Tag Archives: Russophobia

Three doses of drivel

[Trigger warning: Clicking on the links below and reading the articles revealed thereby is likely to induce severe nausea. Readers are advised to have a dose of Gravol nearby to suppress any unwanted symptoms.]

 

Maclean’s is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, that’s to say it’s a glossy magazine with lots of photographs mingled together with analysis of domestic and international events. In recent times, it’s been a reliable source of foaming-in-the mouth Russophobic commentary, but this week’s it’s outdone even itself by printing no fewer than three articles involving Russia, each one every bit as bad as the other.

The first comes from columnist Terry Glavin, who’s one of those strange left-wing human rights activists who give the impression that they truly believe that the world can be divided up into simple categories of good and evil and that the problem is that the good people aren’t doing enough to physically exterminate the evil ones by every means possible. The fact that the actual consequences of toppling dictators wherever you think you find them often end up being tragic doesn’t seem to register in their thought processes. Glavin’s latest piece in Maclean’s is a case in point. Its content is pretty clear from its headline: ‘Putin is the new Stalin. Here’s why his poisonous gangland oligarchy will prevail,’ Coming across a title like that generally induces something approaching a state of nausea. You know that it’s going to be really hard to read what follows, and your natural tendency is to turn away and have nothing more to do with it. It takes a strong stomach to digest stuff like this, but sadly it’s my job, so I do. It’s not pleasant.

The article is essentially one Putin cliché after another. Glavin tells us that the reason that Putin will win Sunday’s presidential election is that his ‘primary challenger was conveniently disqualified from running for office’; that ‘Journalists are frequently found among Putin’s domestic critics who end up dead’; and that, ‘Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008.’ The facts that the ‘challenger’ in question (Alexei Navalny) has yet to register above 2 percent in any opinion poll; that there’s little to no evidence linking Putin to murders of journalists and that the rate of such murders is far below what it was under Boris Yeltsin; and that Dmitri Medvedev was President of Russia at the time of the Georgian war and that in any case Georgia started it, are ignored. Glavin says also that in Syria ‘6,600 civilians have been killed by Russian bombers.’ I can’t say whether that is true or not; maybe it is. Urban warfare is bloody. But I wonder how many civilians have been killed in Syria and Iraq by NATO countries (particular the USA, UK, and Turkey). Why does Glavin pick out Russia as particularly guilty in this regard? He doesn’t say, but rounds off his article with the following gem:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the new Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.

Stalin, as I’m sure you all know, led a revolutionary movement which completely transformed Soviet society, including massive industrialization and forced collectivization. The latter so disrupted agriculture as to cause a famine in which perhaps 6 million people died. Meanwhile, Stalin oversaw the Great Terror in which some 700,000 people were executed. And somehow Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the same. What utter drivel! Why on earth is this stuff published?

More clichés come in the second article, written by Scott Gilmore and entitled ‘Russia is a mess but it’s still playing the West.’ Gilmore tells us that, ‘Russia is a mess … It has one of the worst incidences of alcoholism in the world and one of the highest suicide rates. … the fertility rate has crashed. … The population size peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining ever since.’ What Gilmore fails to mention is that the rates of alcoholism and suicide have declined dramatically in Russia in the past 20 years. The fertility rate did indeed ‘crash’ in the 1990s, but it has since somewhat recovered, and currently stands at about 1.75 children per couple. That’s not sufficient to maintain the current population, and Russia faces some definite demographic issues, but its fertility rate is actually considerably higher than that of most other European countries (the European average is about 1.6). Moreover, because of immigration and rising life expectancy (currently the highest ever in Russian history) the Russian population has actually increased slightly in recent years. Gilmore’s claims are simply untrue.

Oddly, Gilmore thinks that although Russia is in terminal decline, it is beating the West hands down in the international arena. He writes:

The Russian state is falling apart. Putin, in an effort to regain some control over his country’s failing fortunes, is attempting to destabilize the West. And he is beginning to succeed, by ignoring the new rules of internationalism. … We need to step up our game. … We need a more determined and aggressive strategy.

Again, what utter drivel! The Russian state is not ‘falling apart’, not in the slightest. Moreover, the idea that Putin is trying to ‘destabilize the West’ is a fiction (Russians, including Putin, generally stress stability and believe that it’s the West which is doing the destabilizing). So too is the concept that Putin is doing so in order to prop up his failing country (which isn’t, after all, ‘failing’ in quite the way imagined). As for the ‘new rules of internationalism’, I admit that I don’t know what Gimore is talking about. What I do understand is the call for a more ‘aggressive strategy’. It sends a chill through my bones. Have we not been aggressive enough already?

The drivel continues in the third Maclean’s article, this one written by Stephen Maher and entitled ‘Donald Trump failed a simple test on his Russian ties.’ Maher begins by saying:

Donald Trump’s sudden Twitter firing of Rex Tillerson on Tuesday is the moment that it became impossible to maintain the fiction that Trump is not in some way in league with Vladimir Putin … if there was any real doubt about the relationship, Tillerson’s firing removed it.

Why is this? According to Maher, it’s because ‘Tillerson … was fired the day after he denounced Russia for the attempted assassination of a former double agent in Britain.’

One wonders where Maclean’s finds such authors capable of writing such extraordinary nonsense. I realize memories are short, so I remind readers that just a few months ago Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State was being touted as proof that Trump was in the pay of Putin – Tillerson, after all, had business connections with Russia and had even been granted a medal by Putin. But now the fact that he’s been fired is proof that Trump is a Russian agent. It’s Putin Derangement Syndrome taken to a whole new level of insanity.

Maher is clearly not up to date with the latest developments in studies of Russian military strategy, for he entertains his readers with an explanation of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.’ Had he been on the ball, he would have known that Mark Galeotti, the inventor of the term ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, has recently admitted that there is in fact no such thing. But, as in all the other articles, mere facts are not important. We are fighting Russian ‘disinformation’ after all.

Like Gilmore, Maher thinks that the West is losing its struggle against Russia. ‘The EU, NATO, and the United States have all been dramatically weakened,’ he says. Really? I can’t say that I see it. Where’s the evidence for this fantastic claim? If there’s a sunny side for NATO, continues Maher, it’s Canada. As he explains, ‘In Canada, likely because of the political clout of our Ukrainian diaspora, there has been no opening for the Russians.’ Thank goodness for the members of the Ukrainian diaspora, bravely fighting to protect the world from the terror of Putin, just as their grandfathers bravely fought to protect the world from the evils of Putin’s hero, Joseph Stalin, 70 years ago.

Slava Ukraini!!

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Never-ending obsession

I don’t often read the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog, but today one of its commentators inadvertently pointed me in the direction of something quite striking. In a discussion of gun control, a comment provided a link to a 1981 article in the Finger Lake Times (a local newspaper in upstate New York) by the historian Paul Fussell (who wrote a very interesting book entitled The Great War and Modern Memory). As it happens, on the same page there is also an article by former Under-Secretary of State George W. Ball, famous for having been almost the only person in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson to have opposed escalating the war in Vietnam. Ball’s article bears the headline, ‘The obsession with Soviet Communism’, and it’s well worth a read. Substitute ‘Soviet Union’ with ‘Russia’ and you’ll understand why. Here are some highlights from what Ball wrote:

John Foster Dulles is alive and well and living in the White House. Once again we hear his passionate charge that the Soviet Union is the anti-Christ threatening civilization with a pernicious doctrine. The Soviets, we are told … are responsible for all our international troubles … Detente … is a deceit … Our only hope is to scar the desert with the MX and mobilize our allies for Armageddon.

So now once more, we shiver in the icy winds of the Cold War. Diplomacy is for sissies, a resolute America must build more and bigger weapons, while meanwhile arming any regime – no matter how corrupt or oppressive – that shouts anti-Communist slogans.

… Such an attitude is not a policy but an obsession. … Our incessant and quite gratuitous hectoring of Moscow is alienating our Western allies and encouraging the emergence of an ominous neutralism.

… The administration seems bent on persuading the Soviet Union that it foresees an unlimited arms race and has lost interest in peaceful working relations. … In its total effect, the administration’s current position denies all hope of a better future. … We have been lucky so far that we have not yet blown up the world but it is statistically absurd to think that such luck can last forever.

Some things never change, it seems!

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 – 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

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

The paradox of power and fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

global defence spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaponizing comedy

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.

Continue reading Weaponizing comedy