All posts by PaulR

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, and the author of numerous books on Russia and Soviet history, including 'Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich: Supreme Commander of the Russian Army'

Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

If I had to recommend a single article for foreign policy decision makers to read, it would be Robert Jervis’s 1968 essay ‘Hypotheses on Misperception.’ As I’ve written before, many of the tensions between states derive from misperceptions. People misperceive others; misperceive themselves; and misperceive how they are seen by others. In his article, Jervis hypothesizes 14 misperceptions which are commonly encountered in international politics. Hypothesis number 9 is the following: ‘actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.’ Jervis adds that, ‘Further, actors see others as more internally united than they in fact are and generally overestimate the degree to which others are following a coherent policy.’ In my opinion, this is absolutely correct, and we can see a lot of this going on in contemporary analyses of Russia.

Continue reading Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

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soft power

This week I had the opportunity to attend the first International Forum for the Development of Parliamentarism in Moscow. It was a fairly big show, with about 500 delegates from nearly 100 countries, of whom around 400 were members of parliament and 100 were ‘experts’ (academics and the like). Clearly, the Russians don’t do a thing like this for the sheer hell of it. The forum served a political/diplomatic purpose, namely strengthening contacts with foreign countries and winning friends. In short, it was an exercise in ‘soft power’. I had been asked to make a short 2-3 minute speech, but the session I was meant to do it in ran so much over time that I never got a chance. My own role, therefore, was very much that of observer. But in that capacity, I was able to make a few judgements about how different countries view Russia, what the prospects for Russian soft power are, and how Russia is presenting itself to the world.

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Babchenko lives!

The big news from Kiev yesterday was the murder of Russian journalist and Chechen War veteran Arkady Babchenko, who in 2017 had left Russia and gone to live in Ukraine.  According to reports, his wife found him bleeding on the street outside their home. He had been shot several times in the back, and died a short while later. Once the news became public, Ukrainian officials lined up to blame the Russian government for the murder. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, for instance, referred to Babchenko’s last post on Facebook, saying:

This is the last post of Arkady Babchenko. Ten hours ago he wrote about his second birthday. And then they killed him. I am confident that the Russian totalitarian machine did not forgive him his honesty and principled stance. He was a true friend of Ukraine who told the world the truth about Russian aggression.

Except, it turns out that Babchenko isn’t dead after all. As the Kyiv Post reports:

Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist who was reportedly killed in Kyiv on May 29 and widely mourned, stood up alive at the office of Ukraine’s State Security Service on May 30, claiming his death was faked in a special operation to capture the actual killer.

Babchenko thanked the security services of Ukraine [SBU] and asked his friends and his wife, who was also unaware of the operation, to forgive him for the suffering they had to endure thinking that he had been dead.

According to the SBU, the Russian special services ordered the murder of Babchenko and paid an unnamed Ukrainian citizen, $40,000 to organize the murder. He searched for a killer to perform the murder among the Ukrainian veterans of the war in Donbas. According to the SBU, he eventually hired a man, paying him $30,000 for the murder, but the SBU learned about the operation, recruited the hired “killer” as a double agent and stage the murder in order to arrest the organizer.

The Ukrainian organizer was detained following the staged murder. According to the SBU, he was going to organize killings of 30 Russian citizens in Ukraine on Russian special services’ order, with Babchenko being the first one.

My first thought on this is: what sort of guy allows his wife to find him apparently bleeding to death outside his home and then allows her to believe that he has died from his wounds? I find this quite staggering. My second thought is: why should we believe anything the Ukrainian authorities say about this matter? After all, they’ve just admitted lying about Babchenko’s murder. They even went so far as to release false information about the murder weapon, issuing a report that three bullet casings from a Makarov pistol had been found near the scene. At this point, they can hardly be considered a reliable source of news.

The plots being uncovered by the SBU keep getting odder and odder. Just before the Babchenko case, for instance, we had the arrest of Rada Deputy Nadia Savchenko for an alleged conspiracy to blow up the Ukrainian parliament and then charge into whatever would be left of the building with machineguns to mow down any survivors. Frankly, I am having problems knowing what to make of all this. It is beyond bizarre.

Perhaps Ukraine really is a hotbed of coup plots and murderous Russian conspiracies. Alternatively, the Ukrainian state has lost all semblance of normality and is resorting to the strangest methods in order to maintain an atmosphere of fear and external threat. I’m not in a position to say which is true, but I strongly suspect that many Russians will draw the latter conclusion and see the Babchenko case as further proof that the Ukrainian state has become entirely deranged. Even if the Ukrainian claims are true, this isn’t a normal way of doing business, and Kiev’s credibility will be damaged as a result.

 

Dirty money, dirty politics

A week ago, the British House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs issued a report entitled ‘Moscow’s Gold: Russian Corruption in the UK.’  Given the title, one might imagine that this was all about corruption and the role played by Russian ‘dirty money’ in the British economy. In reality, the report conflates legal and illegal activity, and contains one statement which, in my opinion, verges on the libellous and constitutes an attempt to intimidate British companies from engaging in legitimate business. In this way, it goes beyond the usual criticism of Russia and into altogether more dangerous territory.

The fact that Russians have invested billions of pounds in the British economy is well known. The probability that some of this money comes from corrupt activities within the Russian Federation is also widely accepted. To the extent that the latter is true, this is a matter of proper concern to the British authorities, and it is right that something be done to clamp down on money laundering. The report ‘Moscow’s Gold’ makes much broader claims, however. It says that ‘There is a direct relationship between the oligarchs’ wealth and the ability of President Putin to executive his aggressive foreign policy.’ Supposedly, the ‘dirty’ money invested by ‘oligarchs’ with ties to the Kremlin can be used to undermine British democracy and for other aggressive activities. The report claims that ‘These assets, on which the Kremlin can call at any time, both directly and indirectly support President Putin’s campaign to subvert the international rules-based system.’

The committee fails to support this claim with firm evidence. The best that it can come up with is a statement by Mark Galeotti about what Galeotti calls ‘small-scale stuff’ in the Balkans, such as funding for websites. No evidence of any ‘large-scale stuff’ is produced, and absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Kremlin is in fact using dirty money invested in the UK for the ends claimed by the report. In any case, even if Russian oligarchs are indeed using their money to such ends, no evidence is provided to show that it is actually dirty money rather than legally invested money. In other words, the issue of corruption is conflated with something entire distinct.

The report likewise conflates corruption with perfectly legal business and financial deals, such as the flotation of Russian companies on the London stock exchange (in particular the Russian company EN+ in 2017) and the selling of Russian sovereign bonds in the British financial market. It may be the case, as the report says, that it makes no sense for the UK to permit such actions at a time when it is simultaneously imposing sanctions on Russia, but that is an entirely separate matter from that of corruption and money laundering.

And that leads me onto the thing which really struck me about this document. This was a statement about the British law firm Linklaters, which managed the flotation of EN+. Shortly before this, the report says ‘Both the EN+ IPO [Initial Public Offering] and the sale of Russian debt in London appear to have been carried out in accordance with the relevant rules and regulatory systems, and there is no obvious evidence of impropriety in a legal sense.’ Yet, it then goes on to say the following:

We asked Linklaters to appear before the committee to explain their involvement in the flotation of EN+ … They refused. We regret their unwillingness to engage with our inquiry and must leave others to judge whether their work at ‘the forefront of financial, corporate and commercial developments in Russia’ has left them so entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin and its supporters that they are no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm.

This is quite outrageous, and also cowardly. The committee in effect accuses Linklaters of corruption, while avoiding complaints of libel by use of the weasel words ‘we leave to others to judge’ – a way of making an accusation while claiming that one hasn’t. What’s so outrageous about the statement is that comes straight after a confession that the EN+ flotation was completely above board. Linklaters didn’t do anything wrong, and the House of Commons committee knows it. Nevertheless, it sees fit to suggest that the company is ‘no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm.’

The implication here is that any company which has extensive dealings with Russian enterprises is ‘entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin’ and so unfit to do business. I cannot interpret this as anything other than an attempt by the committee to threaten British companies and intimidate them into dropping their lawful activities. I consider this disgraceful.

The committee’s attitude can be seen again towards the end of the report, when it writes that ‘instead of participating in the rules-based system, President Putin’s regime uses asymmetric methods to achieve its goals, and others – so-called useful idiots – magnify that effect by supporting its propaganda. So, there you have it. People who do with business with Russia are to be publicly shamed as unworthy of the standards expected of the British people, while those who would dare to point this sort of thing out are to be denounced as ‘useful idiots’. Having any dealings with Russia makes one a Kremlin stooge.

What the British House of Commons ignores is that lots of British citizens have perfectly legitimate reasons to do business with Russia, and do so in an entire legal and proper way. And others also have very good reasons to question public policy regarding Russia. None of them deserved to be insulted in this way by their elected representatives. The authors of this report should be ashamed of themselves.

Enough is enough

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has produced his latest ‘lessons learnt’ report, detailing his findings on the outcome of US ‘stabilization’ operations in Afghanistan. Calling these findings ‘lessons learnt’ is something of a misnomer, as what they really consist of is things which SIGAR and others have been pointing out for ages but which the Americans (and their allies) carry on doing anyway. ‘Lessons not learnt’ might be a better title.

I have pasted in a summary of SIGAR’s main conclusions below. Reading this, I defy anybody to believe that Western-led stabilization operations designed to defeat insurgencies in foreign countries through a combination of military force, money, development, ‘capacity building’, and the like, have any real prospect of success. What is clear is that:

  • Stabilization operations have failed dismally.
  • Throwing vast sums of money into poor countries doesn’t promote economic development, merely produces immense corruption.
  • Westerners’ knowledge of how the foreign societies being stabilized work is extremely poor. Basically, we don’t understand the places we’re trying to subdue.
  • Those being ‘stabilized’ don’t appreciate what we’re doing for them; actually, our efforts to ‘help’ them generally seem to make them like us even less.

None of this is rocket science. The failings of foreign aid have been known for years. And colonial occupiers who imagine that they can buy off opposition by dispensing truck loads of cash have often come up a cropper. But it has suited the modern liberal outlook to imagine that it can fight a sort of ‘clean’ counterinsurgency, in which we are nice to the people we are trying to control, help them with development and win over their hearts and minds. In this way, we justify our colonial ambitions. The problem is that it simply doesn’t work.

In my opinion, enough is enough. It’s time to put a stop to all this, and admit that we really don’t know what we’re doing.

Alas, I fear that this is most unlikely to happen, and SIGAR will be repeating the same ‘lessons not learnt’ in many future reports as well.

Here is the summary of SIGAR’s latest. (You can read the entire report here)

— Between 2001 and 2017, U.S. government efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan mostly failed.

— The U.S. government overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions as part of the stabilization strategy. They focused on troop numbers and their geographic priorities and mostly omitted concerns about the Afghan government’s capacity and performance.

— Under immense pressure to quickly stabilize insecure districts, U.S. government agencies spent far too much money, far too quickly, in a country woefully unprepared to absorb it. Opportunities for corruption and elite capture abounded, making many of those projects far more harmful than helpful.

— On the ground in Afghanistan, DOD, State, and USAID implemented programs without sufficient knowledge of the local institutions, sociopolitical dynamics, and government structures.

— Powerbrokers and predatory government officials with access to coalition projects became kings with patronage to sell, fueling conflicts between and among communities. Afghans who were marginalized through this competition found natural allies in the Taliban, who used that support to divide and conquer communities the coalition was keen to win over.

— During the 2009 Afghanistan strategy reviews, President Obama and his civilian and military advisors set in motion a series of events that fostered unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved. They also ensured the U.S. government’s stabilization strategy would not succeed, first with the rapid surge and then the rapid transition.

— By prioritizing the country’s most dangerous districts, the coalition was generally unable to properly clear, secure, and stabilize those targeted areas. As a result, the coalition couldn’t make sufficient progress to convince Afghans in those or other districts that the government could protect them if they openly turned against the insurgents.

— Civilian agencies were compelled to establish stabilization programs in fiercely contested areas that were not ready for them.

— Once DOD deemed money a “weapon system” in 2009, commanders were often judged on the amount of money they disbursed. With insufficient attention to impact and a frequent assumption that more money spent would translate into more progress, these projects sometimes exacerbated the very problems commanders hoped to address.

— According to a senior USAID official, spending continued even as stabilization had become a “dirty word” at the agency, associated with excessive and ineffective spending at the military’s behest.

— Afghan forces and civil servants were generally unwilling, unprepared, or unable to carry forward the momentum created by coalition forces and civilians, particularly on the unrealistic timeline defined by the coalition.

— When the promise of improved services raised expectations and failed to materialize, Afghans who saw more of their government through stabilization projects actually developed less favorable impressions of it, perhaps a worse outcome than it the government had not reached into their lives at all.

— The effort to legitimize the government was undermined when the very Afghans brought in to lead the efforts themselves became sources of instability as repellent as (if not more repellent than) the Taliban.

— By the time all prioritized districts had transitioned from coalition to Afghan control in 2014, the services and protection Afghans were in a position to provide often could not compete with a resurgent Taliban as it filled the void in newly vacated territory.

— Most practitioners we spoke to believed that stabilization rarely brought communities closer to stability than merely providing reliable and non-predatory security would have.

 

 

Reading Russia Right

I had been planning to write a post today about the latest report on Russia by the British House of Commons, but something came my way which is so out of the ordinary that it has to take precedence. The item in question is an article by University of Rhode Island professor Nicolai Petro entitled ‘Are We Reading Russia Right?’ and published in The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. I urge you all to read the full text online here, and to spread it as far and wide as you can. But in case some of you only have time for a condensed version, below is a summary of what Nicolai has to say.

The article starts out by describing the extremely negative image of Russia painted by most Western commentators. This image, Petro says, is incomplete. There are indeed many shortcomings in Russia, but under Putin there has also been enormous progress. Focusing entirely on the former without mentioning the latter produces a thoroughly distorted picture.

Petro then sets about listing the various ways in Russia differs from the image painted of it in the West. These include the following:

More than ten million Russians are involved in some form [of] organized volunteer activity, roughly ten percent of the adult population … sustained by multiple funding sources. …

Several of Russia’s largest daily newspapers, like Vedomosti, Kommersant, and Nezavisimaia Gazeta, are staunchly anti-Putin and reach tens of millions of readers. Novaya Gazeta’s web site alone garners more than twenty million views a month. … only three percent of Russia’s hundred thousand media outlets are state owned … Russia’s media ecology is thus far more complex than is commonly assumed.

… it was Vladimir Putin who introduced key elements of modern criminal justice to Russia. These include habeas corpus, a juvenile justice system, trial by jury, bailiffs, and justices of the peace … courts struck down compensation limits for government negligence, strengthened the rights of defendants to exculpatory evidence, provided clearer guidelines on secrecy … Closed judicial proceedings and pretrial detention centers have been all but eliminated, privacy protections for individuals expanded, and 24,000 free legal aid centers created. … Since 2014, the number of suits brought on behalf of foreign companies has tripled, while judgments in their favor have risen from fifty-nine to eighty-three percent of the total. … the number of persons incarcerated in Russia has fallen by almost forty percent since 2001, and the number of minors in prison has fallen from 19,000 to just 1,000.

… Pensions have risen tenfold since 2000 … average life expectancy has increased by more than six years to 72.6. … the government plans to raise the minimum wage to the living wage.

Western journalists are unable to see these things, says Petro, because they suffer from ‘paradigm blindness’, which is similar to the psychological trait known as ‘availability bias.’ Wishing to interpret events in Russia, they simply take the closest available paradigm which they already know – that Russia is incapable of democracy – and view everything in light of that. ‘Americans,’ says Petro, ‘cannot talk about Russia as a democracy because there is no frame of reference for Russian democracy in their minds.’ In reality, Petro writes,

Putin’s power base lies not with the oligarchs, but with the Russian people. Any approach to Russia that overlooks this is simply out of touch with reality.

Towards the end of his article, Petro includes a number of quite shockingly Russophobic comments by American writers and officials. He quotes Robert Kaplan, for instance, as saying that, all those who love Russia eventually wind up ‘realizing the utter impossibility of any good ever coming out of Russia … and throw up their hands at the beastly unchangeableness of Russia.’ Sadly, this attitude has become the norm.

No doubt those who share Kaplan’s point of view will complain that Nicolai Petro’s article is horribly one-sided, listing all Russia’s achievements while ignoring all its shortcomings. But given how many people do the opposite, some form of rebalancing is much needed. ‘To sum up,’ concludes Petro, ‘a radical re-conceptualization of relations with Russia is long overdue.’ I cannot agree more.