Good thing I checked. Reading the New York Times this morning I almost coughed out my breakfast cereal on the sight of the following full page ad on page 7:
Good thing I checked. Reading the New York Times this morning I almost coughed out my breakfast cereal on the sight of the following full page ad on page 7:
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Saideman’s article is in many respects a fairly typical piece of Russia scaremongering, although it seems a little out of date already following Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria, the regular denunciations of Russia by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and the apparent lack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:
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.
As Monty Python pointed out, jokes can be the deadliest weapon of war. In the current atmosphere of Russophic hysteria, therefore, we should not be surprised that NATO this week has accused the Kremlin of weaponizing comedy. At first, given the topic, I thought that this must a Pythonesque spoof, but it appears that the accusation is deadly serious.
Macleans magazine, which, roughly speaking, is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, has published a couple of articles this week on the topic of the day – Russia.
The longer of the two, entitled ‘The Return of the Tsar’ is fairly innocuous. I have to confess that I’m not quite sure what it’s trying to achieve, apart from expounding some vague cliché about Russians wanting a strong ruler. It’s a fairly typical piece of impressionistic journalism, in which the author wanders around a Russian town, speaks to a few people, and based on a handful of anecdotes infers some broad-sweeping conclusions about the eternal ‘Russian soul’ and the like. By all means read it if you’ve got nothing better to do, but to be frank I don’t think you’ll get much from it.
The other article, by contrast, deserves a long reply, as it exemplifies fairly well what’s wrong with so much commentary on things Russian nowadays. You can get a sense of the thing just from the title: ‘Russia’s Coming Attack on Canada’. Watch out, Canadians, the Russians are coming, author Scott Gilmore warns, starting out by saying:
Moscow has been waging an increasingly daring clandestine war against western democracies. Under the direction of President Vladmir Putin, Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned of Russian attempts at cyber attacks. In France, Moscow has funded right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and is alleged to be spreading false propaganda about her opponents. There are now reports from British parliamentarians that Russia may have meddled with the Brexit campaign. And, of course, Putin’s interference in the U.S. Presidential election has lit a tire fire in Washington that may bring down the Trump administration.
Let’s take a look at this. Gilmore takes a bunch of allegations (Merkel has ‘warned’; Moscow is ‘alleged’ to be targeting Le Pen’s opponents; a single British MP (Ben Bradshaw to be precise) claimed that Brexit was the result of Kremlin interference’, etc), and without producing any evidence to substantiate these allegations uses them to claim that it is a definite fact that ‘Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance.’ But accusations aren’t by themselves evidence. So what proof is there?
Well, according to Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German state security service, the BND, has found that ‘there is no evidence for Putin’s disinformation campaign’. In France similarly, no evidence of Russian involvement of leaks targeting Francois Fillon has been forthcoming, and it would be odd if it were given that Fillon is considered ‘pro-Russian’. In Britain, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson declared a couple of days ago that ‘We have no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment. We don’t actually have that evidence.’ All the British have, according to Johnson, is ‘evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that,’ which is not at all the same thing. And finally, in the USA, according to a recent report, ‘Even some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee now quietly admit, after several briefings and preliminary inquiries, they don’t expect to find evidence of active, informed collusion between the Trump campaign and known Russian intelligence operatives’.
So much for all that.
Undeterred by the lack of facts to support his thesis, Mr Gilmore nonetheless ploughs on, as follows:
Moscow is being forced to play these aggressive and risky games out of desperation. The country is in bad shape is getting worse. The once great superpower now has an economy smaller than Canada’s and it continues to shrink. … Even the ragtag Ukrainians have fought them to a standstill. Diplomatically, Moscow has never been so isolated and powerless. You can count its friends on one hand, and it’s not an impressive list: Syria, Iran, Belarus.
How true is all this?
To be sure, the Russian economy isn’t in great shape. It has pretty much stagnated over the past 10 years. But it isn’t ‘getting worse’ and it doesn’t ‘continue to shrink’, as Gilmore claims. In fact, the economy has begun to grow again (not by much, to be sure, but growth isn’t shrinking), consumer demand is rising, and inflation is the lowest in post-Soviet history. As for ‘ragtag’ Ukrainians fighting Russia ‘to a standstill’, that is a very odd description of events in Donbass – a more accurate description would be that it was a ‘ragtag’ bunch of rebels (with some help from Moscow) who fought the Ukrainian army to a standstill. And finally, as for Russia’s friends, they go beyond Syria, Iran, and Belarus. What about China, for instance? For sure, Russia has fewer friends than it did a decade ago, but it’s hardly ‘isolated’.
And here we reach a serious contradiction in Gilmore’s thesis – Russia is supposedly at one and the same time ‘powerless’ and a deadly danger. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, the article claims that Canada is likely to be the next target in Russia’s sights. Gilmore writes:
Russia has three objectives as it goes after Canada. The first is to undermine any policies or politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests. For example, the Russian Embassy has already been trying to discredit Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, an outspoken advocate for continued sanctions, with a smear job about her grandparents. Russia also wants to discredit the broader political system, to undermine Canadians’ faith in “the system”, be it our own election process, our system of government, or parliamentary affairs. Finally, it wants to undermine Canada’s support for our allies, and for the international system including NATO and the United Nations.
All countries try to undermine policies which go against their interests. There isn’t anything odd about that. But the idea that the Kremlin wishes to undermine any ‘politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests’ is rather problematic in the Canadian context, because that would be just about every politician. Say the Russians were somehow able to discredit the ruling Liberals. What then? They’d just get the Conservatives, who are every bit as Russophobic. Why would that help? Moreover, it’s rather strange to blame the Russian Embassy for the ‘smear job’ about Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather, as the story began not with the Embassy but with independent journalist John Helmer and spread thereafter, without the need for any outside help, via social media. As for whether Russia wants ‘to undermine Canadians’ “faith in the system”,’ that is pure conjecture. And while Russia might indeed wish to undermine NATO, it has repeatedly stressed its desire for an international system resting on the United Nations (UN), blaming Western states for discrediting the UN via actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya.
Gilmore’s accusations are unsubstantiated, and frankly more than a little bizarre. What possible good would it do Russia to launch an underground war against Canada? And how on earth could such a weak and ‘powerless’ country actually hope to succeed in a war against such a prosperous and stable proponent? And where is the evidence that it is doing any of this, anyway? It is perhaps more than a little appropriate, therefore, that Gilmore concludes by saying that:
To achieve these goals, Moscow will likely rely on the same methods it has used relatively successfully in the United States and elsewhere. It will spread disinformation—false stories that create confusion around a controversial and heated issue.
‘Disinformation’ and ‘false stories’ – like this one, maybe?
Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, is one of the more even-handed commentators on Russian foreign policy. On the one hand, he isn’t much of a fan of the ‘Putin regime’, and knows how to speak the sort of critical language required to confirm one’s reputation as a respectable thinker in the West. On the other hand, he avoids most of the hyperbole generally associated with commentary on things Russian, and isn’t one of those ‘non-systemic opposition’ types who gives the impression that Russia’s interests are best served by abject surrender to the United States. In light of the West’s current rampant Russophobia, his short (120-page) book Should We Fear Russia? is very timely .
Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail newspaper writes some good op-eds. But like a lot of commentators he seems to go completely off the rails when the subject of Russia comes up. His latest piece entitled ‘Is Putin scoring political goals on an empty net?’ had me spluttering over my breakfast cereal this morning, and merits a detailed response.
Saunders writes that during the past week,
After his U.S. success, the Russian President appeared to launch a two-pronged assault on the stability of Europe. On its eastern front, it took a violent form. Starting Sunday, after Mr Putin’s very cordial phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian forces began attacking Eastern Ukraine … This, military observers said, was Mr Putin’s new push to destabilize and gain influence over Europe’s eastern flank. … On Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer, when asked about this apparent Russian invasion, declined to mention Russia.
Although I cannot prove it, I’m pretty sure that the Russian Federation has supplied most of the shells that the armed forces of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic are using in current battles. I don’t see where else they could have come from, it being a long time since the rebels overran any Ukrainian supplies. But Saunders talks about ‘Russian forces … attacking Ukraine’, and an ‘apparent Russian invasion’. That implies that troops of the Russian Army have entered Ukraine in recent days and are leading the fighting around Donetsk. Not even the Ukrainian government has claimed that! Saunders is making this up.
Moreover, his claim that it was ‘Russian forces’ who ‘began’ the recent combat doesn’t fit the facts. As I pointed out in a recent post, even some very pro-Ukrainian sources admit that the Ukrainian army has been consistently breaking the ceasefire in order to conduct a ‘creeping offensive’ against the rebels in Donbass. Meanwhile, Ukrainska Pravda, which can be taken as reliably reflecting the official Ukrainian position, depicts a rather more nuanced story than that described by Saunders – namely that a minor clash between Ukrainian troops and a rebel reconnaissance unit escalated out of control. If that is the case, the current fighting isn’t the product of any grand strategic design at all. Saunders quotes a former deputy secretary-general of NATO as saying that Russia started the combat in order ‘to test’ the Trump administration. But he fails to point out this is mere speculation without any factual basis.
Next, Saunders continues:
On the Western front, the Moscow incursion took a now-familiar political form. France’s presidential election campaign was tripped up by the sudden leak of thousands of candidates’ private emails, the largest pile of them from conservative candidate Francois Fillon.
Saunders blames Russia for this leak. But why would Russia try to harm Francois Fillon? The international press repeatedly refers to him as ‘pro-Russian’. The main beneficiary of the leaks appears to be independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, the one serious contender for the French presidency who is not considered ‘pro-Russian’. Why on earth would the Kremlin manipulate the French election to help Macron? It doesn’t make any sense. But Saunders fails to mention this. Rather, alluding to potential Russian interference in other European elections, he says:
The chaos serves the interests of those political parties … that regularly express support for Mr Putin and his agendas. … Their leaders all model their political agendas on Mr Putin’s combination of ultranationalist militancy, racial intolerance directed at religious minorities and opposition to the liberal democratic institutions of international cooperation.
Putting aside the obvious objection that far-right political parties in Europe developed their own agendas by themselves and not by copying Putin, this statement reveals a stunning ignorance of what Putin has actually said about nationalism, racial tolerance, and international institutions. Far from preaching ‘ultranationalist militancy’ and ‘racial intolerance’, Putin has often denounced these things, stressing Russia’s multinational and multi-confessional nature. Take, for instance, a speech Putin once gave in Kazan, in which he said:
Without exaggeration the principle of toleration, both national and religious, was central to the formation of Russian statehood. … Thanks to its multiethnic unity our country withstood many trials … the preservation of social, interethnic, and inter-religious peace is the basic, fundamental condition of Russia’s successful development. … In opposing nationalism and extremism the state must rely on all the Federation’s subjects.
This is fairly typical of Putin’s rhetoric. Has Saunders ever read Putin’s speeches? Has he studied Russian nationality and immigration policy under Putin? If he had, he couldn’t possibly make these claims.
Of course, we all have our biases; we all weigh some evidence more heavily than others; we all interpret evidence in a subjective manner. But at the same time, we have an obligation to check the facts, and not to make them up. We also have an obligation not to stoke fears based on ignorance. Journalists writing for a prestigious newspaper ought to do a better job than this.
Mount Athos, one of the most holy sites in Eastern Orthodoxy, is the home of 20 monasteries, mostly Greek Orthodox, but one Russian Orthodox. In the late 19th century, Athos was a popular pilgrimage destination for Russians, around 25,000 of whom visited each year. One of the most famous Russian residents was the conservative philosopher Konstantin Leontiev, who took monastic vows and moved to the Russian monastery on Mount Athos in 1871. Russians also gave the monks large amounts of money.
This made the Ottoman authorities, who then governed the area, extremely anxious. Fearing that the Russians might be using Athos to spread Pan-Slavist propaganda and to incite insurrection, they raided the Russian monastery. However, as one Greek newspaper recorded, ‘no weapons were found in the monastery other than ecclesiastical books … no ammunition other beans, cabbages, courgettes, and olives.’
Fast-forward 100+ years, and Russian money is once again flowing into Athos, as are Russian visitors – about 11,000 a year. And once again, this is stoking fears that Russia is using Mount Athos for nefarious political and military purposes. In this week’s edition of The Spectator, Jeremy Norman writes of a recent trip he made there:
We were told that Russian money forms an important source of funding all over the peninsula. Donating to the church to buy favours in heaven doesn’t seem a sufficient explanation. Does Russia have a secret agenda to account for such largesse? Why might Mr Putin be interested in this closed, authoritarian and guarded community?
Many Russians visit and quite a number work here, but I found that people-avoided questions about the role of Russia on Mt Athos. Something deeper and more sinister seems to be at work. Maybe Russia is using Mt Athos as a listening post or centre for intelligence gathering located well behind Nato’s front line; we noticed a number of sophisticated looking antennae and dish arrays.
Could the answer lie in the important strategic position of Mt Athos? It is close to the border with Turkey and the narrow Dardanelles, a convenient haven for Russian vessels coming from their base in the recently annexed Crimea. Should the Turks decide to blockade the narrow channel between Europe and Asia, this place might become a safe haven, even a Russian Gibraltar. … Does the EU know and approve of the price that Mt Athos is paying in return for Russian money?
Vladimir Putin has visited Mount Athos. So too has Prince Charles. According to The Guardian, the Prince’s numerous visits there are ‘shrouded in secrecy’ and the monks have sworn ‘never to speak of them.’ That doesn’t mean that there is a British spy station there. In any case, as the picture below shows, the Russian monastery is at the bottom of a mountain, which would prevent the Russians from intercepting communications broadcast from anywhere other than the Dragoudeliou protected natural park 20 kilometers to the south west. From an espionage point of view, it is very badly located.
As a symbol of the Orthodox Church, Athos’s importance is religious, nothing more. The idea that it is a ‘Russian Gilbraltar’ is absurd – a symptom of the extraordinary paranoia about Russia which has gripped the Western press. Having not myself searched Mount Athos from top to bottom, I cannot of course say for certain, but I am pretty sure that if the Greek authorities chose to raid the Russian monastery to find the secret ‘listening post’, they would find instead nothing other than ‘beans, cabbages, courgettes, and olives.’