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'

Cause for celebration

General Sir Nick Carter KCB, CBE, DSO, Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom, was born in 1959. He joined the British Army in 1978. Back then, eastern Europe was still under communist control, and the Soviet 3rd Shock Army was poised to charge forward against the British Army of the Rhine in overwhelming force if, God forbid, war was ever to erupt. Outside of Europe, civil wars were tearing Africa and Latin America apart. For instance, in the two years before Carter joined the army, civil wars broke out in Angola and Mozambique. By the time they ended, about a half a million people had died in Angola and a million in Mozambique. When Carter was still the most junior of junior ‘Ruperts’ (as British soldiers call their officers), China invaded Vietnam, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Reagan was elected president and deployed Pershing missiles to Europe, and so on and so forth. Yet, according to a speech Carter gave this week to the Royal United Services Institute, all that was nothing compared to the chaos we face today:

It is hard to remember a time when the strategic and political context was more uncertain, more complex and more dynamic – instability, it seems to me, is the defining condition. The threats to our nation are diversifying, proliferating and intensifying very rapidly. The global playing field is characterised by constant competition and confrontation, with a return to a former era of great power competition – reminiscent, perhaps, of the first decade of the 20th Century.

The General must have a very poor memory (well, he was an infanteer!). Either that, or he was blithely unaware of what was going on in the world when he was young. He adds:

Ambitious states such as Russia, China and Iran are asserting themselves regionally and globally in ways that challenge our security, stability and prosperity. This is overlaid by the threat from non-state actors such as Daesh using terror to undermine our way of life; it is complicated by mass migration- arguably an existential threat to Europe; and compounded by populism and nationalism. The multi-lateral system that has assured our stability since 1945 is threatened.

Aagh! How often do I have to say this? The world post-1945 wasn’t stable, not in the slightest. The post-war period witnessed massive changes in the global order, as the great European empires fell apart with remarkable rapidity, bringing scores of new countries into existence. These new states all too often collapsed into internal conflicts, which were then exacerbated by the two superpowers as they supported one side or the other as part of the global struggle for power. In comparison, the current day is a period of remarkable placidity. There is, it is true, an arc of conflict stretching from Mali and Libya in Africa through Yemen, Syria and Iraq and into Afghanistan, but outside of that area the world is doing pretty well compared with the past. And perhaps even that area would be doing a lot better were it not for the glorious exploits of the British armed forces, which have done such a good job bringing stability to places such as Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The good general should think a bit about that.

General Carter is also wrong to say that the multilateral system is ‘threatened’. For sure, some multilateral institutions are having troubles, as witnessed by Brexit and the European Union. But in reality, more and more states share more and more connections in multilateral institutions than ever before, and the number of such bodies is increasing all the time, with numerous new regional organizations coming into existence in the past 20 years. The countries of the world have never been more intertwined.

So what’s all the fuss about? Carter provides a clue. As he told RUSI:

Countries like Russia and China have studied our strengths and invested carefully in new methods and capabilities that are designed to exploit weaknesses. … Worryingly, many of these systems are now in the hands of proxy states. No longer can we guarantee our freedom of action which we have taken for granted, certainly for at least the last thirty years, from air or sea and on land.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and its allies, especially the USA, have enjoyed seemingly untrammeled military power. They’ve used it to topple regimes, invade foreign countries, and attempt to impose their preferred forms of government and economics. Now, the balance of power is shifting, and this ‘freedom of action’ can no longer be ‘taken for granted’. This seems to be General Carter’s real gripe. If the British military had used its power wisely in the past 30 years, then I might have some sympathy with him. Unfortunately, the British armed forces took advantage of their freedom to act with arrogance, recklessness, and incompetence, creating havoc far more often than they brought peace, justice, and stability. As a former British Army officer, it grieves me greatly to say this, but it is surely true.

The alleged ‘freedom of action’ was always something of a myth – it rested on an assumption that nobody could resist Western military power. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere we’ve seen that that is simply untrue. Freedom of action in practice meant simply a licence to do stupid things, annoy a lot of people, and provoke a hostile response. If that no longer exists, then, contrary to what General Carter says, it’s not a cause for alarm. Rather, it’s a cause for celebration.

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Arms race

One of the common justifications for the billions of dollars spent on secret intelligence is that it helps politicians make informed, and therefore better, decisions. In reality, there is little evidence that intelligence significantly informs policy making. In his book Intelligence Power in Peace and War, former head of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, Michael Herman, argues that politicians by and large do what they want to do, ignoring intelligence when it doesn’t suit them and using it when it does. Intelligence doesn’t therefore determine policy; where it does have an effect is in the execution of policy – that is to say, once politicians have decided what they want to do, intelligence does have an impact on how the policy is put into practice. To take the example of terrorism, politicians have multiple options: wage war against the terrorists; treat the issue as a criminal one; negotiate with the terrorists; seek to undermine them by addressing social and economic grievance; and the like. Intelligence plays very little role in determining which option politicians choose. But if, for instance, they choose to wage war, then it comes in very useful in identifying targets, and so on.

Research supports this conclusion in the specific case of the United States. In a 2017 article in the academic journal Intelligence and National Security entitled ‘Why Strategic Intelligence Analysis Has Limited Influence on American Foreign Policy’, Stephen Marrin argues that ‘facts do not speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted, and that requires some form of conceptual framework to organize the information and derive inferences from it.’ If the intelligence community’s analysis differs from that of politicians, then the latter are entitled to ignore it and often do. Consequently, in the United States, ‘intelligence analysis appears to have had limited influence on national security decisions.’

The point here is that one should always be a little cautious about accepting claims that major policy decisions are driven by secret intelligence. If intelligence points in a direction in which politicians really don’t want to go, history suggests that they are most unlikely to go there regardless. If they do go there, it’s because they’re inclined in that direction in the first place.

Which brings us to the Russian 9M729 missile and America’s announcement that it will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 60 days’ time if Russia does not return to compliance with the INF Treaty. This treaty prohibits missiles with a range between 500 and 5000 kilometres. The Americans claim that the 9M729 has a range within these limits, and that by developing it Russia is therefore in violation of the INF Treaty.

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing whether the American claims are correct. They are based entirely on secret intelligence which the United States has not made public. On the one hand, it seems that the Americans are pretty confident that their intelligence is accurate. On the other hand, they’ve been wrong about stuff before. American analysts say that since Russia already has missiles with a range of just under 500 kilometres, it makes little sense for it to develop a new missile which does the same thing. The only logical explanation for the 9M729 is that it has a longer range, within that prohibited by the INF Treaty. Analysts point to Russian fears that the American anti-ballistic missile system being deployed in Eastern Europe could be used against Russia, and suggest that the 9M729 has been developed to neutralize this threat. This may be true, but an article today in the Russian online newspaper Vzglyad suggests that the Russian approach may not have been a missile with a longer range, but rather a faster missile. According to Vzglyad, the 9M729 is designed to travel at 2.5 times the speed of sound. This requires a larger rocket, and it is this, not additional fuel tanks, which explains the 9M729’s large size.

Given the total lack of publicly available information about the missile, it is impossible to determine who is telling the truth. But even if the Americans have got it right, that doesn’t explain the decision to tear up the INF Treaty. There are many ways of dealing with contentious issues like this. These might include, for instance, negotiating some mechanism for mutual inspections of the 9M729 and the American ABM system in Eastern Europe. To return to my original point, if the Americans have decided to tear up the INF Treaty, it’s not because intelligence tells them that they have to tear it up, it’s because they believe that it’s to their advantage to do so and the intelligence provides them with the opportunity to legitimize the act.

American security policy under Trump is in the hands of hardliners, most notably James Mattis and John Bolton, who seem stuck in the ‘unipolar moment’ which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as in the thinking of the post-9/11 National Security Strategy which proclaimed that the United States should acquire such overwhelming military superiority that any potential competitors would decide that it wasn’t worth the effort competing and would give up without a struggle. In short, they seem to be driven by the belief that the United States is so dominant that it has doesn’t have to fear an arms race. Arms control is thus undesirable as it constrains America from asserting its dominance. Rather than negotiating arms limitations with other countries, America can best defend itself by outspending and outbuilding potential enemies to such a degree that they are forced to submit.

This strategy, I believe, is bound to fail. America’s geopolitical challengers – primarily Russia, China, and Iran – are not about to back down. China in particular is acting with great caution, but is playing a long game, avoiding immediate confrontation but gradually building up its forces. It’s not going to stop, and will in due course become a ‘peer competitor’, no matter how much the United States tries to stop it. Russia, meanwhile, will certainly not comply with America’s ultimatum to scrap the 9M729 missile. Rather, when the USA withdraws from the INF Treaty, Russia will almost certain set about developing and deploying intermediate-range weapons systems, including not just cruise missiles (like the 9M729) but probably also ballistic missiles. The only beneficiaries will be the military industrial complexes in Russia and the United States. Everyone else will be less secure as a result.

The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses

Headlines often don’t reflect the content of stories. Editors know that it’s the headlines that gather readers, and so they do their best to jazz them up so as to make the stories sound far more important or controversial than they really are. In the current frenzy of Russia-related fearmongering, this has meant that followers of the media have been subjected to a deluge of scary-sounding headlines making it seem as if Russians and their agents are spreading chaos everywhere, only to find on reading the stories that it’s a massive fuss about nothing and that substantive evidence supporting the headlines is almost entirely lacking.

So it is with the Atlantic Council latest report, The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 3, which is the third in a series purporting to expose high-profile Europeans who are subverting democracy from within as witting or unwitting agents of the Russian government. The title implies that the report is going to be full of hard-hitting revelations of politicians and journalists taking the Kremlin’s money, acting on its orders, and saying or doing things which genuinely threaten the European way of life. And indeed, on its website, the Atlantic Council tempts you to read the report by saying that, ‘the Kremlin’s tentacles do not stop in Ukraine, Georgia, or East Central Europe. They reach far and deep in the core of western societies.’ But the result is a disappointment. For what the report actually tells you is that in Northern Europe there is next to nobody questioning the prevailing narrative about Russia. A better title might be something like The Almost Absolute Conformity of Northern European Elites and the Total Absence of Russian Tentacles. No doubt, however, nobody would read such a thing, and so we get a big scary title instead.

trojan horses

Continue reading The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses

Casting blame, not finding solutions

Psychological studies indicate that the way people react to stories depends in large part on the way that the stories are ‘framed’. For all the talk about ‘fake news’, control of the facts people receive is relatively unimportant; more significant is the battle to control the overall framework within which people interpret the facts. If you will allow me to be all postmodernist for a bit, it’s all about the discourse, not the details.

If we look at current Russian-Western tensions, the problem, it seems to me, is that both sides are trapped within discourses which encourage them to frame events in terms of blame, conflict, and threat and not in terms of mutual misunderstanding. Consequently, they frame solutions in terms like security, deterrence, and containment, and not in terms of negotiation or compromise. Political discussion thus turns into a struggle to determine who is to blame for common problems not into an effort to find mutually acceptable solutions.

This is well illustrated by the responses in both Russia and the West to the recent event in the Black Sea, when the Russian coast guard seized three ships belonging to the Ukrainian navy. The Russian media has framed this entirely in terms of Ukrainian ‘provocation’; the Ukrainian and Western media in terms of Russian ‘aggression’. Almost nowhere will you find anybody discussing ways to improve the situation and prevent future clashes, except in the form of recommendations to increase the level of coercive power being exerted on the other party.

Interested in seeing how the Russian media was addressing the incident in the Black Sea, I spent a lot of last week watching Russian political talk shows. It was rather depressing. Again and again, the shows descended into shouting matches between the Ukrainian participants on one side and the Russian participants (including the talk show hosts) on the other. The incident was framed by all parties in terms of guilt: somebody was guilty of behaving badly; the question was simply who. This framing turned all the discussions into competitive zero-sum games – the more guilty the other party, the less one’s own; and conversely the more guilty one’s own party, the less guilty the other. The framing encouraged all involved to cast the entirety of the blame onto the other side, and to avoid any intimation that their own side might be even in the slightest bit responsible. This tendency goes beyond just recent events, and extends to the entire conflict in Ukraine – it’s either ‘Russian aggression’ or ‘Ukrainian fascists’. Anything in between is impossible.

Not once in all the shows I watched did I hear anybody from either side attempt to reframe the issue in terms other than guilt. Consequently, there was absolutely no talk of what could be done to improve Russian-Ukrainian relations beyond ‘regime change’ in the other country. One can see much the same thing in discourse concerning Russian-Western relations more generally. They are framed exclusively in terms of blame and of threat, leading to policy recommendations couched in terms of combatting the threat, rather than in terms of overcoming differences in mutually acceptable ways. The result is an escalating cycle of political tension.

How do we solve this problem? The answer is that we have to try to reframe the problem. When the issue is framed in terms of the ‘Russian threat’ or the ‘Western threat’, ‘Russian aggression’ or ‘Western aggression’, or any other similar wording, then solutions are inevitably going to be found in new security measures, increased defence spending, sanctions, and the like. Different policies will only become possible once people start framing East-West problems in ways which allow for win-win solutions. That means looking at things in terms of tensions which result from the clash of legitimate but competing interests, and from mistakes on behalf of all parties. Above all, it means framing matters in terms of finding solutions, not casting blame. Unfortunately, at present it’s the other way around – everybody is more interested in establishing the other side’s guilt than in finding a way forward. Until that changes, I don’t see how we are going to make any progress.

A matter of loyalty

Analysis of the recent clash between ships of the Ukrainian navy and the Russian Coast Guard near the Straits of Kerch has focused on the legal arguments of both sides as well as on the political motivations of the actors and the likely political and geostrategic implications. But hidden in it all is an interesting hint about the state of the Ukrainian armed forces which people seem to have missed.

Among those on those Ukrainian vessels who were captured by the Russians were officers from the Ukrainian security service, the SBU. This fact has been used by some as evidence that the Ukrainians were indeed engaged in nefarious activity in Russian waters and so were not entitled to ‘innocent passage’. If the SBU agents were intelligence personnel that might be the case. But in reality they are counter-intelligence officers. In other words, their task was not espionage, but security. As has been reported in the press,

The SBU agency said in a statement on Nov. 27 that the officers were fulfilling counterintelligence operations for the Ukrainian navy, in response to ‘psychological and physical pressure’ by Russian spy services.

So, what might be the ‘psychological and physical pressure’ being exerted on the Ukrainian navy which requires the presence of counter-intelligence on board ships? I can’t give a definite answer to that question, but one possibility is that somebody in authority is worried that Ukrainian sailors are being subjected to Russian ‘propaganda’ and that if left to their own devices, they might defect or might somehow pass messages to the Russians when passing close to the Russian coast. This explains the presence of SBU officers on board the ships – their purpose was to spy on the crew and enforce loyalty among it.

Leaders who trust their subordinates don’t need to do such a thing. And that’s why I think that this incident hints at something which analysts have failed to notice. Supporters of Euromaidan and the government which has ruled Ukraine ever since often like to say that the Ukrainian armed forces have improved dramatically since 2014 and that the war against ‘Russian aggression’ has solidified Ukrainian national identity, uniting the nation as never before. I recognize that my analysis of why the SBU had agents on board these ships is pure speculation, and may be wrong. But it makes sense to me, and if I’m right it suggests that Ukraine’s leaders don’t trust their troops very much. They may talk about the unity of the nation and the military, but deep in their hearts they don’t really believe it.

Lack of integrity

According to an article published by RT on Friday, the hacktivist group Anonymous has unearthed ‘a massive UK-led psyop to create a “large-scale information secret service” in Europe – all under the guise of countering “Russian propaganda.”’ As RT notes, Anonymous has made public documents allegedly originated by a project known as the Integrity Initiative (the ‘psyop’ in question). Despite RT’s breathless claims, I certainly wouldn’t call the uncovered operation ‘massive.’ Nor is it quite as scandalous as RT tries to make out, nor quite as secret, given that the project has a public website. Nevertheless, I do have some concerns about it.

On its website, the Integrity Initiative describes itself as:

a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. … our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous. … We are not a government body but we do work with government departments and agencies who share our aims.

In the leaked documents, the Integrity Initiative makes it clear that the ‘propaganda and disinformation’ which it has in mind is primarily Russian. Furthermore, the initiative not only works with government departments and agencies, but is largely financed by them. According to the documents revealed by Anonymous, the Integrity Initiative’s funding comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), NATO, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, the US State Department, Facebook, and the German business community. If this was a Russian project, we can have little doubt that Western commentators would denounce it as an ‘arm of the Kremlin’.

An Integrity Initiative handbook, which is among the items revealed by Anonymous, states that the project operates by forming ‘a cluster of well-informed people from the political, military, academic, journalistic and think-tank spheres, who will track and analyse examples of disinformation in their country and inform decision-makers and other interested parties about what is happening.’ This setup is unusual. Normally, academics, journalists, and think tankers operate independently from government. Here, they are collaborating. Among the British cluster members are members of Parliament, diplomats, Ministry of Defence staff, think tank personnel (from Chatham House, RUSI, Henry Jackson Society, etc), and journalists (from the BBC, The Times, and the Financial Times). The network also extends to academia, as the project is run in conjunction with the Free University of Brussels. As one of the leaked documents comments, this provides the benefit of ‘enhancing the academic respectability of the project’. As an academic, this makes me uneasy; I can’t help but feel that giving ‘academic respectability’ to secretive political projects isn’t what universities are for.

Beyond that, an application for funding from the FCO explains that the purpose of the initiative is ‘to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence. … Our programme to date has helped the UK to lead this process. Expanding this success will cement UK’s influence in N. America and in Europe post-Brexit.’ This makes it very clear that this is not a research project but a political one. Those joining the network aren’t neutral researchers, but active participants in a political campaign against Russia led by the British state and NATO. I have trouble understanding why either academics or journalists should consider this to be their job.

The project’s politics are made clear by its starting assumptions, as laid out in the funding request mentioned above. This document states:

Russia’s leaders say that Russia is at war with the West. The existence of democracy poses a threat to their dictatorial system. Undermining and ultimately destroying Western democratic institutions is Russia’s way of neutralising this ‘threat’. … … the Western system of democratic values will benefit for being protected against attack by those powers who would seek to overturn our system and all it stands for.

This statement is extreme even by current standards. For a start, I can’t recall any Russian ‘leader’ saying that ‘Russia is at war with the West’. Of course, that depends on how you define ‘leader’, but for all his frustration with the West, Putin avoids such language and continues to refer to Western states as ‘partners’. Furthermore, the idea that the Russian government’s aim is ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’ is patently absurd. I’m not aware of any Russian leader ever expressing any interest in ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’. As far as I can make out, Moscow isn’t in the slightest interested in what political systems other countries have. Likewise, the statement that Russia ‘seek[s] to overturn our system and all it stands for,’ is completely over the top – not merely unsubstantiated, but also entirely false. The Integrity Initiative’s politics amount to fearmongering.

Furthermore, as the leaked documents purport to show, the initiative engages in exactly the sort of ‘meddling’ in foreign affairs of which its members accuse Russia. In one instance, project members disliked the Spanish government’s choice for the post of director of Spain’s Department of Homeland Security. The Spanish ‘cluster’ set about lobbying against the candidate on social media, and eventually the Spanish government appointed somebody else. One can well imagine what the reaction would be if it turned out that a network of influential people who secretly belonged to a group funded by the Russian government had successfully lobbied to prevent the appointment of an official in Spain because Russia objected to him or her.

It’s a common complaint that Russian media are controlled by the state. By contrast, the Western media, and Western opinion formers, such as academics and think tank members, are considered to be independent and impartial. Yet in reality, the relationship between them is often far cozier than people understand, and sometimes far cozier than it ought to be. I’m sure that everybody involved in the Integrity Initiative believes that they are acting for the best. But if they have been secretly working with government officials in pursuit of political objectives, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people don’t trust them. There’s a reason why people turn to sources of information which are accused of peddling ‘fake news’: they don’t believe traditional sources. Projects like the Integrity Initiative help strengthen the impression of secret conspiracies and double standards. Far from solving the problem, therefore, they accentuate it,

Poking the bear

What sort of guy thinks that it is a good idea to deliberately provoke a nuclear-armed power? Answer: the sort of guy who writes for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a think-tank which claims that its purpose is to ‘bring about positive change in Central-East Europe and Russia by strengthening NATO’s frontline, better understanding the Kremlin’s strategic aims, promoting greater solidarity within the EU, and bolstering Atlanticism.’ CEPA ‘experts’ include the Economist’s Edward Lucas and the Power Vertical podcast’s Brian Whitmore. In short, it’s the kind of institution you go to if you think that Western politicians and journalists are being far too soft on the Russians. In line with its mission, every now and again CEPA brings out a report about the evils of Russian aggression and disinformation. Its latest, entitled Chaos as a Strategy: Putin’s ‘Promethean’ Gamble is a doozy.

chaos

The authors of Chaos as a Strategy are CEPA president and CEO Peter Doran, and Senior Fellow and former diplomat Donald Jensen. Their report is a classic example of what I call ‘conceptual flipping’ – i.e. taking a concept created by one’s opponent and then flipping it around. As Ofer Fridman shows in his recent book, Russian thinkers such as Aleksandr Dugin and Igor Panarin were accusing the West of waging information warfare against Russia for years before Westerners took the idea, flipped it around (on the basis of the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’) and began to accuse Russia of the same. Similarly, for some time now, Russians (most notably Sergei Glazyev) have been accusing the West of deliberately sowing chaos around the world in order to weaken potential rivals and secure American hegemony. Glazyev calls this ‘world chaotic warfare’. Doran and Jensen now flip this over: Russia, they say, is using a ‘strategy of chaos’ against the West. Specifically,

In recent years, Russian leaders and strategists have developed a set of methods aimed at spreading disorder beyond their borders for strategic effect. Their goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems.

Doran and Jensen call this strategy of chaos ‘Promethean’, a term used by Polish leader Josef Pilsudski to describe the policy adopted by Poland toward Russia in the inter-war period. Whereas Glazyev’s ‘world chaotic war’ is primarily economic in nature, Doran and Jensen’s ‘Prometheanism’ is centered around disinformation and propaganda, these being seen as the primary tools used by the Kremlin to sow chaos in the West. Despite its claims to be revealing something novel, Chaos as a Strategy therefore rapidly disintegrates into a simple repetition of all the normal claims about Russian disinformation, hybrid warfare, the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, and the like. Consequently, I found its analysis of Russian behaviour very unoriginal and not in the slightest interesting. It’s just one more example of analysts leaping on the information warfare bandwagon without adding anything new.

What is somewhat interesting, and perhaps a little bit scary, is the report’s recommendations. Doran and Jensen are of the view that the West has been far too reactive in the face of Russian information warfare, and believe that it ought to be taking the initiative. They recommend that the West should:

Prioritize the sequencing of the ‘carrots and sticks’ offered to the Kremlin. Sticks first. This means initially increasing the penalties imposed on Russia for continued revisionist behavior and the sowing of chaos. We can start with tougher sanctions, wider travel bans, greater restrictions on access to the global financial system, and financial snap exercises. Presently, some of these tools are used – but they are underused in most cases. This needs to change. Particularly, in the domain of information warfare, the West must hit back harder. … Our responses for now should serve the shorter-term goal of forcing Russia to place more defense and less offense. For this purpose, we should lessen our preoccupation with ‘provoking’ the Kremlin. It is hardly a basis of sound policy to prioritize Putin’s peace of mind.

Back in my youth, we used to talk about the importance of ‘confidence building measures’. The idea was that potential enemies could reduce the chance of conflict by reassuring each other that they did not have hostile intent and thereby giving one another ‘peace of mind’. But now, supposedly sane foreign policy ‘experts’ think that it’s a good idea to provoke nuclear-armed powers and that peace of mind is dangerous. What these experts seem to want is the very opposite of confidence building – the creation of paranoid foreign leaders who are continued worried about their security. This is most foolish. Fear is not a good basis for decision-making. Inciting fear in others, therefore, is not a good idea, and especially not a good idea when those others have some powerful resources at their disposal.

The whole point of provocation is that incites the provoked party to do something stupid. Doran and Jensen seem to think that this will help the West. The logic is that of a zero-sum game – if the Russians harm themselves by reacting to our provocations, the West gains. But the world doesn’t work like that. When provoked, people don’t generally back down and surrender – they strike out even harder than before. In the process the person doing the provoking finds that the problem he was trying to eliminate has become worse rather than better. Perhaps your enemy goes down, but he takes you down with him.

The problem we face at the moment is that rather than framing issues in terms of disagreements and seeking to come up with mutually acceptable ways of resolving those disagreements, too many people on both sides of the current East-West divide are framing issues in terms of threat and thus of ‘enemies’. Consequently, they devise ‘solutions’ designed to weaken the ‘enemy’ rather than resolve the underlying problems. Such solutions are not solutions at all, but risk accelerating the cycle of escalation. This report is a striking case in point.

I’ve come across some fairly irresponsible policy proposals in the past few years, but ‘let’s worry less about provoking the Kremlin’ takes irresponsibility to a new level. It reveals that for some in the West, escalating the confrontation with Russia is a deliberate choice. Russians will of course notice this, consider their fears justified, and respond accordingly. That response may not help them, but they have sharp claws, and it certainly won’t help us either. Poking the bear has become a popular pastime of late. We shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end well.