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'

Book Review: Moscow Rules

Here goes with another long book review (of what is actually quite a short work, which I read in a single afternoon). But bear with it. As so often, the book, while not revealing much of value about Russia, does provide valuable insight into how Russia is viewed by its Western critics.

Keir Giles of Chatham House in the United Kingdom wants to enlighten us about Russia, and has written a book, Moscow Rules, to that end. A clue to his thesis lies in the subtitle: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. According to Giles, the problem in East-West relations is that Russia is ‘confronting’ the West. Why? Because, basically, Russians aren’t like us, they’re ‘un-European’. They’re innately ‘expansionist’, distrustful of the West, untruthful, and authoritarian. The West should rid of itself of any delusions that it can live in peace with Russia, and instead focus on deterrence and containment.

Giles notes that Westerners have been surprised by Russian behaviour under Vladimir Putin. But they shouldn’t be. One can see a ‘remarkable consistency of specific features of Russian life over time,’ meaning that Russia today is just an extension of Russia in the past. The problem, in short, isn’t Vladimir Putin, it’s what one might call ‘eternal Russia’. As Giles says, ‘throughout the centuries, Russia’s leaders and population have displayed patterns of thought and action and habit that are both internally consistent and consistently alien to those of the West.’ Russia, claims Giles, is ‘a culture apart’, and ‘Russia is not, and never has been, part of the West, and thus does not share its assumptions, goals, and values.’

moscow rules

So what distinguishes Russia from the West?

Continue reading Book Review: Moscow Rules

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Censors for democracy

On 17 January, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a report written by Marcus Kolga, Stemming the Virus: Understanding and responding to the threat of Russian disinformation. Kolga claimed that, ‘The information warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in against Canada and its allies is total, and its objective is to tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government and institutions.’

Kolga’s report went on to list a whole series of individuals, organizations and publications which he believes are assisting the Kremlin in its dastardly plan. This blog was featured in a graphic titled ‘Illustration of a disinformation campaign’. Irrussianality was grouped with the likes of InfoWars as a ‘Pro-Kremlin, Conspiracy Theory, Extremist Platform’, and depicted as a conduit through which ‘False narratives’ generated by the Russian government are channelled to the ‘general public/voters’. On the next page of the report Kolga then alleged that such ‘platforms’ aimed ‘to generate support for Kremlin positions, discredit critics and opponents by all means available, and sow confusion and turn societies against each other in the West.’

Continue reading Censors for democracy

Deep people

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is said to be a fan of Deep Purple. Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov is instead promoting what he calls the ‘Deep People’. In an essay  today in Nezavisimaia Gazeta, Surkov has penned a prolonged paean to autocracy as the true democracy, in which the autocrat and the ‘deep people’ work together in glorious harmony. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the so-called ‘Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin.’ It’s also, I think, rather deluded.

A literal translation of the article’s title would be ‘Putin’s long state’, but a better version might be something along the lines of ‘Putin’s state will last a long time.’ Surkov writes that,

Putin’s large political machine is only just gaining momentum and intends to carry out a long, difficult and interesting job. … for many years Russia will still be Putin’s state. … We need to recognize, understand and describe the Putin system of government and the entire complex of ideas and measures of Putinism as the ideology of the future.

Continue reading Deep people

Three Russias

This week, the American press, and in particular the New York Times, has provided us with three contrasting images of Russia. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

First, the New York Times ran the article which was the subject of my last post – Franz Sedelmayer’s denunciation of Vladimir Putin. I won’t spend much time on this, as it would involve repeating myself. Suffice it to say that the intense focus on the person of the Russian president creates an image of Russia as tightly controlled from the centre. When anything happens – e.g. the arrest of Paul Whelan on spying charges – it’s because Putin ordered it. This, one may say, is ‘image no. 1’ – Russia as autocracy.

Image no. 2 is very different. It’s Russia as chaotic mafia state, and it can be seen in a long article published by the New York Times about the murder of Russian Duma Deputy Denis Voronenkov in Kiev in 2016. The Ukrainian authorities have accused the Russian state of involvement in the murder, the idea being that he was killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin after he fled Russia and gave evidence at the trial of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. Indeed, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iury Lutsenko called Voronenkov’s death a ‘typical show execution of a witness by the Kremlin’.

So far, this is all very much in keeping with image no. 1 – Moscow’s hand is in everything. The New York Times, however, notes that there is no evidence to support the accusation of Kremlin involvement in Voronenkov’s murder. Rather, it claims that, ‘To the contrary, the story of Denis Voronenkov is about something else entirely: a story of the chaos at the heart of the sistema (i.e. the Russian system).’ So here we have image no. 2 – Russia as chaos.

Voronenkov, says the Times, was a typical ‘adhocrat, someone who moved fluidly between the worlds of intelligence, crime and politics’. To construct this thesis, the newspaper describes Voronenkov’s corrupt activities and how he eventually chose to become a Duma Deputy in order to acquire immunity from prosecution. What eventually did him in was his involvement in a classic piece of Russian reiderstvo (raiding), in which he and his co-conspirators seized control of a building worth $5 million. It seems, however, that Voronenkov cheated his colleagues out of their full share of the profits. When the matter became public, he fled Russia and took refuge in Ukraine.

The article concludes that rather than being murdered by the Kremlin, Voronenkov was most probably killed on the instructions of one of those he cheated in the building ‘raid’. The fact that he was also a member of the Russian parliament indicates the close ties between government and criminals, ties which are so close that the two essentially operate as one. As the Times puts it, ‘Voronenkov’s tale, to those who know contemporary Russia, illuminated the chaos of Putin’s sistema: the personal rivalries, criminals, elites, crooks and clans trying to keep from running afoul of the country’s ever-shifting red lines.’ Instead of being a case of a Kremlin hit, his story instead shows how in Russia ‘criminal activity and state activity’ merge into one.

In a third article, however, the New York Times provides us with yet another image of the Russian state – one which, rather than robbing everybody blind, is investing heavily in improving the country’s infrastructure. In this article, the Times notes that the Russian government has built up massive financial reserves and is set to splurge a large proportion of these in a drive ‘to spend about $100 bn on big infrastructure projects.’ The Kremlin, says the article, is also pressuring wealthy businessmen to display their patriotism by increasing their investments in the Russian economy, and apparently ‘the arm twisting is working.’

So here we have a Russia in which the state is involved in much more than just theft (after all, if the state has built up reserves of over $400 bn, it would appear that most of its revenues aren’t actually being stolen). Moreover, this isn’t a country operating in a state of pure chaos. It may not be as tightly controlled as in image no. 1, but there’s a fair degree of order here, far more than image no. 2 would suggest.

Supplementing this third view of Russia is an article in Bloomberg by Leonid Ragozin. In this Ragozin notes that, ‘Since 2011, the Kremlin has been promoting a multibillion-dollar campaign to modernize Russian cities and towns.’ He describes an urban redevelopment project in the town of Torzhok, near Tver. This has included the opening of a new high speed rail line to Torzhok and the revitalization of the town’s tourism industry, and has been successful in attracting investment and in persuading people to move back into the town. Among the latter are a businesswoman, Tatyana Sokolova, and the new town mayor, Aleksandr Menshchikov, both of whom have played leading roles in redeveloping Torzhok. The two are credited with obtaining funds from international development banks and renovating the town square and key local landmarks, as well as developing a ‘museum and conference space and art residencies.’

Menshchikov is described as ‘a graduate of the elite Moscow School of the Economy’, and is portrayed as a highly educated, successful, and apparently dedicated official. As such, he’s far removed from the likes of Voronenkov. Nor is he entirely alone. A businessman who came to speak to my students last year told them that back in the 1990s Russian officials were largely ignorant both of law and of how modern economies worked; they produced very poor legislation, full of loopholes for corrupt practices, and were also incompetent when it came to putting plans into practice. Now matters were rather better. This is not universally true, of course. Nevertheless, in a way which wasn’t possible in the 1990s, one can now find hard-working, well-educated, competent, and honest officials with whom can work to do business in Russia effectively.

So, which image best represents the real Russia? The answer, I suspect, is a bit of all three. There’s a state which is theoretically highly centralized, but which in practice oversees some degree of chaos, but which is also able to exert a certain amount of control and enact plans of economic development; there’s a high level of corruption, but also a genuine effort to improve the country’s condition; there are crooked and incompetent officials, but also honest and efficient ones. In short, it’s a thoroughly mixed bag.

As human beings, we like to label things and put them in neat boxes. We also like to contrast them with things they are not, in order more clearly to define them. Thus we come up with simple ways to describe countries – kleptocracy, mafia state, and so on – and we set up simple dichotomies between us and them– democratic v. authoritarian, liberal v. reactionary, etc. But while such devices shows us part of the truth, their oversimplified nature means that they obscure much more than they reveal. If there is any common theme one can extract from these recent articles, it is that reality is far more complex than we are often led to believe.

The Putin I knew

In my last post I drew attention to a strange schizophrenia in the way many commentators view Russia. On one hand, there’s what I will call model one, in which they blame the country’s problems and its supposed aggression on the authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. On the other hand, there’s model two, in which they consider these problems to be the product of some supposedly innate characteristic of the Russian people – the ‘Russian soul’, as it were. Model one often takes the form of extreme Putinophobia – that is to say a tendency to blame everything one doesn’t like about Russia on the malign character of the country’s president. Model two manifests itself in sweeping statements about Russians, which if made about another people might be considered racist. The two models tend to go hand in hand, but they’re not easily compatible – after all, if it’s all Putin’s fault, then the nature of the Russian character is irrelevant.

This schizophrenia is on full display in a controversial article published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled ‘The Putin I knew: the Putin I know’, it’s written by Franz Sedelmayer, a businessman who worked in the 1990s in St Petersburg, where he became well acquainted with the then deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin. In his article Sedelmayer recounts how Putin helped him set up his business. In 1996, though, Sedelmayer was a victim of ‘reiderstvo’ – raiding, or asset grabbing – when the Russian state illegally seized control of his company. Reiderstvo was pretty common back in the Yeltsin years, and it still happens, though one gets the impression that there’s not quite as much of it as in the 1990s and that Western businesses are safer than they used to be. Anyway, Putin apparently told Sedelmayer that there was nothing he could do to help him, and from that moment on their friendship was over. Putin changed, Sedelmayer writes. Previously, Putin ‘acted rationally and appeared to be sincere in his interest in St. Petersburg. He didn’t take bribes’. Now, though, he:

is in many ways similar to President Trump. Like him, Volodya makes decisions based on snap judgments, rather than long deliberation. He’s vindictive and petty. He holds grudges and deeply hates being made fun of. He is said to dislike long, complicated briefings and to find reading policy papers onerous.

Like Mr. Trump, the Mr. Putin I know reacts to events instead of proactively developing a long-term strategy. But in sophistication, he is very different. A former K.G.B. officer, he understands how to use disinformation (deza), lies (vranyo), and compromise (kompromat) to create chaos in the West and at home …. More than anything, he wants to be taken as an equal or a superior, trying to destroy anything with which he cannot compete.

There are quite a few unsubstantiated assertions here. And it’s all very personal. As so often, Russia is reduced to Putin – when things happen that we don’t like, it’s Putin’s fault. Thus Sedelmayer writes,

President Vladimir Putin of Russia celebrated the New Year by having an American tourist, Paul Whelan, arrested as a spy. Mr. Whelan was in Moscow to attend a wedding. But Mr. Putin needed a hostage as a potential trade for a Russian woman with Kremlin connections — Maria Butina, who had pleaded guilty of conspiring with a Russian official “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” So Mr. Putin grabbed Mr. Whelan, who has not been released.

Perhaps this is accurate, but then again perhaps not. How does Sedelmayer know that Putin personally ordered Whelan’s arrest – ‘Putin grabbed Mr Whelan’ (Really? He did it himself?) – and that he did so as a hostage to exchange for Maria Butina? Butina isn’t even charged with espionage, and given how long she’s already been in prison prior to trial, she’ll likely be out fairly soon anyway. There’s no obvious reason to want to exchange her.

All this falls firmly within model one. But like so many others, Sedelmayer can’t resist explaining matters also by model two. As he writes:

A couple of months ago Volodya tried — luckily, he failed — to insert a crony as head of Interpol, the international police organization, presumably so he could turn it into his personal posse. Of course he did. Corruption is in Russia’s DNA.

Putin’s friends are rumoured to be holding billions of dollars on his behalf. But when he retires, will his friends give him his money, Sedelmayer asks. Probably not, he replies:

Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve lived in Russia. Sharing’s not the Russian way.

‘Oh, those Russians!’ as Boney M said.

I have some sympathy with Sedelmayer. Like a lot of people in Russia in the 1990s, he got robbed. He has reason to feel bitter. But it wasn’t because ‘corruption is in Russia’s DNA’. And it wasn’t Putin that robbed him – it was Boris Yeltsin’s state. Sedelmayer would do better to analyze the causes of the anarchic lawlessness of the Yeltsin era and and to study the specific route that Russia took in the 1990s. That would require an approach closer to that adopted by Tony Wood in his book ‘Russia without Putin’. It would be more complex, but it would also be more helpful.

Instead we get a combination of model one and model two, both of which oversimplify. Mixing them together – by personalizing Russia’s problems while simultaneously blaming them on innate national characteristics – serves only to confuse and to reinforce simplistic prejudices which suggest that whatever differences we may have with the Russians are entirely their fault. But maybe that’s the point.

Russia: both malevolent and super-efficient

In his 1969 book The Hitler State, German historian Martin Broszat described how the supposedly highly centralized Nazi state was in fact decidedly anarchic. The Fuhrer, wishing to concentrate all power in his own hands, operated a system of divide and rule designed to prevent his subordinates from combining in ways which might thwart his own will. Rather than coming together to make collective decisions, each ministry operated separately with each minister reporting directly to the supreme leader. The effect was to give ministers an enormous amount of independence to pursue policies at odds with what other ministers might want, resulting in continuous power struggles which were determined by access to Hitler. The extreme centralization of power in fact diffused it and made it next to impossible to coordinate activities across government.

This problem of government operating in unconnected silos is hardly unique to Nazi Germany. A few years ago when counter-insurgency theory was all the rage in some Western states, there was a lot of talk about the ‘whole of government approach’, and the need to get all parts of government to push in the same direction. The fact that this idea became so popular was an indication that it wasn’t actually happening. Even highly advanced Western states with relatively efficient bureaucratic systems struggle with this problem. But there is some reason to suspect that it is worse in more autocratic states, precisely because autocratic rulers seek to retain their power to have the final word by dividing government up into silos. As historian David Macdonald has pointed out, this was very much the case in Imperial Russia, where Tsars resisted all attempts to produce ‘united government’.

Despite this, there is a tendency to regard Russia as possessing some super-efficient government system in which all the levers of state power can be coordinated as part of a common strategy in a thoroughly integrated fashion. I mentioned this tendency in my last post, which discussed the writing of the Institute of Statecraft’s Chris Donnelly. Today a copy of the magazine Diplomat & International Canada landed on my desk, and in it I find yet another example of this logic, in the form of an article by Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council.

Blank nails home all the same points as Donnelly: Russia is at war with the West; it’s innately aggressive and expansionist; and it’s extraordinarily effective at combining all the elements of statecraft into an integrated strategy. He cites George Kennan as saying that ‘political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its objectives.’ Russia is doing this, we are told. According to Blank, ‘Russia employs all the instruments of state power in an unrelenting, multidimensional, relatively synchronized and global environment to force the West to accept it as equal in status to the Soviet Union.’ He then proceeds to list all the various means which Russia is employing to this end – military, political, economic, informational, cyber, and so on.

I find this approach curious. I’ve never regarded the Russian state as particularly efficient. It strikes me as odd, therefore, that its most vocal opponents seem to consider it to be such a beacon of competent governance, especially since they also like to emphasize the state’s autocratic nature. As I mentioned above, the ‘whole of government’ approach doesn’t fit easily with autocracy. Commentators such as Donnelly and Blank want to describe Russia as both autocratic and remarkably adept at integrated governmental strategy. In my mind, that combination just doesn’t work.

Blank and co. also seem to suffer from a certain schizophrenia regarding the cause of ‘Russian aggression’. On the one hand, they blame the system of government. Thus, Blank says that, ‘the state of siege in Moscow’s relations with the West flows directly from the nature of the regime itself.’ An aggressive foreign policy is seen as necessary to divert public attention from the internal failings of the authoritarian regime, while efforts to discredit Western democracy are required to undermine the idea that Russia should develop in a more democratic direction. On the other hand, the same commentators as say this also often push the story that Russian aggression is an inherent part of the country’s character. Blank therefore writes:

As Catherine the Great stated, ‘I have no way to defend my frontiers other than to expand them.’ As Russian writers deeply believe, if Russia is not this kind of great power – and it can be no other in their view – it will cease to exist.

But here we run into a contradiction – if the problem is in Russia’s DNA, to use James Clapper’s phrase, then the nature of the regime has nothing to do with it at all, and even a liberal democratic Russian government would be just as ‘aggressive’ as that of Vladimir Putin. One gets the impression that the approach is just to throw down every possible idea which could be made to paint Russia as threatening, regardless of its coherence.

For what it’s worth, my own take on the issue is as follows. First, the idea that Russia is innately aggressive and expansionist is false. While Russia has certainly acted aggressively on occasions, its historical record in that regard isn’t obviously any worse than that of other major European states. Second, there’s no clear connection between regime type and aggression, either in Russia’s case or more generally; current East-West tensions owe much to clashing interests and the structure of the European security system, factors which won’t change no matter who rules in the Kremlin. And third, Russia shows no signs of being particularly brilliant in terms of strategic planning and integrated government; rather, it’s thrashing around in an often incoherent fashion, not in accordance to some master plan but in reaction to others and in an often improvised way.  The idea of Russia as both malevolent and super-efficient may be useful as a way of scaring people, but it has very little to do with reality.