What Motivates Russian Military Intervention?

A few years ago, I discussed the possible relevance of prospect theory to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Prospect theory suggests that humans are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to achieve a gain. This fits the well-known psychological inclination of loss aversion. Losing stuff bothers us much more than failing to gain stuff. In the world of international relations, that means that one should expect states to use military force more often in cases when they are threatened by loss than as a tool to acquire something they don’t already have.

It’s interesting, therefore, to see some confirmation of this in a new study published by the RAND Corporation, entitled ‘Russia’s Military Interventions: Patterns, Drivers, and Signposts.’ This analyzes instances of Russian military intervention in the post-Soviet era and concludes that prevention of loss is one of the main motivators.

The report lists 25 military ‘interventions’ carried out by the Russian Federation since 1992. The term ‘intervention’ is quite loosely defined as “any deployment of military forces outside of Russia’s borders that meets a threshold of 100 person-years for ground forces (or an equivalent threshold for air and naval forces) and that engages in a qualifying activity, including combat, deterrence, humanitarian response, stabilization (i.e., peacekeeping), train and assist, and security, among others.” Most of the 25 interventions fall under the ‘stabilization’ heading, including a bunch of UN peacekeeping operations, provision of border security in Tajikistan, and so on. By contrast, post-Soviet Russia has not engaged in combat very often.

The report concludes that, ‘By comparison either to the Soviet Union or to the United States, Russia’s military interventions have been modest in scale and number and limited in geographical scope.’ As you can see from these charts, the Russian Federation’s military footprint abroad is much smaller than that of the USSR. Moreover, the great majority of its generally very limited ‘interventions’ have taken place within the space of the former Soviet Union.

Modern-day Russian, therefore, is much more regionally-focused than was the Soviet Union and its primary focus is regional stability.

The report analyzes a variety of motivations for military intervention previously identified in scholarly literature on the topic. It dismisses most of them as not relevant or only marginally relevant to the Russian case.

For instance, the report says that there is little or no evidence that
Russian military intervention is driven by economics or by ideology. Likewise the study dismisses the idea that Russia is afraid of the ‘diffusion’ of democratic ideas from neighbouring countries such as Ukraine and therefore seeks to prevent democracy from taking root there. As the report says:

“We certainly do not have examples of Russian leaders speaking of their fear of the demonstration effects of Ukrainian democratic success on the Russian populace. Moreover, we know that Russian elites have a very low opinion of their Ukrainian counterparts; it is difficult for them to conceive of the possibility that Ukraine can survive without Western assistance, let alone become a thriving democracy.”

Also rejected is the ‘wag the dog’ theory. Russia doesn’t engage in military activity in order to distract attention from internal problems, claims RAND. “There is scant evidence to suggest that Putin has ever felt that his popular support, the bedrock of his power, was under serious threat,” says the report, besides which there is no statistical correlation between low levels of government support and foreign intervention. In fact, as this chart shows, military intervention has declined under Putin compared to his predecessor, Yeltsin (i.e. since 2000).

In any case the study argues, it’s wrong to view Putin as the prime driver of Russian military interventions. As it says:

“if we examine all of Russia’s interventions that meet the threshold described in this report, it becomes clear that the majority occurred before Putin’s rise to power … most importantly, there is broad consensus today among Russian elites on foreign policy matter … [there is] little firsthand evidence to suggest that Putin’s personal predilections are a primary driver of Russia’s interventions.”

In short, all the claims that Russia seeks to export its authoritarian ideology, destabilize democracy, prop up the ‘Putin regime’, or is just driven by the aggressive personality of Putin himself are wrong.

So, what does produce Russian intervention?

According to the report, three motives stand out: concerns with national status; the regional power balance; and external threats. The authors conclude:

“Changes on the ground in post-Soviet Eurasia, particularly in Ukraine, that create an external threat or the perception of a rapid change in the regional balance or Russia’s status in ways that contradict Russian interests should be seen as potential triggers for Russian military action. Moscow will not hesitate to act, including with force, in its immediate neighborhood. Second, Russia does seem to act in ways consistent with a desire to avoid losses when it comes to regional power balances. Moscow has intervened when it perceived regional balances to be shifting away from a status quo that was favorable to Russian interests. … Russia seems to act in ways that are consistent with a desire to avoid losses when it comes to regional power balances. Moscow has intervened when it perceived regional balances to be shifting away from a status quo that was favorable to Russian interests. … In short, prevention of imminent loss could push Russia to act.”

In other words, Russia intervenes when it feels threatened with a loss of status, stability, or security in its immediate neighbourhood. It doesn’t intervene in pursuit of what one might call ‘aggressive’ or ‘imperialistic’ goals, or to deflect from internal political problems. And it’s not a question of Vladimir Putin. Russia will retain the same interests and the same predilections regardless of who is in charge.

The report ends with a brief set of recommendations for US policy, primarily that the US should avoid putting Moscow in a position where it feels that it’s about to suffer a major loss in its near abroad. As think tank reports go, this is remarkable sober and sensible, and I don’t find much to criticize beyond the rather broad definition of ‘intervention’. Basically what it comes down to is ‘don’t drive the bear into a corner.’ In that sense, it’s really pretty obvious. It also contradicts the current prevalent narrative, which is that Russia is hell bent on aggression and needs to be cut down to size by every available means, including by intruding on its near abroad. If this report is right, that’s about the very worst thing one could do. But I doubt anybody is listening.

Analysis of Russian Election Results

The results of last week’s election to the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, are now in. The big winners? The ruling United Russia party (UR) which won 50% of the vote. Second was the Communist Party of the Russian Federation at 19%; next at 7.5% was Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) as well as A Just Russia – For Truth; and last to win a batch a seats was a new formation, New People, which got just over 5%. Nine other parties collected 12% between them but failed to get over the 5% needed to get seats according to the party list system. 

I have analyzed the results in an article for RT (here) As I say, both UR, whose result was 5% down compared with the last election in 2016, and the Communists, whose vote was about 6% up, have reason to be happy. UR will win close to 320 seats out of the 450 available, a majority of over two-thirds. Meanwhile, the CPRF has enjoyed its best election for 20 years, consolidating its position as Russia’s main opposition. When Russians are dissatisfied with their rulers, the Communists are their first choice for an alternative. It’s a sobering thought for those in the West who imagine that a post-Putin Russia will be all love and cuddles. 

There’s only so much that one can put in a 1,000 word article, so I thought I should develop some points further here. 

1. Fraud. UR’s 50% is well above predictions. Pre-election polls had the party pegged at about 35% of decided, definite voters. In the past, undecideds have tended to gravitate towards UR or have just not voted at all, so it was to be expected that UR would get more than the 35% polled. 40% would not have been unreasonable. The state polling company VTsIOM was predicting 45%. But 50% is way beyond expectations. Unsurprisingly, some people consider the result more than a little fishy. 

Of course, some were going to shout fraud whatever happened. But UR’s showing certainly provides grounds for suspicion. The Central Electoral Commission cancelled results from several polling stations after cameras spotted ballot stuffing. Who knows how many others got away with it. 

The main target at this moment in time is the system of electronic voting. For the first time, Russians had the option of voting in person in the old fashion way with pen and paper, or online. Even before the election, critics were saying that the latter was a recipe for abuse, as it would be impossible for outsiders to verify the published results. 

What makes people doubly suspicious is that when the results were issued, it turned out that a higher percentage of online than in-person voters cast their ballots for UR. Moscow has become a particular focus of attention. The electronic results from Moscow were delayed for several hours. Until they were published, opposition (i.e. non-UR) candidates were leading in nearly all the Moscow constituencies. Once the electronic votes were declared, the balance tipped and UR won every single seat. Some people are calling foul, and suggesting that the delay was caused by the requirement to rig the result and calculate just how many extra votes were needed to give UR a win in each constituency.

The Moscow electoral commission stands by its results and says that the delay was due to the novelty of the system, the large number of electronic voters, and the fact that in Moscow electors had the option to change their vote, which supposedly caused some problems in the system. The commission says that it checked the results 4 times to ensure that they were accurate. You may believe it or not, as you wish.

An explanation for the Moscow anomaly could be that different categories of voters prefer different systems of voting. In last year’s US presidential election, for instance, postal voting was greatly preferred by Biden supporters. Trump appeared to be about to win several states until the results of the postal ballots were added, 80% of which went to Biden, swinging the states in favour of the latter. Perhaps a similar dynamic is at work in Russia. Maybe anti-UR voters didn’t trust electronic voting and so stayed clear of it, thus giving them a majority among paper voters but ensuring a majority the other way around among electronic voters.

Or maybe it was fraud, pure and simple. The very nature of electronic voting means that we don’t the evidence at our disposable to say definitively one way or the other. At any rate, the Moscow electronic results will provide those wanting to denounce the elections as fraudulent with a plausible means of doing so. Defeated Communist candidates are calling for protests in Moscow. It will be interesting to see if anyone turns up.

2. Liberal defeat and New People. If the Communists did well, Russia’s main liberal parties – Yabloko, Civic Platform, and the Party of Growth – did dismally, polling just 1.5% between the three of them, although it looks like they all might get one Duma deputy due to victories in single member constituencies. Yabloko did the best of the three, but at just over 1% this was its worst result ever. At this point it’s hard to see what purpose the party serves by continuing to exist. It’s a mere shell of its former self and I see no way that it can recover. It’s well past time for the banner of liberalism to pass on to somebody else.

That somebody could perhaps be the party New People, which garnered 5% and so is entitled to about a dozen seats in parliament. New People was only created last year, so it’s hard to say much about it or what it stands for. But as far as I’ve been able to find out (and I’m willing to be corrected if I have this wrong), it’s a moderately economically liberal party that stresses getting practical results in Russia’s localities rather than fighting with the authorities in Moscow. If you know your 19th century Russian liberal history, it strikes me as a little bit like the ‘small deeds’ liberalism of the late imperial zemstvo movement.

There’s a long-standing streak in Russian liberalism that regards fighting the state as pretty much the definition of what it means to be liberal. Gosudarstvennost’ (statehood) and obshchestvennost, (roughly speaking, hand-shakeable, liberally correct public opinion) are assumed to be irreconcilable enemies. Consequently, New People’s attitude to the central authorities makes many members of contemporary obshchestvennost’ consider the party to be little more than a bunch of Kremlin stooges. However, given that the alternatives have failed so utterly dismally, New People’s non-confrontational approach may be about the only hope that Russian liberalism has for a revival.

Will New People amount to anything? Only time will tell, but for now it can legitimately claim to have more appeal among liberally-minded urban professional types than do the likes of Yabloko. Likewise it has some good reasons for claiming that its approach offers greater prospects than the street liberalism of radicals like Alexei Navalny.

Which provides a suitable link for a discussion of ‘smart voting.’

3. Smart Voting. This is the scheme dreamt up by imprisoned activist Alexei Navalny and his team. It encourages electors to vote for whatever candidate in a given constituency has the best chance of defeating the candidate of United Russia. It doesn’t matter which party that first candidate is from – smart voting says that you should vote for him or her in order to stop UR from winning.

Navalny and his boosters claim that smart voting is the bees knees and has the powers that be trembling in their beds. The reality is that it is a dud.

Navalny’s top aide, Leonid Volkov, claims that smart voting won in nearly all the constituencies in Moscow and St Petersburg, at least until the authorities fiddled the vote with the online results. There’s a few things wrong with this.

In the first place, fraud or no fraud, at the end of the day, the candidates recommended by smart voting lost. In the second place, most of them were Communists. If they did well, it was because of the general upsurge in Communist support, not because of smart voting, which in any case didn’t identify the preferred candidates until the day before the election and so can’t have made that much of a difference. Calling Communists ‘Navalny-backed candidates’ and claiming credit for their success is a fraud that nobody should fall for.

And third, in some cases where non-UR candidates won, they did so despite smart voting recommending somebody else. For instance, the Communists beat UR into second place in the far eastern province of Yakutia, but smart voting told people in Yakutia to vote for A Just Russia. Anybody who followed smart voting’s advice would have helped UR not hindered it. Similarly, a Yabloko candidate managed to win a seat in a by-election for the Moscow City Council. But smart voting told electors to cast their ballot for the Communist candidate. This latter case, I think, proves the point that even in Moscow, the most liberal city in Russia, voters don’t do what smart voting tells them to.

To tell if smart voting had any effect, one would have to do a detailed study comparing local single-member constituency results with the votes cast for party lists in the same constituencies, taking into account issues which might distort the sample, such as the popularity or non-popularity of individual candidates. Obviously, this is beyond my means. But even if one did manage to find some minor impact in a few places, at the macro-level UR won nearly 200 of the 225 constituency seats. At the level which matters, in other words, smart voting failed totally.

This confirms what I’ve been saying for a long time, namely that Navalny and his team are over-hyped deadenders. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

None of the Above: Thoughts on Two Elections

Citizens of Russia and Canada go to the polls over the next few days to elect new parliaments – the Duma in Russia’s case, the House of Commons in that of Canada. It’s fair to say that neither is generating a lot of international excitement. In Russia’s case, because the result is (within certain boundaries) a foregone conclusion; and in Canada’s case because nobody cares.

Insofar as the Canadian press is covering the Russian election, it’s to portray it as fundamentally flawed, if not downright corrupt – a pretence at democracy rather than the real thing. Typical is the latest by the CBC’s new Moscow correspondent Briar Stewart, which starts off by quoting the campaign manager of the liberal Yabloko party in Krasnodar, saying that, “the State Duma election is the most terrible election I have seen since my birth.” The rest of the article then hammers home the point in case any readers hadn’t got it already.

There’s an element of truth to the complaints about the Russian elections, although it’s worth noting that the authorities’ manipulation of the system occurs primarily before votes are cast rather than after. That’s to say that the ‘managed’ party of ‘managed democracy’ mainly involves making life difficult for opposition candidates, limiting their access to the media, and things like that, rather than practices like ballot stuffing or falsifying the count (not to say that these practices don’t happen, but the general feeling is that the authorities prefer to limit them so as to avoid ridiculous results that lack legitimacy).

Nevertheless, although the playing field is far from a level one, when Russian voters head into the booths to cast their ballots, they have quite a lot of choice.

It’s reckoned that four or five parties will gain seats in the Duma via the proportional representation system that assigns half the total to those parties that win over 5% (the other half are chosen by first-past-the-post constituency elections). Most of these likely winners fall, I would say, in the left-conservative bracket, but there’s a lot of variation – from the hard left Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), through the also fairly left wing Just Russia party, the centrist United Russia, the centre-right New People (the least likely to pass the 5% hurdle), and the nationalist LDPR.

If those aren’t to your liking, there’s another 9 parties on the ballot papers. Most are no-hopers, though one or two might win a constituency here or there. For instance, if you’re the kind of person who thinks that the CPRF has sold out communism, you can vote for the more hardcore Communists of Russia. Or, likewise, if you think that the LDPR are a bunch of softies and you want tougher action on issues like immigration, you can throw your support behind Rodina. Or, if you’re liberally-inclined and think that New People are Kremlin stooges, you can put your cross next to the name of Yabloko (also Kremlin stooges according to the bizarre logic of the Navalnyites) or the more free market-inclined Party of Growth.

In other words, despite all the manipulations of the authorities, even if the final result is not in doubt (United Russia will win a majority), once you’re in voting booth ready to cast your secret ballot you actually have a lot of options open to you.

Now, let’s look at Canada.

Outside of Quebec (where you also have the separatist Bloc Quebecois), there’s only three options if you want to vote for somebody who win will a seat: Liberal, Conservative, and NDP (Green might pick up one seat, but overall are somewhere around 3% in the polls). The only other party likely to get a reasonable number of votes is the People’s Party of Canada, which is enjoying a surge (6-7%), primarily, it seems, by appealing to anti-vaxxers. But it has no chance of winning any seats and is thus a wasted vote except as a protest.

In other words, in real terms you have a choice of three parties. Let’s see what distinguishes them. As far as I can see, their platforms run roughly as follows:

Party A: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend. Party B: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend, and spend! Party C: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend, and spend some more!

Party A: Here’s the list of interest groups I want to throw money at. Party B: Here’s my list. Look it’s even longer. Party C: Hah, you think your list is long – look at mine!

Party A: Woke is good. Party B: Woke is extra good. Party C: Woke is extra, extra good.

Party A: Russia is evil. Party B: Russia is very evil. Party C: Russia is very super evil.

Party A: We’ll be tough on China. Party B: We’ll be extra tough on China. Party C: We’ll be extra, mega tough on China. (Of course, in practice, none of them will!)

By now you get the point. It doesn’t really matter who you vote for, you end up with pretty much the same thing. That’s not to say that there are no differences, but they’re not on fundamentals. Basically, it’s three variations of a theme.

So there you have it. In one country, you have lots of choice, but the system’s fixed to make sure the same guys always win. In the other, it’s a fair fight – anyone can win – it just doesn’t matter who does – they’re all the same. You might say that one is rigged at the micro level, while the other is rigged at the macro level.

Which is better? I’ll leave it to you to decide. Meanwhile, I have the difficult decision as to whether Party A, Party B, or Party C is more worthy of my vote on Monday. What a choice!

Vote Smart, Vote Communist

in my latest for RT (here), I discuss Alexei Navalny’s ’smart voting’ scheme in the light of the list of preferred candidates for this week’s Russian parliamentary elections just issued by Navalny’s team. There are 225 single member constituencies up for grab. Team Navalny recommends one candidate per constituency and suggests voters cast their ballot for thar person, as the candidate most likely to beat the ruling United Russia party.

So who does Navalny recommend?

Communists mostly (61% of the total), plus some from the left nationalist Just Russia, and the occasional person from other parties. But only a handful of liberals.

In short, voting smart means voting Communist.

Now tell me, please, what’s so smart about that? As I argue in my article, precious little.

The Politics of Commemoration

The politics of commemoration is back in the Russian news this week with the unveiling of a number of new monuments.

Most controversial were two new monuments to the founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzherskinsky, one in the Crimea capital of Simferopol and one in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, the latter outside a school that was renamed after the famous Chekist in 2017. Meduza reports that there are 40 monuments to Dzerzhinsky across Russia, so why another one is needed, I can’t imagine. The head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Simferopol provided an explanation, and said that “‘Iron Felix’ not only fought against counter-revolutionaries, but also raised the country out of ruin and poverty.” Under Dzerzhinsky, “two thousands bridges were restored, [and] nearly three thousand steam locomotives and more than 10 thousand kilometers of railway track were repaired.”

The secret police as as engineers! Whoever knew?

Bust of ‘Iron Felix’ in Krasnodar

It’s quite common to portray the ‘Putin regime’ in Russia as a blend of Chekists (siloviki) and Orthodox conservatives, but the truth is that the two don’t always get along very well. The Orthodox Church hasn’t taken too kindly to the Dzherzhinsky revival, As Meduza reports, ‘Archpriest Leonid Kalinin, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Council for Culture, condemned the new monument. “Personally, I’m categorically against the appearance of such monuments in any public spaces in Russia. This insults the memory of millions of innocent victims of terror, famine, cold, torment, torture, prison, camps, and the devastation of the Fatherland”,’ he said.

The Church, meanwhile, has been organizing monuments of its own, a grandiose example of which was unveiled over the weekend near Pskov on the Russian-Estonian border. This was a large, 50-tonne memorial to the thirteenth century Prince of Novgorod Alexander Nevsky, built on the initiative of Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, believed by some to be the personal confessor of Vladimir Putin.

Patriarch Kirill blesses the monument to Alexander Nevsky

I discuss the Alexander Nevsky monument in an article published today in RT (here). As I note, it’s actually the second Nevsky memorial unveiled in less than 2 weeks. On 1 September, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended the opening of another one, on the grounds of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO – the breeding ground of the Russian diplomatic corps).

One statue to Nevsky could just be a blip. Two in two weeks, both attended by top state officials, is telling us something.

As I mention in my article, the thing about Alexander Nevsky is that though he fought the West (in the form of the Livonian knights), he made peace with the East (the Mongols). The reason is that the East merely sought tribute; the West sought to convert Russia to another religion and so destroy its independent culture. Sergei Lavrov noted in an article a few years ago that, “I am confident that this wise and forward-looking policy is in our genes.”

The location of the Pskov monument is particularly symbolic: right on NATO’s border, looking westward. It isn’t just history. It’s a mark of defiance. So too, in their own way, are the Dzerzhinsky statues, Dzerzhinsky fought the internal enemy; Nevsky the external one. And there perhaps is a common theme: enemies abound, and we will crush them. As such, for better or worse, these monuments are perhaps fitting symbols of the current zeitgeist.

Poll: Russians Want Return of Soviet Rule

A new poll from the Levada Centre brings a result that will no doubt shock some in the West: 49% of Russians would like a return to Soviet government, of the type Russia had until 1991, whereas only 16% would like Western-style democracy (column on the far right below – support for Soviet system shown in red, for the current system in Russia in orange, and for Western-style democracy in blue. Black is ‘other’, and grey is ‘difficult to reply’).

As you can see from the column on the left, Levada has been doing this poll since 1996 and this is the highest ever level of support registered for Soviet-style government. Meanwhile, support for Western-style democracy is well down from its peak in the late 90s and early 00s. Support for the current system has never been desperately high apart from a blip in February 2008 (hopes of change under Medvedev???) and another in March 2015 (post-Crimean bump). But the current system is still more popular than in the 1990s, whereas the opposite is true of Western democracy.

In an article for RT (see here), I discuss how age differences factor into this, as seen in this chart:

As you can see, younger folk are much less pro-Soviet and much more pro-Western. Does that mean that 30 years from now the Russian population will have moved in that direction? Not necessarily. As I say in the article, the 55+ age group contains all the folk who were in their 20s and 30s in the perestroika era and the early 1990s and who were probably the most liberal, most pro-Western generation Russia has ever produced, before or since. These are the types who turned out en masse in Moscow to support Lithuanian independence, who voted en bloc for Boris Yeltsin, and who even gave liberal parties some 30% of the vote in the 1993 Duma elections (unthinkable today). So they weren’t all Sovoks from the start, hating liberal democracy and the West. Something happened along the way. Who knows what will happen to the current 18-24 somethings.

The poll contains a couple of other interesting charts. First there’s this one, which shows whether people would prefer Russia to be a ‘great power’ or to be a country with a good standard of living. As I say in the article, it’s a dumb question, presenting the two as polar opposites, when in fact they are mutually dependent (a richer population = a richer, more powerful state). The fact that Levada presents the two as opposed tells us a lot about its own biases. Still, here it is. Make of it what you will (preference for great power status is in red; preference for high standard of living is in blue – Russians prefer the latter, but let’s face it, who doesn’t?).

Finally, there’s this chart, which shows responses to the question ‘What economic system seems the most correct to you?’ Red is support for an economy based on ‘planning and redistribution’, blue is support for an economy based on ‘private property and market relations’. As you can see, most Russians are economic lefties, favoring planning and redistribution. Support for the free market is at historic lows, and way down from the 48% recorded in 1992.

I think that one needs to treat all this with a degree of caution. I mention in my article that it’s unlikely that many Russians are seriously considering a return to Soviet rule until some guy from Levada phones them up and asks them if they’re in favour. I suspect that the pro-Soviet option is as much a thumbs down to the alternatives as it is a thumbs up to communism. Likewise, I doubt that 62% of Russians would really like returning to the planned economy, although they obviously do believe that free market liberalism has its down sides and that wealth in their country is unequally distributed (as it is).

So, overall, what does it mean? Not that Russians are yearning to return to communism, I think. The Communist Party is most unlikely to win this week’s Duma elections. Rather the poll shows that Russians aren’t too happy with the existing system in their country, but – and this is the crucial element – they don’t see Western models as being any better. Of course, that may change – having swung one way, people may swing back again. But for now, Russians seem intent on going their own way.

Book Review: Is Russia Fascist?

‘Is Russia fascist?’ asks Marlene Laruelle. Anybody with half a brain knows that the answer is no, so one might wonder why it’s worth spending a whole book on the question. But as Laruelle points out, describing Russia as fascist has become quite popular of late. True, she says, those doing so, such as Timothy Snyder, are ‘figures who do not belong to political science or who present themselves as public intellectuals’, but they ‘have become particularly vocal’ and their accusation needs some deconstruction. Furthermore, it’s not just an academic matter. The attempt to label Russia as fascist serves a political purpose. ‘If Russia is fascist,’ says Laruelle, ‘then Russia is to be excluded from Europe.’ Her book is an effort to refute this political strategy.

To this end, Laruelle sets about defining fascism and then looks first at how fascism is viewed in Russia and second at whether the fascist label fits. This requires an analysis of the ‘Putin regime’ and what Laruelle calls its ‘ideological plurality’.  Laruelle considers the regime ideologically pluralistic and flexible, ‘on a permanent quest to draw inspiration from and co-opt grassroots trends.’ Within it are three mains groups: the Presidential Administration; the military industrial complex; and the Orthodox realm.

The Presidential Administration, says Laruelle, is ‘the least ideologically rigid’ segment of the regime, and is quite ‘eclectic’. ‘It never favors groups that could, one way or another, be identified as fascist’, she writes. The military industrial complex, by contrast, does have some links with what could be called the ‘far right’, such as members of the Izborsky Club and the Rodina party. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has some connections with modern day equivalents of the Tsarist Black Hundreds, although this is a ‘loose network of groups that do not depend on the Patriarchy institutionally but operate in parallel to it.’ Insofar as any of these elements could be deemed ‘fascist’, ‘they are scattered and do not dominate the narrative of any ecosystem.’ The military industrial complex, for instance, is conservative and Soviet-nostalgic, but ‘fascist references remain peripheral’ as they do also in the Orthodox realm.

In short, within the governing system itself, there is very little that could justly be called ‘fascist’.

That leads Laruelle to look outside the system. In Russia, as elsewhere, there are fringe groups that are fascistic or fascist-lite (as Laruelle calls them). Laruelle describes these in great detail. One has to admire the time and effort spent in following the goings-on of all these minor organizations. If you want to know what’s been happening in the Russian far right, this is undoubtedly the book for you.

And so it is that readers get to meet Russian National Unity, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, various bunches of skinheads, Cossacks, the Night Wolves bikers, Sambo martial arts groups, and of course Alexander Dugin. Laruelle notes that for many years, the Russian state’s attitude to such groups was quite ‘lax’, but from 2008 onwards this changed ‘with more systematic use of Article 282 of the Penal Code’ against them. Since then, the authorities ‘have taken serious steps to clamp down on the phenomenon’, to the extent that ‘the Russian far right has largely been dismantled.’ This reflects the fact that ‘the authorities realized that radical nationalism would potentially threaten the status quo and was moving into a plain confrontational posture that had to be eliminated.’

This is quite an important conclusion – the Russian state’s clampdown on certain pro-Western liberal groups and media institutions has received a great deal of coverage in the West, and is often used to justify accusations that the Russian regime is ‘authoritarian’ if not outright ‘dictatorial’. But the authorities have been equally, if not more, zealous in eliminating the far right. This severely undermines the claim that Russia is a fascist state.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Laruelle wraps up with the conclusion that, ‘the Russian regime does not display any features of a scholarly definition of fascism’. The only possible exception is the existence of militia groups, such as the Night Wolves, but that alone isn’t sufficient to justify the fascist label.

Laruelle goes beyond that. ‘Today’s Russia offers no indications that would qualify it as a totalitarian state’, she writes, adding that ‘the qualification of authoritarianism should be deployed with nuance’ as ‘ideological diversity is still available for those who look for it. … Russia thus cannot be labeled totalitarian, nor is it dictatorial; it is even less fascist’. Arguments to the contrary by the likes of Snyder (who Laruelle does an excellent job of destroying) ‘are based on a very segmented and biased interpretation of the regime’s ideological fundamentals.’

According to Laruelle, the Russian state is not just not fascist, it’s not even nationalist: ‘On the contrary, Putin, as well as the main government figures, heavily insist on Russia’s multinational and multiconfessional character. The Russian president has on several occasions denounced nationalism.’ Nor is the Russian state expansionist or irridentist – the Crimean case is unique, says Laruelle. As for wider Russian society, ‘The fascist tree constitutes a very small percentage of Russia’s ideological forest.’

What Russia actually is, Laruelle concludes, is ‘illiberal’, although her definition of this term is not quite what one would imagine. She writes, ‘I see illiberalism not as the opposite of liberalism … but more as a postliberalism, that is, as an ideology that pushes back against liberalism after having experienced it.’ ‘It’s not a reactionary ideology calling for a return to the past’, says Laruelle, ‘but rather a post-modern (and postliberal) conception, attuned to the current worldwide doubts about globalization.’ Moreover this postliberalism isn’t exclusively Russian but is part of a wider European trend.

Indeed, Laruelle argues, this ideology very much preserves Russia’s connection to Europe: it seeks to carve out a role for Russia in Europe, helping to rescue it from the alleged failings of Western liberalism. The fight over political labels is thus very much a fight over Russia’s right to a place in Europe. Those seeking to cast Russia as fascist are looking to expel Russia’s from the European family. By contrast, when Russia chucks the fascist label at the likes of post-Maidan Ukraine, it’s trying to revive its role as the defeater of fascism in 1945 and so claim what it considers its rightful place at the European table.

Overall, Is Russia Fascist? provides excellent insights into the ideological state of play in modern Russia. It also does a thorough job of demolishing the accusations that Russia is a totalitarian state. Unfortunately, I imagine that it won’t get the same circulation as the books of Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and others like them, that claim the opposite. Sadly, that’s how the cookie crumbles nowadays. All we can do is knock slowly away at the crazier constructs of our public intellectuals and hope that one day the wall they’ve built will come crashing down. This book provides a decent hammer to help do the job.

Pipeline victory

In my latest piece for RT (here), I discuss the near completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says should be operational ‘within days’. Given the efforts that the Americans have put into stopping North Stream 2, as well as the fierce opposition from Ukraine and various Eastern European member states of the EU, the completion of the pipeline is quite a victory for Russia. That said, as I note in the article, it was a victory founded on very specific conditions – namely the strong economic arguments in favour and the weakness of the geopolitical arguments against. Those conditions won’t always be repeated. Still, as I conclude, the outcome means that ‘there will undoubtedly be smiles in Moscow and much gnashing of teeth in Washington and Kiev.’

For Christ and Communism!

The inter-war Young Russians movement led by emigre Alexander Kazem-Bek had the wonderful slogan “For Tsar and Soviets!” A modern day equivalent might be “For Christ and Communism!” At least that’s what you might imagine judging by the statements of the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), Gennady Zyuganov.

As I point out in an article published today by RT (which you can read here), in the run up to parliamentary elections this month in Russia Zyuganov has been reiterating a claim he’s made before that Jesus was the original communist (which makes you wonder why the Communist Party of the Soviet Union expended so many bullets exterminating Jesus’s followers). If it seems odd, it is, but it’s entirely in keeping with the general thrust of Zyuganov’s ideology over the past 30 years, which is a curious blend of seemingly incompatible elements.

Digging into Zyuganov’s past for the purposes of writing the article revealed something rather curious to me. If you go back to the mid-1990s, when he was pressing on Boris Yeltsin’s heals and looked likely at one point to beat Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, you find Zyuganov saying all sorts of things which seemed outlandish at the time, but are nowadays absolutely mainstream in Russia. As I note in my RT article, Zyuganov was well ahead of the curve in claiming that Russia was a unique civilization, that it was under attack from the West, that it must abandon liberalism, that it must protect ‘traditional’ Christian values, and so on. Although Zyuganov lost in 1996, he ultimately won in the sense that the Russian state has co-opted many of his ideas and made them its own.

This, of course, hasn’t helped the CPRF. If anything, this act of co-optation has taken the ground from beneath it. And this is not a unique case. A study of Russian political rhetoric reveals a quite interesting phenomenon whereby ideas put out by members of the so-called ‘systemic’ opposition, such as Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, eventually find their way into the mouths of Putin and other senior officials. And this leads me onto the point of this post, for it reveals something quite interesting about the nature of Russian politics, namely the responsiveness of Russia’s rulers, especially Putin, to fluctuations in public opinion and the overall ideological inclinations of the Russian people.

I read an interesting analysis once that said that while authoritarian regimes are not ‘responsible’ to the people, in that the people have few means of holding their leaders to account, let alone getting rid of them, authoritarian regimes can be very ‘responsive’ to the public.

One shouldn’t go too far with that – the fact that an authoritarian system may be more responsive than a notionally democratic one, doesn’t mean that that is generally the case, and so shouldn’t be used as an argument for authoritarian rule. But, it’s true nonetheless.

That in turn makes one consider what is truly ‘democratic’. It’s easy to get stuck on the mechanics of elections, and assume that because a state has free and fair elections, then it enjoys popular sovereignty. But one may have the mechanics of democracy without the state being in any way responsive to popular opinion. By contrast, the alert dictator may, in order to stay in power, be far more responsive to popular demands. Which then begs the question – in which country are the people really in control?

Anyway, the point is that Putin and his government belong in the responsive authoritarian category. That’s a large factor in their political success. There’s a tendency to imagine that everything in Russia comes from the top down, and that insofar as there is a regime ideology, it’s one that is foisted on the people by the government. But it’s actually a two way process – the regime has shown itself adept at latching onto trends in public sentiment and making them its own. It thereby disarms opponents, and secures its own power. But doing so means that it’s a follower as much as a leader.

So perhaps Zyuganov thinks that he’ll gain a few votes by playing the religion card, but his problem is that by now there isn’t a major political force in Russia which isn’t doing the same thing. In essence, the triumph of his ideas has made him redundant. It could be that the CPRF makes some gains in the parliament elections on 19 September, but a triumphant return to power seems most unlikely.

Book Review: Why America Wins the War but Loses the Peace

This week’s withdrawal of the last US troops from Afghanistan made me think that this would be a good time to finish off Brendan Gallagher’s 2019 book The Day After: Why American Wins the War but Loses the Peace. I take some issue with the title – in many cases, the “war” was never fully won but just carried on in other forms, so that American didn’t lose the “peace” but lost the war. But putting that aside for now, this book is an important analysis of what’s gone wrong in so many instances of US military action. At the same time, though, it doesn’t fully satisfy me. For the book falls into the “this is how to do it better next time” category that I have criticized in the past for refusing to draw the obvious conclusion – “let’s not do it at all.”

Continue reading Book Review: Why America Wins the War but Loses the Peace