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'

Marching into oblivion

I’m not one of those people who look back on the Cold War with nostalgia. Whatever our current problems, they’re relatively mild to the threat of global nuclear war which used to seriously worry people back in the day. ‘When I were young’, as the saying goes, two massive armed blocs – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – stood face to face, ready to roll at a moment’s notice, while much of the developing world was wracked with proxy wars. It wasn’t a good time. But the very danger of it did have one positive effect – it concentrated minds and made the more sensible of them realize that ‘jaw, jaw is better than war, war’ and that it would really be to everybody’s benefit if agreement was reached to limit the upwards spiral of the arms race.

Continue reading Marching into oblivion

Wishful democratic thinking

‘How coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings in the former Soviet Union’, says a headline in this week’s New Statesman, followed by the subheading ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’. That pretty much tells you the message that author Felix Light wants you to take on board – when it comes to dealing with the COVID crisis: ‘democracy good, authoritarianism bad’. It sounds nice. I’m a democrat. So are most of you, I imagine. We’d like to think that democracy works better than the alternative. But is it true?

‘In the former Soviet Union … if dictatorship is fumbling the coronavirus test, then democracy is passing with flying colours’, writes Light, contrasting the low infection and death rates in the ‘democratic’ Baltic states and Georgia with the higher rates in ‘dictatorial’ Russia, Belarus, and Central Asia (Ukraine doesn’t get a mention – perhaps Light can’t work out where to put it on the democracy-authoritarian spectrum, or perhaps it fails to fit his model). The reason, he says, is that ‘post-Soviet authoritarianism tends to mask relatively weak states. Even without a deadly viral pandemic, these regimes often find it difficult to perform bread-and-butter functions.’

There’s some truth to this, in that state capacity in many former Soviet states is relatively weak compared to, say, Western Europe or North America. But state capacity and democracy are not directly correlated. China has quite substantial state capacity, but isn’t democratic. Ukraine is considered more democratic than many other post-Soviet states but has perhaps the weakest state capacity of them all. Moreover, capacity is one thing; having the will to use it is another. When it comes to COVID-19, China has shown that it has both capacity and will; the United States, by contrast, has the capacity, but has shown relatively little will. Overall, looking at the data on which states have fared well and which states have fared badly during the COVID crisis, it’s very hard to see any correlation between success or failure on the one hand and state capacity on the other.

So let’s look at those statistics. Comparing them is difficult because some states do a lot more coronavirus tests than others, and so their higher infection rates may simply be a reflection of detecting a lot more asymptomatic cases. Also problematic is the fact that different countries use different criteria to classify the cause of death, with some putting the cause down as coronavirus if there’s even a suspicion that it might be, and others saying that it’s not an official coronavirus death if the deceased had the virus but actually died of something else. This produces wide differences in death rates from country to country. In the case of Russia, there are suspicions that the official death rate underestimates reality, perhaps by a factor of 2 to 3. There is some evidence to support this claim, based on the number of ‘excess deaths’ this year as opposed to last. However, this is hardly unique to Russia. According to the BBC today, the number of excess deaths in the past few weeks in the UK is around 50,000, whereas the official COVID death toll is about 28,000, suggesting that the official toll underestimates reality by a factor of 2. Given all these problems, the best we can do is accept that official statistics are questionable, but also recognize that the same errors arise across the board, and so take the data as a more or less accurate representation of comparative levels of infection and death.

And so what does the data tell us (focusing on death rates, as ultimately that’s what really matters)? Latvia has experienced just 19 coronavirus deaths, Estonia 61, and Lithuania 54. These seem like tiny numbers, but the population of these countries is very small too (Estonia being just 1.3 million). The death rates per million of population in these three countries are 8.3, 46.9, and 19.3 respectively, indicating quite a variation between them (Latvia doing quite well, but Estonia not so much).

Russia, meanwhile, has officially declared 2,305 coronavirus deaths, which equates to 16.5 per million inhabitants, a higher rate than Latvia, but much lower than Estonia, and a little lower than Lithuania. Belarus has declared 151 deaths, a rate of 15.9 per million – very similar to Russia, so again lower than Estonia and Lithuania. In Ukraine, there are 456 deaths, a rate of 10.1 per million. Kazakhstan claims only to have suffered 32 deaths, giving it a remarkably low rate of 1.74 per million. Uzbekistan says only 11 Uzbeks have died from coronavirus, despite a population of nearly 33 million, a death rate of 0.33 per million. And so on.

You can, of course, take the Central Asian results with a pinch of salt, if you want, but even if they are a substantial underestimate, there’s no evidence to suggest that the death rate there is any worse than in the Baltic States. Likewise, if you accept the claim that Russia’s official statistics underestimate reality by an order of 2-3, and simultaneously believe that the Baltic figures are 100% correct, then Russia’s true death rate ends up being pretty much identical to that of Estonia. And if on top of all that, you accept the classification of the Baltic States as ‘democracies’ and the other post-Soviet states as ‘authoritarian’, then Light’s claim that democracy is coping with the virus crisis better than authoritarianism simply isn’t borne out by the data.

And this isn’t the case only in the post-Soviet space. Let’s say that the Russian and Belarussian statistics underestimate reality by 200%, so that there are actually about 6,000 coronavirus deaths in Russia, and let’s also say (which, as we’ve seen, we probably shouldn’t) that official statistics in Western democratic states don’t underestimate at all. That would give Russia and Belarus a death rate of around 50 per million, while giving Western states the following rates: United States – 258; United Kingdom – 495; Canada – 141; Spain – 580; Italy – 499; France – 403; Belgium – 777; Germany (considered a European success story) – 94; and so on. The picture is pretty clear: while the situation is far from universally rosy and there are certainly no grounds for complacency, compared with the democratic ‘West’, all states in the former Soviet Union have fared reasonably well. Why that is the case is an open question, but regime type appears to have nothing to do with it.

The COVID pandemic, says Felix Light, has ‘underlined democracy’s public health advantages’, and ‘has simply incentivised governments to make sound pandemic policy decisions’. For simplicity’s sake, let’s put aside the somewhat unsophisticated division of states into categories of ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’, and similarly for simplicity’s sake let’s accept Light’s formula for which states fit into which box (the West, the Baltics & the Georgia – democratic; the rest – authoritarian). Is it true, as Light claims, that ‘coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings’ and that ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’? As I said, it’s a nice story, and the democrat in me would love to believe it. But, unfortunately for Mr Light, the stats say otherwise. It’s just another case of wishful democratic thinking.

#DemocracyRIP and the narcissism of Russiagate

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. [Gone with the Wind]

It’s not been a great week for proponents of Russiagate conspiracies. A release of transcripts of meetings of the American House of Representatives Intelligence Committee revealed that person after person interviewed by the Committee denied having any knowledge of collusion between Donald Trump and his campaign on the one hand and the Russian state on the other. This was despite the fact that many of those so interviewed had claimed in public that such collusion had taken place. The discrepancy between their public and private utterances has rightfully been interpreted as further evidence that the whole collusion story was a fabrication from start to finish.

Collusion was only half of Russiagate. The other half was the allegation of Russian ‘interference’ in the US election, founded especially on claims that the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, had hacked and leaked documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). This allegation was based on research undertaken by a private company Crowdstrike, but now the Intelligence Committee minutes reveal that Crowdstrike couldn’t even confirm how the DNC data had been leaked let alone that the Russians were responsible. All they had, according to the testimony, was   ‘circumstantial evidence’ and ‘indicators’ – not exactly solid proof.

Given this, you’d imagine that this would be a good time for Russiagaters to slink off into a dark corner somewhere and hope that people forget all the nonsense they’ve been spouting for the past four years. But not a bit of it, for what do we find in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine than an article by Franklin Foer with the scary title ‘Putin is well on the way to stealing the next election’.

Foer is in some respects the original Russiagater. He was well ahead of the game, and in a July 2016 article in Slate laid out the basic narrative many months before others latched onto it. The article has it all: a scary title (‘Putin’s Puppet’ – meaning Trump); Vladimir Putin’s evil plan to destroy Europe and the United States; a cast of characters with allegedly dubious connections to the Kremlin (Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, etc. – you met them first in Foer’s article); Trump’s supposed desperation to break into the Moscow real estate market; allegations of Trump’s lack of creditworthiness leading him to seek shady Russian sources of finance; and so on – in short, the whole shebang long before it was on anyone else’s radar.

Not wanting to let a good story go to waste, Foer has been on it ever since, and gained a certain amount of notoriety when he broke the ‘story’ that US President Donald Trump was secretly exchanging messages with the Russian government via the computer servers of Alfa Bank. Unfortunately for Foer, it didn’t take more than a minute or three for researchers to expose his revelation as utter nonsense. This, however, didn’t seem to shake him. In the world of journalism there appears to be no such thing as accountability for those who publish fake news about Russians producing fake news, and so it is that Foer is back on the Russiagate wagon with his new piece in the Atlantic, warning us that it’s bad enough that Putin elected Trump once, but now he’s going to do it all over again.

The basic theme of Foer’s latest is pretty much the same as in his original article of July 2016. Back then Foer informed readers that, ‘Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West – and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump’. ‘The destruction of Europe is a grandiose objective; so is the weakening of the United States’, Foer went on, keen to let us know that Putin’s aims were nothing if not extreme (‘The destruction of Europe’ no less!!). Now, nearly four years later, he tell us breathlessly that ‘Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system’ (How does he know this? Does he have some special dream detection equipment he’s snuck into the Kremlin? Alas, Foer doesn’t tell.) According to Foer:

It’s possible, however, to mistake a plot point – the manipulation of the 2016 election – for the full sweep of the narrative. Events in the United States have unfolded more favorably than any operative in Moscow could have dreamed: Not only did Russia’s preferred candidate win, but he has spent his first term fulfilling the potential it saw in him, discrediting American institutions, rending the seams of American culture, and isolating a nation that had styled itself as indispensable to the free world. But instead of complacently enjoying its triumph, Russia almost immediately set about replicating it. Boosting the Trump campaign was a tactic; #DemocracyRIP remains the larger objective.

#DemocracyRIP?? Seriously? Where does Foer get this? I’m willing to offer him a challenge. I’ll pay him $100 (Canadian not US) if he can find anywhere, anywhere, any statement by Vladimir Putin or another top official in the Russian Federation in which they state any sort of preference for what sort of political system the United States has, and in particular state a preference that the USA ceases to be a democracy. If he can’t, he’ll have to pay me $100. I’m confident I’ll win. The truth, as far as I can see, is that like Rhett Butler, they don’t give a damn. America can be a democracy, or an autocracy, or any other thing as far as they’re concerned, as long as it just leaves them alone. Insofar as thinking Russians do discuss the matter, I get a strong impression they generally regard the problem not as being that America is a democracy so much as being that it isn’t, not really, as actual power is seen as lying in the hands of special interests and some sort of version of the ‘deep state’. More democracy, not less, would be the preferred solution.

So where does all the nonsense about Putin wanting to destroy democracy come from? It certainly doesn’t come from anything he’s ever said. And it certainly doesn’t come from a serious examination of Russia’s true potential. Russia can no more destroy American democracy than it send a man to Alpha Centauri. And its leaders know that perfectly well. So why do Americans think that Putin is lying in his bed, ‘dreaming’ about the ‘destruction of Europe’, the ‘weakening of America’ and ‘#DemocracyRIP’? I’ll hazard a guess – it’s a serious case of narcissism. America believes it is the centre of the universe, and it also imagines itself a democracy, and so it thinks that American democracy must be what’s at the centre of everybody else’s universe too. Well, sorry, Franky boy, it just ain’t so. #DemocracyRIP?? In your dreams, perhaps, but certainly not in Putin’s.

Joint Statement on the 75th Anniversary of the End of the Second World War

Co-signed by the foreign ministers of a bunch of Eastern European states, including Hitler’s one-time allies Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, the following statement of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on the website of the US State Department yesterday, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Nazi Germany gets one brief mention. Thereafter, as you will see, it’s all ‘The Soviets were evil, the Soviets were evil’. To say the least it’s a very odd way of commemorating WW2. Just who does the State Department think was the enemy?

Best of all, stuffed in the middle is a complaint about ‘a regrettable effort to falsify history’. Go figure!


The following is a joint statement by the U. S. Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

Begin text:

Marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020, we pay tribute to the victims and to all soldiers who fought to defeat Nazi Germany and put an end to the Holocaust.

While May 1945 brought the end of the Second World War in Europe, it did not bring freedom to all of Europe. The central and eastern part of the continent remained under the rule of communist regimes for almost 50 years. The Baltic States were illegally occupied and annexed and the iron grip over the other captive nations was enforced by the Soviet Union using overwhelming military force, repression, and ideological control.

For many decades, numerous Europeans from the central and eastern part of the continent sacrificed their lives striving for freedom, as millions were deprived of their rights and fundamental freedoms, subjected to torture and forced displacement. Societies behind the Iron Curtain desperately sought a path to democracy and independence.

The events of 1956, creation and activities of the Charter 77, the Solidarity movement, the Baltic Way, the Autumn of Nations of 1989, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall were important milestones which contributed decisively to the recreation of freedom and democracy in Europe.

Today, we are working together toward a strong and free Europe, where human rights, democracy and the rule of law prevail. The future should be based on the facts of history and justice for the victims of totalitarian regimes. We are ready for dialogue with all those interested in pursuing these principles. Manipulating the historical events that led to the Second World War and to the division of Europe in the aftermath of the war constitutes a regrettable effort to falsify history.

We would like to remind all members of the international community that lasting international security, stability and peace requires genuine and continuous adherence to international law and norms, including the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.  By learning the cruel lessons of the Second World War, we call on the international community to join us in firmly rejecting the concept of spheres of influence and insisting on equality of all sovereign nations.

End text.

Russia’s not so radical youth

One of the regular themes of the ‘Putin is doomed’ crowd is the idea that while older Russians are deeply conservative, undemocratically-minded, and deeply traumatized by their Soviet upbringing, Russian youth, brought up entirely in the post-Soviet era, are of a much more liberal inclination, deeply dissatisfied with their lot and the governing system, and thus likely to sweep away the current order as soon as they grow a little older. This isn’t based on very much other than the fact that those who attend anti-government protests in Moscow contain a large number of young people. But, as I’ve pointed out before, sociological surveys don’t provide much ammunition to support the idea of Russian youth as revolutionaries in waiting – quite the opposite, in fact. So, it’s interesting to see the results of a new survey of young Russians by the German research foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with help from the Moscow-based Levada Centre.

The research polled 1,500 people aged 14 to 29 across Russia, and also involved focus groups. These were some of the points which emerged that I found interesting:

When asked which values were most important to them, 76% said human rights, as shown below. Similarly, another chart later in the report shows 80% of respondents saying that ‘securing rights and freedoms’ should be a priority for the national government, with lower numbers for improving the economy, reducing unemployment, providing social security, and so on (with bottom place going to ‘development of private entrepreneurship’, suggesting a lack of economic liberalism). This somewhat surprised me as previous polls that I had seen suggest that Russians of all ages are more concerned with social and economic issues than with human rights.


Much, though, depends on how rights are understood, and once you dig a bit deeper things become a bit more complicated, as shown by the next diagram:

Continue reading Russia’s not so radical youth

Twice Doomed

What’s up with The Spectator magazine? As I mentioned in my last post, on Thursday they published a piece by Andrew Foxall entitled ‘Covid-19 is testing Putin’s regime’. And then, on Friday, just one day later, out comes another article, this time by Owen Matthews, with the headline ‘Can Putin survive the coronavirus stress test?’ Really? How many different versions of the same story does the Spectator plan to publish?

Matthews has been on my radar since he produced this piece, just a few days after I had written this one. Perhaps I’m a bit petty, but I was somewhat peeved by the striking similarities. Anyway, Matthews is a fully signed up member of the ‘the Putin regime is doomed’ club, as you can see by the Speccie front cover below from the time of World Cup two years ago. ‘Russia is crumbling’, he told us, which is odd because Russia looked quite good during the World Cup, at least to me and just about everyone else who attended. But it’s always the beginning of the end for Matthews, apparently. The annexation of Crimea? A huge blunder, he said – it would cost a fortune, Putin’s paymasters wouldn’t tolerate it, and it ‘will be the downfall of Putin’. And so on, and so forth.


Continue reading Twice Doomed