More on the Russian Idea

Our webinar yesterday on the topic of the Russian Idea was recorded and has now been posted on YouTube, so any of you who missed it and would like to watch it can do so. I’ve embedded a copy below.

During the seminar, I put to the main speaker, Marlene Laruelle, the idea I had developed in my last post: that there was now a possibility of Russia and the West diverging not converging. She had an interesting response: Russia’s rulers don’t want that, she said. If the path to Europe reopened, they’d take it. And they think that it will reopen in due course, because they see the West, including Europe, as deeply divided and heading for a crash. In time, it will split apart, and the way will be open for Russia to come back in.

It fits with what Dmitry Medvedev said recently about Ukraine: Russia just needs to wait, is the logic. I don’t doubt that Laruelle is right when she says that a similar hope exists regarding Europe as a whole. But is it a realistic hope? I tend to the view that institutions like the EU and NATO are quite solid, and unlikely to fall apart as long as I’m on this earth. Russia may end up waiting a very long time.

Anyway, decide for yourself by watching our ruminations on this and other related matters. Enjoy!

Russia and the West: Convergence or Divergence?

Is Russia a European country, or a unique civilization of its own? This question has divided Westernizers and Slavophiles since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, and has often had what academics like to call a “normative” aspect as much as an “empirical” one: that’s to say it’s often been more about what Russia “ought” to be as much as what it is.

Connected with this are two differing conceptions of the path of human history. According to the positivist historical determinism of much liberal and socialist thought, social development has “laws” just as physics does and these laws push them in the same ultimate direction, towards the “end of history”, be it liberal democracy, communism, or something else entirely. But regardless of the end point, the dynamic is the same: societies converge over time.

According to the alternative “civilizational” viewpoint, this is not the case. Nineteenth century Russia writer Nikolai Danilevsky compared civilizational development to a set of roads emanating from a town square. They have a common core, but then go out in their own unique directions – diverging rather than converging.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m not a fan of civilizational theory. And when it comes to Russia and the West, I’ve long been of the view that the two are converging rather than diverging. Russia to my mind is an essentially European country, and the long process of Westernization that began even before Peter the Great but accelerated thereafter has gathered pace since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As somebody who’s been going to Russia for 39 years, it strikes me as more obviously Western now than ever before. Back when I first went there in Soviet times, it was in many respects a different planet. Now, a European, or a North American, can go there and not feel the same level of culture shock, especially in major cities like Moscow or St Petersburg. The change is quite dramatic.

And yet, I find myself wavering a little bit and beginning to think that dynamics are in play that may be about to reverse this process. This is not for sure, but I see for the first time that it’s possible.

I discuss this in a piece published today by RT, (which you can read here) in which I talk some more about Putin’s speech to the Valdai Club last week  In this I discuss those part of Putin’s speech that focus on Western identity politics, and his firm assertion that while the West is welcome to choose its own way, “we are keeping out of it.” As I note, this is a significant statement, for it’s rare if not unprecedented for a Russian leader to quite so categorically reject the path of Westernization.

One can look it at this way: since 1992, Russia has moved significantly closer to where the West used to be, in this sense Westernizing. But in the meantime, the West has not been static, and in recent years it has been accelerating off in a new direction. If Russia doesn’t follow, then it may end up in some version of the West in the 1980s or 1990s, while in the meantime the West has moved on and become something completely different to that. Convergence, in other words, will be replaced by divergence.

This is far from certain. As I say in my article, there are powerful forces behind the new cultural direction in Western life. Russia will find it hard to resist these, and in the end the forces of “progress” may overwhelm Putin’s efforts to hold them back. I suspect that this is indeed the case. In the absence of other factors, this is the likely outcome.

There are, however, other factors, most notably those connected with international politics. As I have said before, the idea of the “West” was until recently just that – an idea. Anybody could be the “West” as long as they conformed to the idea. But that is no longer true. The West has taken on institutional form (mainly through NATO and the European Union), and in such a way as to permanently exclude Russia. The issue of Ukraine has also put an almost insurmountable barrier in the way of overcoming East-West political divisions. The great hope of Russian liberals – that their country would return to “civilization” – has become institutionally impossible.

The potential cultural division is thereby accompanied by an institutional division. This creates the possibility that the two will reinforce one another. Because Russia and the West are institutionally separate, they will seek to base that separation on cultural differences, building distinct identities so as to differentiate themselves from the “other.” The distinct identities will then further justify the institutional separation, driving the two ever further apart.

As I say, this is far from a certain outcome. I don’t even consider it probable. But for the first time, I am now in a position where I consider it possible. The rift between Russia and the West could be on the verge of becoming permanent. As I conclude my RT article, “Should it come to pass, the political consequences will be immense.”

The Russian Idea

On Thursday I will be participating in the Zoom webinar below on the topic ‘What is Russia’s National Idea?’

You are all invited to join us!

Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 (3 PM, EST)

What is Russia’s National Idea?

Link to join the webinar:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87508571314?pwd=UlBBWkhtYU1uR1FiZGUycjdKRG9MZz09

Passcode: 586025


With Marlene Laruelle, author of Is Russia Fascist?

Discussants: Anatol Lieven, Nicolai Petro, Paul Robinson, and moderator, Paul Grenier

About the Event: Marlene Laruelle is one of our leading scholars of the Russian domestic political order, perhaps especially as regards those parts of it that are on the right. Laruelle’s recently published book (see Paul Robinson’s review), does not find the Russian state to be plausibly ‘fascist’, but instead to be ‘illiberal’ or ‘postliberal.’ Far from closing the matter, this leaves open a range of crucial questions. Can a ‘postliberal’ Russia still be compatible with ‘the West’? What kind of Russian regime might, even in principle, be considered ‘legitimate’ from the perspective of those outside Western actors who, for the past decade almost, have appeared hostile to all things Russian? Further, as can be seen from the Russian president’s recent lengthy address at the Valdai Conference, President Vladimir Putin has just recently renewed his embrace not only of the relatively liberal Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, but also the far more conservative Ivan Ilyin and the Eurasianist Lev Gumilyev. What does this augur for Russia’s relation with the West – and, indeed, for the regime’s relationship with its people and intelligentsia? Does Putin’s recent speech require a rethinking of Laruelle’s conclusions, or, to the contrary, does it confirm them?

Postliberalism, or a ‘conservatism for optimists’

Apologies in advance, but this will be a long post, as I feel my way forward in an effort to fuse my recent research into the history of Russian liberalism with current affairs. If I ramble, it’s because I don’t have a clear idea where I’m heading and I’m making it up as I go along. I hope that what comes out makes sense. But in a way, it’s the journey that matters, rather than the destination.

Russia’s development should be founded on a ‘conservatism for optimists’, argued the country’s president Vladimir Putin a speech to the Valdai Club in Sochi last week. This is a somewhat curious expression since conservatism is often defined as an essentially pessimistic philosophy. Whereas liberals and socialists believe that human nature can be improved by means of suitable social and economic reforms, the conservative supposedly follows Thomas Hobbes in believing that humans are basically nasty by nature and in need of the hand of the Leviathan to keep them in order. Thus in a book-length study of conservatism, my former colleague at the University of Hull, Noel O’Sullivan, described it as a ‘philosophy of imperfection’.

‘Conservatism for optimists’ was not the only phrase Putin used. He also referred to ‘sensible conservatism’, ‘healthy conservatism’, and ‘moderate conservatism,’ and declared that progress must be ‘organic’, thus neatly aligning with my own definition of conservatism as a ‘theory of organic development’. In this regard, Putin made it clear that conservatism was not about standing still or going backwards, but about going forwards, but doing so in a ‘stable’ fashion without the kind of revolutionary shocks that have done Russia so much harm in the past. He then compared this progressive, moderate, ‘optimistic’ conservatism with unhealthy ‘simple okhranitel’stvo’, a phrase that is very hard to translate but has resonances of harsh defence of state power for its own sake.

It would be a mistake to regard Putin as an intellectual. Still, his speech made it clear that his thinking has evolved over time in a philosophical direction and that he has developed a fairly coherent ideological outlook. It is perhaps not particularly original, and it contains big gaps, particularly in terms of how it is to find practical implementation, but it is, as I said, coherent. It’s also fairly moderate, and far removed from the claims made by many about him that he is a ‘fascist’, ‘far right’, ‘ultra-conservative’ or the like.

Justifying his position in the Q&A session after his speech, Putin cited the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. When asked by my Ottawa-based colleague Piotr Dutkiewicz who inspired him, he mentioned both Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin, whose ‘book is on my shelf, and which from time to time I take out and read.”

This isn’t the first time that Putin has referenced Berdyaev and Ilyin, and as regular readers of this blog will know, I have discussed the issue on several occasions, especially in light of accusations that Ilyin was a fascist and that Putin’s admiration of him makes him a fascist too. But although I have gone over some of this ground before, I think it’s worth another take on the subject, as it provides a useful way of illustrating the relevance of these figures to the current day and thereby illuminating something about today as well. To do that, though, we need to go through a reasonably lengthy historical diversion.

Continue reading Postliberalism, or a ‘conservatism for optimists’

More on the disinformation industry

A few years back, I wrote with wry amusement about how ‘the hunters become the hunted’ – in other words how some of the ‘infowarriors’ leading the pack in the fight against Russian ‘hybrid warfare’, ‘disinformation’ and the like had themselves been accused of being Russian stooges. In that case, it was the notably Russophobic Legatum Institute. Now, the same phenomenon has repeated itself, with an attack on the person of Latvian-based Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin.

Journalist is perhaps a loose word for Ragozin, who has also worked as a travel writer for Lonely Planet, and whose Twitter feed marks him out as a fervent member of the Alexei Navalny fan club. As he admits, he was arrested in Moscow in 2012 while taking part in an anti-government demo. In other words, he is in many respects a political activist, devoted to the struggle against the ‘Putin regime’.

It must have come as quite a shock to him, therefore, to find himself denounced as an intelligence asset of that same said regime by the ‘Ukrainian infowar outfit’ Informnapalm. According to Informnapalm, Ragozin is a ‘promoter of Kremlin narratives whose career points to ‘potential recruitment by the Russian Intelligence Services’.

Anybody who reads Ragozin’s output on a regular basis can only have a quiet chuckle at how silly the allegation is, but Ragozin himself was upset enough to pen a long piece on it for BneIntellinews, in which he draws a possible connection between Informnapalm and a ‘psy-ops unit of the Ukrainian army’ as well as a link between it and the Ukrainian far right. He then conjectures that his own attacks on that far right, as well as stories he has written about a Ukrainian operation to kidnap members of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, probably lie behind the group’s denunciation of him. He notes:

What becomes abundantly clear from looking at social media accounts associated with the group is that members of Informnapalm belong to a part of the Ukrainian security community, which is vehemently opposed to President Volodymyr Zelensky. It is in turn a part of a broader coalition of hawks and nationalists that has coalesced around former president Petro Poroshenko.

The hit piece about me came completely out of the blue, as I haven’t done any stories about Ukraine since last winter. But the authors made sure that I understand the peg. The piece begins and ends on something that is being peddled by anti-Zelenskiy opposition under the brand Wagnergate.

What interests me about this, though, are not so much the reasons behind this particular spat, but what it reveals about what in the past I have called the ‘disinformation industry’ – that is to say the large-scale, well-funded network of government agencies, private institutions, and individuals devoted to combatting ‘Russian disinformation’. For as Ragozin notes, the story

‘Illustrates the dubious role played by organisations which claim to counter Kremlin misinformation and propaganda, but in reality disseminate their own.’.

Exactly. Well said, Leonid!

For you see, Informnapalm is typical of its breed – an organization dedicated in theory to countering disinformation that in reality is driven by a narrow political ideology that leads it to consider anything it disagrees with as ‘disinformation’ and in the process induces it to spread lies and ‘fake news’ of its own.

In Ukraine, the other organization most noted for this is Stop.Fake, to which Ragozin devotes some time, noting its ‘whitewashing of the far right and links to them.’ Ragozin also calls out former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, commenting that

‘Both Ilves and Stop.Fake are part of a toxic community that has been for years suppressing genuine experts and moderate voices involved in the discussion about the conflict between Russia and the West. They also promote conspiracies and xenophobia.’

The problem is that they are not alone, nor are they without influence. In 2019, for instance, Stop.Fake’s most prominent member, Katerina Kruk, was appointed Facebook’s public policy manager for Ukraine, in effect becoming the person responsible for deciding what Ukrainian news was ‘fake’ and ‘disinformation’ and so worthy of censorship. Stop Fake’s influence, moreover, is international. For instance, in 2018 the Canadian Security Intelligence Service(CSIS) published a report based on a seminar held by CSIS on the topic of disinformation which contained a chapter that was to all intents and purposes an advertisement for Stop.Fake, and which one has to suspect was written by one of its members. As for Ilves, he also has a Canadian connection via the one time head of the Estonian Central Council in Canada, Marcus Kolga, who has set up an infowar outfit at the MacDonald Laurier Institute under the name DisinfoWatch. It’s quite the network.

The disinformation industry stretches far beyond them, however. At the highest level are government-run agencies, such as the US government’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), and the European Union’s EUvsDisinfo. As I have pointed out before, these are as much disseminators of disinformation and they are weapons against it. The GEC, for instance, produced a ridiculous report that alleged an international web of Russian government-led conspiracy, based on a comment by Vladimir Zhirinovsky and a bunch of websites run by the likes of Alexander Dugin and a retired economics prof in Montreal. As for EUvsDisinfo, most of what it claims is ‘disinformation’ is nothing of the sort, and its methodology has been thoroughly panned by outside researchers, as I revealed in an earlier post (here).

Beyond government agencies are private institutions, mainly think tanks. But while they are notionally private, they are often government-funded at least in part, and often closely tied to the Western military industrial complex. An example of this would be the anti-disinformation organization known as the Digital Forensic Laboratory, which is run by the Atlantic Council. Even more sinister was the infamous ‘Integrity Initiative’ run by the Institute for Statecraft in the UK, which was funded by the Foreign Office and had close connections to the British army’s psychological operations unit. To say the least, these are not the sort of unbiased people one wants determining what is and is not disinformation and what can and cannot be read or heard on the internet, TV, or radio.

The final layers of the disinformation industry are individuals. Some are academics and reasonably respectable, but others are cranks. The sad thing is that the cranks often have enormous followings, despite churning out stuff of the most extreme unreliability. For some reason, they seem to get away with it.

All told, what this sorry state of affairs tells us is this: ‘combatting’ Russian hybrid warfare and disinformation is big business. Not only have governments taken to creating large agencies dedicated to the struggle, but they also shower money on think tanks, academics, and others to spread the word of the terrible threat that we all face. Yet much of what this collective industry produces is of decidedly poor quality. Moreover a lot of it is not objective analysis of the problem, but rather politically-driven and as such extremely biased. Consequently, as Ragozin points out, the disinformation industry is itself a major source of disinformation.

This puts us in an unpleasant situation. To fight the alleged threat of Russian ‘influence’ operations , we have created a great industry dedicated to in effect censoring discussion of key matters of public interest. But the censors are not to be trusted in the job. The disinformation industry is not about protecting the truth but about controlling the flow of information to ensure that only that which accords with certain interests is allowed to see the light of day.

Ragozin concludes: ‘Military psy-ops teams should be explicitly banned from attacking and smearing civilians.’ The problem goes beyond military psy-ops teams, though. It extends to a large industry of civilian government bodies and government-funded research teams and think tanks who are equally as active in smearing those they do not like. And it goes far beyond Russia and Ukraine. In our struggle against ‘disinformation’, we have created a monster that threatens freedom of speech. Beware those who pretend to the post of guardian of the truth. For they are nothing of the sort.

‘Out of area or out of business.’ The logic of NATO

So when we say that England’s master
Remember who has made her so.

It’s the soldiers of the Queen, my lads
Who’ve been my lads, who’ve been my lads
In the fight for England’s glory, lads
When we have to show them what we mean

Occasionally, I tune into Russian TV chat shows, such as Evening with Vladimir Solovyov (or “Russians Shouting at Each Other,” as it’s known in my family). The other night Solovyov and guests were talking about Russia’s decision to cut all ties with NATO (a topic which I discuss in an article for RT here). One of those present argued that the problem was that NATO didn’t know what it was for. Others objected that it knew perfectly well – its objective was the containment, even dismemberment, of Russia. I think that both are wrong. NATO does have an objective, just not that one, and not a very good one either. Let me explain what it is.

But first, a little historical and personal digression.

For there was a time when I was a loyal NATO soldier myself, and looking back on it I have to say it was a damned good thing that the Soviets never attacked because I don’t think we’d have done so well in the encounter.

Take my experience of ‘Exercise Active Edge.’ This was the code name given to practice alerts, in which units of the British Army of the Rhine in West Germany were tested to see how quickly and efficiently they could mobilize themselves, and in more extreme versions of the exercise, deploy to their wartime locations to await the onslaught of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army.

Back in the dying days of the Cold War, I was just about to finish my tour of duty as a platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s Regiment (long since defunct), in Minden, West Germany, when in my final stint as duty officer I got the call announcing that our unit was to immediately embark on ‘Active Edge’. We’d got a tip off earlier that evening, so it wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was still a serious bummer. I was due to leave a couple of days later and had already packed up nearly all my stuff in what were called ‘MFO’ boxes to be shipped back to Blighty. What I hadn’t packed I’d handed into the QM. So when a bunch of inspectors turned up and started asking me where was this and where was that, I looked a right idiot as I didn’t have any of it.

I also didn’t have much of a clue as to how to answer other questions. Should we take all the gear in our stores, they asked? I said no: a lot of it looked totally useless and there was so much that if we put it all in the armoured personnel carriers, there’d be no room for any personnel. We’d probably have to leave some stuff behind. No, they said. Take it all. I guess it was just as well that instead of 30 soldiers, my undermanned platoon had about 10, otherwise we’d have had to leave people behind instead of gear. But to be frank, if the Soviets had rolled up, my 10 guys and I wouldn’t have lasted a second. Frankly, it was a bit of a shitshow, as they say. Certainly not my finest hour, nor that of the regiment. The heroes of Tangier, Ramillies, Vittoria, Sevastopol, and the like, were probably turning in their graves.

There’s a point to all this – we didn’t do such alerts for the sheer bloody hell of it; we had to prepare for war. It was very unlikely that 3rd Shock would come trundling down the autobahn at breakneck speed, but the potential was real. East Germany was chock-a-block full of military gear – thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, helicopters, aircraft, all the rest of it, all ready to roll over me and my 10 guys at a moment’s notice. We weren’t likely to have to fight them, but it paid to be prepared.

And so we were (albeit not very well), by means of the communal defence organization known as NATO. And it was a defensive organization. All it did was sit around in West Germany and wait. And that was fine, and ultimately quite effective. In 1992, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the threat evaporated. Victory was ours.

A job well done. Time, one might imagine, to pat ourselves on the back, call it a day, and retire.

As we know, that’s not what NATO did. But it had a problem. Its raison d’etre had disappeared, and so a new one had to be invented.

Since then, the alleged threat which we in the West are all supposed to fear has kept changing with extreme rapidity. For a while back in the 1990s it was ‘fragile states’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Then, for a bit, it was ‘rogue states’. Then it was terrorism, or even worse the deadly combination of terrorism, rogue states, and weapons of mass destruction. And then it was Russia again. And now it’s moving onto China. None of these threats seem to have huge lasting power (though China may prove to be different). But the point is that we have to be afraid of something. Otherwise, there’s no reason to maintain the military industrial complex and, of course, NATO.

The logic of it all was perfectly expressed by George Robertson, who served as Secretary General of NATO from 1999 to 2004, and who liked to repeat his favorite mantra: ‘Out of area or out of business.’ The point was clear. NATO had to do something, anything, in order to justify its existence. And it had to be beyond its own borders because there was nothing to do within them.

And so began NATO’s march towards the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, its failed military operation in Afghanistan in the 2000s, and the talk at its most recent summit of taking action to contain China (which is about as far from the North Atlantic as one can imagine). At this point, we find that we finally have an answer to the question posed at the start of this post. What’s NATO for? And the answer is obvious. What drives NATO is NATO’s desire to exist. Period.

Like any being, NATO doesn’t want to die. It has an institutional momentum of its own, and in its struggle for the resources it needs for survival it will generate reasons for people to give them to it. And when those reasons lose credibility, it will invent some others.

That’s not to say that the bureaucracy doesn’t believe in what it’s doing. The great joy of such bureaucratic politics is precisely the fact that those involved genuinely conflate institutional and national (or in this case, international) interest. Belief and self-interest go together in a happy package.

The guests on Solovyov, like so many Russians, have it wrong They think that it’s somehow all directed against them. It isn’t. For now, Russia happens to be in the crosshairs, but that’s purely incidental. Tomorrow, it could be somebody or something else – whatever is credible from the point of view of budgetary politics. The result, in my opinion, is dangerous, because you have the most powerful military structure in the world in perpetual search for things to do to justify its presence in this world, “seeking monsters to destroy.” The result is that conflict is created where it does not need to be.

Back in my day, we just sat around waiting for the monsters to come to us. As I said, thank goodness they never did. I can’t guarantee that we’d have won.

Do nothing and wait? Or creeping annexation? Russian options in Ukraine.

“Do nothing.” That the advice of former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev regarding Russia’s relations with Ukraine. In a piece published today by RT (here) I discuss an article by Medvedev in the newspaper Kommersant. In this, the author attacks the leadership of Ukraine in quite uncompromising language, saying that they have betrayed their own identity and are acting like “representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia in Nazi Germany being asked to serve in the SS.” Subtle, Medvedev certainly isn’t!

Medvedev concludes that Ukraine’s leadership is utterly incapable of reaching agreement with Russia or the rebels of Donbass. Consequently, he says, there is absolutely no point in talking to them. Instead Russia should wait until a more congenial leadership comes along. “Russia can wait. We are patient people.” Until then, his advice is that Russia sit back and do precisely “nothing.”

In my article, I argue doing nothing isn’t a solution for Russia. For the odds that a more friendly Ukrainian government will emerge at any point in the foreseeable future are very, very low. The Maidan revolution and subsequent events have had a drastic impact on the Ukrainian governing elite, so that anybody who comes to power there will be necessarily restrained and pushed into pursuing an anti-Russian policy, even if he or she originally does not intend to. Waiting won’t achieve anything for Russia.

If Russia wants to move events in Ukraine in a favourable direction, it needs to take a more active line. But that begs the question of what that line could be. And that’s a difficult question to answer, for the options are limited and not very good.

Moscow’s preferred outcome has always been the reintegration of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR) back into Ukraine by the granting to them of some form of extensive local autonomy. This is what the Minsk 2 Agreement of February 2015 envisages. Kiev, however, is dead set against this, and that seems most unlikely to change.

Russia’s problem is that it lacks the means to change Kiev’s incentives to prompt it to alter its position regarding autonomy for Donbass. It also has next to no influence on domestic Ukrainian politics, and any attempt to exert such influence is likely to backfire. As it is, Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the main opposition party, Opposition Platform – for Life, is under house arrest facing charges of treason. There is almost no conduit through which Russia could exert influence on Ukraine.

Military force is one possible solution, but we must hope that it would be considered very much a last resort. Not only would it comes with a great human cost, but it would shatter Russia’s relations with the West for a very long time. I see no enthusiasm for it, and one imagines that it could only be deployed in response to Ukraine starting major military operations against the DPR and LPR.

So what’s left?

As far as I can see, recognizing that Ukraine will not strike an acceptable deal over Donbass (i.e. one that gives the region extensive autonomy) requires admitting that the DPR and LPR are here to stay for the indefinite future. So what next?

The primary issue has to be how to improve the lives of the people living there, lest the rebel republics become the sources of serious instability, organized crime, and so on. That means first of all trying to get a proper ceasefire. Again, though, that runs into the problem that the Ukrainian side seems quite happy with the current situation of “neither war nor peace” in which military operations continue at a very low tempo. The only way I can see that changing is through pressure from Ukraine’s Western allies, but that appears very unlikely.

Beyond that, one logical step would be to annex the DPR and LPR. Certainly, from the point of view of restoring economic life to Donbass, this would be the best option. Continued existence in the limbo of unrecognized status is utterly unconducive to investment or to any sort of economic progress.

Again, however, this runs into the problem of the likely Western reaction, which one can imagine would be extremely hostile and result in severe sanctions being levied against the Russian Federation. While some Russians might say “So what?”, the fact is that it’s worth Russia’s while to maintain as good relations with the West as possible. For instance, Russia has to date being able to sustain trade with Germany, as seen in the recent completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline. It’s not worth rupturing this for the sake of Donbass. The economic interests of Russia’s own citizens come first.

All this leaves, therefore, is some sort of creeping annexation, whereby the process of integration between Russia and the rebel republics moves ever forward. This, though, has the effect of separating those republics ever further from Ukraine and making the achievement of the goal of their eventual reintegration into Ukraine ever more unlikely.

In essence, pursuing this option means abandoning in practice what has to date, at least in public, been the preferred objective. It is, however, probably the only practical option open to Russia at this moment in time.

Perhaps there are some other possibilities for the Russian government out there, and if so I’d be glad to hear what they are. But for now, it seems to me that its options are limited and the path laid out above seems the most likely for the immediate future. So, if I’m right, expect Moscow to publicly retain a commitment to the Minsk agreement, but in private accept that they are a dead letter and continue on the slow process of creeping annexation.

Book Review: Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?

Supporters of jailed Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny had their knickers in a twist last week after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the editor of the liberal newspaper Novaia Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov. The Navalnyites thought that the award should have gone to their own chosen Messiah and were full of indignation that Navalny had been passed up. The slight was more than just a slight – it was downright dangerous, they claimed, going to so far as to assert that it endangered the whole world with nuclear war. As Leonid Ragozin tweeted:

“The peace award has brought the war closer” – a popular sentiment in the Russian liberal camp, reflecting the fact that Navalny’s peaceful movement might have been the country’s last chance from sliding into civil conflict with grave implications for the rest of the world.’

“Navalny’s movement is exactly about preventing civil war in a nuclear superpower or wars it could launch abroad,” continued Ragozin, obviously not immune to a bit of hyperbole. Other Navalnyites were equally up in arms at their hero’s rejection. Muratov’s award was “Putin’s prize” said one. “What do you think? Has Putin corrupted the Nobel prize committee?” tweeted another. And so on.

What explains this passionate leader cult? Why do Navalny’s followers seem to hate other liberals almost as much as they hate the “Putin regime”? And why do those other liberals reciprocate, rejecting Navalny as almost as bad, if not worse, than Putin? Is Navalny really Russia’s salvation? Or is he a minor bit player in the grander scheme of Russian history?

It would be nice to have someone provide some deeply considered answers to questions such as these, and so I leapt at the opportunity to buy Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, and Ben Noble’s new book Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? As the first biography of Navalny published in English, it’s what academics like to call “an important contribution to the literature.” After reading it, though, I was a bit unsatisfied. I didn’t hate it. It’s fine as far as it goes. But to be frank, I found it rather superficial. If you want a quick summary of Navalny’s activities over the past 20 years, you’ll find that you get it. But if you want a deeper, critical analysis of the man, his beliefs, and his personality, you’ll be left with a lot more questions than answers.

Continue reading Book Review: Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?

Full of Gas

It’s 20 degrees here in Ottawa . For October, that’s something of a heatwave, and it’s meant to stay this way for a week or so, well into the middle of the month. Beyond that, the weather guys say that we’re in for a generally warm autumn. No need for the winter tires just yet.

Europe, though, is said to be headed for a deep cold spell in the coming months. So good for us, bad for Europe – unless you like winter sports, of course, in which case it’s the other way around. But regardless of what weather you prefer, cold has consequences, one of which is that you have to turn the heating up, for which you need fuel. And in the modern post-coal world, that increasingly means burning natural gas.

Unfortunately, this is a bad time to do so, for the price of natural gas has shot up in recent months, as you can see from the chart below. This is a result of increased demand, reduced output from wind turbines, and a reduction in supplies as Europe’s main suppliers – Norway and Russia – fill up their own stocks before winter. This has apparently ‘all but wiped out stocks’ in the rest of Europe. The markets have responded with a binge of frenzied speculation, shoving natural gas prices up to unnaturally high levels.

Which is obviously Russia’s fault. Because, well … it’s bad, and it’s natural gas, and so Russia must be to blame. After all, we know that all those traders on the futures markets take their orders from the Kremlin.

Continue reading Full of Gas

Absurd Pandora Hype

Perhaps I shouldn’t pick on Luke Harding. He’s kind of the low hanging fruit of bad journalism – altogether too easy a target. Perhaps it would make more sense to challenge someone more worthy of our attention. But then, what’s the point of challenging good journalism? Besides which, Harding gets the big headlines, sells a lot of books, and so on. So, here goes.

In my latest for RT, I tackle Luke’s analysis of the Pandora Papers, which consist of several million files detailing the financial wheelings and dealings of the rich and powerful, with a special focus on property deals conducted via offshores companies. In an article on the Pandora Papers, Harding mentions the name ‘Putin’ no fewer than 50 times. I kid you not – 50 times!

But here’s the thing. The 12 million or so pages of the Pandora Papers apparently don’t mention Putin even once!

The juxtaposition is quite extraordinary. What’s up? Read my piece here to find out.