in my last post I said that I’d be wrong about Russia being able to play an important role in bringing peace to Nagorno-Karabakh, and that the pundits were right to say how weak the conflict made Russia look. And then a couple of hours later, Russia brokers a peace settlement. Which means that I’d been originally right, but then wrong to say that I’d been wrong. Or something like that. I’m confused.
Anyway, it’s late at night. I’ll come back to this once the full details are clearer.
Sometimes I get things right. Other times, I get them badly wrong. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for RT in which I somewhat disparaged pundits who were saying that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was proof of Russia’s declining power and of its weakness relative to Turkey, which has been strongly backing Azerbaijan in the war. I argued that when the time came to negotiate a settlement between the two warring parties – Armenia and Azerbaijan – Russia would play a key role, thereby proving its continued importance. Well, that now looks like a mistake.
My assumption was that the fighting would eventually bog down into some sort of stalemate, which would require Armenia and Azerbaijan to turn to outside mediators. I didn’t count for the possibility that one side or other would be able to win a decisive victory. But it seems that that outcome is now quite probable..
The war is not going well for Armenia or for the Armenian backed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yesterday, Azeri forces seized the key city of Shusha and are now approaching the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert. What is particularly impressive about this is that the Azeri advance took them through very difficult mountainous terrain. Shusha itself is considered an easily defensible position, occupying as it does high ground with difficult approaches. I had thought that the Armenians would fight for every last inch. Instead, they abandoned the town, largely intact.
This does not bode well for the future prospects of Nagorno-Karabakh. While it is still possible that the Armenians might halt the Azeri advance, perhaps with a bit of help from the weather if winter arrives early, there is now a very real possibility that Azerbaijan will be able to conquer the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh by military means. This will preclude any need for outside powers, such as Russia, to play any role in settling the conflict.
On the surface, this shouldn’t matter too much to Russia. Whether Armenia or Azerbaijan controls Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t a question of vital important for the Russian Federation. That said, the potential Azeri victory must be a cause of some concern in Moscow.
First, it does indeed make Russia look weak. Armenia is a Russian ally. It is true that Russia’s alliance obligations apply only if Armenia itself is attacked, and since Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, Russia has no duty to come to Armenia’s aid. Nevertheless Russia’s willingness to see its ally suffer a serious military defeat is bound to at least somewhat dent Russia’s prestige . Other states may begin to doubt whether Russia can be relied on for support in time of need.
The impression of weakness may be furthered by the news today that Azeri troops shot down a Russian helicopter flying in Armenian airspace, killing two Russian servicemen. Azerbaijan immediately admitted responsibility, offered compensation, and promised an inquiry. I suspect that this rapid reaction will be sufficient for Moscow to avoid taking any serious action against Azerbaijan. Russia clearly doesn’t want to be dragged into this war, and so will probably have to let this event more or less pass unpunished.
The second reason for concern is the possibility that other states may look at the Azeri success and imagine that they may be able to repeat it themselves at some time in the future. Viewing what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, politicians in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine may say to themselves – ‘We too have lost territories, but let’s not give up, or seek to resolve the problem through negotiation. Instead, let’s build up our military force, and some time down the road, when we’re strong enough, we can attack and get our land back by force. The Azeris have done it; so can we.’
This would, of course, be a big mistake, as Russia is likely to defend the former Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as also it is likely to defend Donbass if push truly comes to shove. Russia’s inactivity in Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t so much a sign of weakness as a sign that Nagorno-Karabakh doesn’t matter very much to Russia. But, as we found out when Georgia attacked South Ossetia in 2008, politicians in other countries may not understand that, and may not realize that Russia regards other places far more seriously. An Azeri victory in Nagorno-Karabakh may encourage irredentist ambitions, and so create some serious problems at some future date. In the meantime, it may also discourage efforts to resolve these problems through negotiations.
So the pundits were perhaps right after all: this time round, Turkey has indeed got the upper hand. And that’s another problem for Russia. For it can only serve to encourage the Turks to continue their assertive policies in other places such as Syria, thereby frustrating Russian efforts there too.
For all these reasons, it’s unlikely that Moscow is looking at Azerbaijan’s military gains with joy. But as far as I can see there is very little it can do about it. It will have to accept whatever happens, and take solace that, at the end of the day, no vital interests will suffer. It’s not great, but it’s not a disaster either. Best just to suck it up and stay on the good side of the winner.
America goes to the polls today to pass its judgement on Donald Trump’s four years as president. Domestic issues will no doubt determine the choice of most voters, but for a few of them foreign policy will matter too. Among some of the latter there will be a sense of disappointment that Trump failed to deliver what he had promised four years ago.
Back then, more than a few people were more than a little worried about the aggressive foreign policy tendencies of Trump’s rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. The chilling video of Clinton laughing about Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal death, and chuckling ‘We came, we saw, he died’, led to fears that her victory would lead to even more wars, with the neoconservative/liberal interventionist lobby riding on Clinton’s coat-tails to push American deeper into futile military adventures overseas.
In contrast to Clinton, candidate Trump, back in 2016, promised peace. He’d restore relations with Russia, talk to North Korea, and bring the troops back from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Trump seemed to understand that endless war brought America nothing but harm, and that foreign and defence policy needed a complete rethink. He was thoroughly castigated for it, but he was right. If he’d done what he said he’d do, the United States, and many other places, would be much better off today.
Alas, it was not to be. Trump tore up the nuclear agreement with Iran and assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The wars he promised to end are all still going strong. Initially, rather than bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, Trump authorized a surge of additional forces. Later he announced that all American troops would leave Syria, only to reverse himself a few days afterwards, and then ended up declaring that American had to stay in Syria to control the oil fields! As for relations with Russia, they’ve gone from bad to worse. It’s not a pretty record.
What happened? One part of the answer is that Trump made some poor personnel choices, surrounding himself first with a bunch of generals and then with hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. It’s almost like he was deliberately sabotaging himself. Another part of the answer appears to be that, at least in some respects, Trump has been a very weak president, unwilling or unable to press his point of view when faced by resistance from the civil and military bureaucracy. Reports say that whenever Trump came up with a plan to reduce America’s military footprint abroad, the bureaucracy would devise some scheme to ‘scare’ him into believing that the consequences of such a move would be disastrous. Again and again, Trump caved in.
There are just two things that can be said in Trump’s favour. First, he at least tried to talk with Russia and North Korea, and in Afghanistan with the Taleban (in the latter case, with some success). And second, he is the first US president in 40 years (since Jimmy Carter) not to start a war.
Think of that last one for a second – the first president in 40 years not to start a war. In a way, it’s a real achievement. Perhaps Trump does, after all, deserve the title ‘peace president’. But then, think a bit more. Not starting a war shouldn’t really count as something special. It ought to be the default position. The fact that it is so remarkable tells us less about Trump than it does about the dysfunctional nature of US foreign policy.
In the end, then, the feeling of disappointment is not unjustified. By 2016, the American people were getting fed up with failed military adventures. Trump won a mandate to bring those adventures to an end. But he blew it. He could have been the peace president. Instead, he was at best the ‘almost’ peace president, or at any rate the ‘not war president’. That’s at least better than the alternative, but it’s not what people were hoping for. We’ll have to see what happens next, but I can’t say that I’m brimming with optimism.