I was going to write today about a new report by a British think tank called the Council on Geostrategy, but then I came across something even worse (I know, it’s difficult, but it’s true!). So I’m going to have to put the report to one side while I discuss the particular horror that it is Bruno Macaes’s latest piece for the New Statesman. https://www.newstatesman.com/world/asia/2021/11/is-vladimir-putin-preparing-for-war
First off, there’s the cover – a fairly stock cartoon of the evil Vladimir Putin. Quite what he’s doing to the world here isn’t very clear, but it sure ain’t good. And then there’s the title ‘The Agent of Chaos. Is Putin preparing for war?’ After that, you don’t really need to read the article. You’ve pretty much got it all already.
Still, the content of the article that follows really blows the mind. And boy, does it! At this point, I should no longer be surprised by the rot that comes out of the British press, but somehow they keep managing to pull of stunts like this one, leaving me reeling in astonishment. I was actually somewhat stunned.
In the article, author Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese politician, recounts how he attended Putin’s recent speech at the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi (proof positive, if anybody wanted it, that being invited to Valdai doesn’t mean you’re a puppet of the Kremlin). The speech ‘got to the heart’ of who Putin is, Macaes says, before going off on a weird detour. He tell us:
‘“After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there’s nobody to talk to,” the Russian leader sarcastically joked in 2007. There have been many interpretations of this reference. For some, it was no more than a grim witticism. Others think it was an oblique reflection on the dominance of realpolitik and the futility of international dialogue. As a long-time observer of Russian politics in Washington recently told me, it could be a veiled reference to the two men Putin regards as his soulmates: Stalin and Hitler, both of whom died around the same time as Gandhi did. In other words, it was a private joke. “Even Putin knows better than blurting that out,” said the source.’
Yikes! Stalin and Hitler are ‘the two men Putin regards as his soulmates’!!! Where is Macaes getting that from? From the fact that he once quoted Gandhi apparently, and that Stalin and Hitler ‘both died around the same time as Gandhi died’!! What?? How does that make sense? What have the dates of their deaths got to do with anything? In any case, Hitler died in 1945. Gandhi in 1948, and Stalin in 1953. That’s not exactly simultaneously. Besides that, hundreds of millions of other people died ‘around the same time’. Absurd doesn’t begin to describe this one.
Perhaps even more disturbing than this crazy logic is the fact that it comes from the mouth of ‘a long-time observer of Russian politics in Washington.’ If you want to know why US policy towards Russia is so screwed up, there you have it. For if that’s the quality of Washington’s seasoned ‘Russia hands’, there’s really no hope.
Still, Macaes runs with the Gandhi analogy, quietly dropping Stalin and Hitler along the way (after all, it’s kind of hard for Putin to be all three at the same time). Putin and Gandhi are alike, he says, for ‘both he and Gandhi are slayers of empires. Both are disrupters of the status quo.’ And to back this up, he mentions Putin’s admiration of philosopher Ivan Ilyin, saying that, ‘Some have argued that Putin models himself on Ilyin’s description of the archetypical Russian leader – a strong personality able to contain the excesses of the Russian spirit, too vital and expansive to be restrained by mere rules.’
At this point, Macaes is digging himself even deeper into a hole. Putin is not a ‘disrupter of the status quo’, or at least there’s not much evidence that he sees himself as such. Rather, a close look at his rhetoric, and that of other senior Russians, suggests that the Russian leadership sees itself as pushing back against the West’s disruptions of the status quo. Insofar as Putin is ‘revisionist’, it’s a matter of revising the revisions of the West and reverting to the status quo ante.
And as for the Ilyin stuff, I don’t know where Macaes is getting that from (unless perhaps it’s from Timothy Snyder), because it sure isn’t in any bits of Ilyin I’ve read. Ilyin was big on the rule of law. The idea that the ruler (or anybody else) should be unrestrained by rules was anathema to his philosophy. Macaes just has this plain wrong.
No surprise there. But let’s move on, for next Macaes mentions Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, and uses him to develop the thesis that chaos and power are closely related: power is needed to end chaos, but it therefore needs chaos to justify itself. And this, supposedly, is the key to understanding Putin.
For you see, Putin isn’t interested in eliminating chaos, says Macaes. He doesn’t think it’s possible. In fact, a bit of chaos suits him just fine. Take Belarus, for instance. As long as it was stable, Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko avoided getting too close to Russia, and was something of a thorn in Moscow’s side. Now that things have gotten a bit unstable there, Lukashenko is suddenly having to play buddy-buddy with Putin. Indeed, ‘In despair, Lukashenko is destined one day to offer the Belarus state to Putin.’ The more the ‘chaos grows’, the better for Putin.
Likewise with energy, says Macaes. Europeans who want to buy Russian gas have got it all wrong, thinking that trade leads to mutual dependence. But Putin doesn’t want it that way. He’s not interested in being a reliable supplier. Rather, ‘Putin has shown that he believes energy crises are useful reminders of Russia’s geostrategic power.’ Macaes concludes:
‘Some leaders side with order, others choose chaos. Putin believes that nature has a preference for chaos, so the latter are destined to win. Russia may be a sick man but a sick man with a gun is still a dangerous man, and in a world in turmoil we may all end up sick anyway. That is the Russia Putin plans to leave behind.’
This is wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start. Suffice it to say that Macaes fails to produce any evidence that Putin favours chaos. This isn’t surprising because if you study his rhetoric, you find that he never says anything of the sort. Nor do those around him. Nor do official Russian documents. Quite the contrary. If there’s any message to come out of them, it’s an obsession with stability. Over and over and over again, Putin and his officials return to this theme: ‘We want stability’ As I’ve think I’ve mentioned before, the word ‘stability’ actually appears over 20 times in the latest version of the ‘Foreign Policy Statement of the Russian Federation’, which lays out the broad outlines of Russia’s official view of the world.
Moreover, if you look at the specific cases Macaes cites, the facts demonstrate the exact opposite of what he claims. Take energy, for instance. Russia hasn’t pursued chaos here. In reality, the Russian gas company Gazprom has consistently favoured long term contracts with its European clients. It wants to lock them into stable, long-term relationships with fixed prices. It’s the European Union that has rejected this and has pushed members to ditch their long-term contracts. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see how you can interpret the billions of dollars that Russia has invested into pipeline projects such as North Stream 2 as a devotion to chaos. Surely, if anything they prove the opposite – a desire to establish a stable, long-term relationship.
As for Belarus, it certainly isn’t Russia that has been destabilizing it. Putin didn’t tell Lukashenko to give himself 80% of the vote and spark a failed revolution. He didn’t tell him to have a border dispute with Poland. And so on, and so forth. Moreover, even though Russia and Belarus don’t always get along as well as they would like, Putin hasn’t responded by trying to sow chaos in Belarus, but rather has accepted Lukashenko as president in an effort to keep things stable.
In short, it’s all a load of nonsense. Mind you, Macaes’s model of chaos reinforcing power is not entirely useless. For when you come to look at Western foreign policy, you suddenly find it’s quite relevant. A classic case of projection, you might say. But a discussion of that will have to wait for my next post!