Tag Archives: Russia

Asymmetrical rules

Back in September I presented a paper at a conference in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order.’ In this I pointed out that both Russia and the West claimed to be in favour of a ‘rules-based order’ and that each accused the other of breaking that order. The problem, I conjectured, derives from differing understanding of what the rules are and how they should be applied. Russia believes in a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities. The rules apply equally to all of them, regardless of who they are or what they do. States may only take action against other states with the permission of a superior court, in other words the United Nations Security Council. Of course, Russia doesn’t 100% abide by the rules of its own model, but its preferred option remains one of legal symmetry – the same rules apply to all.

By contrast, human rights reasoning has pushed the West in an opposite direction, towards a preference for legal asymmetry. In this model, the just and the unjust, those who respect and those who don’t respect human rights, are not legally or morally equal. As I wrote in my paper, if a policeman shoots at a criminal, the criminal doesn’t then enjoy a right of self-defence and so a right to shoot at the policeman. This is because one is engaged in a just act, and the other in an unjust act. Taken to the level of international affairs, a state which is not, in the words of Canadian scholar Brian Orend, ‘minimally just’, has no right of self-defence; but a just state has a right to take action against it. Good states in this model gain rights; bad states lose them. Asymmetry is correct, and there is nothing wrong with double standards.

Having put forward this thesis in my paper, I was very interested, therefore, to see somebody apparently confirm it in today’s New York Times. In an article entitled ‘Russia isn’t the only one meddling in elections. We do it, too’, Scott Shane recounts multiple incidents in which the United States has meddled in other countries’ electoral processes and cites intelligence officials as confirming that this has happened and continues to happen. In a recent example, for instance, the USA attempted (but failed) to ensure Hamid Karzai’s defeat in the 2009 election in Afghanistan. Shane quotes former CIA director Robert Gates as calling this ‘our clumsy and failed putsch.’

What is significant about this article, though, is the unrepentant tone of those interviewed. Former CIA officer Steven L. Hall, for instance, tells Shane that the United States has ‘absolutely’ interfered in other countries’ elections and ‘I hope we keep doing it.’ And then we get onto the key point. Shane writes:

Both Mr Hall and [intelligence scholar Loch] Johnson argued [that] Russia and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictatorships, or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said. Equating the two, Mr Hall says, ‘is like saying cops and bad guys are the same because they both have guns – the motivation matters.’

In the same vein, Shane cites Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Initiative as saying, ‘It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s comparing somebody who delivers lifesaving medicine to somebody who brings deadly poison.’

Putting aside the rather questionable assertion that American interventions in other countries’ affairs are ‘generally’ in support of ‘democracy’, we see here a clear example of asymmetrical thinking. In American eyes the same rules do not apply to the United States and Russia, because they are morally different. The American idea of a rules-based order is one in which the ‘good guys’ are subject to different rules to the ‘bad guys’.

One can understand the logic here. Why should the rules be written to put good and evil on an equal footing? Should they not be written to favour the former over the latter? The problem, however, is that we have no external body (barring the UN Security Council) able to determine which states are just, and so allowed to interfere in the affairs of others, and those which are unjust, and not allowed to do so (and indeed not even allowed to defend themselves). Asymmetrical rules permit anybody and everybody to declare themselves ‘just’ and their opponents ‘unjust’, and so to abrogate extra rights for themselves while denying even the most basic rights to others. Since in reality only the powerful will be able to act on this, such asymmetrical rules serve merely to enhance the power of those who already have it (which is, of course, probably why the most powerful states in the world favour them). Meanwhile, those who are at the receiving end of this logic can hardly be expected to accept it; they are likely to resist. Such an order will never be universally accepted, and so cannot be the basis for a stable international system.

Of course, an international system entirely devoid of any concept of justice is equally problematic. The rule utilitarian logic which underpins the Westphalian model of equal sovereign states can be seen as potentially callous, as it requires states to stand aside and do nothing while others behave in atrocious ways. There are perhaps some good reasons why the Western countries have moved away from it. But the chosen alternative is not obviously any better.

It is sometimes said that current East-West tensions do not constitute a ‘new Cold War’ because East and West are not ideologically divided in the way they were previously. Yet it is clear that beneath present disputes lies a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the nature of a ‘rules-based order.’ Resolving it is perhaps one of the key philosophical tasks of our time.


Undermining democracy

Knowing what somebody else has done, is doing, or is capable of doing can be hard enough. Knowing why they are doing it, or what they intend to do in the future is an even more difficult task. Understanding intentions requires a deep and sympathetic knowledge of other actors’ motivations, interests, and mentality, of the constraints under which they operate, and of the manner in which they view the world. That requires one to drop all one’s own preconceptions and adopt fully those of another, which can only be done by studying them, their surroundings, and their history intimately. And even then one can never truly ‘know’ somebody else, as it is impossible to get inside their head. All statements about intentions are at best assessments. They can never be considered fact.

None of this, of course, stops people from proclaiming confidently that ‘Putin wants this’ or ‘Russia wants that’ as if their claims were proven. Rarely are these assertions backed by solid evidence; hardly ever do they refer to what Putin or other Russian officials have actually said that they want; they are simply guesses disguised as facts.

An example is a new report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), entitled Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions. This is the product of two meetings of an ‘expert group’ organized by CSIS. The report makes bold claims about Russian intentions. But going through the list of ‘experts’, I could find only one with any expertise specifically on Russia rather than security and intelligence more broadly. How the experts came to their judgements on Russian intentions is never made clear.

The report begins with a foreword which states in startling terms that:

American democracy is under attack from Russia. … Putin’s objective is to weaken us by sowing chaos and discord, and to undermine the appeal of democracy itself. If he can show that American-style democracy … is incompetent, illegitimate, and hypocritical, he can use that to undermine its potential appeal among Russia’s population and in other countries around the world where we compete for influence.

This is an assertion concerning Vladimir Putin’s intentions, not his actions. Nevertheless, underpinning it is an assumption about actions – namely that Russia has indeed been waging some sort of ‘information war’ against the United States. It is indicative of the current state of affairs that this assumption is simply taken for granted, even though some people might consider it unproven (and if it is indeed unproven then everything else which follows falls apart). However, let us put that aside for the moment, and return to the issue of intentions. If it is true that Russia has done any, or all, of things of which it is accused, what does it have in mind?

The CSIS experts are confident that they know the answer: the aim is to ‘sow chaos and undermine trust in the liberal democratic order,’ ‘to erode trust in Western governments and sow confusion and discord,’ and ‘to exacerbate existing divisions in society … to weaken democracy.’ The report concludes that:

The Russian government is engaged in a covert and overt campaign to weaken Western democracies, with the express intent of promoting an illiberal order dominated by Moscow and like-minded states.

I have to wonder where this idea of an ‘express intent’ comes from, because I have never read anything by any Russian official expressing such an intent – never. Take, for instance, Vladimir Putin, whose speeches I have read in detail and on which I have published a couple of academic articles. You will read his speeches in vain for any criticisms of democracy as a form of government, any expressions of a desire to weaken democracy in the West (or in Russia for that matter), or any desire to ‘sow chaos’ around the world. On the contrary, you will find multiple expressions of support for democracy, of support of order and stability, and of support for better relations with the West. Of course, you could argue that his actions tell you something different, but the fact remains that he and other Russian officials have never stated the intention being assigned to them.

The CSIS report doesn’t say how it came to the conclusion that Putin wants to undermine democracy. It doesn’t produce any actual evidence to support its claim. It just asserts it. Moreover, it asserts it as a proven fact, failing to make clear that this is just what a bunch of security experts who don’t know too much about Russia happen to think is the case. Any suggestion of uncertainty is entirely absent. That does not necessarily mean that the claim is false, but it does mean that the confidence with which it is asserted is entirely unjustified and that the report therefore misleads by failing to make the degree of uncertainty clear.

Furthermore, there are points in the report where the ‘expert group’s’ lack of  knowledge of Russia becomes clear and makes one seriously doubt their right to be able to claim to understand what’s in Vladimir Putin’s head. In particular, the report says:

The Experts Group discussed the perception of Russia as the ‘3rd Rome’ among an increasingly broad constellation of groups and individuals. Russian nationalists, with the encouragement of the Russian government, have promoted the idea of Russia as the heir to the Byzantine and Roman empires. … Russia is the sole protector of ‘legitimate’ conservative values: homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.

But what is the evidence that the Russian government encourages ‘3rd Rome-ism’ and Russian nationalists, let alone ‘homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism’? In reality, nationalists and the government don’t get on very well, and most of the former regard the latter with undisguised hostility. The issue of homophobia is somewhat contentious, but on the other matters I am completely unaware of any actions or statements by the Russian government promoting xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Indeed, if you read Putin’s speeches, you will find numerous condemnations of such things along with a repeated emphasis on the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian nation (which is one of the reasons Russian nationalists don’t like him).

Underlying all this is a rather odd idea that Putin is bent on spreading an illiberal authoritarian model of government around the world, rather like the Soviet Union tried to spread communism. But this is an idea which is entirely unsubstantiated, and in my view entirely fictitious. Likewise, the claim that he wishes to spread chaos rather ignores the damage that such chaos would do to Russian interests, which rest largely on having a stable international order. It seems to me that the CSIS ‘experts’ are locked into a Cold War mode of thinking which they have failed to adapt to contemporary realities.

There’s another segment in the report which also struck me as very odd. This says the following:

The Russian government has advanced its strategic influence in Eastern and Central European countries by gaining influence, and in some instance, control over specific sectors: energy, banking and finance, real estate, transportation infrastructure, and media … First, Russia state-owned enterprises purchase assets … The purchased entity then gains influence with local officials … Simultaneously, the Russian government creates or sponsors local nongovernmental organizations … Finally, supportive local officials are placed in national governments … Collectively, these activities in some countries result in state capture.

It strikes me that there is a certain amount of projection going on here, as what is described could very easily be said, with rather more justification I suspect, about the United States. But in any case, what is the evidence for this claim? What country in Eastern and Central Europe has Russia ‘captured’? Which one? I can’t think of a single example. The claim concerning ‘state capture’ is is pure fiction.

The CSIS report ends with a series of proposals for what the United States should do to protect itself against the Russian threat. Some of these are uncontroversial. The report, for instance, calls for better cybersecurity measures. One can hardly argue with that. But Russia doesn’t have much to do with it. Better cybersecurity is required regardless of whether Russia is waging some sort of information war. Other proposals, though, are more problematic. For instance, we are told that:

Internet platforms and democratic governments must work together on technological and policy measures to increase barriers to entry for disinformation campaigns and make it easier for citizens to differentiate between legitimate and false information.

‘Legitimate’ information? What is that? And who is to determine what it is, and tell us that we shouldn’t have it? I find this sort of thing a little creepy, and don’t really think that it is for the state or private corporations to tell us what we should be allowed to read or what we should think.

At the end of the report, the authors note that ‘increasing public resilience against the kind of techniques used by Russia may ultimately be the most effective countermeasure.’ In particular, ‘participants emphasized that a sense of shared narrative is perhaps the strongest defence against Russian threats to our democratic institutions.’ This is possibly the most sensible thing that the report says. Russian ‘propaganda’, if there is such a thing, can only succeed in dividing people who are already prone to being divided. If the divisions in American society were reduced, then it would be harder for outside actors to ‘sow chaos’. If American government, state institutions, and the media were more trustworthy, Americans might be less inclined to turn to alternatives for information and political analysis. In such an event, Russian ‘disinformation’ would have no effect whatsoever.

In other words, the real threat to American democracy lies within America, not without.


The latest indictments in the ‘Russiagate’ affair certainly lend credence to the claim that some Russians went to some considerable effort to set up social media accounts that would look like they were genuine American ones, but their intentions in so doing remain a matter of speculation. It is probably the rather haphazard internet trolling allegedly carried out by ‘Russia-linked accounts’ that induces people to conclude that it was a matter of ‘causing chaos’, but it can’t be stated as fact. In any case, there is a difference between haphazard trolling and a deliberate effort to ‘undermine democracy’ in order to create an ‘illiberal international order’, which is a far more dramatic claim. I have yet to see any evidence supporting this.

Russia as enemy

I have remarked on more than one occasion that Western perceptions of the Russian ‘threat’ have historically owed little to the real scale (or even existence) of that threat. Instead they have tended to be products of internal political debates within the West, with depictions of Russia as good or evil serving as tools to advance certain political agendas. Leo Strauss argued that underneath the surface meaning of any work of philosophy there is also a hidden meaning, discernible only by a select few. One could say much the same about analyses of Russia: there’s the surface story – Russian aggression, Russian disinformation, Russian collusion, and so on – but there’s also something going on under the surface which constitutes the true purpose of the analysis in question.

Quite why Russia is so often used to serve this purpose, rather than some other country, is hard to discern. I suspect that it’s because Russia is uniquely positioned both inside and outside of the West, making it a suitable ‘other’ while also being clearly connected to Western concerns in a way that a truly alien ‘other’, such as China, could not be. Regardless of the reason, depictions of Russia shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. There’s a hidden reason why the writer is doing what he or she is doing which he is she isn’t telling you. (Which, if true, raises a whole host of questions: what’s my hidden purpose? And is there a hidden purpose to saying that there’s a hidden purpose? But for now we will put these to one side.)

What’s rare is for anybody to come straight out and admit it, which is what makes a recent article in The Washington Monthly by ‘contributing writer’ John Stoehr so remarkable. Stoehr takes the line that the Democratic Party in the United States has been far too soft in its struggles with its Republican opponents. The Democrats have tried to find common ground, and reach agreement, whereas the Republicans have regarded the Democrats as their enemies and so have waged relentless war against them. As a result, the Democrats have been trounced. To regain power, they need to start playing hardball too.

This leads Stoehr to a problem:

How can Democrats do this without abandoning what makes them a liberal party: its values, its pluralism, its privileging of liberty and justice for all, its historic goal of creating a more perfect union? How can they ask voters to vote Democrat by doing what the Republicans do?

Fortunately, Stoehr has worked out what to do about this. He writes:

These are difficult questions, but I think the Trump presidency offers a possible answer. The Democrats should do everything they can to tie the Republicans to something most sane people would agree, even if they are hopelessly polarized, is an indisputable threat to the United States—Russia.

So, here we have it. The Russian threat serves as a tool for the Democratic Party to win political points in its domestic battles with the Republicans. Stoehr continues:

I think Russia is a solution to political polarization. The Democrats should and must start using Russia as a way to break through the vicious cycle consuming the parties, Washington, and the whole country. Russia is our enemy. This is a fact. … In tying the Republicans to an enemy, the Democrats have the potential to break the Republicans. Do they stand with America or do they stand with Russia?

Stoehr cites NBC analyst John Heilemann asking Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut: ‘Is it possible that the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee has been compromised by the Russians? Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?’ This is quite an outrageous suggestion, for which there is, it has to be said, absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Stoehr is clear, however, that it’s the sort of smear which the Democrats ought to be spreading at every opportunity. He writes:

Murphy didn’t take the bait, which suggests to me that the Democrats are not ready to accuse the Republican Party of treasonous behavior. Perhaps it’s prudent to bide their time, to wait for the proper context. What I do know is that that context is rapidly taking shape. Pretty soon, it won’t sound extraordinary to wonder if the highest-ranking government officials have been comprised. It won’t sound outlandish to accuse the Republicans of abetting a foreign enemy. It will sound reasonable. At that point, real change can happen.

As a political strategy, I think this is dumb. If the Democrats want to take the gloves off in their fight against the Republicans, Trump has given them more than enough ammunition to do so: cuts in Medicaid, immigration policy, massive increases in defence spending, foreign policy mistakes, and so on. Instead, Stoehr wants the Democrats to double down on the Russian issue – an issue which 90% of Americans probably don’t care very much about. It’s bizarre to say the least. Nonetheless, Stoehr’s article lays bare the hidden purpose behind so many Russia-related stories. They’re a tool in an internal political struggle. They have very little to do with Russia itself.

Book review: The Long Hangover

Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent on The Guardian, has a new book out, entitled The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. It advances the thesis that … and this is where I run into a problem because he never explicitly says what his thesis is. But it’s sort of something like this: in an effort to unite the Russian people and raise the country’s patriotic spirit, Vladimir Putin has focused on a narrative of victory, above all victory in the Second World War. This focus has contributed to a situation in which Russians have failed to come to terms with the negative aspects of their Soviet past. This in turn helped to provoke and sustain the war in Ukraine.

I say ‘sort of something like this’ because it’s never fully developed. Instead, what Walker gives us is a series of stories of events he has witnessed and people he has interviewed. Weaving them together is the theme of historical memory. These stories are all rather negative in character, in the sense that they focus entirely on the bad aspects of Russia’s (or more often the Soviet Union’s) past. Walker, for instance, visits Kalmykia and discusses the deportation of the Kalmyks in the Second World War; goes to Chechnya and discusses the Chechen wars of the 1990s as well as the deportation of the Chechens in 1944; goes to Magadan and visits old Gulag sites; and goes to Crimea and talks about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

The patriotic mood associated with celebrations of victory in the Second World War have made Russians unwilling to confront these dirty secrets of their past, Walker claims. This, he suggests, goes a long way towards explaining Russia’s behaviour today. Walker rounds off his book with descriptions of his visits to war-torn Ukraine and of his interviews with rebel soldiers and leaders. Essentially, he says, Russians are suffering from a ‘long hangover’ from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s efforts to unite the nation by celebrating victory in 1945 is making it harder for the country to get back on its feet by perpetuating this hangover. Simply put, the idea is that if you celebrate 1945 then you start thinking that maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad after all, and next, before you know it, you’re starting a war in Ukraine.

long hangover2

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Book Review – Russia Rising; ‘Is Putin Gog?’

I don’t normally do a book review straight after another one, but I stumbled across something in my local Chapters bookstore which just cried out for commentary. The book in question is Russia Rising: Tracking the Bear in Bible Prophecy by Mark Hitchcock, a pastor and ‘Bible prophecy expert’ from Edmond, Oklahoma. His central thesis is that Russia is in the process of assembling a huge coalition which in due course will invade Israel and so bring about the ‘end times’ predicted in the Bible. Hitchcock admits that he can’t be sure exactly when this will happen, but he says (p. 137):

Whatever view one holds of the timing of the coming Russian invasion, one thing is certain – it will happen. … The timing of Russia’s offensive may be debated, but the truth of it is not up for discussion. God has spoken. And we see signs all around us that it could be very soon.

russia rising

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Book review: Orders to Kill

In her latest book, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, Amy Knight wishes to convince us ‘how scary and unpredictable Russia has become.’ (p. 3) To this end, her book recounts multiples instances in which, she alleges, the ‘Putin regime’ has orchestrated the murder both of ordinary Russian citizens and of prominent political opponents. Knight is a respectable author whose 1993 biography of Beria I found quite informative. In Orders to Kill, however, she has abandoned academic neutrality in favour of political activism. The result is far from satisfactory.

orders to kill

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Stalin, Paddington, and the Press

What do Josef Stalin and Paddington Bear have in common? Answer: The Russian Ministry of Culture has tried to ‘ban’ films about them – or at least that what recent headlines would have you believe. The truth is a bit more complex.

The Stalin story relates to a decision by the Ministry of Culture to withdraw a licence for the release of the movie Death of Stalin, pending further investigation. It is debatable whether this really constitutes a ban. Culture Minister Vladimir Mendinsky claims that viewers might consider the film ‘an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past’, something which you might think was richly deserved. Given Mendinsky’s reasons for objecting to the film are political, an outright ban would be legally problematic since the Russian constitution prohibits censorship. This perhaps explains the ministry’s statement that is subjecting the film to further review rather than prohibiting it. Mendinsky says that it would be ‘extremely inappropriate for this picture to come out on the screens on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the historic victory in Stalingrad.’ This leaves open the possibility that the film may be given a licence once that anniversary is over in February.

Regardless of what happens, the Ministry of Culture’s action is quite indefensible. I haven’t seen the film as it hasn’t been released in Ottawa where I live (for commercial reasons, I imagine, not censorship). But I have read the graphic novel on which it’s based, and there’s no doubt that it does indeed mock the Soviet leadership at the time of Stalin’s death. It also distorts history in certain respects – e.g. portraying Soviet citizens being gunned down by soldiers during Stalin’s funeral. But mockery and bad history aren’t reasons for refusing to licence a film. It’s satire, for goodness sake. Writing in Vzgliad, Pyotr Akopov claims that it’s not for foreigners (Death of Stalin is a British film) to satirize Russia – only Russians can do that. This again is a pretty poor argument. Nobody is forcing anybody to watch this film. If you don’t like foreigners satirizing your country, just don’t go see it. Don’t ban it.

The Death of Stalin episode reveals a hyper-sensitive, paranoid, and authoritarian strain in Russia’s cultural elites (several film directors were among those who asked the Ministry not to licence the film). Is Russian identity and national pride really so fragile that the country can’t tolerate some mockery of Stalin’s Politburo (who, let’s face it, were hardly paragons of virtue)? I don’t think so. The Ministry should rethink its actions.

The Paddington case is different. In this instance, the Ministry of Culture attempted to postpone release of the movie Paddington 2. It has the right to do this with foreign films if it thinks that the timing of the release will adversely affect sales of tickets to Russian movies. Given Paddington 2’s success in Europe and North America, the Ministry obviously worried that it would attract viewers who might otherwise have gone to see something made in Russia – thus the decision. In the end, though, consumer outrage forced the Ministry to back down and a licence was released for the film to show from 20 January.

This was a clear instance of economic protectionism, completely unrelated to politics. Unlike the Stalin case, there was also no question of the film being forbidden. The plan was merely to postpone its release for a couple of weeks. It was a pretty dumb idea, but not as insidious as the case of Death of Stalin.

This, however, did not stop the British tabloid press from making some wild claims. The Sun led with the headline, ‘Russia wants to ban Paddington 2 because it’s too popular and considered Western propaganda.’ It followed up with the statement that the film was ‘deemed to be a threat to the Russian way of life,’ as well as with claims that Russia might soon ban McDonalds and KFC. None of this, of course, is true. There was no ‘ban’ of Paddington, the episode had nothing to do with the film being a ‘threat to the Russian way of life’, and the rumour about McDonalds and KFC is pure speculation and quite preposterous. The Sun finished off its article with a section about how the Soviet Union (in 1985 no less!!) had banned Western pop groups such as Village People. Quite what this has to do with modern Russia and Paddington wasn’t explained.

Other British tabloids joined in the feeding frenzy. ‘Russia tried to BAN Paddington 2 branding popular film Western PROPAGANDA,’ shouted the Daily Express, which went on to tell readers that ‘the Kremlin takes issue with the foreign values in the children’s film.’ The Daily Star, meanwhile, linked the affair to Russia’s leader with the headline, ‘Vladimir Putin in bid to ban Paddington film from Russian cinemas.’ There is, of course, no actual evidence to link Putin personally to any of this. Were such stories to appear in RT, they would no doubt soon be classified as ‘fake news.’

All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t put too much faith in either the Russian Ministry of Culture or the British press.