Tag Archives: Russia

Russia’s search for stability

The video of my talk to the Canadian International Council is now online here.

For those of you who don’t want to sit through the entire talk, below is a brief summary:

  • Whereas the West views the war in eastern Ukraine as a product of a deliberate destabilization effort by Russia, many Russians view things the other way around: it is the West which is doing the destabilizing. Western policy in Ukraine fits into a pattern of Western behaviour in which the United States and its allies create chaos in other countries: Iraq, Syria, Libya, and so on.
  • Having seen the consequences of their own revolution, and having lived through the chaos which followed the collapse of communism, Russians value stability. This is true of Vladimir Putin, who as a conservative naturally prefers order to disorder. I therefore agree with Nicolai Petro who wrote in the National Interest that ‘I do not believe that Russia’s strategy aims at destabilizing Ukraine. … What it wants, I believe, is a stable Ukraine that will be able to repay the 30 billion U.S. dollars it currently owes Russia in private, corporate and government debt. But it disagrees strongly with the West about how stability can be achieved.’
  • The Russian government would prefer that the Donbass region remain in Ukraine, but it also believes that this can only be achieved, and stability restored, if Kiev makes significant concessions, including local political autonomy and guarantees of some official status for the Russian language.
  • The purpose of Russian support for the rebels in Donbass has therefore been to force Kiev to the negotiating table, and to induce it to make these concessions, so as to bring the war to an end.
  • This strategy has not succeeded, as Kiev remains opposed to compromise. Russia is therefore having to adjust its policy, but what direction it will take in the future remains to be seen.

Updates on various events

First, the video of my talk at the Ukraine conference last week is now online. You can watch it here.

Second, I shall be giving a talk to a dinner of the Canadian International Council in Ottawa on Wednesday. Details here.

Third,  my interview on CHRQ 770 news talk radio  is also accessible online. Click here, then select 8 December, 9 pm, press listen, and drag the track to the 10 minute mark, when the interview starts.

UPDATE: I will be speaking on News Talk Radio 580 CFRA tomorrow morning (Thursday 11 December) at 0710 hrs ET.

Russia’s role in the war in Donbass

As previously mentioned, a conference about the war in Ukraine took place at the University of Ottawa this past Thursday. There was a full house, and the debate was civilized and in keeping with the academic venue. All in all, I considered it a great success.

My own paper was on ‘Russia’s role in the war in Donbass’. The conference was filmed, so once the video has been posted online, I will provide a link. For now, though, here are the key points of what I said:

  • Russia’s annexation of Crimea mistakenly encouraged anti-Maidan protestors in Donbass to believe that if they were to hold demonstrations and occupy some buildings, the Russian Army would invade as it had in Crimea. In this way, Russia is indirectly responsible for the uprising in Donbass. We lack evidence, however, to prove that the Russian state was directly involved in provoking it. Most of the demonstrators were locals, and it cannot be shown those who came from outside, e.g. Strelkov and his men, were operating under orders from Moscow; indeed there is some reason to doubt that they were.
  • There appear to be perhaps 3-4,000 Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine, most of whom are civilian volunteers, but some of whom are members of the Russian Army on ‘extended leave’. Some of the latter have provided training to the rebel forces. Nevertheless, 90% of the rebel fighters are Ukrainian citizens.
  • Russia has provided weapons and ammunition to the rebels, although I conjecture that this has been more in the form of concealable items such as anti-tank weapons, man-portable air defence systems, and shells, than of big-ticket items such as armoured vehicles. Large quantities of the latter have been captured from the Ukrainian Army. The evidence tends to indicate that deliveries of military supplies from Russia were small in volume until late July, after which the quantity sharply increased.
  • There is no good evidence that units of the Russian Army were directly involved in the war until mid-July, at which point it seems likely that Russian artillery did sometimes fire across the border at Ukrainian units located in the so-called ‘southern cauldron’. Large-scale Russian units did not appear in Donbass until the offensive of 24 August, in which they played an important role. They came and went very quickly, and there do not appear to be large units in Donbass at present.
  • The purpose of the August offensive Army was not to save the rebels from military defeat, as commonly supposed, since the Ukrainian Army was not in fact on the verge of winning the war. By late August, capturing Donetsk and Lugansk was probably already beyond the capacity of the Ukrainian Army, and attempts to do so would have caused massive destruction and thousands of civilian casualties. The purpose of the Russian offensive was to forestall such a humanitarian catastrophe and to force the Ukrainian government to the negotiating table in order to bring the fighting to an end.
  • The Russians did not at first have much control over the rebel forces or the rebel political leaders, many of whom pursued agendas contrary to that of Moscow. Russia therefore engineered a change in political and military leadership in mid-August designed to put into power people more amenable to compromise with Kiev. The political changes and the military offensive were, therefore, part of the same strategy, designed to halt the war.
  • This strategy has not been successful. Kiev still shows no sign that it is willing to compromise, while rebel forces retain a good deal of independence. It is becoming clear that Moscow is not likely to achieve its preferred outcome – an autonomous Donbass within Ukraine. Russia is, therefore, having to deal with the reality of two independent quasi-states on its border. There is a need to establish proper centralized authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk, as well to provide humanitarian and economic support. Since the notional ceasefire of 5 September, Russia has been making efforts in this direction.

Much of this is, of course, speculation, albeit informed speculation. As I pointed out in my talk, Russia’s relationship with the rebel republics in Ukraine is shrouded in mystery.

Putin the liberal

Vladimir Putin gave his annual speech to the Russian parliament on Thursday. His stance on international affairs was uncompromising. ‘Talking to Russia from a position of force is an exercise in futility’, he remarked. American plans for missile defence in Europe were ‘a threat not only to Russia, but to the world as a whole’. ‘Sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival`, said Putin. Russia is being told to comply with the West on Ukraine, but ‘This will never happen.’

Add all this to the president’s opening remarks about the importance of Christianity and his mention later in the speech of ‘conservative values [such] as patriotism and respect for the history, traditions, and culture of one’s country’, and the picture which emerges is a thoroughly conservative one.

But the economic section of the speech took Putin in another direction entirely. Noting the problems which lie ahead for Russia’s economy, the Russian president warned against autarky and laid out an agenda for economic recovery based on freeing small businesses from burdensome regulation. ‘Conscientious work, private property, the freedom of enterprise’ are ‘fundamental values’ he said, and then added:

It is essential to lift restrictions on business as much as possible. … It is crucial to abandon the basic principle of total, endless control. … Concerning small business, I propose establishing ‘supervisory holidays’. If a company has acquired a good reputation and if there have not been any serious charges against it for three years, then for the next three years it should be exempted from routine inspections by government or municipal supervisory agencies. … Businessmen talk about the need for stable legislation and predictable rules, including taxes. I completely agree with this. I propose ‘freezing’ the existing tax parameters as they are for the next four years. … two-year tax holidays will be provided to small businesses registering for the first time.

Putin, therefore, apparently sees the way out of impending recession as lying not in more state intervention, but rather in liberating small business. As he said:

The most important thing now is to give the people an opportunity for self-fulfilment. Freedom for development in the economic and social spheres, for public initiative, is the best possible response both to any external restrictions and to our domestic problems. The more actively people become involved in organising their own lives, the more independent they are, both economically and politically, and the greater Russia’s potential.

I have claimed elsewhere that Putin is best seen in light of the Russian tradition of liberal conservatism. His speech seems to bear that out. Putin is a conservative. But in some respects he is a liberal too.

One model fits all

Recently I attended the annual conference of the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in San Antonio, Texas. One interesting panel examined Russian/East European development assistance to the Third World during and after the Cold War, a subject I had done some work on in my 2013 book Aiding Afghanistan: A History of Soviet Assistance to a Developing Country. Of particular interest to me was a paper by Patty Gray of Maynooth University in Ireland, which discussed Russia’s move from being a recipient of development assistance after the collapse of the Soviet Union to once again being a donor.

Russia’s contemporary aid agency is Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Cooperation in English). Gray pointed out that this organization evolved not from the Soviet institutions which were involved in development assistance but rather from those which handled cultural ties and exchanges with foreign countries. Because of this, Rossotrudnichestvo has to date focused on cultural matters. However, the organization’s website recently added a section devoted to ‘international development assistance’ which speaks of providing ‘financial, technical, humanitarian and other aid, helping the social-economic development of states’.

Rossotrudnichestvo's logo
Rossotrudnichestvo’s logo

As yet there is not much evidence to indicate what this will mean in reality. In Soviet times, development practice closely tracked academic theory. With this in mind, I asked Dr. Gray whether there even was any modern Russian development theory. Her answer was revealing. There are apparently a handful of contemporary Russian textbooks on development theory, but there are no university programs dedicated to the subject and very few academics are paying any attention to it. To overcome this deficit, the European Union (EU) has been running courses on the subject for Russians and others from Eastern Europe. According to Dr. Gray, the EU courses do not present different concepts of what development is and how it can be helped, but rather teach a single model (the EU’s model) which it is assumed students will apply once they go home. In practice, though, said Dr. Gray, students do what is expected of them and parrot what they are taught in order to pass the course, then when they go home mainly ignore it all in favour of their own country’s traditions and experiences.

'From the people of Russia' - label attached to aid supplied by Rossotrudnichestvo
‘From the people of Russia’ – label attached to aid supplied by Rossotrudnichestvo

This story neatly encapsulates the arrogance of much of Western ‘capacity building’. In theory, we know that local institutions matter and that you cannot impose the same template on every country. But we keep on acting as though you can. Soviet development assistance was not notably successful, but its results weren’t generally any worse than that provided by its Western competitors. As it takes up this activity once again, Russia needs to start thinking seriously about how it can make its aid effective. This means doing more than simply copying a template provided by the West.

Misha’s two cents

Yesterday, the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa hosted a talk by Mikhail Kasyanov, Prime Minister of Russia between 2000 and 2004. Kasyanov put in his two cents’ worth about the evils of Vladimir Putin. Here are a few choice snippets from his presentation:

  • ‘More and more every day we see features of Soviet style’. People remember the Soviet times, and as a result ‘people are scared’.
  • Putin does enjoy large popular support, but in the big cities only 20%. The middle classes are against Putin, and he has given up on them.
  • Aware that his regime is in danger, Putin has invented a foreign enemy (the West) to distract attention from domestic difficulties and to keep himself in power. ‘Putin needs these external problems’.
  • Putin ‘started this aggression against Ukraine’. ‘Crimea was grabbed, and in the twenty-first century it is not allowed to act in this way. … It is not acceptable at all. Annexation of Crimea is not acceptable at all.’
  • ‘It would be the wrong thing’ to strike a deal with Putin. The West’s weakness in the face of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia encouraged further Russian aggression. ‘You should not allow Putin to violate international obligations’. ‘We cannot find any compromise on Ukrainian affairs. Any compromise is a betrayal of the Ukrainian people. … There is no room for compromise on this affair.’ ‘For Russians, Ukrainian success is success for us.’
  • ‘Who are those people fighting in Donbass? First, there are local criminals, next there are the crazy people coming from Russia. … It’s not local people’. The rebels use the population as a ‘human shield’. ‘These guys who are fighting should disappear. Mr Putin should take them wherever he wants.’
  • ‘Sanctions as applied right now are o.k.’ as they don’t hurt the Russian people, just those around Putin. ‘We should add more sanctions.’
  • ‘If we compromise now, expect next stage. Transdnestr or the Baltic states’. ‘We now have to have a tough position. … We must not trade with Putin.’
  • Putin ‘has started to believe that he is if not God then something close’.
  • Russia only has financial reserves for two years, then it will run out, and public opinion will shift against Putin. The next parliamentary elections in Russia will end with demonstrations such as those in 2012 or even worse.

I have several thoughts on all this:

First, I could not but wonder what Kasyanov would do about Crimea if he ever came to power again. Hand it back to Ukraine? There would be an instant armed rebellion in Crimea, and he would have trouble finding a single Russian soldier willing to obey his orders to force the Crimeans to submit. Telling Western audiences that they shouldn’t compromise on Crimea is telling them to continue living in cloud-cuckoo land.

Second, if Putin wants an external enemy, why give him one? If he stays in power due to his propaganda about the evil West, why does the West keep feeding that by expanding NATO, supporting revolution in Ukraine, and sanctioning Russia?

Third, Kasyanov seems confused as to the state of public opinion in Russia and as to the likely political effect of sanctions. On the one hand, he claims that Russians are living in fear, but then he grudgingly admits that in fact they support Putin. Next, he says that sanctions don’t hit ordinary Russians, but then he says that it is the economic problems in part induced by sanctions which will turn Russians against Putin. Kasyanov ends up sounding as if he wants sanctions precisely because they will damage the economy and impoverish Russian citizens, turning them against their president. That may not be what he intends, but it’s the impression he leaves.

Overall, Kasyanov’s discourse makes it clear why his clumsily named political party, the Republic Party of Russia – People’s Freedom Party, enjoys very little support in Russia, with just three elected representatives in regional councils throughout the whole of the country. No politician who calls for the international community to sanction his own country is going to draw an awful lot of votes.

Silence of the cows

Russia and the West have long denounced one another for spreading disinformation. In a new report published by The Interpreter magazine, and entitled The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, authors Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev go a step further and accuse Russia of ‘weaponizing’ information. Weiss and Pomerantsev have also discussed their findings in a podcast on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Power Vertical blog.

The report’s primary thesis is that Russia is using information not as propaganda, but rather as a ‘weapon’ in a campaign of ‘aggression’ against the West, in order to ‘confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze’. ‘The border between “fact” and “fiction” has become utterly blurred in Russian media and public discourse’, claim Weiss and Pomerantsev, ‘the notion of “journalism” in the sense of reporting the “facts” or “truth”, has been virtually wiped out.’

Unfortunately, the report is couched in terms which suggest that it more suited to political polemic than objective journalism or academic research. Take, for instance, this segment out of a particularly polemical paragraph:

Land that was not so long ago the cynosure of the worst atrocities of modernity has once again become an active war zone, above which commercial airliners filled with hundreds of foreign-born innocents are blown out of the sky with impunity. A former KGB lieutenant-colonel, rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe, stands an excellent chance of outstripping Josef Stalin’s tenure in power and now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries. As if to demonstrate the seriousness of his threat, he dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers into their airspaces on a near weekly basis.

Let us dissect this segment bit by bit:

  • First, the authors’ use of language distorts reality by suggesting that things which have happened just once are regular occurrences, so making them seem more threatening. Note, for instance, the plural word ‘airliners’. Precisely one airliner has been shot down over Ukraine. That is bad enough, but Weiss and Pomerantsev use deceptive language to suggest something even worse. Also, observe how the authors claim that Putin ‘now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries’. This no doubt refers to a statement by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that Putin told him that if he wanted to he could have troops in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest within two days. The word ‘speaks’ suggests a regularly repeated, ongoing habit, whereas in fact we have one instance in which Putin allegedly ‘spoke’. This is a subtle difference, but it is important.
  • Second, the story of Putin threatening to invade NATO countries is entirely uncorroborated, and comes from a source with a strong interest in making Putin look bad. But even if true, it does not constitute speaking ‘openly’ of invading NATO countries given that the conversation was private. Moreover, we don’t know why Putin said what he did (if he did). Perhaps he did so in response to a threat from NATO, as a way of saying ‘don’t attack Russia because Russia can hit back hard and fast’, in which case his statement was defensive in nature, not aggressive. Context is everything, but Weiss and Pomerantsev make no attempt to address this. Instead they suggest that it is an objective truth that Putin is even now openly threatening to attack NATO. This is deceptive.
  • Third, note how Putin is described as ‘rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe’. Strictly speaking, this is not a lie. There is a rumor to the effect that Putin owns a majority share in the commodity trading company Gunvor, giving him a personal wealth of $40 billion. The problem with this preposterous rumor is that the only source for the information is an entirely unsubstantiated claim by Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, who is a cousin of the deceased exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a man described by a British judge as a liar. Repeating unfounded rumors is an easy way of blackening somebody’s reputation, but it is not good journalism.
  • Fourth, the paragraph repeatedly slips in irrelevant points whose only purpose is emotional – to turn the reader’s mind against Putin by means of association. See how I slipped in the stuff about Berezovsky in the last bullet point, to turn you against Belkovsky by associating him with a liar. Weiss and Pomerantsev use this trick repeatedly. Thus we have a reference to the ‘worst atrocities of modernity’, as if the current war in Ukraine is somehow comparable; then we have a mention of the KGB; and finally there is a comparison with Josef Stalin, a man who oversaw the deaths of millions of people. Weiss and Pomerantsev at no point directly tell readers that they are making these comparisons, but their intent is clear.
  • Finally, we read that Putin ‘dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers’ into the ‘airspaces’ of NATO countries ‘on a near weekly basis’. But a complete list of incidents involving Russian aircraft assembled by the European Leadership Network lists only two NATO countries (the Netherlands and Estonia) as having their airspace violated in the past twelve months, one of them (the Netherlands) only once. Even the more regular alleged intrusions into Estonian airspace (about five in the past six months) are not ‘near weekly’ and in any case ‘result from an unsolved airspace issue where Russian air traffic control overlaps Estonian airspace.’ Furthermore, none of these intrusions involved nuclear bombers. Such aircraft have entered the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of the United States, but ADIZs are not part of national airspace and entering the American ADIZ is a not a violation of U.S. sovereignty. Contrary to what Weiss and Pomerantsev write, there are no instances of nuclear bombers entering the airspace of NATO countries.

All these distortions appear in just one half of one paragraph. The authors accuse the Russian media of disinformation, but they are guilty of the same thing themselves.

Also interesting is the organization Weiss works for. The Interpreter magazine is a product of The Institute of Modern Russia, whose president (and source of funding) is Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of another disgraced former oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It is relentlessly hostile to the current Russian government. So too is The Power Vertical podcast. The Americans did not found and subsidize Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War for the fun of it. Rather, these radio stations had the specific purpose of subverting communism in eastern Europe. To some extent, the subversive objective remains unaltered, at least as far as Russia is concerned. You don’t turn to The Power Vertical if what  you are looking for is balanced discussions of modern Russia reflecting multiple points of view.

In short, The Interpreter and RFE/RL are ‘weapons’ too. Weiss’ and Pomerantsev’s report is very much of a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Or as the Russians say, ‘чья бы корова мычала а твоя молчала’: some people’s cows can moo, but yours should keep quiet. Hence the title of this post.

Pivoting to Asia

This week’s class on ‘Russia and the West’ looks at the Russian oil and gas industries. The week’s big news on the subject is the signing of another natural gas mega deal between Russia and China. Russia will deliver 30 billion cubic metres of gas annually to China via a new western route, the Altai Pipeline. This follows a previous deal in May of this year to deliver gas into eastern China through the Power of Siberia Pipeline, a deal supposedly worth about $400 billion to Russia over 40 years.

chinagas2

 

Western commentators always view Russian gas deals through political lenses. In this case, they are cited as evidence that Russia is ‘pivoting’ towards China, seeking a closer alliance with its Asian neighbour in order to reduce its dependence upon the West. This is a process supposedly accelerated by recent tensions between Russia and the West, and especially by the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia because of its role in the war in Ukraine.

But is this explanation of Russia’s actions accurate?

Only partly, I would say. Certainly, many Russian political and economic leaders are speaking of the need to find alternative trading partners to Europe. This means not only China, but also the other BRIC countries – Brazil and India. However, I would caution against making too much of this. One cannot simply shift one’s trade from one part of the world to another overnight, let alone do so without substantial cost. Furthermore, this year’s gas deals with China are only preliminary in nature. Crucial details of the first agreement remain to be decided, and its practical implementation is far from a done thing.

More significantly, it would be wrong to see Russia’s desire to trade with China as solely, or even primarily, a reaction to tensions with the West. As Vladimir Putin said in his speech to the Valdai Club in October:

Some are saying today that Russia is supposedly turning its back on Europe – such words were probably spoken already here too during the discussions – and is looking for new business partners, above all in Asia. Let me say that this is absolutely not the case. Our active policy in the Asian-Pacific region began not just yesterday and not in response to sanctions, but is a policy that we have been following for a good many years now. Like many other countries, including Western countries, we saw that Asia is playing an ever greater role in the world, in the economy and in politics, and there is simply no way we can afford to overlook these developments.

We in the West are very prone to a common cognitive failure. We think that what other countries are doing is always somehow about us, and thus requires some response from us. But often it isn’t, and doesn’t. Russia would have sought stronger ties with China regardless of what happened in Europe, and if Russia and China both end up better off as a result, then that is all to the good.

Russia and the Common European Home

Russia and the West are ‘on the brink of a new Cold War’, according to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev said at the end of last week that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world.’ Actions such as the bombing of Kosovo, the enlargement of NATO, and the wars in Iraq and Libya, led to a ‘collapse of trust’, according to the former communist leader.

Talk of a new Cold War is overblown. The Cold War was not just a case of bad relations between East and West, but rather a global struggle for political hegemony driven by sharp ideological divisions. No such struggle or divisions exist today. Gorbachev’s words are nonetheless striking, not because of what was said but because of who said it.

In his 1987 book Perestroika Gorbachev wrote that, ‘The history of Russia is an organic part of the great European history’. Addressing the people of Western Europe, he remarked that ‘Europe is our common home’ and that Russia was part of ‘a common European civilization’. Never has a Russian leader linked his country more categorically to its Western neighbours. If even Gorbachev is blaming the West for the current tensions, then there can be little doubt that the West has thoroughly alienated not just Russian nationalists but even that segment of the Russian population which was inclined to view it favourably.

Gorbachev’s idea of a ‘common European home’ was one in which Russia and the West cooperated with one another as equals. ‘We must learn to live in a real world, a world which takes into account the interests of the Soviet Union’, he wrote. Substituting Russia for the Soviet Union, this remains a good idea. One does not have to agree with another country’s definition of its vital interests to realize that threatening them is not conducive to harmony. While seemingly idealistic, the idea of a common European home thus rests on a profound realism, in which the nations of Europe not only advance their own interests but also respect those of others. Sadly, this is something which at present we in the West seem to have trouble grasping.

NATO shoots itself in the foot

This week in my course ‘Russia and the West’ we shall be discussing Russia’s relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Right on cue, NATO’s top military commander, Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove, has announced a new set of measures designed to counter the supposed Russian threat.

The measures include the following:

  • Suspension of a ‘joint program to train counter-narcotics workers from Afghanistan’.
  • Halting ‘a project providing spare parts and training for Afghan helicopter technicians’.
  • Excluding Russia from ‘an initiative to link radars to provide a fuller picture of airspace in case of hijacking’.

According to the Wall Street Journal, ‘The Kremlin responded angrily, saying the moves would hurt the West as much as Russia, while helping terrorists and other lawbreakers. “It isn’t hard to imagine who will win from the rolling back of joint Russia-NATO collaboration … particularly the fight against terrorism, piracy, and natural and man-made disasters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. “That would definitely not be Russia or NATO member countries”.’

NATO officials actually agree with him. According to one, ‘It’s unfortunate that these projects will be damaged, because they were doing important things. But we have to be able to take a little damage to stand up for our principles.’

There are only two possible explanations for this bout of self-harm. Either, despite its rhetoric, NATO doesn’t actually care that much about Afghanistan, counter-narcotics, and terrorism; or it is acting in a fit of pique, cutting off its nose to spite its face, as the saying goes. I suspect a bit of both.