Against Russia

By far the most popular blog post that I have so far written was Putin’s Philosopher, about Ivan Ilyin. Some readers asked for more on the same subject, so here is a translation of an essay he wrote in 1948 entitled ‘Against Russia’. My aim is not to endorse what Ilyin writes, merely to illustrate a mode of thinking which probably resonates strongly among some Russians today. The translation is mine.

Against Russia by Ivan Ilyin, 1948.

Wherever we Russian national émigrés are dispersed we should remember that other peoples do not know us and do not understand us, that they fear Russia, do not sympathize with it and are happy to seek it weakened it every way. Only little Serbia instinctively sympathized with Russia, but without knowing or understanding it; and only the United States is instinctively inclined to prefer a united national Russia as a safe counter-pole and as a loyal and solvent consumer of its goods.

In other countries and among other peoples, we are alone, misunderstood and unpopular. This is not a new phenomenon. It has its own history. M.V. Lomonosov and A.S. Pushkin were the first to understand Russia’s distinctiveness, its peculiarity from Europe, its ‘non-Europeanness’. F.M. Dostoevsky and N.Ia. Danilevsky were the first to understand that Europe doesn’t know us, doesn’t understand us, and doesn’t like us. Many years have passed since then and we have experienced and confirmed for ourselves that these great Russians were perspicacious and correct.

Continue reading Against Russia


Batman Thermidor

‘The revolution devours its children’, wrote the French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan in 1793. Since the execution of Augustin Robespierre and 21 other revolutionary leaders the following year on 10 Thermidor (28 July) 1794, Thermidor has become a synonym for counter-revolutionary reaction, or as the Merriam Webster online dictionary puts it, ‘a moderate counterrevolutionary stage following an extremist stage of a revolution and usually characterized often through the medium of a dictatorship by an emphasis on the restoration of order, a relaxation of tensions, and some return to patterns of life held to be normal.’

Revolutions (as opposed to mere coups-d’état) tear apart the existing social and political fabric, creating chaos. There comes a point at which some of those who make up the new authority decide that restoring order is more important than pressing on with maximalist revolutionary objectives. Economic activity needs to resume, and the state needs to re-establish its monopoly over the use of violence. Also, revolutions are often led by the more extreme elements of the population. Their extremist demands alienate the mass of the population. At some stage, the new order, needing a broader base of popular support, has to curb its more radical elements. Thus, in the mid-1920s the Russian Communist Party purged the ‘Left Opposition’ led by Leon Trotsky, who spent the rest of his life equating Stalin with Thermidor. Similarly, on the Night of the Long Knives of 1934, Hitler eliminated the leaders of the socialist left of the Nazi Party as well as those of the party’s paramilitary force, the Sturmabteilung, thereby reassuring conservative Germans that his regime would provide law and order and not seek to disturb the social status quo. There are sound reasons why revolutions are so often followed by Thermidor.

Ukraine currently has a problem with ‘warlords’, local military leaders who pursue their own political agendas and often act in contravention of the law. This is the case both in the part of Ukraine under government control and in the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR). Adrian Karatnycky writes in The Washington Post that paramilitary groups, many with extreme political views, ‘threaten Ukraine’s rebuilding’. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko ‘clearly wants this problem resolved but has been reluctant or unable to act. … Ukraine’s elected leaders can no longer sweep this emerging threat under the rug.’  Karatnycky seems to be suggesting that the government of Ukraine needs its own Thermidor.

The DPR and LPR, meanwhile, have been undergoing a slow moving Thermidor for several months. This began with the August 2014 resignation of the original Minister of Defence in Donetsk, Igor Strelkov, and continued through the elections of Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky as heads of the two rebel republics in November, and on to the resignation of two more commanders, Igor Bezler and Ataman Koznitsky, in December. Now it has taken a violent turn with the death last week of Aleksandr Bednov, a.k.a. ‘Batman’, the leader of a rebel unit in the LPR.

According to official sources, special forces of the LPR killed Batman after he resisted arrest. The grounds for his arrest were that he was illegally holding and torturing prisoners, accusations which appear well founded. The civil war has destroyed the existing state structures in the rebel-held territories, and the DPR and LPR have been very slow in establishing new structures to replace them. In the meantime, they have become largely lawless regions in which local warlords operate with impunity. Banditry, looting, kidnapping, torture, and even murder have been commonplace, as some rebel leaders and their supporters admit.  Batman’s death can be seen as part of an effort to rein in the warlords and create a proper central authority.

One might imagine that this was something all the rebels would welcome – unity, after all, should make them stronger. But instead it is being denounced as betrayal. For some of the rebel leaders, the struggle was never about establishing micro-states in Donetsk and Lugansk. It was about waging war against the oligarchic order in Kiev. Their preference is to continue until final victory, which means eventually marching on Kiev and overthrowing the regime there. A notable example of this school of thought is Alexei Mozgovoi, commander of the Prizrak Battalion, who appears to have  a thoroughly socialist agenda allied to some strange ideas about direct ‘people’s democracy’. In his view, the leaders of the DPR and LPR, by seeking peace in order to allow normal life to recover, are guilty of Thermidor – betraying the core values of the revolution in order to cement their own power.

In 2014, war decided the fate of Ukraine. In 2015, it will most likely be the far more prosaic processes of state building which do so. Having determined that a military victory is impossible, Kiev is now pinning its hopes on turning its own territory into a zone of good government and prosperity while blockading the DPR and LPR so that they face economic and social collapse, thereby in the long term convincing the population of Eastern Ukraine to rejoin the rest of the country. Should the leaders of the DPR and LPR succeed in consolidating their republics, this strategy will fail. One suspects, therefore, that in Kiev they are cheering for the Batmans of Eastern Ukraine rather than for the Thermidorians.

The need for strategic empathy

Among the books waiting to be read on my bookshelf is A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind, by Zachary Shore. This caught my attention because fifteen years ago Shore lived on the same corridor as me at St Antony’s College, Oxford, while we were both writing our doctoral theses. Also, the subject matter fits well into my forthcoming course on Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making. The book is a study in decision making, and judging from what I have skimmed so far, it advances a fairly simple thesis: successful foreign policy depends upon what Shore calls ‘strategic empathy’, that is to say an ability to understand what motivates your enemy. This does not mean imagining what you would do if you were in your enemy’s place. Rather it means really understanding them, their desires, the constraints under which they operate, and so on.

I would take this further and say that strategic empathy is important not just when dealing with ‘enemies’ but in politics more generally, and that it is precisely the lack of such empathy which has pulled Russia-West relations into the mess which they are today.

The response of both Russia and Western states to the crisis in Ukraine has been to throw insults at one another and to resort to conspiracy theories. To many in the West, Russian behaviour in Ukraine is the product of a deliberate plan of imperial expansion; to many Russians, the civil war in Ukraine is the result of a long-term American strategy to destabilize and weaken any potential rivals. Within Ukraine, the current government views the war as solely the consequence of Russian aggression, whereas the rebels view themselves as victims of government barbarity. No matter who you are, somebody else is entirely to blame. No effort is made to understand, let alone empathize with the other side’s point of view.

Underlying all this is a sense on both sides of moral righteousness. The division of the world into good guys – us – and bad guys – them – discourages any effort to promote strategic empathy, for the latter comes to be regarded as appeasing evil. But strategic empathy does not require that one concede that the other side is right. Rather, through a better understanding of others’ actions, one increases one’s chances of pursuing successful policies.

So, for instance, the government which came to power in Ukraine in February 2014 arrogantly ignored the concerns of those protesting against it on the grounds that they were simply stooges of Moscow and did not represent genuine public opinion. The result was civil war. The government would have done better to understand that some of its citizens did reject it and needed reassurance.

Meanwhile, Western states failed to understand how important Ukraine is to Russia, and thus failed to understand how Russia was likely to react to the forcible overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Fixated on ‘Russian aggression’, Western leaders made no effort to understand the opinions of those fighting against Kiev. Consequently, Western leaders reinforced the inflexibility of the Ukrainian government, and so made a bad situation even worse.

Russian leaders have also made mistakes. The annexation of Crimea incited the governments in Kiev and the West to see the events in Eastern Ukraine as a repetition of those in Crimea, and so to view the protests against Kiev as being not an expression of legitimate opinion but rather a precursor to Russian invasion. Russian actions instilled fear and encouraged intransigence. Moscow does not seem to understand this.

If I have a blogging wish for 2015, then, it is for both Russia and the West to try harder to understand how the world looks from the other’s point of view. Moral certitude may be emotionally satisfying, but strategic empathy is far more likely to lead to peace.

The sanctions puzzle

VISA and Mastercard announced on Boxing Day that they will no longer provide services in Crimea, on the grounds that to do so would be in violation of the latest sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies in Canada and Europe. These include a prohibition on the importation of goods from Crimea, a ban on companies providing tourism services in Crimea, and the outlawing of investment in Crimea. Is this sanctions policy rational?

In January I will start teaching a course on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’. ‘Irrationality’ is somewhat hard to define, but one way of looking at it is in terms of ends and means. Actors who choose means which will help them achieve their intended ends may be considered rational. Actors who choose means which they know will not achieve those ends are irrational. So, what are Western nations’ objectives in imposing sanctions on Crimea and will the sanctions actually help them reach those objectives?

It could be that the aim of the sanctions is to coerce Russia into giving Crimea back to Ukraine. The problem with this objective is that it cannot be achieved. Russia will not surrender Crimea. If Western states believe otherwise, they are deluded. If they understand that they cannot force Russia to hand over Crimea, but are pursuing this objective anyway, then they are acting irrationally.

In any case, if the aim is to put pressure on Moscow, it seems strange to sanction Crimea. The effect of the sanctions will be to make life difficult for the inhabitants of the peninsula, but they won’t directly harm those in Moscow who make the political decisions. The means chosen do not match the apparent end.

A rational person might, therefore, conclude that pressuring or punishing Moscow is not the aim after all. Perhaps the objective is instead to punish the people of Crimea. But that makes little sense. In the first place, the sanctioning states do not gain any benefit from such punishment. Second, Western states have never blamed the people of Crimea for the annexation of the peninsula, and so punishing them would be odd.

Perhaps, then, the sanctions are not really meant to achieve anything as far as Russia is concerned. Rather their purpose is to satisfy domestic public opinion. The problem with that explanation is that the public in most Western states doesn’t seem very interested in Crimea. Outside of Canada there isn’t much of a Ukrainian lobby pushing for a harder line against Russia. It’s not obvious that there are domestic political interests which need to be appeased, and thus it does not appear that there is any political benefit in sanctioning Crimea.

Another possibility would be that the policy is a product of bureaucratic inertia. Following the annexation of Crimea, committees were formed, papers written, and processes started. Now they are ploughing their way forward regardless of whether what they are doing serves a meaningful purpose. And yet another possibility would be that Western political leaders don’t actually know what their objectives are, but are flailing around blindly in order to satisfy their own personal sense of moral outrage. The rationality in this case would be personal and emotional. If so, it is impossible to verify.

All in all, it’s hard to explain what is happening using a rational actor model of policy making. One has to look elsewhere for an explanation.

Glædelig Jul

What nationality is Santa Claus? The answer to that question depends on who owns the North Pole, which is currently a matter of considerable dispute. Every year the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracks Santa’s sleigh as it travels south into Canada from the Arctic. Yet NORAD never dispatches any jets to intercept this obvious breach of Canadian airspace. This presumably reflects the belief that the Pole is Canadian. Indeed, in December 2013 Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters that, ‘We have asked our officials and scientists to do additional and necessary work to ensure that a submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada’s claim to the North Pole.’

But Canada is not the only country claiming the Pole. In the past 12 months, journalists, politicians, and academics alike have leapt with zeal on the ‘Russian aggression in the Arctic’ bandwagon, referring often to a 2007 incident when Russian scientists planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole . ‘Russia Is Trying To Bully Their Way Past Canada Into Arctic Sovereignty’, pronounced Vice News in January 2014.  ‘Russia’s aggressive gambit to seize territory in Europe has amplified the need for Canada to fortify its claims to potentially disputed territory in the Arctic’, said Professor Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto in September. ‘Since Mr. Putin returned as President of Russia in 2012, but particularly in the past year, Russian claims to the Arctic have multiplied’, he added.

In fact, claims to Arctic waters are being determined by a well-established legal procedure, in which countries present scientific evidence to the commission established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Making claims under this procedure is not evidence of any form of aggression. Furthermore, Russia has entirely followed this procedure. The Canadian government, by contrast, hasn’t, as shown by Baird’s statement staking a claim to the North Pole despite a total lack of evidence that the Canadian continental shelf extends that far. As James Manicom, a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, put it: ‘I don’t think the prime minister, and the Prime Minister’s Office, are literate in deep-sea geology. So if they decided it was important to claim the seabed underneath the North Pole, then they have interfered with an otherwise pretty clear scientific process.’

In any case, Russia isn’t the competitor that Canada really has to worry about. In early December this year, the Danish government submitted scientific data to the UN in support of a claim to the North Pole, on the grounds that the Lomonosov Ridge under the Arctic Ocean is an extension of Greenland’s continental shelf. Experts suggest that the Danish claim is much more credible than those of Russia and Canada. ‘Preliminary work has shown … that Denmark would actually have the strongest claim to encompass the North Pole within its region,’ Ron McNab, formerly of the Canadian Polar Commission, told CBC News.

Santa, it appears, is probably Danish. Ho, ho, ho!

Russia, the West, and the world

%d bloggers like this: