Object lesson #37: holiday ribbon

This week’s object is a ribbon in the colours of the Russian national flag which I was given in celebration of Russia’s national holiday last month.

2014-10-31 17.44.22

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Deny, deny, deny

One thing which struck me during the ‘tele-bridge’ which I described in my last post was the refusal of all concerned to take responsibility for their own actions – everything which went wrong was always the fault of the other party. Another example of this attitude appeared in Monday’s Kyiv Post – an article blaming separatist forces for the shelling of downtown Donetsk on 18 July. According to the Kyiv Post:

At a briefing on July 19, Major General Andriy Taran, the head of the Ukrainian side of the Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC), said separatist forces had driven out of the city to fire upon the center of it before returning and firing on Ukrainian positions as if in retaliation. The shelling was done specifically to be able to accuse Ukrainian forces of breaking the ceasefire and firing on civilians, Taran said.

Similar claims have been made many times before. For instance, Colonel Andrei Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, has declared that, ‘We have a strict order, the president’s demand [not to fire on residential areas]. The Ukrainian military has repeatedly stated that the militants fire into residential areas in cities near where the government forces are located in order to discredit us.’

This is, of course, nonsense. Ukrainian artillery has hit residential areas of Donetsk, Lugansk, and other towns time and time again. Large numbers of people have died as a result. The Ukrainian government’s refusal to accept responsibility for this is a serious moral failing on its part.

Rebel forces have had less need to engage in such denial, because for most of the war they have had less artillery at their disposal and have been defending urban areas rather than attacking them. Firing out of a city tends to be less damaging than firing into it. But when they have killed civilians, the rebels have been equally unwilling to admit it. An example was the shelling of a bus in Volnovakha on 13 January 2015, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people. Given that the bus was well behind Ukrainian lines, rebel artillery was almost certainly responsible, but rebel leaders have never admitted this. Nor has anybody ever confessed to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 in July 2014.

The inclination to avoid responsibility is widespread and understandable. What is perhaps surprising is the willingness of outsiders to let people get away with it. Neither Russia nor the West have shown any notable inclination to force their proxies to be more honest. Rather they seem to encourage the tendency to claim that others are at fault. It seems that the desire to maintain an ally’s image outweighs the desire for the truth.

Tele-bridge

On Friday I participated in a ‘Tele-bridge’ which was broadcast by the online Ukrainian TV station, Channel 17. The idea was to promote dialogue between the warring parties in Ukraine by bringing together via Skype representatives of both sides along with outside commentators who could provide an alternative perspective. The ‘Tele-bridge’ participants included military personnel and civilians in Kiev (including a member of the Right Sector organization), representatives of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, a journalist from Minsk (Aleksandr Feduta), and from Ottawa, the former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia James Bissett, Halyna Mokrushyna who is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, and me.

Details of the Tele-bridge can be found on the website of Channel 17 here. An abridged version containing only those parts in which the Canadian contingent participated is online here. I apologise for at one point continuing talking when the interviewer was trying to let somebody else have a word – the sound link with Kiev was poor, and I couldn’t hear what was being said.

During the broadcast, I made the following points:

Continue reading Tele-bridge

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.

Russia, the West, and the world

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