Putin at Valdai

What should we make of Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Valdai Club last week?

Headlines have tended to focus on Putin’s tough statements about the United States, and certainly there were a lot of those. Since the end of the Cold War, Putin said, the United States have circumvented the international system in pursuit of American interests. In the process, ‘they have committed many follies. … International law has been forced to retreat over and over by the onslaught of legal nihilism. Objectivity and justice have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency,’ Putin argued. America has toppled regimes, spread propaganda, and supported terrorists, he claimed, adding that ‘Essentially, the unipolar world is simply a means of justifying dictatorship over people and countries’. The result has been chaos. ‘Sometimes’, said Putin, ‘we get the impression that our colleagues and friends are constantly fighting the consequences of their own policies’.

These are harsh words indeed.  I note that Putin reserved his harshest criticism for the United States, and generally spared the European Union, except in the case of Ukraine. There can be no doubt that the speech reflects the current tension between Russia and the West.

It is also rather one-sided. Just as the West blames Russia, and particularly Putin himself, for the decline in Russia-West relations, Putin places the blame entirely on the West. It would be rather better if both sides would recognize that they have each contributed something to it, and spend more time putting their own actions in order rather than criticizing one another.

That said, I think that there are some grounds for thinking that Putin’s speech is not quite as negative as some are making it out to be. It was interesting, for instance, that he referred again to Western states as Russia’s ‘partners’, and that he categorically rejected the idea that Russia was turning its back on Europe in favour of Asia. ‘This is absolutely not the case’, Putin said. Furthermore, Putin ended his speech with an appeal to Russia and the West to work together to solve global problems, and argued that this could be done through existing institutions such as the United Nations, which, he said, was ‘irreplaceable’.

This then was not a call for a new Cold War. It was some way removed from speeches and articles by many in the West which have called for ‘containment’ of Russia or some other similar policy which clearly casts Russia as an enemy. However intemperate Putin’s language occasionally was it was not as hostile as a lot of that being used by Western politicians against him. It is clear that Putin is not seeking to make relations between Russia and the West even worse than they are. This, sadly, is not something which can be said about some in the West.

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Capitalism, militarism, and the Cold War

This week in our class ‘Russia and the West’, we are examining the Cold War. From the West’s point of view, the Cold War was the fault of the evil, aggressive Soviets. The Soviets, of course, saw it rather differently. To give something of the Soviet perspective, I offer you this little pamphlet I bought in Minsk in 1987 while studying at the Minsk Institute of Foreign Languages. At the time, I regarded it as propagandistic nonsense.

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Entitled Capitalism: How it is; Militarism – threat to mankind, and published in Moscow in 1986, the pamphlet starts with the compulsory quote from Lenin, then defines militarism as ‘a system of state-administrative, political, economic, and ideological resources and undertakings, which in the hands of the exploiting classes serves to create and exploit military power with the aim of strengthening their class domination, suppressing the popular masses within the country and achieving aggressive external political objectives.’

I don’t have much sympathy with this class-based socialist analysis of the roots of militarism, but the view that capitalist states use their military power for ‘aggressive external political objectives’ is one I can agree with these days. Similarly, the criticism that the military-industrial complex serves the interests of narrow groups within society at the expense of society as a whole is one that rings true.

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On page 7, the pamphlet outlines the growth of the military expenditure of the ‘imperialistic bloc’ NATO, whose policies are ‘directed against the peaceful socialist communities and peoples, who are fighting for national independence and social progress’. The graph shows that between 1975 and 1984, NATO’s annual military expenditure rose from $153 billion to $427.1 billion.

Sadly, despite the end of the Cold War, this spending has not diminished but more than doubled. In 2013, NATO countries spent $1,023.3 billion on defence. This is a trillion dollars which could have been spent on something else. Page 11 of the pamphlet shows that in 1986 an F-16 fighter cost as much as 9 schools, an F-16 was equivalent to the salaries of 1,000 teachers, a Trident submarine could cover the cost of educating 16,000,000 school children for a year, and for the price of a Leopard-2 tank you could build 36 three-room apartments. As Dwight Eisenhower said in his famous address about the military-industrial complex, ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’

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Of course, the pamphlet does not mention what the Soviet Union was spending on defence. Had it done so, it would have had to admit that the Soviet Union was every bit as militaristic, if not more so, than the West. Militarism is not a product solely of capitalism. Still, while the Soviets were hypocritical, their criticisms of the West were not completely unjustified. Although we think that our military spending and actions are defensive, they don’t always look that way to other people.

Another policy success

This morning a report landed in my email inbox from the American Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) entitled Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan.

SIGAR audits the development assistance provided by the United States to Afghanistan. His reports make depressing reading, being mostly a catalogue of billions of dollars of misspent resources producing few if any positive results.

The latest report is no exception. Its conclusion: ‘After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion in counternarcotics efforts, poppy cultivation levels are at an all-time high.’ ‘Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares of opium poppy in 2013’, says the report, ‘With deteriorating security in many  parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivations are likely in 2014.’

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Attempting to prevent people from consuming illicit drugs by destroying the supply is a strategy that has not had notable success anywhere else. Yet, as with so many other failed policies America and its NATO alllies insanely persist in doing the same thing over and over again in the hope of getting a different result. How can this be explained?

Psychology provides a clue in the form of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’: people attribute others’ mistakes to something internal to them (e.g. their malice or incompetence), but their own mistakes to some external factor beyond their control. So it is that in this case, the US Department of State and the Department of Defense, in their responses to SIGAR (included in the report) lay the blame for the bad poppy cultivation figures on the Afghan government.  ‘Our counternarcotics goals can only be accomplished when these are also Afghan counternarcotics goals’, says the Department of State. ‘In our opinion, the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort’, says the Department of Defense.

This, of course, is an entirely self-serving explanation, as it excuses the Americans for their own failures. It thereby allows them to persist in the belief that counter-narcotics strategies are not inherently futile, and to continue to pour resources into them in the hope that next time things will work out right.

No Justice for East Ukrainians

A provocative piece by Vera Graziadei, though I should point out that, as reported by Amnesty International, crimes have been committed by both sides.

Update: Amnesty International has issued a report today (20 October) concluding that evidence ‘points strongly to the commission of at least some extra-judicial killings by both sides in the conflict.’ I may return to this in a later post.

The politics of space

Guest post by Nicholas Robinson.

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(Photo: Shamil Zhumatov)

On 14 December 1972, humans walked on the Moon for the last time. Forty-two years later, no one has gone anywhere further than low-Earth orbit. The most ambitious project since the Apollo programmes is arguably the heavily-criticised International Space Station (ISS), an international collaboration costing over $100 billion. That project’s future is now in doubt, as Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has threatened to shut down the station by 2020. This announcement comes following American sanctions against Russia. NASA has essentially stopped working with Roscosmos (the Russian Federal Space Agency), except on ISS-related matters. The USA pays Russia millions of dollars to send astronauts to the ISS, because since the retirement of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011 it no longer has the capacity to send people into space itself. In fact, nobody has had the capacity to send people to the Moon since 1972, and the Space Shuttles were themselves designed in the 1970s.

The fact is that astrophysics and space programmes have generally been used as means to a political end. The Cold War space race between America and the Soviet Union was not really about science or exploration – it was about politics and defence. Carl Sagan, in his book Pale Blue Dot, explains: ‘The President did not talk about discovering the origin of the Moon, or even about bringing back samples for study. All he seemed to be interested in was sending someone there and bringing him home … What’s so special about space technology? Suddenly, I understood. Sending people to orbit the Earth or robots to orbit the Sun requires rockets – big, powerful rockets. Those same rockets can be used for nuclear war.’ In other words: if you can hit a target 400,000 km away with a missile, you can easily hit anywhere on Earth with a missile. It’s worth noting that, of all 12 men to have walked on the Moon, only one was a scientist: Harrison Schmitt, a geologist.

During the Cold War, rivalry between America and the USSR happened to encourage space exploration. Today, poor Russian-West relations are hindering it. Given how underfunded NASA, and science in general, are (the National Science Foundation, the major source of American federal research funding, currently has a budget of only around $7 billion), it is rather amazing how much they get done. Even in the face of politics.

Looking at Russia from the wrong reference point

Psychological research suggests that human beings do not evaluate losses and gains in absolute terms but relative to some reference point. This came to mind when reading Gregory Feifer’s book Russians: The People Behind the Power, which was published earlier this year.

The book is 350 pages of unrelenting negativity. ‘Putin’s system turned out to be all about dictatorship’ (page 34), Feifer says, and is ‘not based on popular support’ (page 38). ‘Anger is never far from the surface’ (page 43). ‘Poverty is endemic’ (page 47), is worse than in the Soviet Union, and ‘continues getting worse’ (page 65). One can observe ‘the obvious disintegration of the social fabric’ (page 70), as ‘hopes for a better life steadily decline’ (page 73). Drinking is ‘helping drive men’s life expectancy down’ and ‘the population continues to shrink. … It’s getting worse’ (page 89). ‘Putin’s self-interested authoritarianism is driving his country off a cliff’ (page 213), Feifer remarks. He concludes that the West must take a hard line against Russia and ‘must have no illusions about what kind of country they are dealing with’ (page 348).

As befits a journalist’s work, Feifer’s book is anecdotal rather than academic, and he draws unwarranted conclusions from his anecdotes. Putin does in fact enjoy popular support (an 87% approval rating according to a recent Levada poll). Surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever. Russia has enjoyed massive economic growth in the past fifteen years which has substantially reduced poverty. The mortality rate is declining, as is alcoholism, and the population is growing.

There are, of course, many bad things about modern Russia. But there are good things too. Feifer is far too one-sided. What explains this? I think that it may have something to do with the reference point he starts from. Feifer begins his book by describing his experiences in the Soviet Union at the time of the August coup in 1991 which briefly ousted Mikhail Gorbachev and ended with Boris Yeltsin forcing the coup leaders to back down. This is Feifer’s reference point – the heady, exciting days when he and others believed that the Soviet Union was going to become a liberal democratic, Western state. Seen from this perspective, the Putin era has been a terrible disappointment – thus the inclination to describe it in such negative terms.

My reference point is very different: it is the time I spent as a student in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Remembering the general dinginess, the difficulty of finding the most basic goods, the sullen and incompetent service, and all the rest of it, I cannot look at Russia today and think that the country has gotten worse. Despite all its flaws, it has obviously gotten a whole lot better.

Feifer’s problem, I think, is that he is comparing Russia not with what it really was at any time in the past but with an idea he had of what Russia could be, an idea which was quite possibly never realisable. The result is an unfair assessment of the country’s progress.

Russia, the West, and the world

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