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‘Out of area or out of business.’ The logic of NATO

So when we say that England’s master
Remember who has made her so.

It’s the soldiers of the Queen, my lads
Who’ve been my lads, who’ve been my lads
In the fight for England’s glory, lads
When we have to show them what we mean

Occasionally, I tune into Russian TV chat shows, such as Evening with Vladimir Solovyov (or “Russians Shouting at Each Other,” as it’s known in my family). The other night Solovyov and guests were talking about Russia’s decision to cut all ties with NATO (a topic which I discuss in an article for RT here). One of those present argued that the problem was that NATO didn’t know what it was for. Others objected that it knew perfectly well – its objective was the containment, even dismemberment, of Russia. I think that both are wrong. NATO does have an objective, just not that one, and not a very good one either. Let me explain what it is.

But first, a little historical and personal digression.

For there was a time when I was a loyal NATO soldier myself, and looking back on it I have to say it was a damned good thing that the Soviets never attacked because I don’t think we’d have done so well in the encounter.

Take my experience of ‘Exercise Active Edge.’ This was the code name given to practice alerts, in which units of the British Army of the Rhine in West Germany were tested to see how quickly and efficiently they could mobilize themselves, and in more extreme versions of the exercise, deploy to their wartime locations to await the onslaught of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army.

Back in the dying days of the Cold War, I was just about to finish my tour of duty as a platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s Regiment (long since defunct), in Minden, West Germany, when in my final stint as duty officer I got the call announcing that our unit was to immediately embark on ‘Active Edge’. We’d got a tip off earlier that evening, so it wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was still a serious bummer. I was due to leave a couple of days later and had already packed up nearly all my stuff in what were called ‘MFO’ boxes to be shipped back to Blighty. What I hadn’t packed I’d handed into the QM. So when a bunch of inspectors turned up and started asking me where was this and where was that, I looked a right idiot as I didn’t have any of it.

I also didn’t have much of a clue as to how to answer other questions. Should we take all the gear in our stores, they asked? I said no: a lot of it looked totally useless and there was so much that if we put it all in the armoured personnel carriers, there’d be no room for any personnel. We’d probably have to leave some stuff behind. No, they said. Take it all. I guess it was just as well that instead of 30 soldiers, my undermanned platoon had about 10, otherwise we’d have had to leave people behind instead of gear. But to be frank, if the Soviets had rolled up, my 10 guys and I wouldn’t have lasted a second. Frankly, it was a bit of a shitshow, as they say. Certainly not my finest hour, nor that of the regiment. The heroes of Tangier, Ramillies, Vittoria, Sevastopol, and the like, were probably turning in their graves.

There’s a point to all this – we didn’t do such alerts for the sheer bloody hell of it; we had to prepare for war. It was very unlikely that 3rd Shock would come trundling down the autobahn at breakneck speed, but the potential was real. East Germany was chock-a-block full of military gear – thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, helicopters, aircraft, all the rest of it, all ready to roll over me and my 10 guys at a moment’s notice. We weren’t likely to have to fight them, but it paid to be prepared.

And so we were (albeit not very well), by means of the communal defence organization known as NATO. And it was a defensive organization. All it did was sit around in West Germany and wait. And that was fine, and ultimately quite effective. In 1992, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the threat evaporated. Victory was ours.

A job well done. Time, one might imagine, to pat ourselves on the back, call it a day, and retire.

As we know, that’s not what NATO did. But it had a problem. Its raison d’etre had disappeared, and so a new one had to be invented.

Since then, the alleged threat which we in the West are all supposed to fear has kept changing with extreme rapidity. For a while back in the 1990s it was ‘fragile states’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Then, for a bit, it was ‘rogue states’. Then it was terrorism, or even worse the deadly combination of terrorism, rogue states, and weapons of mass destruction. And then it was Russia again. And now it’s moving onto China. None of these threats seem to have huge lasting power (though China may prove to be different). But the point is that we have to be afraid of something. Otherwise, there’s no reason to maintain the military industrial complex and, of course, NATO.

The logic of it all was perfectly expressed by George Robertson, who served as Secretary General of NATO from 1999 to 2004, and who liked to repeat his favorite mantra: ‘Out of area or out of business.’ The point was clear. NATO had to do something, anything, in order to justify its existence. And it had to be beyond its own borders because there was nothing to do within them.

And so began NATO’s march towards the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, its failed military operation in Afghanistan in the 2000s, and the talk at its most recent summit of taking action to contain China (which is about as far from the North Atlantic as one can imagine). At this point, we find that we finally have an answer to the question posed at the start of this post. What’s NATO for? And the answer is obvious. What drives NATO is NATO’s desire to exist. Period.

Like any being, NATO doesn’t want to die. It has an institutional momentum of its own, and in its struggle for the resources it needs for survival it will generate reasons for people to give them to it. And when those reasons lose credibility, it will invent some others.

That’s not to say that the bureaucracy doesn’t believe in what it’s doing. The great joy of such bureaucratic politics is precisely the fact that those involved genuinely conflate institutional and national (or in this case, international) interest. Belief and self-interest go together in a happy package.

The guests on Solovyov, like so many Russians, have it wrong They think that it’s somehow all directed against them. It isn’t. For now, Russia happens to be in the crosshairs, but that’s purely incidental. Tomorrow, it could be somebody or something else – whatever is credible from the point of view of budgetary politics. The result, in my opinion, is dangerous, because you have the most powerful military structure in the world in perpetual search for things to do to justify its presence in this world, “seeking monsters to destroy.” The result is that conflict is created where it does not need to be.

Back in my day, we just sat around waiting for the monsters to come to us. As I said, thank goodness they never did. I can’t guarantee that we’d have won.

Do nothing and wait? Or creeping annexation? Russian options in Ukraine.

“Do nothing.” That the advice of former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev regarding Russia’s relations with Ukraine. In a piece published today by RT (here) I discuss an article by Medvedev in the newspaper Kommersant. In this, the author attacks the leadership of Ukraine in quite uncompromising language, saying that they have betrayed their own identity and are acting like “representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia in Nazi Germany being asked to serve in the SS.” Subtle, Medvedev certainly isn’t!

Medvedev concludes that Ukraine’s leadership is utterly incapable of reaching agreement with Russia or the rebels of Donbass. Consequently, he says, there is absolutely no point in talking to them. Instead Russia should wait until a more congenial leadership comes along. “Russia can wait. We are patient people.” Until then, his advice is that Russia sit back and do precisely “nothing.”

In my article, I argue doing nothing isn’t a solution for Russia. For the odds that a more friendly Ukrainian government will emerge at any point in the foreseeable future are very, very low. The Maidan revolution and subsequent events have had a drastic impact on the Ukrainian governing elite, so that anybody who comes to power there will be necessarily restrained and pushed into pursuing an anti-Russian policy, even if he or she originally does not intend to. Waiting won’t achieve anything for Russia.

If Russia wants to move events in Ukraine in a favourable direction, it needs to take a more active line. But that begs the question of what that line could be. And that’s a difficult question to answer, for the options are limited and not very good.

Moscow’s preferred outcome has always been the reintegration of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR) back into Ukraine by the granting to them of some form of extensive local autonomy. This is what the Minsk 2 Agreement of February 2015 envisages. Kiev, however, is dead set against this, and that seems most unlikely to change.

Russia’s problem is that it lacks the means to change Kiev’s incentives to prompt it to alter its position regarding autonomy for Donbass. It also has next to no influence on domestic Ukrainian politics, and any attempt to exert such influence is likely to backfire. As it is, Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the main opposition party, Opposition Platform – for Life, is under house arrest facing charges of treason. There is almost no conduit through which Russia could exert influence on Ukraine.

Military force is one possible solution, but we must hope that it would be considered very much a last resort. Not only would it comes with a great human cost, but it would shatter Russia’s relations with the West for a very long time. I see no enthusiasm for it, and one imagines that it could only be deployed in response to Ukraine starting major military operations against the DPR and LPR.

So what’s left?

As far as I can see, recognizing that Ukraine will not strike an acceptable deal over Donbass (i.e. one that gives the region extensive autonomy) requires admitting that the DPR and LPR are here to stay for the indefinite future. So what next?

The primary issue has to be how to improve the lives of the people living there, lest the rebel republics become the sources of serious instability, organized crime, and so on. That means first of all trying to get a proper ceasefire. Again, though, that runs into the problem that the Ukrainian side seems quite happy with the current situation of “neither war nor peace” in which military operations continue at a very low tempo. The only way I can see that changing is through pressure from Ukraine’s Western allies, but that appears very unlikely.

Beyond that, one logical step would be to annex the DPR and LPR. Certainly, from the point of view of restoring economic life to Donbass, this would be the best option. Continued existence in the limbo of unrecognized status is utterly unconducive to investment or to any sort of economic progress.

Again, however, this runs into the problem of the likely Western reaction, which one can imagine would be extremely hostile and result in severe sanctions being levied against the Russian Federation. While some Russians might say “So what?”, the fact is that it’s worth Russia’s while to maintain as good relations with the West as possible. For instance, Russia has to date being able to sustain trade with Germany, as seen in the recent completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline. It’s not worth rupturing this for the sake of Donbass. The economic interests of Russia’s own citizens come first.

All this leaves, therefore, is some sort of creeping annexation, whereby the process of integration between Russia and the rebel republics moves ever forward. This, though, has the effect of separating those republics ever further from Ukraine and making the achievement of the goal of their eventual reintegration into Ukraine ever more unlikely.

In essence, pursuing this option means abandoning in practice what has to date, at least in public, been the preferred objective. It is, however, probably the only practical option open to Russia at this moment in time.

Perhaps there are some other possibilities for the Russian government out there, and if so I’d be glad to hear what they are. But for now, it seems to me that its options are limited and the path laid out above seems the most likely for the immediate future. So, if I’m right, expect Moscow to publicly retain a commitment to the Minsk agreement, but in private accept that they are a dead letter and continue on the slow process of creeping annexation.

Full of Gas

It’s 20 degrees here in Ottawa . For October, that’s something of a heatwave, and it’s meant to stay this way for a week or so, well into the middle of the month. Beyond that, the weather guys say that we’re in for a generally warm autumn. No need for the winter tires just yet.

Europe, though, is said to be headed for a deep cold spell in the coming months. So good for us, bad for Europe – unless you like winter sports, of course, in which case it’s the other way around. But regardless of what weather you prefer, cold has consequences, one of which is that you have to turn the heating up, for which you need fuel. And in the modern post-coal world, that increasingly means burning natural gas.

Unfortunately, this is a bad time to do so, for the price of natural gas has shot up in recent months, as you can see from the chart below. This is a result of increased demand, reduced output from wind turbines, and a reduction in supplies as Europe’s main suppliers – Norway and Russia – fill up their own stocks before winter. This has apparently ‘all but wiped out stocks’ in the rest of Europe. The markets have responded with a binge of frenzied speculation, shoving natural gas prices up to unnaturally high levels.

Which is obviously Russia’s fault. Because, well … it’s bad, and it’s natural gas, and so Russia must be to blame. After all, we know that all those traders on the futures markets take their orders from the Kremlin.

Continue reading Full of Gas

Absurd Pandora Hype

Perhaps I shouldn’t pick on Luke Harding. He’s kind of the low hanging fruit of bad journalism – altogether too easy a target. Perhaps it would make more sense to challenge someone more worthy of our attention. But then, what’s the point of challenging good journalism? Besides which, Harding gets the big headlines, sells a lot of books, and so on. So, here goes.

In my latest for RT, I tackle Luke’s analysis of the Pandora Papers, which consist of several million files detailing the financial wheelings and dealings of the rich and powerful, with a special focus on property deals conducted via offshores companies. In an article on the Pandora Papers, Harding mentions the name ‘Putin’ no fewer than 50 times. I kid you not – 50 times!

But here’s the thing. The 12 million or so pages of the Pandora Papers apparently don’t mention Putin even once!

The juxtaposition is quite extraordinary. What’s up? Read my piece here to find out.

What Motivates Russian Military Intervention?

A few years ago, I discussed the possible relevance of prospect theory to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Prospect theory suggests that humans are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to achieve a gain. This fits the well-known psychological inclination of loss aversion. Losing stuff bothers us much more than failing to gain stuff. In the world of international relations, that means that one should expect states to use military force more often in cases when they are threatened by loss than as a tool to acquire something they don’t already have.

It’s interesting, therefore, to see some confirmation of this in a new study published by the RAND Corporation, entitled ‘Russia’s Military Interventions: Patterns, Drivers, and Signposts.’ This analyzes instances of Russian military intervention in the post-Soviet era and concludes that prevention of loss is one of the main motivators.

The report lists 25 military ‘interventions’ carried out by the Russian Federation since 1992. The term ‘intervention’ is quite loosely defined as “any deployment of military forces outside of Russia’s borders that meets a threshold of 100 person-years for ground forces (or an equivalent threshold for air and naval forces) and that engages in a qualifying activity, including combat, deterrence, humanitarian response, stabilization (i.e., peacekeeping), train and assist, and security, among others.” Most of the 25 interventions fall under the ‘stabilization’ heading, including a bunch of UN peacekeeping operations, provision of border security in Tajikistan, and so on. By contrast, post-Soviet Russia has not engaged in combat very often.

The report concludes that, ‘By comparison either to the Soviet Union or to the United States, Russia’s military interventions have been modest in scale and number and limited in geographical scope.’ As you can see from these charts, the Russian Federation’s military footprint abroad is much smaller than that of the USSR. Moreover, the great majority of its generally very limited ‘interventions’ have taken place within the space of the former Soviet Union.

Modern-day Russian, therefore, is much more regionally-focused than was the Soviet Union and its primary focus is regional stability.

The report analyzes a variety of motivations for military intervention previously identified in scholarly literature on the topic. It dismisses most of them as not relevant or only marginally relevant to the Russian case.

For instance, the report says that there is little or no evidence that
Russian military intervention is driven by economics or by ideology. Likewise the study dismisses the idea that Russia is afraid of the ‘diffusion’ of democratic ideas from neighbouring countries such as Ukraine and therefore seeks to prevent democracy from taking root there. As the report says:

“We certainly do not have examples of Russian leaders speaking of their fear of the demonstration effects of Ukrainian democratic success on the Russian populace. Moreover, we know that Russian elites have a very low opinion of their Ukrainian counterparts; it is difficult for them to conceive of the possibility that Ukraine can survive without Western assistance, let alone become a thriving democracy.”

Also rejected is the ‘wag the dog’ theory. Russia doesn’t engage in military activity in order to distract attention from internal problems, claims RAND. “There is scant evidence to suggest that Putin has ever felt that his popular support, the bedrock of his power, was under serious threat,” says the report, besides which there is no statistical correlation between low levels of government support and foreign intervention. In fact, as this chart shows, military intervention has declined under Putin compared to his predecessor, Yeltsin (i.e. since 2000).

In any case the study argues, it’s wrong to view Putin as the prime driver of Russian military interventions. As it says:

“if we examine all of Russia’s interventions that meet the threshold described in this report, it becomes clear that the majority occurred before Putin’s rise to power … most importantly, there is broad consensus today among Russian elites on foreign policy matter … [there is] little firsthand evidence to suggest that Putin’s personal predilections are a primary driver of Russia’s interventions.”

In short, all the claims that Russia seeks to export its authoritarian ideology, destabilize democracy, prop up the ‘Putin regime’, or is just driven by the aggressive personality of Putin himself are wrong.

So, what does produce Russian intervention?

According to the report, three motives stand out: concerns with national status; the regional power balance; and external threats. The authors conclude:

“Changes on the ground in post-Soviet Eurasia, particularly in Ukraine, that create an external threat or the perception of a rapid change in the regional balance or Russia’s status in ways that contradict Russian interests should be seen as potential triggers for Russian military action. Moscow will not hesitate to act, including with force, in its immediate neighborhood. Second, Russia does seem to act in ways consistent with a desire to avoid losses when it comes to regional power balances. Moscow has intervened when it perceived regional balances to be shifting away from a status quo that was favorable to Russian interests. … Russia seems to act in ways that are consistent with a desire to avoid losses when it comes to regional power balances. Moscow has intervened when it perceived regional balances to be shifting away from a status quo that was favorable to Russian interests. … In short, prevention of imminent loss could push Russia to act.”

In other words, Russia intervenes when it feels threatened with a loss of status, stability, or security in its immediate neighbourhood. It doesn’t intervene in pursuit of what one might call ‘aggressive’ or ‘imperialistic’ goals, or to deflect from internal political problems. And it’s not a question of Vladimir Putin. Russia will retain the same interests and the same predilections regardless of who is in charge.

The report ends with a brief set of recommendations for US policy, primarily that the US should avoid putting Moscow in a position where it feels that it’s about to suffer a major loss in its near abroad. As think tank reports go, this is remarkable sober and sensible, and I don’t find much to criticize beyond the rather broad definition of ‘intervention’. Basically what it comes down to is ‘don’t drive the bear into a corner.’ In that sense, it’s really pretty obvious. It also contradicts the current prevalent narrative, which is that Russia is hell bent on aggression and needs to be cut down to size by every available means, including by intruding on its near abroad. If this report is right, that’s about the very worst thing one could do. But I doubt anybody is listening.

Analysis of Russian Election Results

The results of last week’s election to the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, are now in. The big winners? The ruling United Russia party (UR) which won 50% of the vote. Second was the Communist Party of the Russian Federation at 19%; next at 7.5% was Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) as well as A Just Russia – For Truth; and last to win a batch a seats was a new formation, New People, which got just over 5%. Nine other parties collected 12% between them but failed to get over the 5% needed to get seats according to the party list system. 

I have analyzed the results in an article for RT (here) As I say, both UR, whose result was 5% down compared with the last election in 2016, and the Communists, whose vote was about 6% up, have reason to be happy. UR will win close to 320 seats out of the 450 available, a majority of over two-thirds. Meanwhile, the CPRF has enjoyed its best election for 20 years, consolidating its position as Russia’s main opposition. When Russians are dissatisfied with their rulers, the Communists are their first choice for an alternative. It’s a sobering thought for those in the West who imagine that a post-Putin Russia will be all love and cuddles. 

There’s only so much that one can put in a 1,000 word article, so I thought I should develop some points further here. 

1. Fraud. UR’s 50% is well above predictions. Pre-election polls had the party pegged at about 35% of decided, definite voters. In the past, undecideds have tended to gravitate towards UR or have just not voted at all, so it was to be expected that UR would get more than the 35% polled. 40% would not have been unreasonable. The state polling company VTsIOM was predicting 45%. But 50% is way beyond expectations. Unsurprisingly, some people consider the result more than a little fishy. 

Of course, some were going to shout fraud whatever happened. But UR’s showing certainly provides grounds for suspicion. The Central Electoral Commission cancelled results from several polling stations after cameras spotted ballot stuffing. Who knows how many others got away with it. 

The main target at this moment in time is the system of electronic voting. For the first time, Russians had the option of voting in person in the old fashion way with pen and paper, or online. Even before the election, critics were saying that the latter was a recipe for abuse, as it would be impossible for outsiders to verify the published results. 

What makes people doubly suspicious is that when the results were issued, it turned out that a higher percentage of online than in-person voters cast their ballots for UR. Moscow has become a particular focus of attention. The electronic results from Moscow were delayed for several hours. Until they were published, opposition (i.e. non-UR) candidates were leading in nearly all the Moscow constituencies. Once the electronic votes were declared, the balance tipped and UR won every single seat. Some people are calling foul, and suggesting that the delay was caused by the requirement to rig the result and calculate just how many extra votes were needed to give UR a win in each constituency.

The Moscow electoral commission stands by its results and says that the delay was due to the novelty of the system, the large number of electronic voters, and the fact that in Moscow electors had the option to change their vote, which supposedly caused some problems in the system. The commission says that it checked the results 4 times to ensure that they were accurate. You may believe it or not, as you wish.

An explanation for the Moscow anomaly could be that different categories of voters prefer different systems of voting. In last year’s US presidential election, for instance, postal voting was greatly preferred by Biden supporters. Trump appeared to be about to win several states until the results of the postal ballots were added, 80% of which went to Biden, swinging the states in favour of the latter. Perhaps a similar dynamic is at work in Russia. Maybe anti-UR voters didn’t trust electronic voting and so stayed clear of it, thus giving them a majority among paper voters but ensuring a majority the other way around among electronic voters.

Or maybe it was fraud, pure and simple. The very nature of electronic voting means that we don’t the evidence at our disposable to say definitively one way or the other. At any rate, the Moscow electronic results will provide those wanting to denounce the elections as fraudulent with a plausible means of doing so. Defeated Communist candidates are calling for protests in Moscow. It will be interesting to see if anyone turns up.

2. Liberal defeat and New People. If the Communists did well, Russia’s main liberal parties – Yabloko, Civic Platform, and the Party of Growth – did dismally, polling just 1.5% between the three of them, although it looks like they all might get one Duma deputy due to victories in single member constituencies. Yabloko did the best of the three, but at just over 1% this was its worst result ever. At this point it’s hard to see what purpose the party serves by continuing to exist. It’s a mere shell of its former self and I see no way that it can recover. It’s well past time for the banner of liberalism to pass on to somebody else.

That somebody could perhaps be the party New People, which garnered 5% and so is entitled to about a dozen seats in parliament. New People was only created last year, so it’s hard to say much about it or what it stands for. But as far as I’ve been able to find out (and I’m willing to be corrected if I have this wrong), it’s a moderately economically liberal party that stresses getting practical results in Russia’s localities rather than fighting with the authorities in Moscow. If you know your 19th century Russian liberal history, it strikes me as a little bit like the ‘small deeds’ liberalism of the late imperial zemstvo movement.

There’s a long-standing streak in Russian liberalism that regards fighting the state as pretty much the definition of what it means to be liberal. Gosudarstvennost’ (statehood) and obshchestvennost, (roughly speaking, hand-shakeable, liberally correct public opinion) are assumed to be irreconcilable enemies. Consequently, New People’s attitude to the central authorities makes many members of contemporary obshchestvennost’ consider the party to be little more than a bunch of Kremlin stooges. However, given that the alternatives have failed so utterly dismally, New People’s non-confrontational approach may be about the only hope that Russian liberalism has for a revival.

Will New People amount to anything? Only time will tell, but for now it can legitimately claim to have more appeal among liberally-minded urban professional types than do the likes of Yabloko. Likewise it has some good reasons for claiming that its approach offers greater prospects than the street liberalism of radicals like Alexei Navalny.

Which provides a suitable link for a discussion of ‘smart voting.’

3. Smart Voting. This is the scheme dreamt up by imprisoned activist Alexei Navalny and his team. It encourages electors to vote for whatever candidate in a given constituency has the best chance of defeating the candidate of United Russia. It doesn’t matter which party that first candidate is from – smart voting says that you should vote for him or her in order to stop UR from winning.

Navalny and his boosters claim that smart voting is the bees knees and has the powers that be trembling in their beds. The reality is that it is a dud.

Navalny’s top aide, Leonid Volkov, claims that smart voting won in nearly all the constituencies in Moscow and St Petersburg, at least until the authorities fiddled the vote with the online results. There’s a few things wrong with this.

In the first place, fraud or no fraud, at the end of the day, the candidates recommended by smart voting lost. In the second place, most of them were Communists. If they did well, it was because of the general upsurge in Communist support, not because of smart voting, which in any case didn’t identify the preferred candidates until the day before the election and so can’t have made that much of a difference. Calling Communists ‘Navalny-backed candidates’ and claiming credit for their success is a fraud that nobody should fall for.

And third, in some cases where non-UR candidates won, they did so despite smart voting recommending somebody else. For instance, the Communists beat UR into second place in the far eastern province of Yakutia, but smart voting told people in Yakutia to vote for A Just Russia. Anybody who followed smart voting’s advice would have helped UR not hindered it. Similarly, a Yabloko candidate managed to win a seat in a by-election for the Moscow City Council. But smart voting told electors to cast their ballot for the Communist candidate. This latter case, I think, proves the point that even in Moscow, the most liberal city in Russia, voters don’t do what smart voting tells them to.

To tell if smart voting had any effect, one would have to do a detailed study comparing local single-member constituency results with the votes cast for party lists in the same constituencies, taking into account issues which might distort the sample, such as the popularity or non-popularity of individual candidates. Obviously, this is beyond my means. But even if one did manage to find some minor impact in a few places, at the macro-level UR won nearly 200 of the 225 constituency seats. At the level which matters, in other words, smart voting failed totally.

This confirms what I’ve been saying for a long time, namely that Navalny and his team are over-hyped deadenders. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

None of the Above: Thoughts on Two Elections

Citizens of Russia and Canada go to the polls over the next few days to elect new parliaments – the Duma in Russia’s case, the House of Commons in that of Canada. It’s fair to say that neither is generating a lot of international excitement. In Russia’s case, because the result is (within certain boundaries) a foregone conclusion; and in Canada’s case because nobody cares.

Insofar as the Canadian press is covering the Russian election, it’s to portray it as fundamentally flawed, if not downright corrupt – a pretence at democracy rather than the real thing. Typical is the latest by the CBC’s new Moscow correspondent Briar Stewart, which starts off by quoting the campaign manager of the liberal Yabloko party in Krasnodar, saying that, “the State Duma election is the most terrible election I have seen since my birth.” The rest of the article then hammers home the point in case any readers hadn’t got it already.

There’s an element of truth to the complaints about the Russian elections, although it’s worth noting that the authorities’ manipulation of the system occurs primarily before votes are cast rather than after. That’s to say that the ‘managed’ party of ‘managed democracy’ mainly involves making life difficult for opposition candidates, limiting their access to the media, and things like that, rather than practices like ballot stuffing or falsifying the count (not to say that these practices don’t happen, but the general feeling is that the authorities prefer to limit them so as to avoid ridiculous results that lack legitimacy).

Nevertheless, although the playing field is far from a level one, when Russian voters head into the booths to cast their ballots, they have quite a lot of choice.

It’s reckoned that four or five parties will gain seats in the Duma via the proportional representation system that assigns half the total to those parties that win over 5% (the other half are chosen by first-past-the-post constituency elections). Most of these likely winners fall, I would say, in the left-conservative bracket, but there’s a lot of variation – from the hard left Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), through the also fairly left wing Just Russia party, the centrist United Russia, the centre-right New People (the least likely to pass the 5% hurdle), and the nationalist LDPR.

If those aren’t to your liking, there’s another 9 parties on the ballot papers. Most are no-hopers, though one or two might win a constituency here or there. For instance, if you’re the kind of person who thinks that the CPRF has sold out communism, you can vote for the more hardcore Communists of Russia. Or, likewise, if you think that the LDPR are a bunch of softies and you want tougher action on issues like immigration, you can throw your support behind Rodina. Or, if you’re liberally-inclined and think that New People are Kremlin stooges, you can put your cross next to the name of Yabloko (also Kremlin stooges according to the bizarre logic of the Navalnyites) or the more free market-inclined Party of Growth.

In other words, despite all the manipulations of the authorities, even if the final result is not in doubt (United Russia will win a majority), once you’re in voting booth ready to cast your secret ballot you actually have a lot of options open to you.

Now, let’s look at Canada.

Outside of Quebec (where you also have the separatist Bloc Quebecois), there’s only three options if you want to vote for somebody who win will a seat: Liberal, Conservative, and NDP (Green might pick up one seat, but overall are somewhere around 3% in the polls). The only other party likely to get a reasonable number of votes is the People’s Party of Canada, which is enjoying a surge (6-7%), primarily, it seems, by appealing to anti-vaxxers. But it has no chance of winning any seats and is thus a wasted vote except as a protest.

In other words, in real terms you have a choice of three parties. Let’s see what distinguishes them. As far as I can see, their platforms run roughly as follows:

Party A: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend. Party B: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend, and spend! Party C: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend, and spend some more!

Party A: Here’s the list of interest groups I want to throw money at. Party B: Here’s my list. Look it’s even longer. Party C: Hah, you think your list is long – look at mine!

Party A: Woke is good. Party B: Woke is extra good. Party C: Woke is extra, extra good.

Party A: Russia is evil. Party B: Russia is very evil. Party C: Russia is very super evil.

Party A: We’ll be tough on China. Party B: We’ll be extra tough on China. Party C: We’ll be extra, mega tough on China. (Of course, in practice, none of them will!)

By now you get the point. It doesn’t really matter who you vote for, you end up with pretty much the same thing. That’s not to say that there are no differences, but they’re not on fundamentals. Basically, it’s three variations of a theme.

So there you have it. In one country, you have lots of choice, but the system’s fixed to make sure the same guys always win. In the other, it’s a fair fight – anyone can win – it just doesn’t matter who does – they’re all the same. You might say that one is rigged at the micro level, while the other is rigged at the macro level.

Which is better? I’ll leave it to you to decide. Meanwhile, I have the difficult decision as to whether Party A, Party B, or Party C is more worthy of my vote on Monday. What a choice!

Vote Smart, Vote Communist

in my latest for RT (here), I discuss Alexei Navalny’s ’smart voting’ scheme in the light of the list of preferred candidates for this week’s Russian parliamentary elections just issued by Navalny’s team. There are 225 single member constituencies up for grab. Team Navalny recommends one candidate per constituency and suggests voters cast their ballot for thar person, as the candidate most likely to beat the ruling United Russia party.

So who does Navalny recommend?

Communists mostly (61% of the total), plus some from the left nationalist Just Russia, and the occasional person from other parties. But only a handful of liberals.

In short, voting smart means voting Communist.

Now tell me, please, what’s so smart about that? As I argue in my article, precious little.

Book Review: Is Russia Fascist?

‘Is Russia fascist?’ asks Marlene Laruelle. Anybody with half a brain knows that the answer is no, so one might wonder why it’s worth spending a whole book on the question. But as Laruelle points out, describing Russia as fascist has become quite popular of late. True, she says, those doing so, such as Timothy Snyder, are ‘figures who do not belong to political science or who present themselves as public intellectuals’, but they ‘have become particularly vocal’ and their accusation needs some deconstruction. Furthermore, it’s not just an academic matter. The attempt to label Russia as fascist serves a political purpose. ‘If Russia is fascist,’ says Laruelle, ‘then Russia is to be excluded from Europe.’ Her book is an effort to refute this political strategy.

To this end, Laruelle sets about defining fascism and then looks first at how fascism is viewed in Russia and second at whether the fascist label fits. This requires an analysis of the ‘Putin regime’ and what Laruelle calls its ‘ideological plurality’.  Laruelle considers the regime ideologically pluralistic and flexible, ‘on a permanent quest to draw inspiration from and co-opt grassroots trends.’ Within it are three mains groups: the Presidential Administration; the military industrial complex; and the Orthodox realm.

The Presidential Administration, says Laruelle, is ‘the least ideologically rigid’ segment of the regime, and is quite ‘eclectic’. ‘It never favors groups that could, one way or another, be identified as fascist’, she writes. The military industrial complex, by contrast, does have some links with what could be called the ‘far right’, such as members of the Izborsky Club and the Rodina party. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has some connections with modern day equivalents of the Tsarist Black Hundreds, although this is a ‘loose network of groups that do not depend on the Patriarchy institutionally but operate in parallel to it.’ Insofar as any of these elements could be deemed ‘fascist’, ‘they are scattered and do not dominate the narrative of any ecosystem.’ The military industrial complex, for instance, is conservative and Soviet-nostalgic, but ‘fascist references remain peripheral’ as they do also in the Orthodox realm.

In short, within the governing system itself, there is very little that could justly be called ‘fascist’.

That leads Laruelle to look outside the system. In Russia, as elsewhere, there are fringe groups that are fascistic or fascist-lite (as Laruelle calls them). Laruelle describes these in great detail. One has to admire the time and effort spent in following the goings-on of all these minor organizations. If you want to know what’s been happening in the Russian far right, this is undoubtedly the book for you.

And so it is that readers get to meet Russian National Unity, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, various bunches of skinheads, Cossacks, the Night Wolves bikers, Sambo martial arts groups, and of course Alexander Dugin. Laruelle notes that for many years, the Russian state’s attitude to such groups was quite ‘lax’, but from 2008 onwards this changed ‘with more systematic use of Article 282 of the Penal Code’ against them. Since then, the authorities ‘have taken serious steps to clamp down on the phenomenon’, to the extent that ‘the Russian far right has largely been dismantled.’ This reflects the fact that ‘the authorities realized that radical nationalism would potentially threaten the status quo and was moving into a plain confrontational posture that had to be eliminated.’

This is quite an important conclusion – the Russian state’s clampdown on certain pro-Western liberal groups and media institutions has received a great deal of coverage in the West, and is often used to justify accusations that the Russian regime is ‘authoritarian’ if not outright ‘dictatorial’. But the authorities have been equally, if not more, zealous in eliminating the far right. This severely undermines the claim that Russia is a fascist state.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Laruelle wraps up with the conclusion that, ‘the Russian regime does not display any features of a scholarly definition of fascism’. The only possible exception is the existence of militia groups, such as the Night Wolves, but that alone isn’t sufficient to justify the fascist label.

Laruelle goes beyond that. ‘Today’s Russia offers no indications that would qualify it as a totalitarian state’, she writes, adding that ‘the qualification of authoritarianism should be deployed with nuance’ as ‘ideological diversity is still available for those who look for it. … Russia thus cannot be labeled totalitarian, nor is it dictatorial; it is even less fascist’. Arguments to the contrary by the likes of Snyder (who Laruelle does an excellent job of destroying) ‘are based on a very segmented and biased interpretation of the regime’s ideological fundamentals.’

According to Laruelle, the Russian state is not just not fascist, it’s not even nationalist: ‘On the contrary, Putin, as well as the main government figures, heavily insist on Russia’s multinational and multiconfessional character. The Russian president has on several occasions denounced nationalism.’ Nor is the Russian state expansionist or irridentist – the Crimean case is unique, says Laruelle. As for wider Russian society, ‘The fascist tree constitutes a very small percentage of Russia’s ideological forest.’

What Russia actually is, Laruelle concludes, is ‘illiberal’, although her definition of this term is not quite what one would imagine. She writes, ‘I see illiberalism not as the opposite of liberalism … but more as a postliberalism, that is, as an ideology that pushes back against liberalism after having experienced it.’ ‘It’s not a reactionary ideology calling for a return to the past’, says Laruelle, ‘but rather a post-modern (and postliberal) conception, attuned to the current worldwide doubts about globalization.’ Moreover this postliberalism isn’t exclusively Russian but is part of a wider European trend.

Indeed, Laruelle argues, this ideology very much preserves Russia’s connection to Europe: it seeks to carve out a role for Russia in Europe, helping to rescue it from the alleged failings of Western liberalism. The fight over political labels is thus very much a fight over Russia’s right to a place in Europe. Those seeking to cast Russia as fascist are looking to expel Russia’s from the European family. By contrast, when Russia chucks the fascist label at the likes of post-Maidan Ukraine, it’s trying to revive its role as the defeater of fascism in 1945 and so claim what it considers its rightful place at the European table.

Overall, Is Russia Fascist? provides excellent insights into the ideological state of play in modern Russia. It also does a thorough job of demolishing the accusations that Russia is a totalitarian state. Unfortunately, I imagine that it won’t get the same circulation as the books of Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and others like them, that claim the opposite. Sadly, that’s how the cookie crumbles nowadays. All we can do is knock slowly away at the crazier constructs of our public intellectuals and hope that one day the wall they’ve built will come crashing down. This book provides a decent hammer to help do the job.

Pipeline victory

In my latest piece for RT (here), I discuss the near completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says should be operational ‘within days’. Given the efforts that the Americans have put into stopping North Stream 2, as well as the fierce opposition from Ukraine and various Eastern European member states of the EU, the completion of the pipeline is quite a victory for Russia. That said, as I note in the article, it was a victory founded on very specific conditions – namely the strong economic arguments in favour and the weakness of the geopolitical arguments against. Those conditions won’t always be repeated. Still, as I conclude, the outcome means that ‘there will undoubtedly be smiles in Moscow and much gnashing of teeth in Washington and Kiev.’