Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Thinking clearly about Russia

The West is in a fever about Russia, due apparently to the ghastly attempt to murder two Russians, one of them a former double agent from the FSB, in a shopping centre in Salisbury a couple of weeks ago.  The assassination attempt utilized a nerve agent - a 'chemical weapon' - which used to be manufactured by the USSR.  Russia has denied responsibility for the assault.

Over the last couple of days, 16 EU countries, and the United States, have announced the expulsion of upwards of 100 Russian diplomats, now labeled as spies.  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has apparently been to the forefront of the butch EU response, leading the charge with President Macron. The Irish government, having ordered a 'security review' of the 17 Russian diplomats based in Dublin, is due this morning to announce action which may include expulsions.  Ireland is dependent for most of its intelligence information and assessment in this situation (and in many other situations) on allies such as the UK.

There are a number of problems here.  Firstly, it is not entirely clear why more of the evidence or 'intelligence' which leads Britain to conclude that the attack was made by Russian agents cannot be made public.  It's likely that my expressing such an opinion is naive, in that for Britain to expose its information would be to reveal its own intelligence procedures and the kinds of information that count as 'evidence': one only needs to remember the 'evidence' which was produced to justify intervention in Iraq in 2003 by both Britain and the United States.  But of course just because the information in 2003 was a tissue of lies and fantasies does not mean that the information now is similar.  More openness about it is surely up for discussion.

Secondly, it's transparent that expulsions of diplomats are merely symbolic.   A much more powerful and credible action for Britain and its allies, including Ireland, to take would be to let the existing inquiries by the police and other agencies at Salisbury to come to their conclusions, and on the basis of those investigations, on the basis of some effort to establish the truth of what happened, then to take action.  If Western powers such as the United Kingdom and its EU allies wish to portray themselves as governed by the rule of law, in a way which distinguishes them from Russia and other countries, then surely the course of the law must run?

Thirdly, my naivety does not extend to failing to notice that Prime Minister May's very large success in winning international diplomatic support to attack or push back against an old enemy and rival comes at a time of utter confusion in British politics due to the Brexit negotiations and the cupidity, ignorance and rank incompetence they have revealed within the Conservative party and government, and the diplomatic rancour with Europe which they have caused.  Opposing Russia helps close ranks inside Britain and between Britain and its erstwhile European partners.  It makes Mrs May look like a strong leader, and makes a mendacious and self-serving booby like Boris Johnson look, briefly, like he might be on the right side of an argument.  Any situation where Irish intelligence assessment or information gathering is dependent on figures as ideologically partisan and given to lies as Johnson is worrying.

Fourthly, the current dispute comes at a moment of wider souring of relations between the West and Russia.  Gone are the days when Vladimir Putin was seen as a modernising and democratising leader, gone are the days when he could talk of closer relations with the EU and even of Russia applying to join NATO.   Western leaders now prefer to talk about Russian belligerence, corruption, gathering authoritarianism: oppression of  gay people, support for Bashar al Assad's brutal government in Syria's civil war, a rigged presidential election.  The rhetoric now is of a 'new Cold War'.  Political rhetorics are not unrelated to material conditions, but they also have a worrying way of shaping reality themselves.  The problem with the discursive framework of 'the new Cold War' is its de-historicising tendency - the  implication that what is going on now between Russia and the West is a replay of 'what went on' between 1946 and 1991 between the West and the USSR.  This notion is profoundly inaccurate, and very unhelpful.

Before going any further, I should point out that I am aware of the deeply unpleasant character of the current Russian government, and I am in no way a champion of Russia or Mr Putin as a moral counterweight to Western imperialism or American influence, as some on the Left unfortunately and misguidedly are.  The Russian government is corrupt, violent towards its own people, both supportive of and a symptom of the brutal turbo-capitalism which has taken root in Russia since the 1990s.  Russia is not a democracy and its human rights record is terrible.  But the current characterisation of Russia on the international stage as a potentially world-threatening behemoth is ludicrous and dangerous.

The 'new Cold War' framework has a number of problematic implications.  It suggests a parity of power and influence between Russia and its Western antagonists.  It suggests, to some, that Russia is now a serious military threat to central and Western Europe.  It suggests, in its most extreme version, that Russia has world-conquering ambitions.   None of these implications are correct.

Russia is a shadow - economically, militarily, diplomatically and ideologically - of the USSR.  Its economy is about half the size of that of the United Kingdom.  Its military capacity - boosted and expanded and rationalised in recent years, certainly - is incomparably weaker than that of NATO and the United States.   Because Russia's economy is actually rather weak, Russia has no 'soft power' - no ability to influence friends or enemies by economic or financial means.  The old USSR, at least until the 1970s, represented a profound ideological or systemic alternative (though an over-rated threat) to Western capitalism and liberal democracy: those days are long gone - if anyone wishes to see capitalism red in tooth and claw, it's not to Los Angeles you need to go, but Moscow.  The USSR's 'alliance' of Stalinist regimes in eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact, is no more - yet NATO still exists and even grows.

Russia carries itself as a great power, and its government wishes to return it to superpower status.  It still has some of the badges of the latter - permanent membership of the Security Council, nuclear weapons - but its real power is minute in comparison to that of the United States.  The United States spends more on defence than any other country in the world,  and more than the next seven largest spenders (which include Russia, China, India, Israel, Britain, France) put together.  The United States maintains hundreds of bases and facilities necessary for 'forward force projection' around the globe, particularly in the Middle East and the Far East.  The United States still keeps enormous naval power in the Mediterranean, in the  western Pacific, and in the  Persian Gulf - each of these naval task forces is more powerful than the entire naval capacity of Russia (and of all other countries).   Under the dovish Barack Obama, the United States initiated a large review and expansion of its nuclear forces.

By comparison, the Russian armed forces are weak and often out of date.  The Russian military is staffed by conscripts.  Whole sections of the Russian army, navy and airforce were neglected to the point of becoming useless during the 1990s, when the Russian economy underwent a collapse which no Westerner has yet understood.  It is true that under Putin the Russian military has been modernised, reformed and to a degree professionalised, but it was starting from a position of degeneracy best compared to the state of the old imperial Russian army at the point of its collapse in 1917. 

Irish media recently reported on overflights of Irish territorial waters or areas close to Ireland by 'Russian Bear bombers', as if enormous fleets of Russian aircraft were encroaching on Irish airspace.  But the story is full of holes.  Russia never produced a plane called a 'Bear' - NATO used to give Soviet bomber aircraft code-names beginning with the letter 'B' - hence 'Bear' (the Tu-95), or 'Backfire' (the Tupolev bomber of the same generation as America's Rockwell B-1).   So the planes seen near Ireland were 'Bears' only in NATO nomenclature.  The Tu-95 is a large turboprop aircraft designed in the late 1940s or early 1950s.  Originally, large numbers were constructed and they served as long-range bombers, intended to deliver nuclear weapons - the nearest American  equivalent was the Boeing B-52.  But from the 1970s onward, Tu-95s were mostly phased out of bomber service - their huge size, lack of manoeuverability, lack of low-level performance and sheer noise made them unsuitable for penetrating hostile airspace.  A much smaller  number were re-fitted as long-range reconnaissance aircraft and it's in this form that they still are used today.  A few have been equipped with modern cruise missiles; a few have been deployed in Syria.  The Putin government is keen to retrofit more Tu-95s as cruise-missile platforms, but the entire fleet (about 50 remaining) was grounded in 2017 after two crashed in service.  Russian aircraft are as entitled to use international airspace as any other aircraft.

Adherents of the 'new Cold War' thesis like to point to 'Russian expansionism' in the form of wars in Georgia and Chechnya, support for the Syrian dictatorship, the annexation of the Crimea, and the  fomenting of civil war in the Ukrainian Donbass.   At this  point it's very hard not to invoke the charge of wild hypocrisy.  The world of power politics is one which is rife with hypocrisy, of course, but let's take a look at the record. The 2008 crisis and war with Georgia turned on matters such as trans-Caucasian oil pipelines and the pro-Russian sympathies of South Ossetia and Abhazia (regions of Georgia).  In a brief five-day conflict, Russian forces summarily bundled the Georgian army out of these areas and Russia then recognised the new 'republics'.   Russia's renewed war against Chechnya in 1999-2000 was pursued with a grim ruthlessness of violence justified to home audiences by the charge that Chechen Islamists were responsible for a series of major terrorist attacks in Russia in the late 1990s and into the 2000s.  Russian support for Assad has largely swung that civil war in the favour of the Alawite regime.  The annexation of the Crimean peninsula came in the context of tension in Ukraine as it swung in the 2000s between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces.  In both Crimea and the Donbass, large ethnic Russian local majorities influenced Moscow's action.

In none of these regions and disputes are Russia's hands clean.  In all of these cases save the Syrian war, Russia is acting in the 'near abroad', the zone of former parts of the USSR or the Russian empire.  In most of these cases, Russian cynicism was explicit.   In all of these situations, however, Russia was not acting alone: everywhere, except perhaps Chechnya, there is the trace of Western influence. Russian leaders point with some justice to an undertaking given by James Baker, American Secretary of State under the elder Bush in 1990, that NATO would not extend its scope eastward in the wake of German reunification.   Debate about the nature or legal worth of this understanding has raged ever since.  In Georgia, it's worth remembering that the then-president, Saakashvili, was a corrupt and authoritarian leader bent on making his country a member of NATO.  In Ukraine, the Euromaidan protests of 2013 had turned on Yanukovych's move away from closer ties to the EU.  International vote monitoring had shown that Yanukovych's election in 2010 was legitimate.  But the EU had incautiously pushed forward the possibility of Ukrainian association with and eventual membership of the Union, without thought as to the dubious politicians (such as Yulia Timoshenko) to which it was hitching its wagon.  A Russian reaction, therefore, was inevitable, and duly came with Russian support of protesters and militias in the east.  In Crimea, Russia was acting after several attempts by the regional government to hold referendums on rejoining Russia were quashed arbitrarily by Kiev.  The annexation which took place has been overwhelmingly popular in the peninsula.  In Syria, Russian support of the Assad regime came while Western powers dithered - that dithering allowing the Islamist opposition to Assad to absorb or crush any kind of secular or liberal opposition.  Meanwhile the Western willingness to put pressure on Gulf states which were, directly or indirectly, funding and supporting ghastly elements in Syria such as the Jamaat al-Nusra (an Al Qa'ida affiliate also at times supported by Israel) or Islamic State itself, was nil.

None of these situations are simple or clear.  Russian action was mostly cynical and self-interested.  But so has been that of NATO and the  EU.  Meanwhile, we need to remember the instances of annexation or interference carried out by Western or Western-supported powers in the last several decades.  In 1974, Turkey, a NATO member, unilaterally took over Northern Cyprus and has since annexed this region without being ejected from the alliance and while discussion of Turkish membership of  the  EU has come and gone and is currently being talked about again.  Israel has annexed the Syrian Golan Heights, and effectively annexed the West Bank, over the last 51 years, while remaining the single greatest beneficiary of American overseas aid and a crucial ally of the US, and also enjoying favoured trading status with the  EU and no protest of any seriousness by the Union.  In 1975, the United States connived with the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor, an event the organisation of which was explicitly acknowledged and claimed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, America's then UN Ambassador.  Over the course of the Indonesian tenure in East Timor, the island's population declined by a third.  And the West has turned a blind eye to the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara since 1991.

One might then also mention American or 'NATO' wars of dubious legitimacy in Yugoslavia in 1999, in Iraq in 2003, and  Libya in 2011: no Security Council resolutions supported the attacks  on Yugoslavia and Iraq and the declaration of 'no-fly zones' over Libya rapidly turned into a NATO bombing campaign.  The briefest examination of these countries now shows that the situation in Serbia  and Kosovo remains unstable, and Iraq and Libya have been racked by civil war ever since.

We've said that Russia has no 'soft power' or very little in comparison to what even the USSR had before 1991.  Where are the phalanxes of Russophile countries in Latin America?  In Africa?  In the Middle East, Russia supports Assad's murderous regime, and has moderately warm relations with Iran.  But every other Arab regime, including the neofeudal Gulf tyrannies, not to mention Israel, the Palestinian Authority and all of the Maghreb, is variously within the Western orbit.  In the Far East, Russia increasingly plays third or fourth fiddle to China (which meanwhile cheerfully continues its colonisation of Tibet to almost no Western protest), Japan and India.

In the overall context of Western interventions, then, not to mention Western tolerance for Saudi Arabia's savage war in Yemen, Israel's theft of the Golan and the West Bank and its keeping Gaza 'on a diet', Turkey's recent incursions into Syrian Kurdistan - one could go on and on - Russian 'expansionism' seems rather puny.    Not legitimate (but then the Israelis certainly believe in the confluence of conquest and right), and certainly not disinterested, but on a small scale in comparison to the blunders of the United States and its European confederates.

The best writer on the international situation involving Russia whom I have encountered is John J Mearsheimer.  He is a professor of international relations at the  University of  Chicago.   Mearsheimer stands outside of the American-centered discourses of 'grand strategy' and 'Kremlinology' in important and useful ways.  Yet he is not a radical leftist, either: on the contrary, he'd like to see America pursue a clear-eyed 'realist' foreign policy, suited to its interests.  He's the author or co-author of two particularly notable books.  The second, much better known, is The Israel Lobby (co-written with Stephen Walt).  This book became a cause celebre for its daring to suggest that American foreign policy in the Middle East is distorted and bent away from American interests by the influence of the Israel lobby in Washington.   It led to all the usual and in this case nonsensical charges of anti-Semitism.   The earlier and theoretically more important book is The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer's masterpiece, published in 1999.  Setting out his theory of 'offensive realism', Mearsheimer, with patience, learning and clarity, skewered the then-regnant discourse of the 'new world order' and 'the new military humanism' in international politics.  Suggesting that states will always compete for power and influence, he argued that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union would not, in fact, bring a new era of Kantian 'perpetual peace'.  Rather, in a unipolar world, with one weakening superpower without visible rivals, war and bloody competition would become more likely and more frequent.   Mearsheimer's prognostications have almost entirely been borne out.  On his website, he jocularly posts a picture which imposes his face on the figure of Niccolo Machiavelli - a warning that we should nurse no illusions about his advocating a statecraft attuned to human rights or the ressentiment of the weak.  But he nevertheless cuts, brusquely and lucidly, through the layers of liberal piety which tend to envelop American and European policy statements most of the time.

I am pasting in here links to some of Mearsheimer's work, which he makes freely available at his University of Chicago website in pdf form. I will also put in some other pieces, some of them more notable as background than immediate analysis, to allow us all to come to a calmer assessment of the situation regarding Russia.

John J. Mearsheimer, "Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault" Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93 No. 5 (September/October 2014), pp. 1-12. [pdf]

John J. Mearsheimer, "Moscow's Choice," Foreign Affairs, Vol 93, No. 6 (November/December 2014), pp. 167-171. [pdf]

John J. Mearsheimer, “Defining a New Security Architecture for Europe that Brings Russia in from the Cold,” Military Review, Vol. 96, No. 3 (May/June 2016), pp. 27-31. [pdf]

Here is a recent discussion of the American commitment not to extend NATO membership to the borders of Russia (this hyperlink leads to a pdf document):

Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer ...

Now some articles from the London Review of Books, where Perry Anderson and Tony Wood are always worth reading:

Tony Wood:

Eat Your Spinach

Stephen Holmes of NYU's Law School on Putin:


Perry Anderson on Putin's Russia:

Russia’s Managed Democracy

And from Anderson's superb survey and critique of American foreign policy and its thinkers, a reminder of just how peaceable Obama was:

Predator DroneAmerican Foreign Policy Under Obama


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