Inflating the Russian Threat

Continuing on the theme of the military industrial boondoggle, in my latest piece for RT (which you can read here) I discuss how the Western security community has long been inventing or exaggerating threats. The nature of the threat continually changes, but one thing remains constant – the claim that the world is becoming ever more dangerous. Having shifted from failed states to ethnic conflict to rogue states to terrorism to hybrid warfare, the threat generation industry has now returned to state-on-state warfare as the scenario designed to frighten people, with a focus on the allegedly military superiority that the Russian Federation enjoys over NATO. I look at some of these claims, and demonstrate why they are nonsense. The Russian army has improved in recent years, but an attack on NATO would be suicidal. Efforts to suggest anything else are scaremongering, pure and simple.

Military Industrial Boondoggle

Today in my defence policy course my students and I shall be spending some time discussing defence procurement. As luck would have it, as I was munching on my morning bread and marmalade, a highly relevant article swan into view in the op-ed page of my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, after which I then discovered a new US report on a similar topic.

The Citizen article concerns Canada’s shockingly badly managed naval shipbuilding program. Written by a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Defence, Alan Williams, the article declares that ‘Canada’s Warship Program is Sinking Fast.’ In this Williams reports that Canada’s plan to build 15 new surface combatants originally had

an estimated cost of $26 billion, with deliveries to begin in the early 2020s. Today, the forecasted costs to build these ships is far beyond that. Deliveries are to start in the early 2030s, a decade later than scheduled … [The Parliamentary Budget Office] estimates that it will cost $77.3 billion … to maintain these ships over their expected total life-cycle would amount to an additional $208 billion, for a total life-cycle cost of $286 billion. In comparison, the funds available in DND’s [Department of National Defence] budget over the next 30 years to acquire and maintain its capital goods for the army, navy and air force combined is only $240 billion. This program alone would bankrupt the department’s capital and maintenance accounts for the next 30 years.

Despite this, DND insists that, ‘It will neither entertain a new design nor undertake a new procurement process.’ Williams adds that the United States is building very similar ships for about one-third of the price of the Canadian ones, and also that DND rejected an offer by the Italian company Fincantieri to build the ships in Canada ‘at a fixed cost of $30 billion’, less than half what DND is now paying. ‘As currently planned, these ships will likely never be built. They are simply unaffordable,’ concludes Williams.

But could the government cancel such a project after throwing so much money at it? That’s where the US report comes in. Published by the American Enterprise Institute, and entitled The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch, the report mentions how the shift in priorities during the War on Terror led the USA to cancel a whole series of projects originally designed for fighting wars of a different type. You can see the details in this chart, showing cancelled projects from 2002 to 2012 alone.

Continue reading Military Industrial Boondoggle

The Benefits of Détente

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I intended to read Robert English’s book Russia and the Idea of the West, which examines how Westernizing ideas gradually took hold of an element of the Soviet intelligentsia from the 1950s onwards. I’m now about halfway through, and on page 125 I came across a passage that I thought was very appropriate for today. Here English writes the following:

The steady growth of reformist, anti-isolationist thought [in the USSR] was also aided by two other developments. The first was a sharp deterioration in relations with China, to the point of armed conflict; this forced a deeper rethinking of the two-camp outlook … Second, and more important, was the rise of détente with the West; though accompanied by a tightening of ideological orthodoxy at home, détente provided specialists their broadest access to the West in 50 years… [As a result] the early-mid 1970s saw many calling not just for expanded intercourse with the West, but also for more radical changes that would move their country toward broader integration with the liberal international community.

Détente was a brief effort in the 1960s and 70s to lessen East-West tensions by negotiating arms control settlements, increasing trade, and carrying out cultural exchanges. Eventually it was abandoned by the United States once Ronald Reagan became president, on the grounds that it had emboldened Soviet aggression. But English argues that rather than promote aggression, détente had a positive effect (from a Western perspective) by encouraging pro-Western sentiment in the Soviet foreign policy community.

Today, it seems to me, we’re moving, or perhaps have already irrevocably moved, in the opposite direction. Russia-China relations have never been stronger, and we have entered an era of anti-détente. In this, the West is cutting relations with Russia via sanctions, and is also shredding what remains of the old arms control system. Somehow, this is meant to induce Russia to change in what the West considers a positive direction, i.e. to make it more ‘liberal’ and more friendly. Yet, if English is right, then one might expect it to have the opposite result.

Of course, historical parallels are never 100% valid. Circumstances are very different now compared to 1970s. Back then, opening up the West to the Soviets enabled the West to flex its soft power, by exposing Soviet intellectuals to Western ideas as well as to the obvious superiority of the capitalist economic system in terms of wealth production. This is a strategy that can’t be repeated today because Russians are already very well acquainted with the West. As I’ve pointed out before, cultural exchanges don’t have the ‘wow’ factor they once did.

That said, English points out other ways in which détente encouraged liberal, pro-Western thinking in sections of the Soviet elite. Arms control created strong personal ties between Soviet and US diplomats. After months of working together and then reaching agreement, the former came to respect and admire the later, and with it also came to reject ideas of the necessity of East-West conflict. In the process, détente created its own bureaucratic momentum. This is the way of things; to do something, you have to create institutions and cadres dedicated to it, who in due course become committed to doing more of it, in part out of genuine belief but in part because out of bureaucratic interest and inertia.

And so it was within the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, elements of which became decidedly more ‘liberal’,  if that is an appropriate word, than the regime as a whole. English thus describes how liberal-minded diplomats, notably Lev Mendelevich and Anatoly Kovalev, slipped the Helsinki Final Act, with its commitments to human rights, past Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ‘signed the Final Act “without really reading it through”.’ The diplomats hoped, thereby, ‘to encourage domestic reforms, a gradual liberalization of the Communist system, and a humanization of Soviet society.’

One might wonder why diplomats thought that such domestic issues were their concern, but that’s by the by. The point is that détente helped to develop a liberally-inclined, pro-Western element within the Soviet diplomatic service, which used its position to, let’s put it somewhat crudely, undermine the Soviet Union from within. (I’m sure that wasn’t that element’s intent, but it was the effect.)

English describes the intellectual process that took place in the Soviet Union as a gradual abandonment of the isolationist outlook. Compare this to today: the Western policy of endlessly piling up the pressure on Russia, with what seems like a new round of sanctions every month, is having the opposite effect. I can’t say that I follow the readings of the Russian foreign policy community in huge detail, but insofar as I do, I get the strong impression that it’s becoming more and more inclined to the view that it’s pointless to make any concessions to the West because the latter is incapable of responding in kind.

One can see this even among what I call ‘establishment Westernizers’, such as, say, Dmitry Trenin. Particularly striking are some recent articles by one of Russia’s leading foreign policy experts Fyodor Lukyanov, who is now arguing that Russia and the West need to go their own ways and have as little to do with each other as possible. ‘External interactions’ with the USA should be reduced to the ‘absolutely essential’, writes Lukyanov. The two countries should ‘keep out of each others’ way’, he adds. It’s quite a contrast to the kind of thinking that English describes as having developed in the Soviet Union in the era of détente.

I suspect that the more the West tries to isolate Russia, the stronger this tendency in Russian thinking is likely to become. If nothing else, there will be subtle shifts within the Russian foreign policy bureaucracy. Fewer and fewer people will be involved in arms control, trade and other negotiations with Western partners. Meanwhile, more and more will be dealing with China and other parts of the world. With that, the power that the West exerts on Russian foreign policy thinking will inevitably diminish.

As far as the West is concerned, this is very much a self-inflicted wound. The way you influence people is by having contact with them, and reaching agreements with them. It is something that we once at least partially understood. I fear that we do so no longer.

Abramovich Sues Journalist for Libel

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich has launched a defamation lawsuit against the former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times, Catherine Belton, and her publisher. This follows accusations in her book Putin’s People concerning Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea Football Club. You can read my thoughts on the case in an article on RT here. I decline to say whether the accusations constitute defamation – that’s for the courts to decide – but I do point out that the claim ‘is not well supported by evidence.’ I conclude that while journalists have a right to be concerned about libel suits, they should be equally concerned about publishing scurrilous rumours based on dubious sources. But are they? Or is that what constitutes ‘excellent journalism’ when it comes to Russia?

Some Musings on Soviet Philosophy

The last few days have been one of those periods when three no. 57 buses have just gone past and you’re waiting and waiting for another one to come along – i.e. a bit of a drought in suitable blogging stories. So I thought I’d muse a little about what I’m reading, and about to read, at the moment.

As I progress in studying the subject of Russian liberalism, I have finally more or less completed my research into the Imperial period, and so have moved into the Soviet era, a time that was not at all conducive to liberal thinking. But something that one could call liberalism did appear in the USSR in the 1980s under Gorbachev. So where it did it come from? I don’t think that it makes sense to imagine that it just appeared out of nowhere fully formed some time around 1987. Clearly, some intellectual shifts had been going on for a while that then got a major boost by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. Which makes me wonder whether is something that could rightfully be called ‘Soviet liberalism’.

It’s with that in mind that I got hold of Mikhail Epstein’s recent book The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period, 1953-1991. I’ve got as far as reading about a guy with the name of Vladimir Lefebvre, who I’d have guessed was a Frenchman if Epstein didn’t tell me that he’s actually Russian.

Continue reading Some Musings on Soviet Philosophy

On a Roll

I’m on a roll this week, with two more things for you to read and listen to.

First, I am interviewed on the Curious Task Podcast on the ‘Is Russia a Threat to Democracy’. You can listen to it here: Ep. 85: Paul Robinson — Is Russia a Threat to Democracy? (podbean.com)

Second, I have written yet another article for RT, this time marking the 7th anniversary of the annexation/reunification of Crimea. You can read that here: Seven years after Crimea rejoined Russia, Western leaders are fooling themselves if they hope peninsula can ever return to Ukraine — RT Russia & Former Soviet Union

Happy listening and reading!

Russia Stories Rolling Up Like London Buses

You know what they say about London buses – you wait for ages for a Number 57 to come along and then three arrive all at once. It’s a bit like that with suitable stories for this blog. You can have a long drought when it seems like there’s nothing to write about and then, wham, story after story arrives in quick succession.

Which is what it’s been like these past few days.

First, we had claims from the US State Department that Russia was trying to blacken the name of Western anti-covid vaccines in order to persuade other states to buy the Russian Sputnik V vaccine instead. Just about no evidence was provided to support this claim, beyond mention of three obscure websites that I imagine almost nobody reads. Allegedly, these websites have ‘links’ to Russian intelligence, but again no evidence was given to support that allegation. Furthermore, the State Department organization responsible for the claim has in the past made some highly dubious similar allegations against other websites (that I discussed and debunked here). Nobody should take its statements at face value. Frankly, the story is poorly-informed scaremongering.

It’s also enormously hypocritical, for next up was the disgraceful story that the United States had pressured Brazil not to accept deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine. I really think that this is one of the outrageous things that I have read of late. After accusing the Russians of anti-vax activities, it turns out that the US government is not only involved in such activities itself but is rather proud of it. In the name of countering Russian ‘influence’, it sought to deprive Brazilians of a much-needed defence against a pandemic that has already killed a substantial part of the Brazilian population. It is quite indefensible.

Then, we had bus number 3: the publication of a new foreign policy and defence review by the British government. This listed Russia as “the most acute threat to our security,” and announced the UK’s intention to “reshape the international order,” increase military spending, and supplement its nuclear arsenal, while also declaring that, “The UK will deploy more of our armed forces overseas more often and for longer periods of time.”

I have written a piece about this for RT, which you can read here. I conclude that, “A Russian could only draw the conclusion that the United Kingdom is hell bent on an aggressive and hostile policy,” but that “Ultimately, the main loser will not be the Russians, the Chinese, or any other foreign power, but the British people themselves.” For their government’s “bizarre set of priorities”  will squander their national resources on pointless military adventurism at a time when other far more important matters should be taking precedence.

But the buses keeping rolling along. For next we have the US intelligence community making more bizarre allegations of Russian electoral interference, this time in the 2020 presidential election. And then after that, we have President Joe Biden calling Vladimir Putin a ‘killer’.

My contempt for the US intelligence community has never been greater. As a former intelligence person myself, I find myself asking, ‘Were we always this bad?’ I don’t know the answer, but in this instance, we have claims that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2020 election based on the actions of two guys who aren’t even Russian, but are said to be ‘proxies’, with yet again no supporting evidence provided. If I have time, I’ll write more on the topic later. Suffice to say, the reality doesn’t justify the hysterical headlines.

As for Biden’s comments, well what can one say? Didn’t he just order the bombing of Syria. Doesn’t that make him a ‘killer’ too? Politicians should avoid this sort of language. I suspect, though, that what this and the intelligence report mentioned above indicate is that Russiagate, with its allegations of Trump-Putin collusion to undermine American democracy, has done irreparable damage to US-Russia relations. One gets the impression that there is now a deep, deep hatred of Russia within the US government, a hatred that prevents any sane analysis of Russian intentions and actions, as well as of US national interests. I fear that this will last for quite a long time.

The Russian Hydra

If you want to understand international affairs but only have time to read one academic article, the one I’d recommend would be Robert Jervis’ “Hypotheses on Misperception,” published in World Politics in 1968. It contains 14 hypotheses about how states misperceive one another, creating many of the problems which endanger international security. None of it is exactly rocket science, but it’s the kind of obvious truth that needs to be said, and then repeated over and over again, because people seem to be unable to take it in.

I give the article to students in my defence policy course so we can discuss things such as “Hypothesis 8 is that there is an overall tendency for decision-makers to see other states as more hostile than they are,” and “Hypothesis 9 states that actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.” Obvious stuff, as I said, but it comes in useful when we move on to discuss other matters such as this week’s class topic, which was hybrid warfare.

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I’m not a fan of the concept of hybrid warfare, but as it’s something students of defence policy will hear a lot about I kind of have to discuss it, for which purpose I googled around looking for suitable diagrams to use to explain the idea. In the process, I came across this one that accompanied an interview a couple of years ago with a guy called Mark Voyger who was at one time a special advisor to Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former Commanding General of US Army Europe.

Continue reading The Russian Hydra

Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Remember the claims that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government had a role in inciting the mob that broke into the Capitol building in Washington DC back in January? I wrote about this in an article a few weeks ago. No sooner had the dust settled than social media was abuzz with statements that Putin either arranged the whole thing or at the very least was celebrating what had happened. As former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes put it, “This is the day that Vladimir Putin has waited for since he had to leave East Germany as a young KGB officer at the end of the Cold War.”

The idea that Putin and the Russian state want nothing more than to see Western democracies collapse into chaos is now so widespread as to be pretty much an uncontestable truth. Everybody knows that it is so. Russian “disinformation”, election “meddling”, and all of the rest of it, are put down to Putin’s enormous fear of democracy and of the West, and his concomitant desire to undermine both.

If you have any doubts, just Google “Putin, undermine democracy.” I did, and this is what I got:

Continue reading Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

The Foolishness of Linguistic Homogenization

In a new article for RT (which you can read here) I discuss Latvian and Ukrainian efforts to assimilate Russian speakers and to turn their countries into linguistically homogenized states. I note that many of the most successful states in the world have more than one official language, and that ‘that having a multiplicity of languages within a state is not a hindrance to being rich, stable, democratic, or anything else you might consider desirable. ‘

I conclude:

Successful multilingual nations such as Switzerland and Canada have learnt not only to live with diversity but to embrace and celebrate it. In the process they have turned it into a strength. Supporters of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution often say that they want Ukraine to be a “normal country.” They should think about what that means.

Happy reading!