Tag Archives: Crimea

Brits in Crimea: Scared of looking scared

It’s said that, when asked why he had escalated America’s military campaign in Vietnam, US president Lyndon Johnson pulled down his trousers, whipped out his male member, and said “That’s why!’

I have no idea if this is true, but it’s quite plausible. For LBJ, Vietnam was nothing if not a test of manhood. As he told his biographer Doris Kearns: “If I left that way and let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward … an unmanly man, a man without spine.”

It’s perhaps too harsh to say that 58,000 Americans died so that LBJ could feel like a man. But there’s something to it. And as I detailed in my 2006 book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, LBJ is hardly unique. Throughout the ages, war – like international politics generally – has been powerfully influenced by the search for honour, and perhaps even more by the desire to avoid dishonour.

One you realize this, a lot of international politics suddenly makes sense. Modern Westerners tend to be a bit uncomfortable with the language of honour. It sounds a bit archaic. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant – just that we’re not very good at recognizing it in ourselves. A case in point is the incident last week when a British warship sailed through what Russia claims are its territorial waters off Crimea. But before we get onto that, we first need to take a little diversion into academic theory.

Honour, as Aristotle put it, is “the reward for virtue.” What virtue consists of is something we’ll come onto in a moment, but the key point is that honour comes from displaying virtue. Honour also comes in two forms – external and internal, otherwise expressed by words such as prestige, reputation, face, etc. in the first instance, or like conscience and integrity in the second. Seen this way, honour is, according to a well-known definition, the worth of a person in his/her own eyes as well as the worth of a person in the eyes of others. Either way, it’s a measurement of worth. But of the two forms (internal and external) the first is the most important – the reason one wants to be considered worthy in the eyes of others is because it makes you feel worthy in your own eyes. Ultimately, honour is all about feeling good about yourself.

Another way of looking at honour is to divide it into two other types. The first is absolute, and is often associated with female honour. This type you either have or you don’t – you’re pure, and so honourable, until you aren’t and you’re not. The second type is relative and competitive – or “agonistic” in the technical jargon. This type is traditionally associated with male virtues – strength, courage, prowess, and so on. Honour of this type has to be perpetually defended, lest one loses one’s relative position. It requires one both to challenge others and to defend oneself any time one is challenged.

This latter type of honour tends to flourish where governance is weak, and people or institutions feel that they need to exert themselves in order to survive. This gives it an instrumental purpose. But it also tends to get detached from this purpose. Strength, courage, prowess etc are considered important in the sense of being necessary to defend against threats. Because of that, societies tend to promote them as virtues, rewarding their display. The result is that people internalize them and feel a need to display these virtues even when it’s not appropriate. Because virtue and worth have become associated with strength, courage, prowess etc, showing strength, courage, prowess, etc becomes almost an end in itself – or at least, a psychological necessity to avoid the sense of shame that comes from failing to live up to the standard of virtue.

The result is a lot of utterly unnecessary conflict, as individuals, including state leaders, feel the need to challenge one another and respond forcibly to anything that is perceived to be a challenge.

Which brings us on to the shenanigans of the Royal Navy last week off the coast of Crimea.

In a recent post, I speculated as to what inspired this particular piece of foolish derring-do. Now we have an answer, courtesy of some waterlogged Ministry of Defence documents found abandoned behind a bus stop in Kent. In these, anonymous defence officials predicted that the Russian response to a British incursion into Crimean waters might be fairly forceful. But they also concluded that this was no reason not to direct the British warship HMS Defender to sail through the waters in question. Were that to happen, said the documents, people might get the impression of “the UK being scared/running away.”

At which point, I hope, the connection with what I said earlier becomes clear. One might imagine that the Russian-British spat was a matter of high principle or national interest. In reality, it’s about not wanting to look cowardly.

In effect, the Russian annexation of Crimea was a “challenge” to the West. As such, the logic of honour requires a response. Failing to face up to the challenge by sailing around Crimea would have meant ducking the challenge, and as such was unacceptable. The fact that the Russians might respond forcefully made meeting the challenge even more essential. If there was no chance of a forceful response, there wouldn’t be any cowardice in failing to meet it. It was precisely the possibility that things might turn violent that made the escapade necessary.

This seems strange, but the logic is entirely in keeping with the perverse incentives provided by the honour code. The possibility that an incident might escalate into war isn’t a reason to back off; it’s actually all the more reason to press on.

The thing about this, though, is that the challenge in question was purely imaginary. It existed in the minds of the Royal Navy, but not anywhere else. People weren’t actually going to think that the British were a bunch of cowards if they decided to sail from Odessa to Georgia by some other route. In fact, nobody would have noticed, let alone cared.

Thus, going back to what I said earlier, the internal aspect of honour is what matters here – it’s all about self-perception rather than the perception of others. What’s driving this is a feeling in the British establishment that their status in the world isn’t what it was. The sense of internal dishonour this provokes makes them feel bad about themselves. And so they incite a conflict in order to boost their self-esteem.

If you have a spare hour, I recommend Bill Moyer’s documentary LBJ’s Road to War. A lot of it consists of recordings of President Johnson’s phone calls with his advisors about Vietnam. What comes out of it is that all concerned knew that escalating the war was a bad idea and wouldn’t succeed. But more important from LBJ’s point of view was that he didn’t want to look weak. And the rest as they say, is history. The lesson is obvious, and its one that the Brits – and everybody else – would do well to learn.

The myth of the land bridge

‘It is not our assessment that he [Putin] is bent on capturing or conquering all of Ukraine,’ said the American Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in March, ‘he wants a whole entity composed of the two oblasts (regions) in eastern Ukraine which would include a land bridge to Crimea.’ The ‘land bridge’ idea is a popular one among Western politicians and international affairs commentators. A March article in The New York Times, for instance, described such a bridge as one of Russia’s ‘key goals’. The thinking is that because Crimea is isolated from the rest of Russia, Moscow needs to establish overland communications with it by conquering Ukraine’s southern coast. This would involve not only capturing the city of Mariupol, but going beyond the boundaries of Donetsk Province, through Zaporozhe and into Kherson, an advance of around 300 kilometres.

Closely associated with the land bridge concept is that of Novorossiia, a somewhat undefined entity which notionally includes all of the eight provinces of southern and eastern Ukraine. From Russia’s point of view, promoting the idea of Novorossiia has the advantage of providing ideological justification for further expansion to secure the alleged land bridge. In line with this, soon after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 Ukrainian rebels demanded the creation of Novorossiia, invented symbols for it (including competing flags), and even set up institutions which were meant to represent it. Most prominent among the latter was the so-called Novorossia Parliament, chaired by Ukrainian politician Oleg Tsaryov.

Republic-of-Novorossiya

This Wednesday, however, Tsaryov declared the Novorossiia project ‘frozen’. ‘It isn’t foreseen by the Minsk agreements’, Tsaryov said, ‘and we don’t want to be blamed for disrupting them’. The ‘parliament’ was no longer meeting, he added.

From a practical standpoint, this announcement is not very significant. Just one of several competing institutions formed in spring 2014, the self-elected Novorossiia parliament soon lost ground to the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR), which became the true locus of loyalty and authority in rebel controlled areas and which eventually acquired some form of legitimacy through the elections held in November 2014. Over time the DPR and LPR have gradually created the basic structures of real states, while Novorossiia has remained moribund. Tsaryov’s declaration is no more than an acknowledgement of reality.

Still, from a political point of view this acknowledgement does have real meaning. Tsaryov is a Ukrainian, not a Russian, and it would be a mistake to describe him as a simple puppet of the Kremlin. Nevertheless, had his project had strong backing in Moscow (whether financial or even purely moral), it is unlikely that it would have stalled so completely. Tsaryov’s statement is proof that the Kremlin does not support the creation of Novorossiia, but instead backs the provisions of the Minsk agreement which envision Donbass remaining within Ukraine, albeit under an amended constitution.

What, then, does this mean for the land bridge? The answer is simple. Not for the first time Mr Clapper and American intelligence have it wrong: Russia doesn’t want it, and isn’t doing anything in order to get it. Work began this week on the construction of a real bridge linking Crimea with Russia across the Kerch Strait. Russia, it seems, will be content with that.

Prospect theory and Crimea

In this week’s session of my class on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, we shall be looking at the psychology of risk, in an effort to determine why people and governments worry so much about unlikely dangers (e.g. terrorism) and not so much about likely ones (e.g. car crashes). Among the things we shall look at is Prospect Theory, so in this post I will briefly describe the theory and then apply it to the case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March last year.

A good way to understand Prospect Theory is to watch this BBC Horizon video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ng9V2JneJ68

The magician in the video gives some people £20 and offers them a chance to gamble. If they refuse, they keep the £20; if they agree to gamble, they have a 50% of winning an extra £30 and ending up with £50 and a 50% chance of losing the £20 and ending up with nothing. The magician frames the choices differently for another group. He gives them £50, but then takes away £30 and offers them a chance to gamble to get the £30 back. Again, the people can refuse, in which case they keep the £20 they have left, or they can gamble, in which case the odds, as before, are 50-50.

Mathematically, both scenarios are identical. The participants can either a) walk away with £20; or b) choose to gamble, in which case they have a 50% chance of ending up with $50 and 50% chance of ending up with zero. But most people in the first scenario refuse to gamble, whereas most people in the second one agree to. Why?

Prospect Theory says that the answer is that we do not think in absolute mathematical terms, but rather relative to some reference point. Our willingness to accept risk is dependent upon whether we consider ourselves in a gain or loss position compared to that point. Human beings are prone to ‘loss aversion’, and so if in a loss position will gamble to try and recoup their losses, but if in a gain position will not, because gambling could result in the loss of what they already have. In the first scenario people are in a gain position – they have gained £20. They are happy to cash in their profits, and reluctant to take a risk which could mean losing what they have. By contrast, those in the second scenario feel that they have lost £30, and so will take a risk in an effort to get it back.

Applied to international affairs, this would imply that states will be less likely to take risks in order to win something (power, prestige, territory, etc), and more likely to take risks in order to avoid losing it.

Many commentators have interpreted Russia’s annexation of Crimea as proof of Russia’s aggressive, imperialist instincts. The next step may be for Russia to expand further, both in eastern Ukraine and perhaps even in the Baltic states. Prospect Theory would suggest something different. Seizing Crimea was a gamble – Russia could not be certain that there would be no resistance, nor could it be sure what the reaction of the Western world and international financial markets would be. Moscow could not know what costs it would incur. Given this, it makes more sense under Prospect Theory if we consider Russian leaders not to have been trying to gain something but rather to have felt themselves to be in a position of loss, and so to be gambling in order to reduce their losses. The loss in question was the fall of a Ukrainian government which was favourably aligned with Russia and its replacement with one which was determined to move westwards and to seek EU and NATO membership. Russia, in a sense, had ‘lost’ Ukraine. It also very possibly feared losing its naval base at Sevastopol. Finding itself in this position, it took the gamble of seizing Crimea as a way of trying to cut its losses.

Prospect Theory, of course, only describes broad tendencies. While people are generally less risk averse when in a position of loss than in a position of gain, there are also people who will gamble in order to win something. Russia’s annexation of Crimea may be such a case. But it is more likely not to be. If not – and if Prospect Theory holds true – the annexation of Crimea does not necessarily suggest that Russia is intent on expanding still further, and negotiating a settlement in Ukraine will not encourage further aggression.

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.