Friday object #36: soccer jersey

Canada recently finished hosting the Women’s World Cup, so here is a Russia soccer (football) jersey.

soccer jersey


The main enemy

Back in the Cold War, the Soviets used to refer to the United States as the ‘glavnyi protivnik’ (‘main enemy’). When presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared in 2012 that Russia was America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’, he was roundly condemned for hyperbole. Now, his point of view seems mainstream. Today, the nominee for America’s top military post (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), General Joseph F. Dunford, told a Congressional hearing that, ‘My assessment today, Senator, is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security’. He went on to say ‘If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.’

In terms purely of capability, Dunford isn’t wrong that Russia ‘could’ pose an existential threat to the United States. Russia owns the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal, and there is no other power on earth able to cause as much destruction to America as Russia. But threat is more than a question of capability. It is also a matter of intent. The United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons could destroy numerous American cities; so could those of France. America does not consider those countries threats because there is obviously no intent to attack. Why is Russia any different?

Even during the Cold War, there was good reason to doubt that the Soviets had any real wish to wage war against America. However, an argument could at least be made that Soviet ideology was incompatible with that of the United States. Communist theory predicted the collapse of the capitalist order, and communist leaders sought to hasten that day. There was some hostile intent.

That simply isn’t the case today. Russia is a trading nation, thoroughly linked into international markets, dependent upon the ups and downs of the world economy. Seeking the collapse or destruction of the United States and its associated global order would be suicidal. That does not mean that Russia will not react to defend its interests against what it considers (rightly or wrongly) American encroachments, but that is not at all the same as having aggressive intent.

The Soviet Union didn’t destroy the United States. The idea that contemporary Russia, which is much weaker, much less ambitious, and actually much less hostile, might ever wish to do so, is absurd. That does not mean, however, that Dunford doesn’t believe what he says and that Russians can lightly dismiss it. As I have written elsewhere, perceptions frequently matter far more than reality. It is important for political leaders to correctly understand how others perceive them, and choose their behaviour accordingly. In Ukraine and elsewhere, Russians may believe that they are acting defensively, but they need to be aware that others perceive their actions very differently.

Crackpot theory #5: Flypaper theory

Ten years ago today I was in London, England, travelling by Underground to reach King’s Cross Station. At Euston, I and all the other passengers on my train were informed that the line was closed and that we would have to leave the station and proceed on foot. As Euston Road (which links Euston and King’s Cross) was blocked by police, I headed south on Upper Woburn Place. After a couple of minutes’ walking, just before reaching Tavistock Square, I spotted a little street heading east and turned into that. A few seconds later there was a big bang coming from pretty much where I would have been had I not turned. The cause was a bomb on a bus in Tavistock Square, which killed 13 people. Thirty-nine more Londoners died the same day from three other suicide bombings on London Underground trains.

I remember my reaction well – while standing around the nearby Cartwright Gardens, wondering what to do next, I cursed Britain’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Two and a half years previously, when Britain was debating whether to invade Iraq, I had spoken on Channel 4 TV News and stated my opinion that a likely consequence of such an invasion would be increased terrorism. My prediction had come true.

The wars which the United Kingdom and its allies have waged in the Middle East and Central Asia in the past 15 years in the name of countering terrorism have had the opposite effect – they have led to more, not less terrorism. Fortunately for us, most of it has been in the countries we have attacked – Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – and there has been very little in Western Europe or North America. But there has been some, and more than there would have been had we just left others alone.

The ‘flypaper theory’ is the idea that by waging war against terrorism overseas we can prevent terrorism at home. General Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded American troops in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004, aptly summarized it thus: ‘This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity … But this is exactly where we want to fight them. …This will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States.’

Variations of the flypaper theory continue to dominate official thinking about counter-terrorism, as seen by the prolonged NATO campaign in Afghanistan and the current American-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. The reasoning seems to be that the best way of defending ourselves here is to aggressively seek terrorists over there and destroy them. Yet after 15 years of this strategy being put into action, at a cost of several trillion dollars and many tens of thousands of lives, there appear to be more terrorists in the Middle East than ever before.

The flypaper theory is fatally flawed. It relies on the assumption that there are a limited number of terrorists worldwide, so if you kill them in one place, you won’t be threatened by them somewhere else. That assumption is just plain wrong. The very act of killing one often creates another, or many others, sometimes more deadly than the first. It’s ‘Whack-A-Mole’ with a twist – the harder you whack, the more moles you get.

The ‘flies’ who are being drawn from Europe and North America to fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria would for the most part probably be sitting at home minding their own business and not posing a threat to anybody if only Western governments were sitting at home and minding their own business too. Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is said to have once asked, ‘Are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?’ A decade or so after he posed that question, the answer is clear.

Cheesy liberals

I have written some unkind words before about Russia’s liberal opposition. Let me be clear: this not because I am illiberal, or think that Russia wouldn’t benefit from having a more liberal order. Far from it. Rather, my criticisms derive from my sense that the people who publicly represent what is called ‘liberalism’ in Russia do a very bad job of it, in part because they give the impression of not liking their own country very much and preferring all things foreign. This makes many of their compatriots dislike them and what they stand for. Consequently, they harm the process of liberalization from which Russia would benefit.

Today’s New York Times contains a classic example: an article by Masha Gessen complaining that because of the Russian government’s counter-sanctions it’s impossible to buy proper Western European cheese in Russia any more – all that’s available is disgusting Russian muck. But not to worry, because Masha’s rich friends are able to pick up the good stuff at the Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar in the departure lounge of Heathrow airport’s Terminal 4, which is apparently doing a roaring trade in cheese for travelling Russians.

Who are these people who are still able to take holidays in Europe despite the depressed ruble, and furthermore are able to afford the extortionate prices of the shops in Terminal 4? Not your average Russian, one can be certain. Gessen’s article seems to me quite extraordinarily out of touch. It also overflows with the sensation that everything Russian is awful (for instance, ‘the reappearance of Soviet-era cheese, with its unparalleled blandness and waxlike texture’), while everything Western is superior. This is perfectly expressed in the following passage:

‘It’s my first time in Europe after all that’s happened,’ the journalist and filmmaker Inna Denisova, a critic of the annexation of Crimea, wrote on her Facebook page in February. ‘And it’s exceedingly emotional. And of course it’s not seeing the historic churches and museums that has made me so emotional — it’s seeing cheese at the supermarket. My little Gorgonzola. My little mozzarella. My little Gruyère, chèvre and Brie. I held them all in my arms — I didn’t even want to share them with the shopping cart — and headed for the cash register.’ There, Ms. Denisova wrote, she started crying.

If you want to know why Russian liberals languish at about one percent in the opinion polls, you have your answer right there.

Friday object lesson #35: rug

During the 1980s, when the Soviet Army was fighting in Afghanistan, Afghan rug makers began to produce carpets which depicted Soviet military equipment. This example (from 2007) post-dates the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by almost 20 years, but the hardware shown is all Soviet/Russian rather than NATO (for instance BMPs, Mi-17 (Hip) helicopters, and Kalashnikov rifles).

afghan rug

Sanctioning Eurasianism

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m not a great fan of the theory of Eurasianism. I also think that its philosophical influence on modern Russia is exaggerated. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) seems to disagree, for this week Eurasianism became the latest target of Canadian sanctions against Russia.

On Monday (29 June), DFATD announced that since ‘the actions of the Russian Federation constitute a grave breach of international peace and security that has resulted or is likely to result in a serious international crisis’, the Governor General, ‘on the recommendation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ had added three individuals and 14 organizations to the list of those sanctioned by Canada. The three individuals are Eurasianist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, and two of the leaders of the Eurasian Youth Union, Pavel Kanishchev and Aleksandr Kovalenko. The same Eurasian Youth Union then leads the list of newly sanctioned organizations.

So what has Canada got against Eurasianism?

The first mystery is the timing of the sanctions. Nothing special has happened in Russia or Ukraine in the past few weeks, so there doesn’t seem any obvious reason to impose more sanctions on Russia right now. The only explanation I can come up with is domestic politics. Strange though it may seem, there are at present some rumblings of disapproval in the Canadian Ukrainian diaspora about Canadian government weakness vis-à-vis Russia. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not approved sending weapons to Ukraine, and he has also resisted throwing Russia out of the SWIFT bank transfer system. Opposition Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, by comparison, has said that if his party wins October’s election he will support the expulsion of Russia from SWIFT. Perhaps Harper feels a need to shore up his support among Canadian Ukrainians.

But even if this is so, why pick on the Eurasianists? Dugin, his Eurasian Party and its youth wing, the Eurasian Youth Union, are on the nutty fringes of Russian politics, and enjoy a tiny, tiny percentage of popular support (well below one percent – too low to register in opinion polls). Sanctioning the Eurasianists isn’t going to induce anybody in the Russian government to change its policy towards Ukraine, or its policy on anything, quite frankly. It is a particularly futile act.

I imagine that the policy making process went something like this: Prime Minister Harper summoned Foreign Minister Robert Nicholson and told him to find some new names to add to the sanctions list; Nicholson then summoned a senior bureaucrat and told him to recommend something; senior bureaucrat asked junior underling for some ideas; junior underling did some research, and made the mistake of reading works like Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn’s Foreign Affairs article ‘Putin’s Brain: Alexander Dugin and the Philosophy Behind Putin’s Invasion of Crimea’, which among other things contends that, Dugin’s brand of Eurasianism ‘is proving to be a strong contender for the role of Russia’s chief ideology.’

There has been a lot of this sort of stuff in the past couple of years. For instance, as well as ‘Putin’s Brain’, Dugin has been described as ‘Putin’s Rasputin’. According to the Center for Security Policy, ‘The influence of Dugin on Russia geopolitics and military strategy is self-evident … it is clear that the Russian government has taken his Foundations of Geopolitics as a blueprint for their foreign policy.’ This is, I think it is safe to say, an enormous exaggeration. As Gordon Hahn has pointed out, ‘Dugin’s aggressively political, imperialistic and neo-fascist Eurasianism is a far cry from Putin’s purely economic project of creating a united free trade and customs union under the “Eurasian Economic Union.” Thus, in June Dugin was fired from his position as chair of the Department of the Sociology of International Relations in the International Relations Department at MSU [Moscow State University], effective and implemented in September. Moreover, Dugin is not an advisor to Putin.’

Still, it is not altogether impossible that our junior underling, not being very well versed in Russian philosophy, didn’t understand this, and just went with what he’d read in Foreign Affairs. Deciding on this basis that the Eurasianists really were a powerful force in Russia, he wrote a little memo to the senior bureaucrat suggesting their names. Senior bureaucrat then recommended them to the minister who, probably not having the slightest clue who they are (apart from the fact that they are obviously bad people) signed on the dotted line.

There is, though, an alternative, simpler explanation. Junior underling looked up American sanctions against Russia and discovered that the United States had listed Dugin, his fellow Eurasianists, and the Eurasian Youth Union back in March of this year. On the principle that what is good enough for America is good enough for Canada, he proposed them as targets.

One can debate whether Canadian sanctions against Russia are a good idea, but at least everybody ought to agree that if Canada is going to take action it should be action which is effective. That means if we are going to impose sanctions, we should aim them at people and organizations who are actually important, and against whom pressure might actually have some desirable impact.

Mind you, if the desired effect doesn’t have anything to do with changing Russian policy, and is only about appeasing domestic voters by appearing to ‘Do Something’ while actually doing very little, then, as the saying goes, ‘Mission Accomplished’.

Russia, the West, and the world

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