Exploiting the victims of communism

One of the issues currently stirring the passions of residents of Ottawa is a sudden proposal by the Conservative government to erect a memorial in the country’s capital to the victims of communism. The project is meeting with enormous opposition. The plans for the memorial were ‘sprung on everyone and announced with no consultation whatsoever,’ declared the city’s mayor Jim Watson. He and others object to the proposal for a number of reasons:

  • It had long been planned that the site in question would be used to construct a new building for the Federal Court, to be known as the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Judicial Building. Trudeau, of course, was the father of the current opposition leader, Justin Trudeau, and is much hated by the ruling Conservatives.
  • Although the memorial is a private project, the Federal Government has pledged $3 million in support, as well as giving the land, worth at least $1 million.
  • The design is huge and ugly. Ironically, it is just the sort of brutalist, concrete monstrosity that the communists used to construct.
  • The memorial lacks the connection to Canada normal for public monuments in the country’s capital.
Proposed design for the memorial to the victims of communism
Proposed design for the memorial to the victims of communism

Monuments shape how we view our past. They are always political, whether deliberately or unwittingly. The zeal which Canada’s Conservative government is showing for the memorial for the victims of communism is indicative that it endorses the politics of this memorial. But what are these?

In the first place, remembering the victims of communism serves to perpetuate the Cold War division of the world into bad guys (communists) and good guys (us). It reinforces the West’s sense of moral superiority, and thus justifies contemporary political action in support of Western goals. If I may be excused for sounding all Gramscian, it is part and parcel of the maintenance of Western hegemony (which is, or is not, a good thing depending upon your point of view). The fact that the Conservatives wish to memorialize the victims of communism, but not the victims of capitalism, or imperialism, is no accident.

I think, however, that there is more to it than that. The private group promoting the memorial is Tribute to Liberty. Its Board of Directors contains leading members of the Canadian communities of Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, Czechs, and Slovaks, but no Russians. Russians probably suffered more from communism than any other nationality in Europe, but they are not represented. They are, it seems, not the victims but the guilty party. As one article about the memorial puts it, ‘The announcement [of the winning design for the memorial] comes at a time when Russian authorities have ramped up a campaign to sanitize Soviet history including denials of the violent occupation of former Soviet republics, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Russia’s occupation of the Finnish former eastern province of Karelia continues through to the present day.’ For some, it seems, the memorial is as much about keeping people angry at the Russians as it is about its alleged subject.

Eastern Europeans did not for the most part choose to live under communist rule, but millions of them did participate willingly in communist institutions. The police services of Poland were run by Poles; those of Hungary by Hungarians; and so on. The Soviet Union owed its existence to the revolutionary action of the Latvian riflemen; its leaders included a Georgian (Stalin) and several Ukrainians (Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Chernenko). Yet this is not how Eastern European nationalists view the history of communism. Rather it is seen only as something imposed upon them by Russians. This memorial to the victims of communism helps to re-write history to reflect that point of view.


Crackpot theory #4: Credibility is a vital interest

The fourth in my series on crackpot theories looks at the idea that nations must always be seen to be strong, lest they lose ‘credibility’ and thereby encourage others to attack them. This fits in with my class this week on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, which will examine ideas of honour and how they affect international relations.

The notion that ‘credibility’ is a vital national interest is at the core of the arguments of many foreign policy hawks. As Will Tobey and Will Imboden put it in Foreign Policy a year ago:

The most urgent matter is to re-establish the American credibility so regrettably squandered over the past several years — in Afghanistan by simultaneously announcing a surge and a retreat, in Iran with unenforced and ever-moving red lines, and in Syria with incomprehensible vacillation that left Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a stronger position after American threats. Credibility is the coin of the realm in international politics. Allies and adversaries need to know again that America will defend its interests. When the president speaks of “consequences” and “costs” associated with violations of international law and failure to comply with arms control and nonproliferation agreements, the country cannot afford to have other nations doubt his resolve.

The language of credibility can be found again and again in justifications of wars. ‘U.S. Must Escalate Bombing In Bosnia to Boost Credibility,’ argued the Washington Post in 1994. ‘To walk away now would not only destroy NATO’s credibility but would also be a breach of faith with thousands of innocent civilians,’ British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons in March 1999 in justification of NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. ‘To back down now would be the worst possible result’, a senior British official told The Guardian before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ‘We would have no credibility if Saddam Hussein was still in place.’ And so on.

Superficially, it seems logical that having a ‘credible’ reputation would protect one from aggression. There are, however, some serious problems with the theory:

  • However great one’s reputation, it can be destroyed by one moment of weakness, since credibility is only as good as the last time it was tested. It has to be continually defended. Consequently, one must be prepared to be forceful even over trivial matters. The result is disproportionate responses to minor crises, allied to an inability to distinguish between vital and non-vital interests. Credibility is supposed to keep one safe, but in the effort to avoid war, one runs the risk of being perpetually at war.
  • There is a lack of evidence that appearing weak does in fact invite attack in international relations. In essence the credibility theory is a variation of the old Domino Theory which justified America’s war in Vietnam. Yet, after the communists won the war in Vietnam, the dominoes did not fall. Indeed, far from becoming more aggressive, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War the Soviets reached out a hand to the West in the form of détente.
  • As Darryl Press has pointed out in his book Calculating Credibility, states do not base their judgements of other states’ likely actions based on those other states’ past behaviour, but rather on their assessment of  how important the issue in question is to others and what capabilities they have to do anything about it. The fact that you acted forcibly in one case will not convince others that you will do the same in another case in which a vital interest is not at stake and when you are in any case not capable of acting forcibly.
  • The credibility theory assumes that acting strongly will produce positive results. Often it doesn’t. One justification of the American invasion of Iraq was that American weakness elsewhere, such as in Somalia, had emboldened al Qaeda to attack the USA. The invasion of Iraq would restore America’s credibility. Instead, the insurgency which followed the invasion reinforced the image of American weakness.
  • If credibility is your objective, then in cases involving the use of force the objective is achieved the moment that force is first used. This means that there is little incentive thereafter to apply force in a manner designed to produce positive results. Wars fought for credibility are likely to be associated with poor strategy.
  • Using force over trivial matters may make others see you not as strong but as a bully. Rather than deterring enemies, the desire for credibility may create them.

In an interview last month, former British Defence Minister Liam Fox argued that the conflict in Ukraine ‘is about the credibility of NATO and the Western alliance. I think the defence of the Baltic, for example, begins in Ukraine.’ Consequently, says Fox, NATO needs to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe and also provide weapons to the Ukrainian Army. This is precisely the kind of thinking that has dragged Western states into unnecessary conflicts in places like Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. It should be resisted.

What palace coup?

According to the rumours circulating this past week, Russian president Vladimir Putin was either ill, dead, a new father, or had been secretly thrown out of power by unknown forces in the Kremlin. Forbes magazine, for instance, ran an article entitled ‘Can Putin’s absence indicate a palace coup in Moscow?’ Forbes cited Putin’s former economics advisor Andrei Illarionov, who wrote of a ‘general’s plot’ which would result in the forcible retirement of Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev, and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper had a slightly different take on the matter. ‘Former FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev was behind the plot’, it claimed, referencing the ‘chairman of the pro-Kremlin National Islamic Committee, Geydar Dzhemal.’

We now know that none of this was true. This Monday Putin was around and about visiting St Petersburg. But the palace coup rumours did not come out of nowhere. For several months now, commentators have been speculating with increasing regularity that such a change of power was inevitable. Thus novelist Boris Akunin mused in The Interpreter in June last year that Putin’s rule would end either ‘in a palace coup or a social explosion’. The Interpreter’s Paul Goble later betted firmly on the former with an article claiming: ‘Interest in a Palace Coup against Putin Said Growing among Russian Elites’

Others have taken up the theme. In December 2014, for instance, Shaun Walker wrote for The Guardian that, ‘the Russian oil crash could threaten Putin with a palace coup.’ If the Russian economy collapsed, claimed Walker, there could be ‘splits’ among the elites: ‘even among those ideologically in tandem with Putin, if their vast wealth begins to be threatened, their loyalty may waver.’  ‘Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup,’ agreed Mark Galeotti this week. And Donald Jensen wrote in February that:

Although Putin appears firmly in charge, any threat to him at the moment lies in the corridors of power rather than in the streets. Western sanctions and the drop in oil prices demonstrate that Putin is no longer able to protect the economic interests of key members of the ruling class. … There is little doubt these disaffected oligarchs have begun to quietly consider a change in the regime’s leadership.’

Yet what this coup would consist of is unclear. Illarionov speaks of a ‘general’s plot’, but Galeotti denies that a military coup is possible and speaks instead of some ‘political’ action which might lead to Putin’s fall. This vagueness strongly suggests the palace coup is not a properly thought-out scenario. Moreover, no evidence is ever provided to justify Jensen’s claim that the Russian elite are considering a change of leader. With Putin’s approval rating currently at 88%, toppling him would be both extremely difficult and politically suicidal. In addition, the Ukrainian experience has surely demonstrated the catastrophic consequences which follow from running roughshod over constitutional technicalities. It is very hard to see who could benefit from an unconstitutional change of government. Russia’s economy is not doing very well at the moment, but the predicted 2-4% decline in GDP is hardly coup-worthy.

How then can one explain the current obsession with the possibility of a palace coup? The answer seems to lie in the abject failure of Russia’s liberal opposition to overthrow Putin by other means. Three years ago, there was great optimism that the demonstrations in Moscow which followed the 2011 Duma elections showed that the political tide had turned decisively against Russia’s ruler. This optimism proved to be mistaken. The opposition is as isolated and unpopular as ever, while Putin’s popularity has grown and grown. But as Nina Khrushcheva writes, ‘One hope remains, a palace coup.’ The talk of a coup thus appears to be the final straw of wishful thinking to which those opposed to Putin cling now that it is clear that they will never defeat him by legitimate political means or mass protests. Rather than being a sign of Putin’s political weakness, therefore, the rumours of a palace coup are a sign of his continuing strength.

Where is Vladimir Putin?

I gave a long interview yesterday to Corus 770 talk radio in Calgary about the ‘disappearance’ of Vladimir Putin and what it means (or doesn’t). You can listen to it here:


Under ‘Play Here’ press on 13 March and 10:00 pm, then drag the bar under the play and pause buttons to the 0730 minute mark, and listen away!

Friday object lesson #19: chess set

In keeping with the theme of strategy, and as Russia has produced many of the world’s greatest chess masters, this week’s object is a chess set. It is set up to show the Charles XII chess problem. This situation supposedly occurred in a game between King Charles XII of Sweden and his minister Christian Albert Grosthusen, undertaken while Charles was besieged by the Ottoman Army at Bender in 1713, having fled there after his defeat at the hands of Peter the Great at Poltava in 1709.

Supposedly, on viewing the situation, Charles (playing white – blue in this set) told Grosthusen that it was mate in three moves.


chess3 Continue reading Friday object lesson #19: chess set

Russian strategic culture

This week’s topic in my ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy’ class is strategic culture. We will look at the extent to which foreign policy decisions may be a product of culture rather than pure reason. The idea is that countries have certain preferences which are culturally determined. Give a Canadian and a Russian the same problem, and they will come up with different solutions, simply because they are accustomed to approaching problems in different ways and to favouring different types of solutions.

On the face of it, the idea of strategic culture seems fairly obvious. But when you try to pin down what people mean by culture, and what effects it actually has, you discover that it is rather amorphous, and you run the risk of ending up with a circular argument which says that x does y simply because x does y. This is not very useful.

Strategic culture is best thought of as a disposition towards certain policies. It frames policy debates by helping to decide what policy issues are considered important and what the acceptable options are for dealing with those issues. Alternatively, it can be described as a sort of lens through which policies are viewed. It reflects habits of behaviour, and depends upon a variety of factors, such as: history, geography, economy, ideology, and social and political structures.

So, is there such a thing as Russian strategic culture?

For such a thing to exist, we must assume some degree of stability over time, with a degree of continuity between the Soviet Union and the contemporary Russian Federation, and perhaps also some degree of continuity between the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia. Given the vast differences between those polities, this is quite a stretch. Nevertheless, it is not an impossible one. Ideology may have changed, but the history of modern Russia is linked to that of the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia, Russia’s geographical position remains unchanged, and there has been a degree of institutional continuity, which means that habits of decision making have been carried forward. The possibility of a strategic culture exists. But what might it consist of?

Scholarship on Russian strategic culture is rather scanty, but in so far as it exists, it makes the following claims:

  • Russia’s lack of natural borders has made it seek security through expansion. By its own nature, ‘Russia is a revisionist country,’ writes Marcos Degaut.
  • The same lack of natural borders has made Russia vulnerable to invasion. According to Norbert Eitelhuber, this has created a somewhat paranoid worldview ‘characterized on one hand by an almost obsessive perception of a general threat towards Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and on the other hand by great power aspirations as a response.’
  • Following from the previous point, Fritz W. Ermarth claims that, ‘Russian foreign policy culture has often expressed a puzzling combination of contradictory attitudes: defensiveness bordering on paranoia, on one hand, combined with assertiveness bordering on pugnacity, on the other. In the Russian mentality, both an inferiority complex and a superiority complex can be simultaneously on display.’
  • Russia’s history of resisting invasion has combined with its history of autocratic government to create a belief in the utility of military power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic growth has become more important in Russian thinking compared with military power but, says Degaut, ‘military strength … is still the chief institutional foundation of Russian statehood.’
  • Russian strategic culture is Realist rather than ideological in nature.

Some of this is highly debatable, most notably the idea that ‘Russia is a revisionist country’. Even the Soviet Union, after the Second World War, never used force for ‘revisionist’ or expansionary purposes, but only to prevent the overthrow of allied communist regimes  – e.g. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan – in other words, not to revise things but to keep them as they were.  As seen by its hostility to NATO expansion, its objections to Western doctrines of humanitarian intervention and preventive war, and its support for President Assad of Syria, Russia is far more interested in preserving the status-quo than in undermining it. Having experienced the traumas of revolution, it values stability.

Still, the idea that Russia desires to be respected as a great power is accurate, and there is some truth to the depiction of Russian strategic culture as Realist in nature, albeit Realism interpreted through the lens of ‘defensiveness bordering on paranoia … [and] assertiveness bordering on pugnacity.’ This makes Russia a player which needs to be handled with a degree of care – rather more care than has been the case in recent years, indeed. Confronting Russia, isolating it, and making it feel threatened, are likely to accentuate the defensiveness and increase the consequent pugnacious assertiveness. If Western states pursue such an approach they will find it counter-productive. Instead, as Eitelhuber concludes, the West should try to highlight ‘commonalities of interests, by reducing the points of friction, by alleviating Russian fears, and by channeling the interaction into a structured setting.’

Russia, the West, and the world

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