Tag Archives: Russia

Some good advice

Given the hysterical level of Russophobic rhetoric in Washington at present, it is rare for anybody to raise their heads up above the parapet and say that better relations between America and Russia might be a good thing. The prevailing belief is that the worse relations are the better: Russia is an aggressive and dictatorial nation with which it is impossible to reason; attempts at dialogue or to forge compromise will merely be interpreted as weakness and encourage further aggression; the only viable policy is to show strength at every opportunity.

It’s good, therefore, to see the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank which has historically had close ties to the American government and is generally considered representative of the American establishment, publishing a report entitled Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO. The report, written by Kimberly Marten of Barnard College, makes a number of quite sensible suggestions and demonstrates that traditional Realists haven’t entirely abandoned the foreign policy community.

As might be expected, Marten talks of Russian ‘aggression’ and raises the spectre that ‘Russia may seek to break the NATO alliance or even expand at NATO’s expense – to reconquer lost Soviet territory, to attain regional hegemony in Eurasia, or allow Putin to go down in history as the man who re-established Russia’s great power status’. She lays out scenarios which may lead to a military clash between Russia and NATO, including a Russian attack on the Baltic states. And she says that ‘many analysts consider Putin’s crackdowns on Russian media and civil society and his recentralization of state control over the Russian economy as the start of a re-Sovietization of Russian life.’

Marten isn’t, therefore, any type of Putinversteher. That would doubtless be too much to expect, and would in any case just cast her as ‘not serious’ in the policy community. But, in line with other Realists such as John Mearsheimer, she doesn’t think that current US-Russian tensions are entirely the Russians’ fault. She accepts that American policies, including NATO expansion, have generated real fears among Russian officials, and that Russian acts are as much a reaction to those fears as a product of aggressive, imperial ambitions. NATO’s decision to counter with military means what it sees as the Russian threat runs the risk of escalating tensions still further, reinforcing the Russian leadership’s sense of paranoia, and even producing a war between Russia and the West if there were to be something like a repeat of the occasion when Turkey shot down a Russian airplane.

This danger makes Professor Marten believe that improving relations with Russia is very much in America’s interests, and she adds that there are positive steps which the USA can take to reassure Russia that America doesn’t threaten it.

To this end, Marten proposes a two-pronged strategy; deterrence and reassurance. ‘First’, she says, ‘the Trump administration should continue to work with its NATO allies to deter Russia from threatening or undermining any NATO member.’ She comments that ‘To condemn NATO allies to face a potential new Russian threat on their own would irreparably harm the United States’ reputation for reliability and integrity, permanently damaging its ability to exert influence abroad.’

This is fairly typical stuff, and reflects the unhealthy obsession American elites have with their ‘reputation’. Precisely why Russia needs deterring isn’t fully explained beyond a reference to uncertainty. It just seems to be taken for granted that Russia is potential aggressive. This segment of the report, therefore, isn’t particularly novel or interesting, except for one section where Marten talks about ‘deterrence by denial’. In this segment, she writes:

President Trump and the State Department should use formal and informal discussions to encourage Estonia and Latvia to better integrate their Russian populations. Both countries have made real progress in this respect over the past decades, partly in response to international pressure. But more could be done, both by offering unconditional citizenship to a greater share of stateless residents born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and by expanding employment opportunities and empathetic community policing efforts.

This is an entirely sensible suggestion. It is often said that Russia might exploit discontent among Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia to cause trouble there and even justify an invasion. Rather than sending troops to the Baltic States, it would make more sense simply to remove the cause of discontent. Given that NATO members have committed to defending Estonia and Latvia, the rights of the Russian speaking populations of those countries have become their security concern, and they should do more to ensure that those rights are granted.

After having dealt with deterrence, Marten moves on to the theme of reassurance. ‘The Trump administration’, she says, ‘should take reasonable actions alongside its NATO allies to reassure Russian political and military officials and the Russian public that the United States and NATO have defensive intentions and do not threaten Russian territory.’ To this end, Marten makes a number of specific recommendations, including that the Unites States should:

  • ‘Treat Russian leaders and the Russian state with respect’ – no more comparing Putin to Hitler.
  • ‘Formally reaffirm President Trump’s message that the United States does not seek to impose “regime change” on Russia.’
  • ‘Publicly state that the United States believes that Ukraine does not currently meet NATO membership standards and has a long way to go.’
  • ‘Explicitly tie the planned deployment of US interceptor missiles at the land-based Aegis BMD system in Poland to Iran’s behavior in fulfilling its commitments to the nuclear non-proliferation deal reached in 2015. … To demonstrate that this BMD system is indeed designed against a threat from Iran and not Russia, the United States should reach an agreement with Poland that the missiles will be stored on US territory and deployed to Poland only if Iran appears to be violating the terms of the agreement.’

Marten also comments that, ‘policy decisions should be based on consistent, transparent, rule-based criteria wherever possible. Law-abiding behavior will deflect Russian accusations of hypocrisy.’

The proposal about BMD is quite interesting. Russians, as far as I can tell, simply don’t believe that the BMD system is designed against Iran, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as an Iranian nuclear ballistic missile nor is there any indication that there is every likely to be. Because of this (in my view entirely accurate assessment of the Iranian threat), it would be much better simply to scrap the European missile defence system. But given how much money and how many careers have been invested in it, one must recognize that the Americans are not going to admit that they were wrong and get rid of the whole thing. Marten’s proposal would at least allow them to keep investing in the program without annoying the Russians.

Overall, I would say that Marten’s recommendations suffer from a couple of weaknesses. First, they probably don’t go far enough to provide genuine reassurance – e.g. saying that Ukraine is far from reaching NATO standards isn’t at all the same as saying that Ukraine will never join NATO. Second, saying that US policy should abide by international law ‘wherever possible’ gives an awful lot of wriggle room and isn’t a very firm commitment. The problem isn’t ‘Russian accusations of hypocrisy’; it’s actual hypocrisy. The reputation on which Marten places so much important has been hugely damaged by America’s repeated breaches of international law. What is needed is a wholesale change in attitude, including a full-scale repudiation of ‘regime change’, ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the like. And third, it may all be too late. The Russians have by now lost so much trust in the USA that a few gestures of reassurance may no longer be enough to repair relations, and if coupled with a simultaneous policy of ‘deterrence’, these gestures may well be dismissed as entirely meaningless.

In short, Marten’s proposals are possibly too little too late. Still, they represent a significant step forward compared with most of the suggestions nowadays coming out of Washington, and among them are some specific proposals which are definitely worth pursuing. It is probable that Marten’s recommendations represent more or the less the outer limit of what is presently acceptable, and for that reason her report is definitely welcome. Having said all that, in the current climate the chances of anybody in power actually paying any attention are probably fairly small.

The paradox of power and fear

Diplomat Magazine, which is produced here in Ottawa, has just published its latest edition, which includes several articles on the subject of Russia. One of these, on ‘Repairing Canada-Russia Relations’, is written by me. You can read it here. In addition, there are articles by the Royal Military College’s Pierre Jolicoeur and Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman. It’s the last of these, entitled ‘Trump and Putin: a troubling high stakes relationship’ which I want to talk about here.

Saideman’s article is in many respects a fairly typical piece of Russia scaremongering, although it seems a little out of date already following Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria, the regular denunciations of Russia by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and the apparent lack of achievements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. Writing before any of that happened, Saideman claims that:

Trump’s admiration of Putin … is revolutionary. This relationship raises doubts about the future of NATO. … Simply put, Trump’s relationship with Putin puts a great deal of the post-Second World War order at risk. Trump’s stances on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and Ukraine all present grave threats. The risks in the years ahead are mighty high.

‘The future of NATO is at stake’, Saideman continues, ‘the alliance truly is in danger.’ The Baltic States don’t know if NATO will come to their defence if attacked by Russia, and ‘If Putin were to trigger a crisis and the United States does not act as it has promised for 70 years, the alliance might well fall apart.’ One might wonder why Russia would suddenly attack Latvia, but Saideman warns that that is exactly the sort of thing that aggressive states do when they spot weakness: ‘One of the basic findings in the study of war is that wars occur when there is uncertainty about alliances.’ With Putin currently carrying out ‘an assault on the European Union’, the situation is rife with danger. Unless we stand firm, Saideman implies, NATO, the EU, and the entire international system will come crashing down.

Such doom-laden predictions are pretty common nowadays. But they are not very accurate. They assume that the Western world is some paper tiger, held together by only the tiniest thread, and that it requires only the slightest push from a weak outside power for it to disintegrate entirely. This is a rather bizarre description of the strongest and wealthiest countries in the world, which have maintained the same collective institutions for many decades in the face of threats far greater than modern Russia.

To give just a brief view of the relative power of NATO and Russia, here is a chart showing their comparative defence spending as a share of the global total:

global defence spending

As you can see, NATO has nothing to fear from Russia militarily. It also has nothing to fear economically. The wealth of the United States and Western Europe is far greater than that of Russia. Compared to the West, Russia is a minnow.

The question I want to ask, then, is why the Saidemans of the world are so scared of it.

The answer, I think, lies in the realm of the moral rather than the physical. Two psychological processes are at play. The first relates to matters of honour; the second to issues of psychological reassurance.

As far as the first is concerned, in his 2011 book Why Nations Fight, Richard Ned Lebow examined the causes of all the wars fought in the modern era and determined that the most common reason for war was what he termed ‘standing’ – in other words, wars were not primarily about material resources, territory, security, or so on, but rather about relative status. This certainly fits with my own findings, as laid out in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War.  To a quite surprising extent, international relations is about questions of honour. What spurs politicians into action is concerns about status, prestige, credibility, and the various virtues on which they think that their honour depends – strength, resolve and the like.

This is especially true of powerful states and alliances. In the eyes of the doom-mongers, NATO has no will. It is morally weak. As such it risks losing status and credibility, and once it loses those, it will surely collapse.

A key to understanding this dynamic can be found in Desmond Morris’s 1969 classic The Human Zoo. In chapter 2 of this book, entitled ‘Status and Super Status’, Morris describes how alpha baboons have to behave if they want to maintain their dominant status. The problem these baboons face is that their number one position is always under threat. Their position is inherently unstable, and they can only go down. As a result, they have to be hypervigilant. Any threat must be stamped on with utmost violence to deter others. But not only actual threats – even the mere threat of a threat, the slightest hint of imagined rebellion, must be met with an aggressive reaction.

Paradoxically, therefore, the stronger one is, the more afraid one is too. The dominant baboon believes that his position rests upon his prestige and his credibility and so is perpetually on guard to threats to his honour. He cannot rest. He must always be afraid. And so he inevitably exaggerates the threats around him. The United States, and its NATO allies, may be compared with Morris’s dominant baboons. Their very dominance makes them paranoid. This is why Saideman and co. are so scared.

Studies of the psychology of risk point to a second factor. According to such studies, humans evolved to be afraid of the dangers which lurked in their natural habitat. They expect danger, and so when they can’t identify it, they get very twitchy. Their instincts tell them that there must a danger there somewhere, and the fact that they can’t spot it is a matter of deep concern. They don’t know what to do. Finding a threat is thus reassuring. For once the threat has been found, they can work out a plan for dealing with it. They have target for their action.

Again, therefore, we confront a paradox. Being strong makes one safe. But safety makes one paranoid. By contrast, having an enemy actually makes one feel better. And this is the West’s current problem. By historical standards, it is remarkably safe. It hasn’t fought any major internal wars for 70 years. Terrorism in the West is near an all-time low. NATO enjoys military and economic dominance. And yet, many can’t help feeling that it’s all about to come crashing down. And because they feel that way, they feel also a need to identify the threat which will cause the collapse, so that they can come up with a plan to do something about it.

And that, in brief, is why Russophobia is enjoying such a comeback. It gives the West an enemy. And by giving it an enemy, it also, strangely enough, gives it a sense of reassurance, allowing it to flex its muscles and so feel that its status is safe, at least for now.

Evidence not needed

A report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) of the British House of Commons is causing a stir today. According to the headline in The Guardian: ‘Brexit: Foreign states may have interfered in vote, report says’. And The Independent announces: ‘Foreign hackers may have hit voter registration site days before EU referendum, say MPs’.

The report in question is entitled Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum and contains a short section concerning the crash of the British voter registration website on the last day of registration for the Brexit referendum. In this section, the report mentions in passing Russia and China. It is this which had led to the breathless headlines seeming to blame Russia and China for interfering in the Brexit vote.

Contrary to the headlines, however, the report doesn’t actually make a positive statement that Russia and China may have been behind the voter registration website’s crash. All it actually says is ‘PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets.’ So it doesn’t actually rule it in, it just doesn’t rule it out. And, in any case, it doesn’t in fact blame the DDOS on ‘foreign states’. It doesn’t say anywhere who might have carried it out, assuming that it even was a DDOS. The only mention of Russia and China is a sentence a little later, saying

Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

This really doesn’t add up to much. Nevertheless, committee chairman Bernard Jenkin sought to stir the pot, telling The Independent that ‘it would have been “entirely in character” for “the Russians and Chinese” ’ to do such a thing.

And what is his evidence? It turns out that he doesn’t have any. The report itself comments that:

Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as ‘technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance.’

So, it turns out that the committee ‘has no direct evidence’ that Russia and China had anything to do with this, and it turns out also that the specialists who looked into the crash considered it ‘technical in nature’ and didn’t blame on it outside attack. As John Rentoul points out in The Independent, Jenkin’s insinuations are the ‘the purest baloney. The website crashed because lots of people left it to the last minute to register and whoever built the site failed to provide another capacity for the surge.’

Mr Jenkin, however, is unperturbed. ‘We’ve seen this happen in other countries’, he said, without saying which those countries were, and adding, ‘Our own Government has made it clear to us that they don’t think there was anything, but you don’t necessarily find any direct evidence.’

So even the British government doesn’t think the story is true. But never mind. When it comes to blaming the Russians, who needs evidence anyway? Just make something up and then say how concerned you are. Because, you know, it’s ‘entirely in character’, and what more proof do you need? Just make sure to insinuate something salacious, and you can then rely on The Guardian and The Independent to pick it up, exaggerate it even further, and spread your baseless allegation far and wide.

Blowback

Speaking about the explosion which killed 11 people in St Petersburg on Monday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that ‘media speculations that the terrorist attack is revenge against Russia for our policy in Syria … are cynical and mean.’ Lavrov’s comment is similar to those made by various Western politicians and political commentators in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in their countries. They have denied that the attacks were ‘blowback’ resulting from military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. They have claimed also that the imputation of blowback somehow justifies or excuses terrorism, and thus should not be made.

This is a poor argument. Explaining is not the same as justifying. Anti-terrorism policy must be judged by whether it is likely to increase or decrease terrorism, not by whether one thinks the terrorists’ reaction to the policy is justified. So if the policy consists of bombing people in other countries in order to kill terrorists there, but the foreseeable side effect is that you radicalize some people who live in your own country and they then bomb you there, then your anti-terrorism policy is a bad policy. It is counterproductive.

I have no idea whether the attack in St Petersburg was blowback from Russia’s military campaign in Syria, but it’s a possibility which deserves serious consideration and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because it’s politically inconvenient. Generally speaking I see no evidence that military intervention in the Middle East or Central Asia has done anything to make the intervening countries more secure. And that applies not only to Western countries, but also to Russia.

#$@&%*!

There are times when I near the point of total despair. This week’s Congressional hearings into alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election are such a moment.

Answering questions about Russia, FBI Director James Comey said the following:

He [Putin] hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was that he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

They engaged in a multifaceted campaign to undermine our democracy.

They were unusually loud in their intervention. It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew, that they wanted us to see what they were doing.

Their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of our entire democracy enterprise of this nation.

They’ll be back. They’ll be back, in 2020. They may be back in 2018.

Also, in response to the question ‘Would they like to see more Brexits?’, Comey said ‘Yes.’

These statements were described by the BBC as ‘things the FBI knows about Russia’. Note the use of the word ‘knows’. In a previous post, I pointed out the need to differentiate between fact and opinion. In his evidence to Congress, Comey didn’t say that these things were his opinion. He stated them as facts, as things he ‘knows’. Putin ‘hated’ Clinton; Russians’ mission ‘is’ to undermine American democracy; ‘Yes’, they do want more Brexits, etc.

But what evidence did Comey produce to support what he was saying? None. These were opinions, masquerading as facts, not actual facts. So the question which then arises is whether Comey’s opinions on Russia are ones we should trust.

The organization he heads – the FBI – is an internal policy agency. It isn’t its job to analyze Russia, Russian politics, or Russian politicians, nor does it have the expertise to do so. It doesn’t know what’s going on inside Vladimir Putin’s head; it doesn’t have an inside line to what Russians are thinking about their ‘mission’ and whether they want to undermine American democracy; it doesn’t have any particular knowledge about what Russia’s leaders think about Brexit.

Simply put, unless  he has been spending the last few years learning Russian, speaking to Russians, interrogating Putin and his ministers, reading Putin’s speeches, analyzing what well-researched publications have to say on the subject, and the like (which of course he hasn’t), Comey isn’t qualified to make judgments of these sorts. And he certainly isn’t entitled to present them as definite facts.

Nor are his Congressional interrogators any better.

Take this exchange between Comey and Representative Jackie Speier (who had previously called Igor Sechin ‘CEO of the Russian gas giant, Rosneft’):

Speier: Do you know anything about Gazprom, Director?

Comey: I don’t.

Speier: Well, it’s a – it’s an oil company.

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

It’s RosNEFT stupid! It’s GAZprom!

And what about Comey? One minute he’s telling us with 100% confidence that he knows exactly what they’re thinking in the Kremlin, something which even the most seasoned Kremlinologists would have to admit they don’t have the faintest clue about, and the next he’s admitting that he doesn’t even know what Gazprom is.

#$@&%*!  – He doesn’t know what Gazprom is!!! But yet, he ‘knows’ Moscow’s innermost secret plans!

These guys are clowns. They are beyond ignorant, because they are ignorant even of their own ignorance.

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

Nobody should take these hearings in the slightest bit seriously.

Guess who’s getting happier and who’s not?

A couple of years ago I commented on the 2015 World Happiness Report, which showed Russia rising up the rankings. The 2017 version is now available, and for Russia it provides yet more good news.

I’m not convinced that ‘happiness’ is the right word to describe what the report measures, but it is certainly measuring something connected with general well-being and life satisfaction. Each country’s score is based on 8 factors: GPD per capita in terms of purchasing power parity; healthy life expectancy; social support, measured by answers to the question ‘If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you?’; self-evaluated freedom to make life choices; generosity, determined by charitable giving; perceptions of corruption; ‘positive affect … defined as the average of laughter and enjoyment’; and ‘negative affect … defined as the average of previous day affect measures for worry, sadness, and anger.’

Two years ago, Switzerland was no. 1 in the world, and Russia was ranked 64th. This time, Norway is top and Russia is up to 49th.

happiness1

happiness4

More remarkably, Russia is ranked no. 7 in the world in terms of changes in happiness over the past 10 years. Russia is still some way behind the Western European and North American countries which dominate the top of the table, but it is catching up.

happiness2

This is all the more remarkable given that Russia has suffered two major economic recessions since 2007, meaning that the GDP element of the happiness measurement has not increased. This in turn means that the more subjective elements of the measure must have improved quite significantly. Russians aren’t richer than they were a decade ago, but they apparently evaluate their lives as being much better. Either they’ve been thoroughly bamboozled by state propaganda or something is actually going well for them.

By way of contrast, let us look at the bottom of the table of changes in happiness, 2005-2007 to 2014-2016:

happiness3

Ukraine’s dismal performance suggests that, at least in the short term, Euromaidan has had a highly negative effect on Ukrainians’ state of mind. Meanwhile, although France and the United States remain highly ranked overall (31st and 14th), they are falling down the table fairly fast.

Make of all this what you will. As I said, I’m not entirely sure what this is really measuring. But if you’re looking for an explanation of Vladimir Putin’s popularity, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of Marine Le Pen, this report perhaps provides at least part of the answer.

Autocracy and the media

Thinking a bit more about the recent report on the Kremlin’s alleged weaponizing of comedy, as well as other claims concerning ‘Russian propaganda’, what has struck me is how many people seem to assume that everything which happens in Russia is directed by the Kremlin. As it happens, in the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Russian conservatives in the last 50 years of the Russian Empire. One might imagine that in an autocratic country such as late Imperial Russia, the press was under the firm control of the state, that there was no independent ‘civil society’, and that conservative and patriotic groups took their orders from the central authorities. Yet this is not exactly how things were.

Take, for instance, the most prominent Russian journalist of the 1860s, 70s, and 80s, Mikhail Katkov. He was a fervent supporter of the autocracy and was given free rein to write what he pleased. But it would be a huge mistake to believe that the products of Katkov’s pen reflected the opinions of the Tsar and his bureaucracy. On the contrary, much of his work consisted of severe criticisms of Russia’s rulers for what Katkov considered their weak-willed policies and insufficiently aggressive defence of Russian interests. These writings sometimes infuriated Tsars Alexander II and III, but they permitted it in part because Katkov also railed against the Tsars’ revolutionary enemies, and in part because they knew that Katkov’s views were shared by a large portion of educated public opinion. On one occasion Alexander III was so angered by a Katkov article that he threatened to issue a public denunciation. But he was persuaded not to on the grounds, among other things, that the negative public reaction might cause a crash in the stock exchange.

katkov
Mikhail Katkov

Whether the labels ‘autocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ really apply to modern Russia is a matter of debate, but those who believe that they do also appear to think that this means that the Russian media is entirely under the state’s direct control, and so everything that it prints or broadcasts represents the government’s wishes. Arkady Ostrovsky has pointed out in his study of the post-Soviet Russian media that its shift to patriotic themes from the late 1990s onwards responded to a clear public demand. Too many commentators choose to ignore this inconvenient fact. Some historians consider Mikhail Katkov an opportunist. He said what he said because it sold newspapers; but it sold newspapers because people supported it and wanted to read it. Much the same dynamic is probably true today.