Object Lesson – Soviet sugar lumps

In my research, I deal primarily with documents rather than with objects. But even the most trivial object can tell a story. With that in mind, I plan to regularly post a photograph of one of the numerous Russian/Soviet objects that I have collected over the years. I also invite others to send me photos of any interesting objects that they may have, whether they have historical significance or just come with a story.

For this week, here is a package of sugar lumps purchased in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. The label says that they cost 1 ruble 18 kopecks per kilo, and that they were produced in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Ukrsakharprom at the Khodorovskii Sakhkombinat.



The sugar lumps got me thinking about the packaging of Soviet consumer goods. Given that they didn’t have to compete to sell their goods, why did Soviet producers bother decorating them? What purpose did the packaging serve? That made me wonder if anybody has studied the subject. My initial survey of the literature on Soviet consumer culture reveals little, although the Moscow Design Museum held an exhibition on the subject last year. A subject for somebody’s PhD, maybe?




NATO shoots itself in the foot

This week in my course ‘Russia and the West’ we shall be discussing Russia’s relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Right on cue, NATO’s top military commander, Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove, has announced a new set of measures designed to counter the supposed Russian threat.

The measures include the following:

  • Suspension of a ‘joint program to train counter-narcotics workers from Afghanistan’.
  • Halting ‘a project providing spare parts and training for Afghan helicopter technicians’.
  • Excluding Russia from ‘an initiative to link radars to provide a fuller picture of airspace in case of hijacking’.

According to the Wall Street Journal, ‘The Kremlin responded angrily, saying the moves would hurt the West as much as Russia, while helping terrorists and other lawbreakers. “It isn’t hard to imagine who will win from the rolling back of joint Russia-NATO collaboration … particularly the fight against terrorism, piracy, and natural and man-made disasters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. “That would definitely not be Russia or NATO member countries”.’

NATO officials actually agree with him. According to one, ‘It’s unfortunate that these projects will be damaged, because they were doing important things. But we have to be able to take a little damage to stand up for our principles.’

There are only two possible explanations for this bout of self-harm. Either, despite its rhetoric, NATO doesn’t actually care that much about Afghanistan, counter-narcotics, and terrorism; or it is acting in a fit of pique, cutting off its nose to spite its face, as the saying goes. I suspect a bit of both.

Two elections, two responses

Election workers prepare ballots in the Donetsk Peoples' Republic
Election workers prepare ballots in the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic

The new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, got off to a quick start in her job with a statement on 2 November saying:

I consider today’s ‘presidential and parliamentary elections’ in Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine. The vote is illegal and illegitimate, and the European Union will not recognise it.

These negative comments compare unfavourably to the reaction to parliamentary elections in the rest of Ukraine a week earlier. In a typical response to those, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper commented that:

I would like to congratulate the people of Ukraine for stepping up, for the second time in 2014, to exercise their fundamental democratic rights. Today’s elections represent an important step in the process of strengthening democracy in Ukraine, and its people continue to show resilience, courage and commitment to building a more peaceful and prosperous country for themselves.

This contrast displays, I think, a misunderstanding of what political legitimacy is. Simply put, it is ‘the belief that a rule, institution, or leader has the right to govern. It is a judgment by an individual about the rightfulness of a hierarchy between rule or ruler and its subject and about the subordinate’s obligations toward the rule or ruler. … legitimacy itself is a fundamentally subjective and normative concept: it exists only in the beliefs of an individual about the rightfulness of rule.’ Western leaders are quite entitled to consider one process legitimate and another illegitimate, but it is a mistake for them to think that their personal opinion is an objective fact.

As I have mentioned previously, turnout in the Ukrainian election in those parts of Donbass which are still under Ukrainian government control was only about 30%. By contrast, officials in breakaway Donbass claim a turnout of about 60% in their election. We cannot confirm this figure, but even Western journalists who are not noted for their support for the Ukrainian rebels reported ‘great enthusiasm’ and ‘huge crowd[s]’ at polling booths. Western leaders may view the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics as illegitimate and the government of Ukraine as legitimate, but the people who live in Donbass obviously have a different opinion.

In a post for the CIPS blog some months ago, I remarked that the referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk in May should serve as a wake-up call indicating that a large part of the Ukrainian population disliked the government in Kiev and that some political concessions were necessary to prevent the situation from getting worse. Instead, Western and Ukrainian politicians chose to bury their heads in the sand, with disastrous consequences. Denying reality does not make it go away.



Ukraine remains divided

‘This war has consolidated our nation, united the people of Ukraine.’ So said the Ukrainian president, President Petro Poroshenko, expressing a view which has become widespread in recent months. Many commentators now claim that outside of the war zone in the east of the country, the war has brought Ukrainians of all stripes together in a common sentiment that their country is under attack from Russia and that their future belongs with the West. The overwhelming victory by ‘pro-Western’ political forces in this week’s parliamentary elections is supposed to be proof of this fact.

Electoral maps show a somewhat different story.

This map shows turnout in the recent election. The picture is clear: the further south-east one goes, the lower the turnout, with over 80% of eligible people voting in the area around Lvov in the far west of the country, but only about 30% voting in the parts of the far east which remain under government control.


This next map shows the results in the various electoral districts: The yellow and red markings indicate victories by the ‘pro-Western’ parties; the blue indicates victories by the opposition, which might be said to represent the ‘not pro-Western’ point of view.


Comparing the two maps, what is immediately clear is that the more pro-Western an area was, the higher the turnout was. The low turnout in the south-east of the country, coupled with the fact that those who did vote there tended to vote for the opposition, certainly suggests that that part of the country remains hostile to the Westernizing project.

Now compare all this with a third map, which shows the linguistic divisions in Ukraine. This reveals another correlation: voting for the opposition or not voting at all is closely related to being a Russian speaker.


In an interview this week Gennady Moskal, the governor of that part of Lugansk province which remains under Ukrainian control, remarked that ‘pro-Russian sentiments are very high, in some towns 95%, in some 80% … people have an extremely negative attitude towards the authorities in Kiev.’  All in all, this information suggests that the war in Ukraine has not in fact forged a new unified national identity. On the contrary, Ukraine remains a divided country.

A frightening array of crazy hyperbole

One of the many sad things about the current poor state of Russian-Western relations is the crazy hyperbole being used by commentators on both sides of the divide, accusing each other of the most ridiculous actions and intentions. The degree of exaggeration has of late reached occasionally frightening proportions.

On the Western side, a couple of recent examples are an interview conducted by Ben Judah with former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorsky and an article by billionaire George Soros in The New York Review of Books entitled ‘Wake Up, Europe’.

Sikorsky, who has since had to retract some of his statements, remarked that in Russia the annexation of Crimea ‘was the moment that finally convinced all doubters and turned all heads. This was Napoleon after Austerlitz. This was Hitler after the fall of Paris. This was the moment that finally centralized everything into the hands of Vladimir Putin.’ ‘What is happening now is the full embrace of neo-imperialism,’ Sikorsky told Judah, who in turn added that ‘Fear has returned to Moscow. Paranoia has gripped Russian officials and business elites.’

Soros, meanwhile, writes that ‘Europe is facing a challenge from Russia to its very existence.’ ‘The Russian attack on Ukraine is indirectly an attack on the European Union and its principles of governance,’ he continues, ‘Not only the survival of the new Ukraine but the future of NATO and the European Union itself is at risk. In the absence of unified resistance it is unrealistic to expect that Putin will stop pushing beyond Ukraine when the division of Europe and its domination by Russia is in sight.’ In response, Soros concludes, Europe should understand that ‘All available resources ought to be put to work in the war effort even if that involves running up budget deficits. … It is high time for the members of the European Union to wake up and behave as countries indirectly at war.’

This is nonsense. The European Union is not at war, and European dominoes are not about to fall if the Ukrainian government does not prevail in its struggle in Donbass.

Alas, people in the West aren’t the only ones speaking like this. Many in Russia are too. Sergei Glazyev, an economic advisor to Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly expressed his view that the West is waging an undeclared war against Russia. ‘U.S. actions in Ukraine should be classified not only as hostile with regard to Russia,’ he writes, ‘but also as targeting global destabilization. The U.S. is provoking an international conflict to salvage its geopolitical, financial, and economic authority. The response must be systemic and comprehensive, aimed at exposing and ending U.S. political domination.’ In particular Glazyev recommends ‘undermining U.S. military-political power based on the printing of dollars as a global currency.’

Glazyev is not alone in propagating views of the latter sort. There is a common perception among Russians that the chaos created by Western interventions in countries such as Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine is not an unfortunate by-product of mistaken policies, but a deliberate objective. This is also a wholly incorrect view of the world. Stupid we may be, but Machiavellian in that respect we are not, especially as it is hard to see what real benefit we in the West would gain from creating disorder around the globe.

Were all of the crazy talk restricted to the fringes of public discourse, it would not matter. Unfortunately, important people with money and influence are perpetrating it, and proposing policies which if implemented would have highly negative consequences. It is time for everybody to calm down a little. Russia is not pursuing a new imperialism. Europe’s existence is not under threat. The West is not seeking the destruction of the Russian Federation. And less hyperbole would be better.

Crackpot theory #2: The Responsibility to Protect

In this second post on crackpot theories, I will look at the ‘Responsibility to Protect (R2P)’. Strictly speaking this is a policy rather than a theory, but there is a crackpot idea behind it – the idea that you can make the world safe for human rights by bombing people.

The essence of R2P is the concept that if states fail to look after their own people (e.g. by abusing their citizens’ human rights) then other states have a responsibility to protect those people, forcibly if necessary. R2P’s supporters claim that it is about much more than military intervention and that the policy stresses that force should be a last resort. This, in my view, is disingenuous. Take away the military part of R2P and all that is left is some high sounding humanitarianism allied to vague suggestions that we ought to provide aid to those in trouble. Furthermore, the very reason R2P came into existence was to provide philosophical and legal justification for the bombing of Kosovo in 1999 and for future such operations. Military interventionism is at the very core of R2P.

I mention this by way of responding to a post by Mark Kersten on the Justice in Conflict blog in which he commented on the recent shooting in Ottawa. Kersten remarks that the Canadian government in recent years, ‘has actively pursued a political philosophy of retribution and control that tarnishes the country’s image as an “honest international broker.”’ ‘Harper’s record attests to an unyielding mission to reshape Canada’s international identity as a tough and hard-power state,’ Kersten says, and this has ‘made it harder to protect civilians in Canada’. The Canadian government’s policies ‘stoke political violence – in Canada and abroad’.

I agree, and congratulate Kersten for having the courage to say it. But I have to part company with him when he contrasts the militaristic policies of the Harper government with the R2P-oriented position adopted by that government’s Liberal predecessor. It is precisely R2P which has made the current passion for military adventures overseas possible.

In the 1990s, the military-industrial complex in the West had a problem: its enemy (the Soviet Union) had disappeared. It needed a new justification, and found one in the cause of humanitarian intervention. The armed forces would become, as they officially did in the defence policy statements of the United Kingdom, ‘a force for good’, bringing the benefits of liberal democracy to those suffering from human rights abuses around the world. The effect was to lower the barriers to war.

This contributed in no small way to the invasion of Iraq and other wars since. In the case of Iraq, arguments that invading would liberate the Iraqis from a vile dictator played an important role in convincing the public in the USA and UK to support the invasion, and in the case of the UK this argument was crucial in persuading many Members of Parliament to overcome their doubts and to vote in favour of military action. What we saw with Iraq was an odd alliance between traditional right-wing hawks and the new liberal-interventionist left.

This alliance held firm through the wars in Afghanistan and Libya and on to those in Iraq and Syria today. It is no coincidence that R2P-ers such as Samantha Power were among the most zealous supporters of bombing Libya and of arming the rebels in Syria. The policies which Kersten so abhors rest upon the rock of liberal-interventionism.

Perhaps no idea has done more to legitimize the use of military power in recent years than the Responsibility to Protect. In Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere it has left chaos in its wake. This was entirely predictable. For R2P is premised on a false idea – that war can prevent human rights abuses. The truth is that nothing does more to promote such abuses than war. This is why, in my opinion, R2P is a crackpot theory, and also a positively dangerous one.

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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