Tag Archives: Russia

Mutual lack of critical introspection

Every so often, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow publishes a forecast of where Russia and the world are headed in the near future.  At the end of last year, the Institute of International Relations in Prague published an English-language version of the latest IMEMO forecast in its journal New Perspectives. Now the journal has issued a set of responses to the forecast by several Western scholars and a member of IMEMO. They’re worth a brief look.

A common theme runs through all the responses. The authors all agree that when analyzing current East-West tensions, Russians have a tendency to see their own country as essentially reactive – that is to say that they portray Russia as simply responding to Western provocations. In doing so they deprive Russia of agency, and so deny that it may be in part responsible for the current crisis in Russian-Western relations. Instead, the West is held to be entirely at fault.

Thus Mark Galeotti, in the first response to the IMEMO forecast, remarks that, ‘What is most striking is that Russia is presented throughout this report as object, not actor. It may be a victim or a beneficiary, but the initiative is always elsewhere.’ This, he continues, ‘demonstrates a determination to paint Russia as the geopolitical victim, which is in itself a form of passivity, a sense of a country as lacking the capacity to influence, let alone master its fate.’

Likewise, Tuomas Forsberg of the University of Helsinki accuses the Russians of ‘attribution bias’, which ‘conveys the image that the criticism of Russia in Europe is mainly an outcome of malevolent intentions and not related to Russia’s own behavior.’ And Ruth Deyermond of King’s College London speaks of a ‘strengthened perception amongst Russian analysts and politicians that the US political establishment is irredeemably Russophobic’ and notes that Russian elites view foreign affairs through a ‘prism of grievance’.

I have some sympathy with these complaints. As IMEMO’s Irina Kobrinskaya writes in the final article in the journal, ‘While external factors certainly act on Russia, Russia also acts.’ Portraying oneself always as responding to the actions of others is a useful way of declining responsibility for one’s own behaviour, but also self-deceptive and liable to prevent one from a proper analysis of why one has ended up where one has. If Russians persist in viewing themselves solely as victims, then they’re unlikely to come up with constructive solutions to their problems.

But, as the saying goes, ‘it takes two to tango’. In another article in the journal, Minda Holm of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs speaks of a ‘mutual lack of introspection’. Holm complains that according to IMEMO,

the Russian state merely reacts to an antagonistic partner defined by ‘anti-Russian hysteria’, and nothing is said of where that sentiment, however exaggerated or unfair, emanates from. Whilst the roots of the ‘Russia factor’ lie in both past stereotypes and strategic needs, Russia’s own actions are also clearly part of the cause.

‘This form of one-sidedness is an impediment to any hope for an improved relationship’ says Holm. At the same time, however, she notes that Western analysts are equally guilty of the same intellectual failing. As she writes,

The current desire, and/or reflex, to cast Russia as an external enemy is strong in liberalWestern epistemic circles. Unwanted domestic political developments are often connected to Russia based on circumstantial evidence, and/or a reduction of the agency of others.

Thus, Holm concludes, ‘I am sympathetic to their [Russians’] critique of the tendency in self-defined liberal states to cast Russia as the enemy with little critical introspection.’ Russia-West relations’, she says, ‘seem locked in a mutual negative dynamic where nuances are increasingly left out of representations of the Other.’ Each side views themselves as purely reacting to the malign activity of the other. Each side therefore fails to understand its own responsibility for the breakdown in relations. What can done about this? ‘For a start,’ says Holm, ‘academics working on these questions have a particular responsibility not to fall into the traps of unproblematically reproducing simplified enemy images.’

Regular readers of this blog will hardly be surprised to learn that I completely agree. I would say also that it’s not enough just to understand that one has committed mistakes. Returning to the attribution error, it’s all too easy to designate one’s own misdeeds as ‘mistakes’ while attributing the misdeeds of one’s adversaries to their malignant character. Critical introspection has to go beyond admitting error and also involve admitting wrongdoing. The only caveat I would add is that in engaging in this critical introspection one shouldn’t overdo things. It’s one thing to understand that one’s own side has behaved badly; it’s another to then conclude that one’s own side is always wrong and the other side always right, and end up going full-blown Noam Chomsky or Gary Kasparov (a comparison which is probably a bit unfair on the former).

That caveat notwithstanding, let me finish by quoting the Gospel of St Matthew:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Every now and again I come across something I wish I’d written myself. ‘Mutual lack of critical introspection’ is a case in point. It hits the nail firmly on the head.

 

Out of the blue

‘It’s not a question of whether he [Putin] will attack, but where.’ So writes Mikheil Saakashvili on the website of Foreign Policy magazine this Friday. According to the tie-chewing former president of Georgia,

In Crimea, eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, or anywhere else Putin considers Russia’s backyard, territorial gain has never been an end in itself. Putin’s goal today is the same as when he invaded my country in 2008: to tighten his grip on the levers of power in Russia. Whenever Putin’s domestic popularity dips, he either escalates an ongoing conflict or launches a new offensive.

Saaskashvili doesn’t mention his own responsibility for the 2008 Russo-Georgian War or the fact that Putin wasn’t even president of the Russian Federation at the time. He also doesn’t mention that Russia’s other recent military ‘adventures’ didn’t just come out of the blue. The Georgian war came after years of civil conflict in South Ossetia; the war in Donbass after a violent revolution/coup in Kiev; the Russian military campaign in Syria after four years of civil war in that country. In no instance, did Russian troops just appear out of nowhere in a country which was otherwise completely stable. But that is what Saakashvili would have us believe Putin is now planning.

For Putin’s poll numbers are falling. It’s true that they’re still at a level which would cause just about any Western leader to jump up and down with joy, but they’re down from what they were a couple of years ago. And, if you follow Saaskashvili’s thesis, that means that the Russian president will looking for something to divert his people from their domestic travails. And what better than a short, victorious war? For as Saakashvili says, ‘Putin is both predictable and logical: Invading a weaker neighbor delivers a cheaper and faster ratings boost than, say, improving Russia’s dystopian health care system.’

Again, let’s put aside the unfortunate fact that Putin has responded to his recent decline in popularity by announcing reductions in defence spending and a renewed focus on domestic policies, such as health care and infrastructure. Let’s assume our ex-Georgian friend is right. There’s still a problem. Who could Putin invade next? Attacking a NATO member would be too dangerous, says Saakashvili. Putin won’t do that. Therefore, he concludes, ‘Russia’s most likely target in the near future is either Finland or Sweden.’ He continues:

I do not expect Russian tanks to roll into Helsinki or Stockholm unopposed. But it would be relatively simple for Moscow to execute a land grab in a remote Arctic enclave or on a small island, like Sweden’s Gotland, considering the strategic capabilities Russia has built up on its northern flank. After all, who would go to war over a frozen Baltic island or piece of Finland’s tundra. NATO wouldn’t, but Putin would.

So one day, we’ll wake up and discover that Russian troops will have occupied part of Finland or Sweden, with no warning, and despite the fact that Russia has no quarrel with either country and claim on any of their territory. Really? Does anybody believe that? This is nuts.

I realize that picking on Saakashvili is perhaps not fair. It’s been clear for a while that his grasp of reality is a little shaky. But my gripe isn’t really with him. Foreign Policy is normally regarded as a respectable journal. It’s the sort of thing you find on the bookshelves in airports. People read this guff. The editors ought to feel some sense of responsibility for what they publish, and not print absolute hokum which inflames international tensions on the basis of pure fantasy. But it seems like they don’t any more.

Maybe I’m just a typical grumpy old man, imagining that things were so much superior ‘when I were young.’ Perhaps my memory is faulty and journalistic standards weren’t actually any better back then. But when it comes to things Russians, they’re pretty poor right now. No self-respecting journal should be publishing inflammatory nonsense like this. Foreign Policy’s editors should be ashamed of themselves.

Book Review: Moscow Rules

Here goes with another long book review (of what is actually quite a short work, which I read in a single afternoon). But bear with it. As so often, the book, while not revealing much of value about Russia, does provide valuable insight into how Russia is viewed by its Western critics.

Keir Giles of Chatham House in the United Kingdom wants to enlighten us about Russia, and has written a book, Moscow Rules, to that end. A clue to his thesis lies in the subtitle: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. According to Giles, the problem in East-West relations is that Russia is ‘confronting’ the West. Why? Because, basically, Russians aren’t like us, they’re ‘un-European’. They’re innately ‘expansionist’, distrustful of the West, untruthful, and authoritarian. The West should rid of itself of any delusions that it can live in peace with Russia, and instead focus on deterrence and containment.

Giles notes that Westerners have been surprised by Russian behaviour under Vladimir Putin. But they shouldn’t be. One can see a ‘remarkable consistency of specific features of Russian life over time,’ meaning that Russia today is just an extension of Russia in the past. The problem, in short, isn’t Vladimir Putin, it’s what one might call ‘eternal Russia’. As Giles says, ‘throughout the centuries, Russia’s leaders and population have displayed patterns of thought and action and habit that are both internally consistent and consistently alien to those of the West.’ Russia, claims Giles, is ‘a culture apart’, and ‘Russia is not, and never has been, part of the West, and thus does not share its assumptions, goals, and values.’

moscow rules

So what distinguishes Russia from the West?

Continue reading Book Review: Moscow Rules

Censors for democracy

On 17 January, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a report written by Marcus Kolga, Stemming the Virus: Understanding and responding to the threat of Russian disinformation. Kolga claimed that, ‘The information warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in against Canada and its allies is total, and its objective is to tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government and institutions.’

Kolga’s report went on to list a whole series of individuals, organizations and publications which he believes are assisting the Kremlin in its dastardly plan. This blog was featured in a graphic titled ‘Illustration of a disinformation campaign’. Irrussianality was grouped with the likes of InfoWars as a ‘Pro-Kremlin, Conspiracy Theory, Extremist Platform’, and depicted as a conduit through which ‘False narratives’ generated by the Russian government are channelled to the ‘general public/voters’. On the next page of the report Kolga then alleged that such ‘platforms’ aimed ‘to generate support for Kremlin positions, discredit critics and opponents by all means available, and sow confusion and turn societies against each other in the West.’

Continue reading Censors for democracy

Deep people

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is said to be a fan of Deep Purple. Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov is instead promoting what he calls the ‘Deep People’. In an essay  today in Nezavisimaia Gazeta, Surkov has penned a prolonged paean to autocracy as the true democracy, in which the autocrat and the ‘deep people’ work together in glorious harmony. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the so-called ‘Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin.’ It’s also, I think, rather deluded.

A literal translation of the article’s title would be ‘Putin’s long state’, but a better version might be something along the lines of ‘Putin’s state will last a long time.’ Surkov writes that,

Putin’s large political machine is only just gaining momentum and intends to carry out a long, difficult and interesting job. … for many years Russia will still be Putin’s state. … We need to recognize, understand and describe the Putin system of government and the entire complex of ideas and measures of Putinism as the ideology of the future.

Continue reading Deep people

Three Russias

This week, the American press, and in particular the New York Times, has provided us with three contrasting images of Russia. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

First, the New York Times ran the article which was the subject of my last post – Franz Sedelmayer’s denunciation of Vladimir Putin. I won’t spend much time on this, as it would involve repeating myself. Suffice it to say that the intense focus on the person of the Russian president creates an image of Russia as tightly controlled from the centre. When anything happens – e.g. the arrest of Paul Whelan on spying charges – it’s because Putin ordered it. This, one may say, is ‘image no. 1’ – Russia as autocracy.

Image no. 2 is very different. It’s Russia as chaotic mafia state, and it can be seen in a long article published by the New York Times about the murder of Russian Duma Deputy Denis Voronenkov in Kiev in 2016. The Ukrainian authorities have accused the Russian state of involvement in the murder, the idea being that he was killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin after he fled Russia and gave evidence at the trial of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. Indeed, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iury Lutsenko called Voronenkov’s death a ‘typical show execution of a witness by the Kremlin’.

So far, this is all very much in keeping with image no. 1 – Moscow’s hand is in everything. The New York Times, however, notes that there is no evidence to support the accusation of Kremlin involvement in Voronenkov’s murder. Rather, it claims that, ‘To the contrary, the story of Denis Voronenkov is about something else entirely: a story of the chaos at the heart of the sistema (i.e. the Russian system).’ So here we have image no. 2 – Russia as chaos.

Voronenkov, says the Times, was a typical ‘adhocrat, someone who moved fluidly between the worlds of intelligence, crime and politics’. To construct this thesis, the newspaper describes Voronenkov’s corrupt activities and how he eventually chose to become a Duma Deputy in order to acquire immunity from prosecution. What eventually did him in was his involvement in a classic piece of Russian reiderstvo (raiding), in which he and his co-conspirators seized control of a building worth $5 million. It seems, however, that Voronenkov cheated his colleagues out of their full share of the profits. When the matter became public, he fled Russia and took refuge in Ukraine.

The article concludes that rather than being murdered by the Kremlin, Voronenkov was most probably killed on the instructions of one of those he cheated in the building ‘raid’. The fact that he was also a member of the Russian parliament indicates the close ties between government and criminals, ties which are so close that the two essentially operate as one. As the Times puts it, ‘Voronenkov’s tale, to those who know contemporary Russia, illuminated the chaos of Putin’s sistema: the personal rivalries, criminals, elites, crooks and clans trying to keep from running afoul of the country’s ever-shifting red lines.’ Instead of being a case of a Kremlin hit, his story instead shows how in Russia ‘criminal activity and state activity’ merge into one.

In a third article, however, the New York Times provides us with yet another image of the Russian state – one which, rather than robbing everybody blind, is investing heavily in improving the country’s infrastructure. In this article, the Times notes that the Russian government has built up massive financial reserves and is set to splurge a large proportion of these in a drive ‘to spend about $100 bn on big infrastructure projects.’ The Kremlin, says the article, is also pressuring wealthy businessmen to display their patriotism by increasing their investments in the Russian economy, and apparently ‘the arm twisting is working.’

So here we have a Russia in which the state is involved in much more than just theft (after all, if the state has built up reserves of over $400 bn, it would appear that most of its revenues aren’t actually being stolen). Moreover, this isn’t a country operating in a state of pure chaos. It may not be as tightly controlled as in image no. 1, but there’s a fair degree of order here, far more than image no. 2 would suggest.

Supplementing this third view of Russia is an article in Bloomberg by Leonid Ragozin. In this Ragozin notes that, ‘Since 2011, the Kremlin has been promoting a multibillion-dollar campaign to modernize Russian cities and towns.’ He describes an urban redevelopment project in the town of Torzhok, near Tver. This has included the opening of a new high speed rail line to Torzhok and the revitalization of the town’s tourism industry, and has been successful in attracting investment and in persuading people to move back into the town. Among the latter are a businesswoman, Tatyana Sokolova, and the new town mayor, Aleksandr Menshchikov, both of whom have played leading roles in redeveloping Torzhok. The two are credited with obtaining funds from international development banks and renovating the town square and key local landmarks, as well as developing a ‘museum and conference space and art residencies.’

Menshchikov is described as ‘a graduate of the elite Moscow School of the Economy’, and is portrayed as a highly educated, successful, and apparently dedicated official. As such, he’s far removed from the likes of Voronenkov. Nor is he entirely alone. A businessman who came to speak to my students last year told them that back in the 1990s Russian officials were largely ignorant both of law and of how modern economies worked; they produced very poor legislation, full of loopholes for corrupt practices, and were also incompetent when it came to putting plans into practice. Now matters were rather better. This is not universally true, of course. Nevertheless, in a way which wasn’t possible in the 1990s, one can now find hard-working, well-educated, competent, and honest officials with whom can work to do business in Russia effectively.

So, which image best represents the real Russia? The answer, I suspect, is a bit of all three. There’s a state which is theoretically highly centralized, but which in practice oversees some degree of chaos, but which is also able to exert a certain amount of control and enact plans of economic development; there’s a high level of corruption, but also a genuine effort to improve the country’s condition; there are crooked and incompetent officials, but also honest and efficient ones. In short, it’s a thoroughly mixed bag.

As human beings, we like to label things and put them in neat boxes. We also like to contrast them with things they are not, in order more clearly to define them. Thus we come up with simple ways to describe countries – kleptocracy, mafia state, and so on – and we set up simple dichotomies between us and them– democratic v. authoritarian, liberal v. reactionary, etc. But while such devices shows us part of the truth, their oversimplified nature means that they obscure much more than they reveal. If there is any common theme one can extract from these recent articles, it is that reality is far more complex than we are often led to believe.