A couple of very little cracks appeared in the anti-Russian narrative this past week. One shouldn’t make too much of them, and as will become clear, the manner in which deviance from the general line is framed reveals that there are distinct limits about how far people feel they can go and maintain their respectability. Still, it was interesting to see at least some willingness in unexpected circles to challenge prevailing views.
The first example is a think piece published by the Atlantic Council, normally the home of the hardest of hardline anti-Russian commentators. More sanctions, arm Ukraine, bring down the Putin regime – that’s the general Atlantic Council line. However, in an article entitled ‘Reality Check no. 4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia,’ authors Emma Ashford and Matthew Burrows pour cold water on the Council’s favored approach.
Not because they like Russia, of course. Nor because they think that the negative claims about it are exaggerated. Here’s where the limits come into play. You won’t get the Atlantic Council to listen to you if you play down the evils of the Russian empire. And so Ashford and Burrows prove their credentials by showing that they agree that Russia is a terrible place where ‘the regime has murdered journalists and activists and cracked down on civil society.’ But beyond that, they (quite rightly, in my opinion) point out that taking a hard line against Russia doesn’t do anybody any good.
First, they point out ‘Washington’s past efforts to impose sanctions because of human rights abuses have been relatively unsuccessful. … The Magnitsky Act and post-Crimean invasion sanctions have instead caused economic damage but not policy change.’ They mention the Jackson-Vanik Amendment as one example of successful sanctions, but even this is highly disputable. As Cardiff University prof Sergei Radchenko pointed out in a response on Twitter, ‘the available evidence shows that Jewish emigration dried up soon after Jackson-Vanik was passed, which clearly suggests that the sanction actually had the opposite effect from the one desire.’
So yes, sanctions don’t promote human rights. Ashford and Matthews have got that correct. Also correct are their other arguments: sanctions against Russia are driving a wedge between the USA and Europe (definitely so in the case of North Stream 2); democracy promotion is often counter-productive, as the targeted regimes respond by clamping down on opposition; and ‘democratization in Russia would not necessarily be good for the USA). The last point is a good one – as I’ve often pointed out, Vladimir Putin is a relative moderate on foreign policy by Russian standards. The idea that democracy would bring somebody to power more in tune with Western interests is naïve. The result might be something much less to our liking.
All in all, therefore, it’s quite encouraging to see this coming out of the Atlantic Council, but don’t expect it to win any hearts and minds. The response from most quarters was to say the least hostile. How dare the authors suggest de-emphasizing human rights was the general reply. Of course, the authors do so for a simple reason – the human rights based policy doesn’t work. But for some reason or other, what works doesn’t seem to be a concern of much of the policy community.
And then we have article no. 2, which appears in the latest edition of the New Statesman.
Written by Felix Light, the article seeks to explain why Russians failed to turn up in huge numbers in support of imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Light begins by putting it down to ‘vicious police violence’ and throwing in some quotes from Navalny’s henchman Leonid Volkov, thereby letting us know that, despite what he’s about to say, he’s not on the side of the regime. But then he goes off the rails, and tells us the following:
Today’s tightened belts are unlikely to drive Russia into revolution, simply because most Russians can still remember a time when things were much worse. The Russia of 2021 may have registered close to zero GDP growth in a decade, but it is a vastly more prosperous, healthier and more habitable country than the dysfunctional wreck Putin inherited in 2000, to say nothing of the still worse conditions of 1990 or 1950.
… Despite everything, the present is still a historically good time to live in the world’s largest country. Contemporary Russians live longer, drink less and, strange though it may seem, enjoy more personal freedom than in almost any time in their history.
… Moreover, Russia under Putin – though undoubtedly deeply corrupt – is far more than the failed, gangsterised parody of democracy that some portrayals abroad suggest. At home, it is a reasonably coherent system that asks only its citizens’ passive acceptance, whilst promising in return a modicum of political participation, a decent semblance of law and order and at least a chance at personal prosperity. For Russians, who have only rarely enjoyed much of any of these blessings, all three at once is a historically alluring proposition.
… Putinism pledges never again to cast Russia as the guinea pig in any grandly conceived social experiments. Instead, it offers stability, continuity and development to a nation that has been required to regularly relearn the rules of society by rulers from Peter the Great to Yeltsin. … that simple promise remains far more attractive than Navalny’s call to, once again, transform Russia beyond recognition.
Felix nails it! There’s a lot wrong with Russia, but compared to any time in its past it ‘is a historically good to time live’ there, and Russians live longer, and ‘enjoy more personal freedom than in almost any time in their history.’ Exactly. It’s not rocket science. Anybody who visited the place in the 1980s, 1990s, and then goes back today couldn’t fail to notice this. Well done, Felix, for pointing it out.
You see, it wouldn’t look good to leave it like that. People might think that Felix Light was thinking supporting Putin. Having given a good explanation of the current situation, it’s like he realized that he’d gone off the rails and felt a desperate need to get back on track and so rejoin the world of the respectable. And so, he gives us a section break and then a one line paragraph saying, ‘And yet none of this means Putinism is immune from crisis.’
Relief! We’re back where we should be, and Mr Light wraps up with two long sections telling us that a new ‘shock may be just around the corner’. Parliamentary elections are coming up. The ruling United Russia party is doing badly in the polls (not really true – it did quite well in the local elections last year and there’s no reason to suspect it will do any worse in 2021), and we can expect some serious vote rigging when the ballots are counted later this year. That might produce some major protests – not enough to bring down the hated regime, says Light, ‘But a loud and sustained outburst of anger at another stolen election might just arrest Russia’s slide towards full dictatorship. And right now, that would be a victory in itself.’
And so, to conclude, we’ll give young Felix a few points for trying, but in the end he slipped back into old habits. Shame. Cracks in the narrative, for sure, but cracks only, and they’re painted over pretty quickly.