Tag Archives: Russia

Misery

A couple of things caught my eye while I was perusing the book section of Sunday’s New York Times while sipping my post-dinner coffee tonight. The first was a review of Keith Gessen’s new novel A Terrible Country. In this, reviewer Boris Fishman tell us that:

Gessen’s book feels like one of recent literature’s most accurate portrayals of modern Russia, which is to say that I was miserable for hours after reading it.

Because, as you know, Russia is a miserable place and everyone there is just miserable all the time. Miserable, miserable, miserable. Ask all the people who went there for the World Cup. They’ll tell you what a miserable time they had. You won’t find anybody there having fun, or even with a smile on their face. Just miserable.

I think it’s fair to say that the New York Times doesn’t care for Russia very much. Which is where the second thing I noticed in today’s paper comes in. For right at the end of the book section is this week’s bestseller list. And these are the top two of the non-fiction category.

  1. The Russia Hoax, by Gregg Jarrett. (Broadside). The Fox News analyst makes his case for why the FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is without legal merit.
  2. Liars, Leakers and Liberals, by Jeanine Pirro. (Center Street). The legal analyst and Fox News host argues in favor of President Trump.

If the only American media you consumed was the New York Times, you’d come to the inevitable conclusions that a) Americans are united in their obsessive hatred of their president, and b) it’s all the fault of those horrible Russians who colluded with Trump to get him elected. But judging by the bestseller list, it’s not the New York Times which Americans are getting their news from. It’s Fox. And despite the Times and other media outlets spending the past 18 months relentlessly pursuing the Russiagate collusion story, it seems that a whole lot of Americans aren’t buying it.

All of which, I think, might give those miserable Russians some cause at long last to smile.

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The use of force

There are occasions when statements of the blindingly obvious are rather revealing, although not in the way that those making the statements intend. One doesn’t learn anything new about the specific matter being discussed – as it’s blindingly obvious, one knew it already – but one does learn something about the person making the statement, namely that it wasn’t so obvious to him or her. And that’s where it can get quite interesting.

Journalist Simon Saradzhyan has worked in Russia for 15 years, and is now part of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he runs, and writes for, the website Russia Matters. In his latest article, he has a go at explaining in what conditions Russian president Vladimir Putin is willing to endorse the use of force. He writes:

In my view, at least two conditions need to be in place for Russia’s leadership to seriously consider this option. They can be broadly defined as follows: First, Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests that he thinks cannot be neutralized by any means short of force. … The second condition for Russia to use military force against another country is that Moscow must have a reasonable hope that such actions would yield a net reduction in threats to Russia’s vital interests (“Condition 2”). This may not mean outright victory. But Russian leaders must be confident that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs.

To prove this case, Saradzhyan refers to the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015, and contrasts these with the non-use of force in cases such as Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and Armenia (2018). The first case (Georgia, 2008) is rather problematic because Putin wasn’t President of Russia at that time, and I’m not aware of any evidence that the decision to counter the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not Dmitry Medvedev’s. But that’s by the by. What really interests me here is Saradzhyan’s two conditions. Reading them was another of those occasions when I felt a powerful urge to say, ‘Well, duh!’. Putin, we’re told, only uses force when vital interests are at stake and a cost-benefit analysis suggests that benefits will outweigh costs. Of course! What else would you expect? After all, what’s the alternative? To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be crazy. All Saradzhyan’s thesis tells us is that in his opinion Putin is a rational actor.

So why are these two amazingly obvious conditions such a revelation? Why does Saradzhyan think that they will tell anybody anything that a rational person should not already expect? I see two possible explanations.

First, the image of Putin as irrational and unpredictable is so deeply embedded that an analysis which describes him as something different is considered revelatory, penetrating, and insightful rather than merely prosaic.

Second, Saradzhyan and his intended audience don’t understand that his conditions are simply common sense and should apply to everybody everywhere. And the reason why they don’t understand this is because those conditions are not Western practice.

And that’s where this article’s statement of the blindingly obvious becomes quite interesting. For, viewed this way, what this article explains to us is not the conditions under which Putin uses force so much as the conditions under which the West does so – when vital interests aren’t at stake, and when we end up worse off afterwards. Judging by this article, we’ve now become so used to this that anything else apparently comes as a big surprise.

Cui bono?

I’m not a great fan of Marxist philosophy, but one thing it has got right is the need to be sceptical when faced by what academics like to call ‘normative’ claims, and to be aware that such claims often hide a bid for power. When faced by such a claim, one should always ask ‘Cui bono?’ – who benefits?

At present, politicians and political commentators are making much of the alleged threat to democracy posed by social media, ‘fake news’, and ‘disinformation’. This is leading to demands for social media to be more tightly regulated and for action to be taken against those supposedly guilty of spreading fake news, notably the Russian government. Yesterday’s big news was an announcement by Facebook that it had removed 32 accounts ‘believed to have been set up to influence the mid-term US elections in November.’ According to Facebook, these accounts were responsible for 9,500 posts and had spent $11,000 on advertising. Personally, I don’t regard this as a big deal. In a country in which political campaigns cost billions of dollars, I seriously doubt that $11,000 on Facebook is going to make any difference. For sure, there’s a lot of garbage to be found on social media, which also make it easier for people to hide their true identity. But I remain utterly unconvinced that ‘fake news’ on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is that important, if only because nobody has yet to produce any hard evidence that such ‘news’ has actually swayed any significant number of voters.

Why then are so many people getting so worked up about it and demanding action? An interim report published last week by the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee provides some clues. Entitled, ‘Disinformation and Fake News’, the interim report says that,

There are many potential threats to our democracy and our values. One such threat arises from what has been coined ‘fake news’, created for profit or other gain, disseminated through state-sponsored programmes, or spread through the deliberate distortion of facts, by groups with a particular agenda, including the desire to affect political elections. … We are faced with a crisis concerning the use of data, the manipulation of our data, and the targeting of pernicious views. In particular, we heard evidence of Russian state-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK through social media. … In this rapidly changing digital world, our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose. … Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions.

You will note how this is couched in terms of normative claims concerning ‘democracy and our values’. But if you dig a little deeper, you will see that there is something else going on here. In its first two paragraphs, the report says:

  1. In this inquiry, we have studied the spread of false, misleading, and persuasive content, and the ways in which malign players, whether automated or human, or both together, distort what is true in order to create influence, to intimidate, to make money, or to influence political elections.

  2. People are increasingly finding out about what is happening in this country, in their local communities, and across the wider world, through social media, rather than through more traditional forms of communication, such as television, print media, or the radio.

Call me a cynic, but in my eyes, paragraph 1 simply describes democratic politics, a process in which people ‘distort what is true in order to create influence … or to influence political elections’. In an attempt to define ‘fake news’, the committee likewise describes a number of things which to my mind sound just like normal political or journalistic practice, e.g.

  • ‘Manipulated content: distortion of genuine information or imagery, for example a headline that is made more sensationalist.’
  • ‘False context of connection: factually accurate content that is shared with false contextual information, for example when a headline of an article does not reflect the content.’ [As I can personally testify from having had my articles appear under utterly misleading headlines put in by newspaper editors, this and the previous bullet point are absolutely standard journalistic practice.]
  • ‘Misleading content: misleading use of information, for example by presenting comment as fact.’ [As I’ve pointed out before, this is also completely standard.]

If the Committee were really investigating ‘fake news’, it would have to investigate itself and all its members’ colleagues, and indeed their entire profession. It would then have to consider all the profound questions which such an investigation would raise. But that, of course, is not going to happen. Likewise, the committee would have to investigate ‘traditional’ forms of journalism, which are guilty of many of the dubious practices identified. But that isn’t going to happen either. Instead, the report focuses entirely on the new phenomenon of social media, as if ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ were primarily their fault, rather than, say, the fault of politicians who mislead in order to win votes.

Paragraph 2 reveals what’s really at stake here. People are now finding out about the world in ways which the politicians aren’t able to manipulate as successfully as the previous sources of information. Power is shifting. They don’t like it. And they want to stop it.

The question then is how to do that. The answer is to find some ‘malign persons’ or institutions who can be associated with the shift of power and used to discredit it. This is where Russia comes in handy. And sure enough, the interim report devotes several pages to discussing the evil impact of Russia on British democracy, and in particular alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum. The evidence provided for this interference is pretty weak, much of it consisting of a discussion of businessman Arron Banks, who provided millions of pounds to the Leave campaign, and who also held some meetings with Russian officials to discuss business deals. Somehow, this connection is meant to show ‘Russian interference’, but quite how is never explained.

What’s clear is that the result of the Brexit referendum really irks the committee. It keeps coming back to it, mentioning, for instance, connections between the Vote Leave campaign and the companies AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica, which used data mining techniques to gather information from Facebook for political purposes. This made me think that maybe there’s a hidden agenda here. In the USA, it’s obvious that the paranoia over ‘Russian interference’ and the malign influence of social media is driven by power struggles within the political elite, prompted by the angst caused by Donald Trump’s election. Is it the same in the UK?

To answer this question, I did a bit of investigating and looked up the members of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and whether they had supported Remain or Leave during the Brexit referendum. The interim report lists 12 members of the committee. Here are the results:

Damian Collins MP (Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe) (Chair) – Remain.

Clive Efford MP (Labour, Eltham) – Remain.

Julie Elliott MP (Labour, Sunderland Central) – Remain.

Paul Farrelly MP (Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme) – Remain.

Simon Hart MP (Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) – Remain.

Julian Knight MP (Conservative, Solihull) – Remain.

Ian C. Lucas MP (Labour, Wrexham) – Remain.

Brendan O’Hara MP (Scottish National Party, Argyll and Bute) – Remain.

Rebecca Pow MP (Conservative, Taunton Deane) – Remain.

Jo Stevens MP (Labour, Cardiff Central) – Remain.

Giles Watling MP (Conservative, Clacton) – Remain.

Christian Matheson MP (Labour, City of Chester) – Remain.

Does it make sense now?

Resilient Russia

There is a particular breed of Russia watcher who likes to predict the country’s imminent collapse. For such ‘experts’, Russia is perpetually on the brink of social unrest, instability, and possibly even revolution. The apparent popularity of President Vladimir Putin and the seeming strength of the Russian state are just facades hiding a seething cauldron of discontent which is likely to boil over the moment that the state opens up the lid by relaxing the forces of repression. The ‘Putin regime’, in other words, is doomed. It’s just a matter of time.

You’ve no doubt read this sort of thing. It’s pretty common. So too is another type of analysis which maintains that Russia is stuck in terminal economic decline. The only way out of this is ‘deep structural reform’, but the ruling regime is incapable of carrying out such reform, as it would undermine the interests of the oligarchic clans which prop it up. Barring regime change, the only way Russia can do is down.

The fact that the Putin regime stubbornly refuses to collapse or even show any tangible signs of serious weakness doesn’t deter pundits from repeating these ideas. An example is an article in today’s copy of The Guardian. Written by French academic Marie Mendras, the article’s content is pretty much summed up by its title, ‘Putin’s Russia is a sinking ship’. Don’t be fooled by the World Cup, Mendras says:

The overwhelming majority of Russia’s 140 million people worry about declining living standards, falling health and education levels, material insecurity, and corruption. A few weeks ago, protests erupted in many regions and across social classes against a government plan to raise the pension age … this demonstrated a swell of mistrust in the authorities … sociologists at the independent Levada Centre in Moscow point to a rising pessimism. … Domestic social anger, civic demands, youth opposition, and ‘temporary diasporas’ [caused by the ‘brain drain’] may converge to create difficulties for Putin. … Putinism as a formula for stability has run its course.

Let’s take a quick look at Mendras’s evidence. For sure, Russians worry about ‘material insecurity’. Living standards did decline substantially in 2014-2016, but since then they’ve begun to rise, albeit slowly. I don’t know about education levels, but health certainly isn’t declining. On the contrary, Russian life expectancy continues to increase. As for the other stuff, let’s have a look at what the Levada Centre actually has to say about social attitudes. Mendras’s article links to what Levada calls the Social Sentiments Index. This has indeed taken a sharp dip in recent months, probably because of the negative response to the proposed pension reform. But if you look at the Index over the longer term (as shown among some other charts here), you can observe that while it goes up and down in the short term, over the past 18 years the general line has remained remarkably stable. It’s possible that the current dip could turn into something more substantial, but as yet it’s far too early to say that. It could just be a temporary phenomenon related to the pension issue.

Another Levada index (the Consumer Sentiment Index – to be found just under the Social Sentiment Index) suggests a much more positive picture. Consumer sentiment has risen quite dramatically since 2016. This suggests that Russians are much more optimistic about their economic situation. In the long term, that it is likely to translate into more general social satisfaction.

As for Russians’ overall attitude to their country’s development, yet another Levada Index (entitled ‘Assessment of situation in the country’) shows a sharp decline in positive attitudes in the last couple of months (again, most likely connected with the pension issue), but even now more Russians think that their country is going in the right direction (46%) than the wrong direction (42%). Again, one can’t easily predict what the future holds and whether the recent drop will continue further downwards or prove temporary, but the data at present doesn’t justify alarmism.

Indeed, it may indicate that the Russian state is in a rather stronger position than its critics make out. The need for pension reform has been clear for years. But until now the Russian state has felt too weak to enact it. The pension issue is precisely the sort of ‘deep structural reform’ that many insist Russia has to carry out. The problem with such reforms is that they tend to be very unpopular. This is why governments often avoid them. But in the aftermath of Putin’s decisive re-election as president, and after Russia’s successful weathering of economic recession, the Russian government apparently now feels that it is strong enough to get away with it. And the evidence would suggest that so far it is. As the Levada data shows, the government has taken a hit as a result, but it’s not a massive one. As for the protests which Mendras mentions, it is noticeable that they have been far less substantial than those over a previous attempt at pension reform in 2005. The Russian state looks as though it will be able to weather the negative reaction to its current plans relatively comfortably.

At a conference I attended last year, a group of experts from Russia and the English-speaking world almost unanimously agreed that Russia was far more resilient than generally portrayed. In the past four years, it has endured a collapse in energy prices and consequent collapse in the value of the ruble, economic sanctions, and war (in Ukraine and Syria), and yet has emerged remarkably unscathed. That suggests that the Russian state possesses quite deep reserves of strength.

Over the past decade, I’ve read so many variations of Mendras’s thesis that I’ve lost count. All sorts of reasons have been put forward to explain why the ‘Putin regime’ is doomed – demographic decline, economic failure, Western sanctions, the supposed alienation of Russian youth, and so on. So far, none of them have amounted to anything and all the predictions of impending collapse have proven untrue. That doesn’t mean that they can’t come true in the future, but I’m not betting on it.

England v. Russia

O-o-o, England’s going to Russia!

O-o-o, Drinking all your vodka!

O-o-o, England’s going all the way!

When I was watching Belgium B play England B in Kaliningrad last week, the English fans were happily singing about drinking Russian vodka, but there was also a particularly loud Russian guy in front of me who was cheering the Belgians along, while occasionally throwing in chants of ‘Rossiya’ and ‘Baltika’ (the local team). Every now and again, as part of his abuse of the English, he would add in a reference to the ‘Skripals’, that is to say Sergei and Yulia Skripal, who were notoriously poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury. Quite what the Skripals had to do with football was beyond me, but it was clear that the Russian guy thought that their story was proof of ‘perfidious Albion’ and thus reason enough to support Belgium. In short, he obviously wasn’t buying the story that the Skripals were poisoned by the Russian secret services.

I doubt that he’s any more likely to think that way following the revelation of a new Novichok poisoning, this time in Amesbury, not far from Salisbury. The affected couple have no connection to Russia, and the speculation is that they came into contact with some residue of the nerve agent left behind after the original attack. This, of course, is not impossible, but given that even persistent chemical agents are affected by the elements (sun, rain, etc), sceptics will no doubt consider it a little odd and somewhat implausible.

My man in Kaliningrad was a bit of a loudmouth, but I suspect that his views on the Skripal affair are not unrepresentative of Russian public opinion – i.e. most Russians don’t think that their country is guilty, and if anything consider themselves the wronged party, while also regarding the British government as thoroughly nefarious. The latest news is likely to reinforce that point of view, and not just among rowdy football fans. For instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad declared today that the news from Amesbury ‘points to London’s direct participation in the “Skripal affair”.’ ‘How can Russia exploit the situation to finally put an end to suspicions in this regard?’ the newspaper asked.

But if the Amesbury incident is likely to confirm Russians’ belief in their innocence, it will probably also strengthen the British government’s anti-Russian position. For in British eyes, the incident underlines the irresponsible nature of the attack on the Skripals, involving the use of a weapon which not only struck its initial targets but also possibly contaminated a wide area, turning tens of thousands of innocent English citizens into potential victims. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid thus accused the Russian government today of being ‘reckless and callous’, and commented that the use of chemical agents was ‘barbaric and inhumane’. ‘It is completely unacceptable for our people to either be deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison,’ said Javid.

Given how strange this entire story is, I await the results of further investigation before coming to any judgement about what has actually happened. In the meantime, the latest twist in the tale will probably serve to reinforce existing positions – those who blame the Russians will be even more convinced of the evil nature of the Russian government, while sceptics (including most Russians) will become even more sceptical. In the days to come, expect positions to harden, and if we end up with a Russia-England World Cup semi-final, look forward to some chants about Novichok in Moscow on 11 July.

Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

If I had to recommend a single article for foreign policy decision makers to read, it would be Robert Jervis’s 1968 essay ‘Hypotheses on Misperception.’ As I’ve written before, many of the tensions between states derive from misperceptions. People misperceive others; misperceive themselves; and misperceive how they are seen by others. In his article, Jervis hypothesizes 14 misperceptions which are commonly encountered in international politics. Hypothesis number 9 is the following: ‘actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.’ Jervis adds that, ‘Further, actors see others as more internally united than they in fact are and generally overestimate the degree to which others are following a coherent policy.’ In my opinion, this is absolutely correct, and we can see a lot of this going on in contemporary analyses of Russia.

Continue reading Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

soft power

This week I had the opportunity to attend the first International Forum for the Development of Parliamentarism in Moscow. It was a fairly big show, with about 500 delegates from nearly 100 countries, of whom around 400 were members of parliament and 100 were ‘experts’ (academics and the like). Clearly, the Russians don’t do a thing like this for the sheer hell of it. The forum served a political/diplomatic purpose, namely strengthening contacts with foreign countries and winning friends. In short, it was an exercise in ‘soft power’. I had been asked to make a short 2-3 minute speech, but the session I was meant to do it in ran so much over time that I never got a chance. My own role, therefore, was very much that of observer. But in that capacity, I was able to make a few judgements about how different countries view Russia, what the prospects for Russian soft power are, and how Russia is presenting itself to the world.

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Continue reading soft power