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'

Czech Mate

Last week saw the wheels come off yet another false story concerning Russia, namely the claim that Russian intelligence had paid the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. It was always highly dubious, but that didn’t stop many from repeating it as gospel truth. Apparently, the US intelligence community now admits that it has only ‘low to medium confidence’ in the accusation, which doesn’t mean that they are entirely rejecting it, but does pose a lot of questions about why so many people, including major media outlets, hyped a story for which there was never a substantial basis.

Alas, it’s hardly a lone case and, as I’ve said before, poor reporting matters not only because it’s inaccurate (though that it is bad enough), but also because it discredits the media. The result is that when the press does report something truthful which makes Russia look bad there are a substantial number of people who refuse to believe it. But it’s a mistake to decide that because so much reporting is false, all of it is. Some of it is true. The Russian state is far from a paragon of virtue and engages in its fair share of bad behaviour.

An example is the news this weekend that the Czech government has accused agents of Russian military intelligence of blowing up an arms depot in the Czech Republic, an action that resulted in two deaths. As with so many of these stories, it’s impossible to 100% verify the claim from the information available in the press. But I found myself convinced.

Supposedly, the purpose of the attack was to destroy weapons owned by Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Grebev. who is said to have been selling weapons to people deemed undesirable by the Russian government. That provides motive.

On top of that, the Czech government reports that shortly before the explosion, the depot was visited by two men whose passport photos match those of the notorious Petrov and Boshirov, who were identified by the British police as being in the town of Salisbury on the day that former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok. Petrov and Boshirov have also been identified as members of Russian military intelligence. So we have opportunity as well.

All that doesn’t constitute proof, but it’s fairly convincing. Identical-looking people, with links to a foreign intelligence agency, turn up in the same places and on the same days as a poisoning and an explosion. What are the odds that it’s coincidence? Pretty low, in my opinion. It seems to me that the Czechs have got the Russians bang to rights on this one.

Likewise, I think that this news should dispel any doubts that anybody still has about the role of Petrov and Boshirov in the Skripal poisoning. I for one never thought that they were in Salisbury to ‘look at the spire’. A less plausible pair of cultural tourists it would be hard to find. But anybody who was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt should now think again. As I said, it’s too coincidental to be innocent. Likely as not, the Russians are guilty as charged, both in Salisbury and in Czechia.

Perhaps it’s my background as an intelligence officer, but I’ve long felt that intelligence agencies should stick to information gathering and give up all that ‘covert operations’ nonsense. Coups, assassinations, sabotage, and all the rest of it – what difference have they made at the end of the day in the grander scheme of things? Precious damn little as far as I can see.

But they do result in harm. Russia’s goons seem to show a reckless disregard for the possibility of collateral damage, leaving nerve agent-filled bottles lying around for members of the public to pick up, and blowing up arms dumps in a way that kills innocent bystanders. They also appear to be more than a little sloppy in their tradecraft, regularly leaving behind more than a few traces of their actions, with the result that their plots keep being revealed and their identities known to the public.

All this has a very negative effect on Russia’s international reputation. Extremely negative. I really can’t exaggerate how bad the effect is. It’s terrible. If I were working in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs I’d be tearing up my hair in despair as I have to once again cover up the idiocy and criminality of my country’s security and intelligence services.

Ideally, the person at the top of the bureaucratic food chain would put a stop to it. Unfortunately, it would seem that, even if he can’t be proven to have ordered any specific mission, he protects those who do. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly doesn’t rule the roost.

It’s common for the Russian government to blame Russophobia and ‘fake news’ in the foreign press for hostility it faces from Western states. There is an element of truth in that claim, and this blog has devoted more than a little time to demonstrating it. But, Russophobia only has traction because it makes sense to people, and it makes sense because even if the Russian state doesn’t do all the things it’s accused of, it does do some of them. It’s not all fake news.

I’ve often said that Western states need to be more introspective and recognize their own responsibility for the problems of the world. The same goes for Russia. Ultimately, if Russia is in a difficult diplomatic position, the actor mostly to blame isn’t hard to find – the Russian state itself.

Stuck in a Cul-De-Sac, With No Way Out. Half-Speed Ahead.

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the chaos that is American policy towards Russia. First, US president Joe Biden phones Vladimir Putin and suggests that they normalize relations and hold a summit. Then he slaps a bunch of new sanctions on Russia and expels 10 Russian diplomats. Meanwhile, in other news, 2 US warships headed towards the Black Sea, and then turned around and said that they weren’t going to go the Black Sea after all. In other words, a picture of total foreign policy confusion.

To my mind, the phone call and summit offer were something of a blip in American policy, brought upon by a sense of alarm at the possibility of war between Russia and Ukraine. This induced the Americans to try and row back a bit. The problem is that the current in the other direction is just too strong, and so they ended up even further downstream than before.

In any case, I’m not sure that the Americans actually know how to change directions. Take a look at their policies towards Cuba and Iran – they’ve been sanctioning them for decades. It hasn’t made those countries more friendly, but they keep on at it. The policy is a complete dead end, but it’s like America is a massive 18-wheeler that has entered a narrow cul-de-sac and just doesn’t have the maneuverability to get out again. All it can do is keep trying to ram through whatever is blocking the way out, smashing itself (and the obstacle) up in the process, but not getting anywhere.

By now, you’d have thought that they’d have learnt not to keep driving into cul-de-sacs. But, for some reason they keep on doing it (Venezuela is another one). It seems like there’s no learning process.

Other than backing out, the18-wheeler has only chance to escape – when it first enters the cul-de-sac, and still has forward momentum. That’s the moment when the driver needs to step on the gas and smash through the obstacle. After that, occasional little shoves from a standing start won’t do the trick, especially if somebody is busily strengthening the obstacle all the time.

It’s the same with sanctions. Academic studies suggest that if they are to succeed in coercing the targeted party, they need to be fairly comprehensive and immediate – that’s to say, you need to do a lot and do it all at once. Gradual incrementalism is doomed to failure. The target adapts and is often one step ahead, limiting his vulnerability long before you hit him.

So it is with American sanctions against Russia. The latest round will have very limited practical effect. But bit by bit, the sanctions are having the effect of cutting Russia off from America. As that happens, America loses whatever leverage it had at the start. That in turn means that each successive round of sanctions has less prospects of causing real damage than the last.

In short, it’s a dead-end, and no amount of effort to bash through the obstacle is going to work. Sooner or later, the 18-wheeler will have to back out. Judging by past experience, later is more likely than sooner. The danger is that it may be so late that by then the vehicle will have fallen entirely apart. At that point, its only hope will be that a nice new Chinese tow-truck comes along and rescues it.

Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order

The Arctic tends not to get a lot of headlines. But here in Canada, it’s a big deal. Or at least it is rhetorically speaking. Canadians like to think of themselves as a wintery, northern people – as Gilles Vigneault sang: ‘Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.’ We get all emotional about the north, and pump ourselves up with stirring speeches about defending our sovereignty. After which, we then do nothing – at least until the next time somebody else does something we don’t like in the Arctic. At that point, we make some more stirring speeches, before slinking off back to our local Timmy’s in Toronto or some other place as far from the Arctic as we can get without actually ending up in the United States.

And so it is that the Canadian press was none too happy this week when the Russian Federation deposited its latest submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to advance its claim to a large portion of the Arctic Ocean seabed. ‘That’s our Arctic Ocean seabed, you wretched Russians! How dare you?”

The Commission in question is a product of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that gives states the right to exclusive exploitation of the seabed up to 200 nautical miles from their continental shelf. To claim such a right, however, states have to provide the Commission with scientific evidence of where the continental shelf extends under the sea. If they can satisfactorily show where the shelf goes, then the UN will approve the claim. If they can’t, then the UN won’t.

Continue reading Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order

Why Aren’t More Russians Sympathetic to Navalny?

Opinion polls suggest that a) most Russians don’t believe that Alexei Navalny was poisoned, and b) far more Russians think that his imprisonment is fair than think it is unfair.

Why is this?

I discuss various theories in my latest piece for RT, which you can read here. Possible answers include:

a. Russians’ brains have been addled by state propaganda.

b. ‘The slave soul of the Russians’, which makes them resent anything that represents freedom.

c. Navalny himself – just not a very likeable guy.

d. Navalny’s association with the liberal opposition, a group that, in light of the experience of the 1990s, is considered by many to be irredeemably corrupt, as well as lackeys of the West.

e. Crying wolf – Russians don’t trust the source of the story that Navalny was poisoned, i.e. the West. This may be due to the extreme hyperbole that Western media and politicians have used in recent years.

Take your pick as to which you think is correct.

How Russia Views the UK, Supposedly

I have a pretty poor opinion of think tanks. Perhaps it’s academic snobbery, but then again, maybe not. In the past few years, I’ve read too many really bad reports published by think tanks to regard them very highly. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, their output kind of stinks. Or at least, so it seems to me.

The United Kingdom has a new think tank, pompously entitled the Council on Geostrategy. The name alone gives you a hint that there’s more than a bit of imperial nostalgia involved – dreams of GREAT Britain, and all that. The advisory council is full of retired military folks and regimental-tie wearing Conservative MPs who sit on the parliamentary defence committee. Meanwhile, the staff is replete with cast-offs from the Henry Jackson Society, an institution widely perceived as decidedly neo-conservative in nature (the kind of place that still thinks that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, if you get my drift). In short, ideologically speaking, not my kind of people at all.

The Council on Geostrategy defines its mission as being “to strengthen Britain and re-assert our leadership in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. We promote robust new ideas [“robust” – I like that word!!] to enhance our country’s unity and resilience, bolster our industrial and technological base, and boost our discursive, diplomatic and military power – especially our naval reach.” So, you get what these guys are up to: Hurrah Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too!

Despite only being founded this year, the Council has got off to a running start, and today published a report, written by another Henry Jackson cast-off, Andrew Foxall, with the title “How Russia ‘Positions’ the United Kingdom.” In case you’ve forgotten, Foxall’s the guy who claimed that perhaps half of the 150,000 Russians living in the UK were “informants” for the Russian intelligence services (that’s 75,000 informants, if you can’t do the math – those guys in the SVR must be real busy!). Suffice to say, he’s not no. 1 on my to-go list for reliable analysis of things Russian, but let’s give him a chance and see what he has to say in this report.

Continue reading How Russia Views the UK, Supposedly

IS Russia About to Invade Ukraine?

Short answer – No. The press has been full of hype this past week about an alleged ‘massing’ of the Russian army near the Ukrainian border, although the number of troops involved (supposedly about 4,000) is well below that needed for an invasion force. I discuss the issue in a new article for RT, that you can read here.

Suffice to say, as so often, the hype is overblown. If Russia does attack Ukraine, it won’t be something that happens out of the blue. The only credible scenario for such an attack would be if the Ukrainian army launched an all-out assault on the rebel forces in Donbass, killing large numbers of civilians. Were such an assault to take place, the possibility of Russian intervention is quite high. It would be catastrophic for Ukraine, whose army would almost certainly be crushed in short measure. Imagine what happened in Georgia in 2008 – the result would be much the same.

The consequences would also be bad for Russia – not only because of the inevitable loss of life, but because one can imagine that it would lead to an almost total severing of relations with the West. It’s best for everybody that this scenario be avoided. This means that Western powers should do what they can to make it clear to Ukraine that they would not support it in the event of war, and that Ukraine should not therefore attempt to regain its lost territories in Donbass by force. I don’t get the sense that they are doing this. If so, it is very regrettable.

Hopefully, sanity will prevail in Kiev. As I mention in my article, there seems to be some awareness of the risks. I reckon that the probability of all-out war is fairly low. But the fact that we are even talking of the possibility is a sign of how dangerous the situation has become.

Institutionalizing the West

On Saturday I took part in an online conference organized by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute on the topic “Why Canada Should Leave NATO,” which you can watch on Facebook here . Note that the conference title was not phrased as a question! To be honest, I was a bit of a fish out of water, ideologically speaking, in this group, but it gave me a chance to develop my ideas on the topic of NATO in light of some recent reading I’ve been doing.

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was in the process of reading some works on late Soviet thought and the origins of perestroika, for instance Robert English’s book “Russia and the Idea of the West.” What I got out of all that is that among dissidents and what one might call “enlightened bureaucrats” of the late Soviet era, there was a strong desire to “return to the West” as it were. A certain element within the Soviet intelligentsia, some of whom were to strongly influence the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wished to end what they considered to be their country’s isolation from the West, and to reintegrate with it, so that Russia could again become a “European” country.

In another book I read last week, Daniel Thomas’ “The Helsinki Effect,” Thomas shows how this desire then collided with the fact that the Soviet Union had agreed in 1975 to include human rights in the Helsinki Final Act. With this, human rights became a norm of international relations, leading to a situation in which Soviet reformers who wanted to “return to Europe” concluded that such a return was impossible without a liberalization of the Soviet Union, to bring the country into conformity with these new international standards.

Thomas thus concludes that Western pressure on human rights did have an effect on the Soviet leadership. But I think that one needs to go one step further. It had this effect only because there was an influential element within the Soviet leadership that yearned to be part of the West and believed that if it did the West wanted it would be appropriately rewarded. This situation, I think, is not the case to day.

Sadly for the Soviet reformers, it didn’t work out the way they wanted. The Soviet Union reformed, then collapsed, but it never became part of the West. In fact, something else happened.

Historically speaking, the West has never been a real thing, in the sense of actually existing anywhere other than in peoples’ minds. The West – and more narrowly, Europe – has been more of an idea than anything else. As such it was always possible for Russia to be part of it, if it so chose.

Moreover, politically Europe was always divided. Alliances came and went in ever changing combinations, and Russia could be part of the European network of international relations as one of the members of this continually fluctuating system. When the Iron Curtain came down across Europe in the late 1940s, the situation changed, with Europe divided into two rigid blocs. But the collapse of communism seemed to provide an opportunity for Russia to once again join in the wider European system.

What actually happened, though, was something different. The institutions of Western Europe – the EU and NATO – spread eastwards up to Russia’s borders, in effect dividing Europe into two pieces – “Europe” and Russia. In the process, the West, which had previously only been an idea, became institutionalized, and institutionalized in such a way as to permanently exclude Russia.

We are therefore now in an entirely new historical situation – something that I don’t think that most people understand. The problem with EU and NATO expansion is not that they threaten Russia, but that they have institutionalized the dichotomy between Russia and the West. This has serious implications.

There is no point in modern-day Russian reformers arguing like their Soviet forebears that that they need to change the way that the Russian government operates in order to facilitate Russia’s “return to Europe”. Such a return is now impossible. For the same reason, it’s naïve of people in the West to imagine that the human rights agenda today can have the same impact that it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond that, the institutionalizing of the West can in the long term only weaken Russians’ sense that they are Western, and so weaken also their desire to seek the West’s approval.

This is, of course, not an irreversible process. For now, Russia for the most part still looks West. But the more the institutionalized West seeks to exclude Russia, and the more that the new Iron Curtain solidifies, the harder it will be to convince Russians that they have a European future. In this context, it’s difficult to see how a new generation of Westernizing reformers could come to power in the way of the enlightened bureaucrats of Gorbachev’s era.

Of course, few people saw Gorbachev and co. coming, so you never know. It could yet happen. But I wouldn’t bet the house on it. The situation now is very different, and in some respects not for the better.

Inflating the Russian Threat

Continuing on the theme of the military industrial boondoggle, in my latest piece for RT (which you can read here) I discuss how the Western security community has long been inventing or exaggerating threats. The nature of the threat continually changes, but one thing remains constant – the claim that the world is becoming ever more dangerous. Having shifted from failed states to ethnic conflict to rogue states to terrorism to hybrid warfare, the threat generation industry has now returned to state-on-state warfare as the scenario designed to frighten people, with a focus on the allegedly military superiority that the Russian Federation enjoys over NATO. I look at some of these claims, and demonstrate why they are nonsense. The Russian army has improved in recent years, but an attack on NATO would be suicidal. Efforts to suggest anything else are scaremongering, pure and simple.