Friday Object Lesson #14: Soviet Matrioshka

February will be matrioshka month. Somehow I have accumulated a lot of them over the years. From these, I have picked out a different type for each of the next four weeks. This Friday’s is a Soviet matrioshka bought in the 1980s. There are many things that you can do with a nesting doll, but the Soviets almost invariably stuck to the basic model. It’s pretty enough, but at the same time symptomatic of the limitations of the centrally planned economy.


The Merkel-Hollande Peace Plan

This Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande flew to Kiev to promote a new peace plan for Ukraine. As I write, the details of the plan are not known, but it is believed that if enacted it would freeze the conflict along the current front lines. All parties would recognize the rebel-controlled areas as being part of Ukraine, but in practice they would retain their independent existence. This is the so-called ‘Transdnestr solution’.

Those calling for Western states to arm Ukraine have based their appeals on the theory that Russia is the primary obstacle to peace. The conflict will only end, they claim, when sufficient pressure is put on Russia to make it force the rebels to settle. I notice, though, that there have been two major peace initiatives in Ukraine. The first was in September last year, and came after the Ukrainian Army suffered a terrible defeat at Ilovaisk in August. The second is the one now being put forward by Merkel and Hollande, which comes as the Ukrainian Army struggles to avoid an even more catastrophic setback in the ‘Debaltsevo pocket’, where several thousand of its troops are at risk of encirclement.

In short, peace seems to come closer not when the pressure on the rebels increases, but when the Ukrainian government suffers reverses. The ramifications of that conclusion for the ‘arm the Ukrainians’ lobby need no elaboration.

UPDATE: I shall be interviewed on CTV at 2.15 ET on Friday (6 February) to talk about all this.

UPDATE2: 2.15 interview is cancelled. There is a possibility of a later time, but it is unconfirmed. I will update as appropriate.

UPDATE 3: Interview now rescheduled for 6.10 pm.

A Thoroughly Bad Idea

There is a strange belief that the best way to solve humanitarian crises caused by war is to hand out even more weapons. This week the United Nations warned that the upsurge in violence in Ukraine is proving ‘catastrophic’. In the United States, meanwhile, both the media and officials such as Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel have been ratcheting up the pressure on President Obama to send weapons to the Ukrainian Army. So far, Obama has resisted, but according to the Washington Post, he is facing a ‘rebellion’ within the Democratic Party. The BBC reports that the president ‘is rethinking his policy’.

A lack of weapons has never been the Ukrainian Army’s problem. It began operations against the rebels in the east of the country with a massive advantage in heavy weapons. Poor leadership and tactics meant, however, that it could not translate this advantage into battlefield success. Moreover, a thorough examination of the rebels’ weapons by experts of the Armaments Research Service in Australia concluded that most had been captured from the Ukrainian Army, which has been, one could say, very generous with its equipment. Giving the Ukrainians yet more weapons will not solve their leadership problems, nor improve the efficiency of their troops. As likely as not, some of the arms will eventually end up in rebel hands.

There is no reason to believe that supplying the Ukrainian Army will help it defeat the rebellion. What it will do is escalate the conflict. Russia has made it very clear that it will not allow the rebels to be defeated militarily, and so far it has provided the rebels with just enough equipment to prevent this from happening. Were the United States to send weapons to Ukraine, it is probable that Russia would retaliate in kind, stepping up supplies to the rebels. This would wipe out any advantage American armaments provided. The scale of violence would increase still further, without actually tipping the balance of power in favour of the Ukrainians.

The failure so far to end the war by negotiation has not been due to the intransigence of one side only. Any peace settlement will require substantial concessions not only by Russia and the rebels, but also by the Ukrainian government, concessions which as yet Kiev has shown no signs of being willing to make. Arming Ukraine will not encourage it to take a step in that direction. It is more likely to strengthen the hand of hawks within the Ukrainian government, who will feel that with the support of a superpower, they do not need to compromise. Peace will be less, rather than more, likely.

Fundamental Attribution Error

This week, my graduate students will be discussing the effects of cognitive biases on foreign policy decision making. Previously, I wrote about misperception. Today, I want to address a related cognitive bias – the Fundamental Attribution Error – which has a similarly negative effect on policy making.

The Fundamental Attribution Error describes our tendency to attribute our own practical and moral failures to external factors while attributing other people’s failures to their personal character. Conversely, we attribute our successes and good deeds to our own character, and others’ successes to some external factor. If we succeed, it is because we are skillful, and if we do good, it is because we are good people. If we do something wrong, it is because something outside our control, and which we could not have predicted, intervened to prevent our otherwise sensible and good plan from succeeding. By contrast, if others succeed, it is because they are lucky, and if they fail, it is because they are incompetent or evil.

For instance, once it became clear that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq had gone disastrously wrong, its supporters did not acknowledge their aggressive instincts, bad judgment, or any other internal characteristic, but rather blamed external factors for their mistake: ‘Saddam lied about weapons of mass destruction, and so it was perfectly reasonable for us to be mistaken about them’; ‘Nobody could have known that those in charge of the operation would have been so incompetent’; ‘Iraq turned out to be in a much worse state than we could possibly have predicted’; and so on.

By contrast, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, we attributed its actions to the evil character of Saddam Hussein. We dismissed as irrelevant external factors which might help to explain Saddam’s actions, such as misinterpreting American signals about what was permissible, or genuine grievances about Kuwait’s behaviour.

The Fundamental Attribution Error accentuates the misperceptions I wrote about in my earlier post. It also prevents people from reconsidering faulty policies. When a new Ukrainian government took over in February 2014, it believed that it would bring an era of prosperity to Ukraine. Instead, its seizure of power brought war. But the Fundamental Attribution Error meant that its members could not attribute the tragedy which struck their nation to their own errors. Rather, they had to attribute it to something external – Russia. Everything which went wrong was Russia’s (and particularly Putin’s) fault. That mode of thinking precluded any analysis of their own mistakes, and encouraged them to press on with the very policies which had produced war.

Unfortunately, liberal democracies which claim to pursue ‘values-based’ foreign policies may be especially liable to the Fundamental Attribution Error due to their high sense of their own righteousness. When their policies fail, and particularly when they fail in a manner which is costly in terms of human life, such democracies are confronted with severe cognitive dissonance because of the contrast between the negative consequences of their actions and their view of themselves as ‘good’. The Fundamental Attribution Error provides a way of eliminating this dissonance. During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised a ‘humble foreign policy’. He never delivered on that promise, but the idea remains a very sound one.

Friday object lesson #13: KGB t-shirt

Last week I chaired a panel discussing Russia at the annual symposium of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies. In keeping with the intelligence theme, this week’s Friday object is a t-shirt I picked up at the airport in Moscow with the logo ‘I work in the KGB. And you?’  ‘No blabbering’ says the back of the shirt.

cropped kgb2

cropped t-shirt back

R2P in Ukraine?

Yesterday, I gave a talk on ‘The Folly of Military Intervention’ at McGill University. Afterwards, one of the students asked me a question about parallels between the wars in Kosovo in 1999 and Ukraine in 2014/15. As I answered, I found myself thinking about the scale of the humanitarian crises in both cases and what this means for supporters of so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’.

In 1999, NATO aircraft bombed Yugoslavia for three months. The aim, according to NATO leaders, was to coerce the Yugoslav government to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo. We were told that NATO’s campaign was a humanitarian intervention. The case of Kosovo was subsequently used to justify the concept of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), under which state sovereignty is limited and states have an obligation to protect the citizens of other countries if their rights are being attacked.

It is believed that prior to NATO’s war against Yugoslavia, about 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo. Roughly half of these were Serbs, dead at the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and half were Albanian Kosovars, killed by Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces. While eventually several hundred thousand Kosovars fled their homes to avoid the fighting, the vast majority of these did so only after NATO began its bombing.

According to the United Nations, over 5,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk provinces in the past year. It is not clear what percentage is military and what percentage civilian casualties, but it is obvious that the number of civilian deaths in the conflict has been very high. And the situation is getting worse. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights assesses that 262 people died in Eastern Ukraine between 13 and 21 January alone. Meanwhile, the High Commission for Refugees reports that there are now about half a million displaced persons from Donetsk and Lugansk within Ukraine, and that another 200,000 have fled to Russia. The towns and cities of Eastern Ukraine are subjected to daily bombardment from artillery and multiple launch rocket systems. Many of the people who remain there are without electricity and running water.

In short, the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine today is far worse than that in Kosovo prior to NATO’s 1999 intervention. Should the Russian Army invade Ukraine in force, drive the Ukrainian Army out of Donetsk and Lugansk, and bring the war to a rapid end? This, in principle, it is entirely capable of doing. R2P suggests that it should. In 1999, NATO killed about 1,500 Yugoslav civilians in the course of its bombing; it is unlikely that the civilian death toll from a Russian invasion would be much higher, and it might even be lower.

If R2P is valid, then its proponents should surely welcome such an intervention. In practice, I am sure that they wouldn’t. The point here is not to say that we should demand Russian humanitarian intervention in Ukraine; there are many reasons why that would be an extremely bad thing. Rather, the point is to show the absurdity of the humanitarian warriors’ position. Perhaps they can come up with a good explanation for why humanitarian intervention by NATO is justifiable but similar intervention by Russia in a far worse humanitarian situation would not be. I would be interested to hear it.

UPDATE: Brad Cabana (a fellow Canadian & former army captain) has just posted an argument on his blog that Russia should invade Ukraine. He makes his case well. As someone who has opposed the principle of humanitarian intervention ever since Kosovo, I cannot support it, if only in order to be consistent, but it seems to me to be entirely in line with R2P and thus to pose some real problems for the R2P crowd, who despite their alleged principles will no doubt be thoroughly against it:

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