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'

Napoleon, Kutuzov, and the changing international order

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy challenged the idea that ‘great men’ change the world. In reality, he claimed, the underlying forces of history determine the outcome. Some people, however, try to resist these forces. They inevitably come a cropper. By contrast, others recognise which way things are going and let these processes determine what they should do, or not do. It’s these people who succeed. In War and Peace, Napoleon is an example of the former; Marshal Kutuzov an example of the latter. Kutuzov doesn’t so much do anything as lets happen what is going to happen anyway. It’s this which makes him a great leader.

Tolstoy tended to overdo things, and most people wouldn’t accept his theory of history in its entirety. But there’s an element of truth in what he said, if you take it not as a reason for fatalism but as an argument for riding with the wave rather than against it. If you look at the world of economics, for instance, companies which resist change, or who respond to it by using monopoly power or political influence to close down competition, end up failing. By contrast, companies which correctly identify future trends and put themselves at the head of them, end up thriving (until such time as they themselves grow old, become inflexible monopolists, and are brought down by the next generation of newcomers, a process Karl Marx failed to anticipate when predicting that monopolization was a one-way process). In short, success is a matter of perspective; the key is viewing change not as a threat but as an opportunity.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that most international affairs analysts look at the world. An example is the annual forecast ‘Russia and the World’, produced by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow. Each year, following its publication, the Czech journal New Perspectives produces a special edition devoted to responses to the IMEMO forecast. I covered the replies to the 2018 forecast on this blog a while ago. Now the responses to the 2019 forecast are out, including one written by my good self. You can find them here. I don’t have room to discuss them all, but I will touch upon a few which relate to the discussion of change above.

In my own article, I note how the IMEMO forecast paints a very gloomy picture of international affairs, speaking of ‘the crisis of the international system’, ‘the dismantling of the global order’, ‘the erosion of the established post-war and Cold War system’, ‘an unstable world’, and so on. In line with what I’ve written elsewhere, I cast doubt on whether everything is really as bad as IMEMO makes it out to be. Russia’s main challenge, I argue, ‘is not a global order facing potential collapse … Rather, Russia’s primary problem is internal – a political, social, and economic system which seems to have hit a wall,’ particularly in terms of delivering rapid economic growth.

In another response, Australian academic Cai Wilkinson takes a different approach. Rather than debate whether IMEMO’s analysis is correct, Wilkinson uses it to examine the mentality of the people of who made it – i.e. she uses the forecast as a tool for understanding the forecasters. What the IMEMO forecast reveals, she says, is the ‘avowedly Realist worldview’ of the Russian foreign policy community as well its ‘aversion to the uncertain.’ The forecast is underpinned by a ‘distinctly fatalistic air’ and is accompanied by an obsession with stability. Wilkinson criticises this attitude, quoting technology forecaster Paul Saffo as saying that, ‘uncertainty is a friend, for its bedfellow is opportunity.’ She continues:

In uncertain times, a Realist and fatalistic worldview that prioritises stability risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, blinding policy-makers and forecasters alike to the truth that, as Alexander Wendt famously put it, ‘anarchy is what states make of it.’

I’m fairly sure that the politics of Higher School of Economics professor Glenn Diesen are very different from Wilkinson’s, but in his response to the IMEMO forecast he makes a rather similar point. ‘While the report focuses on the threats from this disorderly transition to a multipolar international distribution of power, the opportunities from moving towards a less Western-centric order tend to be neglected,’ he writes. I tend to agree. As the balance of global power shifts, there will inevitably be disruption, but there will also be immense opportunities. It would do everyone some good if they focused on the positive.

The failure to do so is not a purely Russian phenomenon. Over the past few weeks, I’ve attended a couple of meetings here in Ottawa at which colleagues and (serving and retired) public servants discussed the changing international order and the implications for Canadian foreign policy. The discussions almost exactly mirrored the conclusions of the IMEMO forecast – the prevailing view was that world is going to the dogs. The language was all about ‘challenges’ and ‘threats’. I kept my mouth shut until right at the end of the last meeting, at which point I finally complained to all and sundry that I’d heard nothing but negativity, and that among all the talk of ‘threats’ I’d not once heard anybody talk about the opportunities which the changing international order offers us. And there are many – growing markets for our products in the developing world, just for starters.

The negativity has important effects. When international change is viewed solely in terms of challenge and threat, the policy response is to try and stop the change. But as Canute pointed out to his advisers, you can’t hold back the tide. It’s pointless trying, for instance, to contain China. You can’t do it. Power is shifting in the world. It’s inevitable. Instead of worrying about the change, we need to think about how to exploit it for our own benefit. Do we want to fight the tide of history, or do we want to ride the waves? Do we want to be Napoleon or do we want to be Kutuzov? Our future depends on our response.

No social activism here, please

Protest in Russia is often considered to take two distinct forms. The first is social-economic; the second is political. The first tends to be local and specific; the second general and abstract. Examples of the former would be protests about garbage disposal and truckers’ protests about new tariffs imposed on them by the government. Examples of the latter would be demonstrations about democracy or human rights. The specificity of the former appeals directly to peoples’ concrete interests in a way that the more general nature of the latter does not.  On the other hand, that very specificity also tends to limit the number of the people who can be brought into the cause, as it is unlikely to interest people who are not directly affected. It is also simpler for state authorities to appease social-economic protesters with timely concessions than it is to satisfy the more sweeping demands of political demonstrators. It is a matter of some debate which of the two worries the authorities the most.

A recent story provides one clue to a possible answer. The story in question is that French sociologist Carine Clément was detained by Russian border guards last week when she attempted to enter the country to attend an academic conference, and was then deported back to France. Clément had been due to give a paper discussing the French ‘Gilets jaunes’ and comparing them to Russian vatniki (rednecks, roughly speaking). Superficially, it doesn’t seem like something which should really bother the Russian security services. After all, the Russian state-funded TV network RT has been about the only international media outlet to regularly report on the Gilets jaunes over the past year. Nevertheless, despite the fact that she has a Russian husband and daughter, Clément was declared a threat to national security and told that she was forbidden from entering Russia for 10 years.

As a professor, restrictions on international academic exchange inevitably trouble me. I had never heard of Clément, so I looked her up. You can get an idea of her politics by a French article which notes ‘ses engagements en continuant de pointer le manque de justice sociale en Russie et la politique libérale pilotée par Vladimir Poutine.’ Anyone who considers Vladimir Putin’s policies ‘liberal’ clearly isn’t marching in step with the mainstream. Indeed, Clément appears to be very much of the left, described as a ‘militante des droits sociaux’, who has been active in defending housing rights, striking workers, and migrants, as well as striving to change Russian employment legislation. In short, she’s a social activist as much as an academic sociologist. It is this, no doubt, which has gotten her deported.

Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing recent written by her which is available on the internet, though if you speak French you can watch her talking as part of a panel of interviewees on Sputnik News in September of this year, here.  However, I was able to find an English-language version of a 2015 article entitled ‘Putin, Patriotism, and Political Apathy’.  It’s actually quite good, so I thought that I would share some excerpts of it here.

Clément starts off by noting Putin’s political popularity. This is genuine, she argues, and it’s not just a product of alternative voices being repressed. Political repression exists in Russia, but ‘Repression is not occurring on a massive scale. Many independent initiatives that are critical of current authorities still operate in broad daylight.’ The root of Putin’s support instead lies in the experience of the 1990s, Clément argues. In that time period, ordinary people ‘watched unscrupulous individuals make fortunes through small or big-time fraud’, while being treated with the utmost ‘contempt’ by the reformers and their allies, who dismissed them as ‘losers’ and ‘maladjusted’. Clément asks:

Why wouldn’t these people identify with Putin’s populist rhetoric, which recognizes their importance and respects and acknowledges their demand for a socially progressive state, rather than scorning their purported sense of entitlement and preference for paternalism? Why wouldn’t they support patriotic discourse that finally gives them a reason to be proud of their country, which their ancestors defended, but which has since been allowed to decline? … [Putin] is associated with a return to economic growth and paid salaries and pensions. Thanks to him, Crimea now belongs to the Russian Federation and the wounded pride of several generations of Russians resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been healed. Thanks to him, the “ordinary citizen” and the “people who work” and “love Russia” (to quote Putin’s speech at the rally held on February 23, 2012 at Poklony Gory in Moscow against the “for honest elections” movement) once again have something resembling a social and political status.

At the same time, Clément remarks, the liberal opposition is ‘cut off from the people’. It is obsessed with overthrowing the ‘Putin regime’, but ‘The problems that preoccupy most Russians, as indicated by polls, including poverty, housing, education, and health, do not appear as priorities.’ She recounts the story of a woman who visited the offices of the Yabloko party to complain about people who were poisoning dogs in her locality, and was told, ‘yes, of course, we see the problem. But tell us, how are we going to fight the regime?’

Russians see that this sort of thing is pointless, Clément argues. The political protests of the liberal opposition don’t interest them. Instead, they’re turning to more local forms of action, focusing on the sort of social-economic issues I mentioned at the start of this post. Clément believes that it is this sort of action, coming from below, and ‘rooted in local concerns and the realities of daily life’ which offers the best prospects for change in Russia. Thus, she concludes, ‘It seems to me, however, that a (re)politicization—a recovery of cognitive, emotional, and practical bearings—has no choice but to follow the tentative paths of mobilization “from below”.’

One can argue about how true this is, but I find it interesting that it’s gotten her into so much trouble with the authorities. After all, there’s hardly a shortage of Western academics who write nasty things about Russia, and who are allowed into the country to, among other things, meet with members of the liberal opposition and sing their praises. Political activism by foreigners seems to be more or less tolerated. But if Clément’s example is anything to go by, social-economic activism is a big no-no. Returning to the question at the end of my first paragraph, perhaps that tells us something about what worries the Russian state the most.

No such thing as Russophobia

Russophobia is a manipulative defensive line, often used by Russian propaganda to reduce any criticism of the Russian state to an irrational intolerance towards the Russian people. (Euromaidan Press).

‘[Russophobia] is a powerful weapon in the current Kremlin’s rhetorical arsenal – deployed mainly to obscure criticism of Vladimir Putin’s regime by smearing, stigmatizing, and discrediting the messenger’ (Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL).

‘Russophobia is a label to deflect criticism from the Kremlin.’ (Hannes Adomeit, Raamop Rusland).

I could find more, but I’m sure you get the point. There’s no such thing as Russophobia. It’s just an invention of the Kremlin. As Brian Whitmore notes, ‘Moscow has attempted to portray valid critiques of things Russia’s rulers are doing – things that many reasonable people can easily find objectionable – as chauvinistic assaults on all Russians.’ The idea that quite often criticisms of Russia are indeed ‘chauvinistic assaults on all Russians’ is thus dismissed as a fantasy.

I wonder, then, what Whitmore would have to say about Mike Luckovich, the award winning cartoonist of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Luckovich has received not just one, but two Pulitzer prizes, and in 2005 was winner of the National Cartoonists Society’s top award, the Reuben. Today, he produced this gem. It takes the breath away:


‘Russophobia is a label to deflect criticism from the Kremlin’? Really???


Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.


Continue reading Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

Book Review: The Russia Anxiety

It seems that scarcely a day goes by without a major news story which in some way or another portrays Russia as the international bogeyman. Just yesterday, for instance, we had a completely pointless story in The Observer about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting an ‘ex-KGB agent’ (actually newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev) at a party in Italy. Meanwhile, today’s copy of The Times reports that an as-yet-to-be-published British parliamentary report says that, ‘Russian interference may have had an impact on the Brexit referendum, but the effect was “unquantifiable”.’

What both these stories have in common is that they’re utterly meaningless. Prime Minister meets newspaper owner! So what? And what does it tells us that interference ‘may’ have had some impact, or may not, and that anyway it’s ‘unquantifiable’? Nothing at all. So why were these stories published? The logical answer is that it’s because putting ‘Russia’ into a story automatically lends it some air of malign mystery and makes it look like something untoward is going on. In other words, such stories make headlines not because they’re truly newsworthy but because they tap into what British academic Mark Smith calls ‘the Russian Anxiety’.

In his new book ‘The Russian Anxiety: And How History Can Resolve it’, Smith describes the anxiety as a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard. Sometimes, Westerners fear Russia; other times they just view it with contempt (‘a gas station masquerading as a country’); and other times they prefer to ignore it entirely. The anxiety takes the form of a cycle: fear turns into contempt, then disregard, then back into fear again. And it ‘comes and goes’ according to circumstances. Still, says Smith, ‘The Russia Anxiety is a historically deep-seated feature of international relations’, and it has a very negative effect on how Western states treat Russia, creating tensions which do not need to exist.

Continue reading Book Review: The Russia Anxiety

Trump is killing Ukrainians!

Ukrainians are dying, and it’s Donald Trump’s fault. That’s the message of an article in The Washington Post today by well-known columnist David Ignatius.

As I’m sure you all know, US president Donald Trump’s troubled relationship with Ukraine is the grounds on which his political enemies are seeking to impeach him. The basic charge is that Trump abused his office by making military aid to Ukraine conditional on the Ukrainian government investigating his Democratic Party rival Joe Biden. Ignatius, however, argues that Trump’s behaviour is worse than that. For by treating military aid ‘as a personal political tool’, Trump has been playing with peoples’ lives.

This, says Ignatius, is entirely typical of how Trump behaves. Again and again, he has displayed ‘fecklessness’ in his foreign policy by refusing to stand up for allies like ‘the Syrian Kurds, and the South Koreans, and America’s NATO partners in Europe’. The Russians are stepping into the void Trump has created, and ordinary people are suffering as a result. As Ignatius says, in Ukraine

a low-level conflict continues. Here are some details from recent OSCE cease-fire monitoring reports: On Oct. 5, a man and a woman died after a grenade exploded in their apartment in Kurakhove; on Oct. 24, a man was injured by shrapnel near Luhansk; on Nov. 1, a man was injured by shelling in Spartak.

As you watch the impeachment hearings, remember this basic fact: While Trump was playing politics on Ukraine, people who depended on U.S. military aid were getting killed and wounded.

The insinuation here is pretty clear: Trump is killing Ukrainians. But is this true?

In the first place, no concrete evidence has been produced by Ignatius or anyone else to show that what was apparently a very short delay in the provision of aid has had any impact on the military situation in eastern Ukraine. And second, the exact examples Ignatius provides are not quite what he makes them out to be. Indeed, on first reading them, they immediately struck me as a little fishy. So I looked them up on the website of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). This is what the OSCE had to say about the first case Ignatius mentions – the grenade in government-controlled Kurakhove:

The SMM followed up on reports that a man and a woman died after a grenade exploded inside their apartment on the second floor of a six-storey apartment building in 22 Pivdennyi district in Kurakhove (government-controlled, 40km west of Donetsk), about 16km from the contact line. On 7 October, medical staff at the hospital morgue in Krasnohorivka (government-controlled, 21km west of Donetsk) told the SMM that the bodies of a man and a woman (in their forties) had been brought to the morgue in the afternoon of 5 October with fatal injuries from an explosive device. On 4 November, a police representative in Kurakhove confirmed that a couple had died as the result of a detonation of a grenade inside their apartment on 5 October, and that it had opened a criminal investigation.

It’s hard to tell exactly what happened here, but it obviously wasn’t a case of rebel shelling. It sounds more like some idiot playing around with a grenade in his apartment, though there could be other explanations. But one thing one can say for sure is that a slightly faster delivery of US military aid to Ukraine wouldn’t have done this couple any good.

So let’s move on to the second case on Ignatius’ list – a man injured by shrapnel near Luhansk on 24 October. Oddly, I couldn’t find this in the OSCE reports despite searching for the words ‘shrapnel’ and ‘Luhansk’. But it’s worth mentioning that Luhansk isn’t in government controlled territory, so if someone was injured by shrapnel there on 24 October, US military aid to Ukraine wouldn’t have done him or her any good either.

But although I couldn’t find this case, a search for ‘shrapnel’ in the OSCE reports for October did bring up three others, as follows:

  • ‘three firefighters (men, 34, 32, and 36 years old) injured by shelling in the Trudivski area of Donetsk city’s Petrovskyi district (non-governmentcontrolled, 15km south-west of Donetsk city centre) on 11 September.’
  • ‘On 4 October, the SMM saw a man (aged 37) in Staromykhailivka (non-governmentcontrolled, 15km west of Donetsk) with a small injury to his face who told the SMM that on the afternoon of 3 October, while he was in the backyard of his house at 9 Haharina Street (about 2.5km from the contact line) in Staromykhailivka, he heard shooting and started running towards his house. According to him, as he was entering the house, he heard a loud explosion, felt heat on his face, and realized he was injured.’
  • ‘The SMM followed up on reports of a man injured on 25 October due to an explosion at his house at 39 Komsomolska Street in Mineralne (non-government-controlled, 10km north-east of Donetsk), about 2.5km from the contact line. … The man told the SMM that, on the evening of 25 October, as he was about to exit his house, he heard a loud explosion, which injured him.’

Here we have three instances of shrapnel injuries reported by the OSCE in October. What do they have in common? The injuries were all suffered by people in non-government held territory. In other words, they were all almost certainly victims of shelling by government forces. Yet Ignatius tells us that these were ‘people who depended on U.S. military aid.’


And it gets worse, because we also have the final case Ignatius mentions – ‘a man injured by shelling in Spartak’. This is what the OSCE has to say about that:

  • ‘On 9 November, at the Donetsk Regional Trauma Hospital, the SMM saw a man (40 years old) with bandages on his left leg and right upper arm. He told the Mission that on the morning of 1 November he had been outside his house at Pryvokzalna Street in Spartak (non-government controlled, 9km north of Donetsk) when he heard the sound of two explosions and fell to the ground.’

Again, therefore, this took place in non-government controlled territory. And so it turns out that not a single one of the victims of war mentioned by David Ignatius was injured as a result of rebel fire – the injuries were all either self-inflicted or the consequence of the Ukrainian military firing on civilians in rebel-held territory. If Ignatius’ argument is that these people need protecting and that President Trump has a moral duty to provide military assistance to the armed forces which are defending them, then the only logical conclusion is that the United States is providing aid to the wrong side.

Or perhaps the argument is just completely bogus in the first place.

Friday object lesson no. 53: ERA

As a one-off, I am reprising my Friday object lesson series in order to show you all a little something I was given when in Moscow a couple of weeks ago.


What I find interesting about this is the acronym at the bottom – ERA. This stands for ‘Era Rossiiskoi Armii’ (Era of the Russian Army). You can’t imagine the Russian military creating such a self-confident slogan 10 years ago, after what was generally considered a less than stellar performance against the much weaker Georgian army. And you certainly can’t imagine it 20 years ago, in the midst of the Chechen wars. It’s a sign of how times have changed. The Russian military’s performance in the war in Syria (and perhaps also in Ukraine) has put a new spring in its step. Let’s hope that confidence doesn’t turn into arrogance.