Tag Archives: Russophobia

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.

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

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

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

russia rising

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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

The Russians are coming!

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?

Book Review: Should we fear Russia?

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 .

trenin

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