Are the international stances of Russia and the US inherently incompatible?

JRL/2013/ 73/32

Countries enjoy claiming highfalutin values and principles as justification for their often sordid actions. But these principles are usually pretty malleable. Washington, for example, was firm on the principle of inviolability of borders in the Georgian case in 2008 but not so much in Yugoslavia in 1999; Moscow firmly held the opposite position each time. Moscow was supportive of the human rights of Ossetians but not so much about those of Kosovars; Washington, again, the opposite. Each was adept at manufacturing reasons why the inviolable principles of one case did not apply in the other.

But it is pleasing to one’s to self esteem to claim high motives. For years Washington has claimed the moral high ground of “democracy” and now we see Moscow claiming to be the home of stability. These noble self-portraits look most convincing at some distance. For Moscow to claim to be the thumb keeping the scales of world power balanced is to slip over its partial responsibility for the transformation of another Balkan squabble into a world war in 1914 and ignores most of the years between 1917 and 1990. Washington focuses its moral quizzing glass on Russia rather than say, Saudi Arabia: an “Arab Spring” for Libya but not for Bahrain.

But above this normal level of sanctimony-cloaked interest, the USA goes father with its bizarre obsession about Russia. It is bizarre because Russia is not very pertinent to Washington’s strategic and security concerns: it is not threatening nuclear war today; nor is Obama considering using force against it; neither does he see it as the greatest threat. Russia has surely seldom appeared in White House threat briefings for a decade and a half. If not a real opponent, then, Russia must fill some other need: a cost-free shadow opponent; a contrast that can be painted as dark as you like; an object of feel-good moral righteousness; a sullen teenager who must be brought to obedience.

Americans seem to need a rival, an opponent, a type of geopolitical chiaroscuro: the light can only shine against the darkness. Russia is large, significant and gives a contrast more substantial than, say, Venezuela.

Because US-Russia trade is pretty inconsequential, Russia is a low-cost object of periodic American fits of moral censure. An issue as trivial as Pussy Riot can be played up as a momentous violation whereas any sustained condemnation of the treatment of Shiites or Pakistani and Filipino servants in Saudi Arabia would come with a cost. Outrage against Russian “occupation” of parts of Georgia is cheap; outrage about Chinese occupation of Tibet is not. Russia’s sins are a perfect fit: giving a pleasing moral superiority without expensive consequences.

Or is Russia an ungrateful child? In the 1990s there was much talk about US aid and advice reforming Russia and some saw it as on the edge of becoming “just like us”. But it didn’t and such back-sliding cannot be forgiven.

And, of course, when you are looking down from a moral prominence, disagreement is sin. Moscow cannot just be disagreeing about the Syrian nightmare; it must be blocking “the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”

So, the differences do seem incompatible so long as the curious American obsession endures.

As for global realities, how are the last two “humanitarian interventions” working out? The Guardian quotes reports identifying Hashim Thaçi, put into power by NATO, “as one of the ‘biggest fish’ in organised crime” in Kosovo and the less said about the “success” in Libya, the better. In these two cases, therefore, it doesn’t seem to be Moscow that is out of touch with global realities.

Is Washington’s concern over the ‘Russian menace’ in the EU energy market justified?

JRL/2013/ 41/28

Practically the moment hydrocarbons were discovered in the Caspian Sea we were solemnly informed by the anti-Russia lobby that Russia must be cut out of the loop. Moscow was fomenting wars in order to control pipeline routes, its dearest desire was to dominate these routes, and, presumably, being Russians, would then force the world to its knees like some mad scientist in a movie. These hysterias cropped up again in the 2008 war – Moscow was going to seize the pipeline through Georgia. US business interests were never mentioned at all – it was all geopolitics and security – the so-called New Great Game. And it was a zero-sum game in which Russia could not be allowed to score a point. (Or cut into the profits of a US company.)

But here we are today and all is calm. Customers have various routes and suppliers; producers have various customers and routes. This is one of the meanings of “energy security”.

The American campaign to – what is the word? – contain? hamper? impede? circumscribe? cripple? Russia is not working very well. The “coloured revolutions” are gone leaving nothing in their place; Russia is building pipelines and customers are participating in the building; Russia’s economy is growing and forcing people to take it seriously.

It hasn’t conquered Georgia and seized the pipeline; neither has it conquered Azerbaijan to get at its oil; it isn’t demanding rack-rents from its customers using its “gas weapon”. Indeed it is proceeding rather normally and quietly.

Even though the wolf doesn’t come, the boys keep shouting. Better they, and we, should pay attention to real threats.

Should Obama listen to calls for a full-scale containment of Russia

Should Obama pay any attention to Freedom House’s rating of Russia? No, and neither should anyone else. They are not “independent” ratings of freedom.

Freedom House doesn’t like Putin very much: Russia’s “democracy score” has declined from 4.96 in 2003 to 6.18 in 2012 on a scale where 1 is the best and 7 the worst. Worse today, oddly enough, than either Libya or Kosovo but at least not quite as bad as Zimbabwe or North Korea. It doesn’t like Russian elections either. In 2006 we were told “Russians cannot change their government democratically.” But the fact that they have not chosen to elect the Communists, Zhirinovskiy or any of the ephemeral and self-destructive “liberal” parties is not evidence that they cannot; only that they have not.

The goalposts are always moving: new regulations on registering political parties reduced pluralism in 2003 but the registration of many new parties in 2012 “seemed designed to encourage division and confusion among the opposition.” The centralised appointment of regional governors was condemned in 2005 but the return to election in 2012 apparently only helps pro-Kremlin incumbents. Even going uphill, Russia is going downhill.

In 2013 Russia gets a downward arrow “due to the imposition of harsh penalties on protesters participating in unsanctioned rallies and new rules requiring civil society organizations with foreign funding to register as ‘foreign agents’”. It’s OK for Washington to require permits to demonstrate and charge hefty fines or imprisonment for violations, but wrong for Moscow. It’s OK for the USA to demand foreign financed organisations register as such, but wrong for Russia to do so. Why? This is “decision-based evidence making”. To Freedom House, elections, whether the ruling party wins two-thirds of the vote or drops to one half, are always “deeply flawed”. Press freedoms, no matter how many are free to travel to Washington to complain, are always “curtailed”. Demonstrations, no matter how many, are “consistently reduced”.

How “non-government” is Freedom House? Well, it is certainly very much government funded. How about the freedom part? The cynic, looking at these scores over 2003-2012: Latvia from 2.25 to 2.11. Georgia, 4.83 to 4.86. Ukraine 4.71 to 4.82, Armenia 4.92 to 5.39, Kazakhstan 6.17 to 6.54 might be forgiven if he saw a pattern. A pattern that, oddly enough, was replicated in the famous “colour revolutions”. In Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership suddenly shot to the top of the new “democratic” governments’ priorities and in the Kyrgyz Republic a NATO base became very important. Could it be that Freedom House’s assessment correlates closely with geopolitical purposes?

Every now and again, someone gives the game away. The Executive Director of the US branch of Amnesty International when Pussy Riot was declared to be prisoners of conscience was Suzanne Nossel. In and out of US Administrations and NGOs, at AI she boasted she was the author of a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled ‘Smart Power’. “Progressives now have a historic opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy around an ambitious agenda of their own… the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism… liberal internationalists see trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values as equally important.” She now heads PEN American Center and is still proud of “smart power”. She evidently sees no conflict of interest between advancing “human rights” and advancing US foreign policy.

So, not so “non-governmental” or “human rights” after all; more like a government funded organisation supporting US foreign policy.

Is Russia’s anti-corruption drive the real thing?

(Other discussion


Vlad Sobell mentioned two theories: Putin might be seriously attacking corruption or it’s only inter-clan fighting.

“Clannology” has been a popular notion for years. In the early Putin years I remember an intelligence agency proudly presenting its typology. Three clans were fighting: “Family”, “Siloviki” and St Petersburg? – I can’t recall now. Unimpressed, I asked: What have we learned from this? What is explained? What is predicted? “Clannology” has nothing to offer: it has Popper’s fatal sin of not being falsifiable. Whatever happens will be fitted into the theory: Putin and Medvedev fall out, different clans; they don’t, same clan. A theory that explains everything, explains nothing.

So we must (Popper again) make a falsifiable hypothesis that Putin really is making a serious attack on big scale corruption and ask what would be the evidence that he is. Let us consider three hypothetical corruption examples. A hospital exists, but the staff demand bribes to do their jobs. The hospital exists, but the money for many items was stolen. No hospital exists because the money was stolen before anything happened. Arresting the bribe-taking staff is not evidence of a serious anti-corruption drive: they’re little guys and easy to catch. Arresting the locals who divert some of the money is better but the real effort must be getting the big thieves – the connected people who can make money disappear before it appears. Big Russian corruption – vide the OboronServis case – resembles the third example: money allocated for some public purpose is diverted to private benefit by people at the top of the money flow. This is much more serious than some traffic cop scoring a free lunch: more money is stolen, further up the power chain and it therefore corrupts the body politic more. Putin has to bite into this layer to reverse behaviour and send the message to the big thieves who think they are immune.

In short, someone high up must be arrested; otherwise thieves just learn that it’s better to steal big than steal small. No such arrest has yet been made although the dismissal of Serdyukov has put us within sight of one. (And, pace the clannologists, Serdyukov, appointed and retained by Putin in a very important ministry, would surely have been considered a member of Putin’s clan). Former Moscow Mayor Luzhkov’s fate, or his wife’s, while they are a few orbits away from the inner ring, is also something to watch. Talk about their malfeasances has quieted but the Prosecutor General’s Office moves slowly. And investigations must be done properly, with evidence, otherwise it’s not a real campaign.

Can we put a time limit on this? I would suggest, given that Putin recently described corruption as “the biggest threat to our development”, that we should see someone in the inner ring, or an orbit away from it, charged before the end of Putin’s current term. (Unless they are all pure. Which no one believes.)

But it’s possible Putin will try but fail: in 2007 he was asked “How can you control corruption?”, “Unsuccessfully” said he, “We are addressing this issue unsuccessfully.” It won’t be easy to take a bite out of people who have been stealing for years.

Medvedev recently said that there were about 50,000 corruption cases being investigated. If half of these go nowhere and 90% of the rest are small fry, that still leaves several hundred potentially big cases that we may hear about. I believe that an effort is indeed being made, but it has not yet passed the test of one of the inner ring being punished.

Can the West and Russia find a common approach to the Arab Spring?

Note March 2016: I am considerably more sceptical about the independent nature of the “Arab Spring” revolts now than I was then.

The “Arab Spring” is becoming rather wintry. I foresee three end states, varying by country: return to the status quo of military-based kleptocracies tinctured this time with Islamism rather than national socialism; full Islamist takeovers; continual chaos. The revolts are responses to the failure of the “Arab socialism” of Nasser’s coup in Egypt in 1952 and the Baath coups in Syria and Iraq and Gaddafi’s eccentricities in Libya a decade later. Despite the customary fly-blown promises of future happiness, the realities were military dictatorships, corruption, injustice and hopelessness. Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Tunisia lit the fuse.

Outside powers had no causative responsibility: it was a combustible mass awaiting the unpredictable event that would spark it off. The speed of development outpaced all Western reaction and there was nothing Western capitals could do either to speed or slow the flames.

In Libya the “West” (but note that Germany kept out of the operation) was animated by reports of humanitarian outrages, most notably that “Gaddafi is bombing his own people”. (But was he? “No confirmation” agreed US Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen. So what was a no fly zone supposed to achieve?) But the pressure “to do something” grew and, after seven months and an ever- escalating intervention, Gaddafi was killed: “we came, we saw, he died”. Cynics say oil was the “real” motive, but it would be absurd to argue that Libyan oil exports are more secure today. What national interest was there in overthrowing the eccentric, cruel but harmless (to us) dictator of Tripoli? What motive but transient humanitarian hysteria? That the intervention might make Libyans more miserable; that Libya might remain mired in devastation for years; that turmoil might spread are consequences no one considered in the passionate desire to “do something”. Now we hear similar reporting on Syria and the same demands to “do something”. But what if there is nothing any outsider can do but make it worse?

Moscow and Beijing take a more rational and self-interested position. Moscow is an intensely status-quo power: not only does it need peace and quiet to reconstruct but a historically-grounded pessimism tells it that much change is only change for the worse. China has few interests and has no desire to parade humanitarian pieties. And it too, has seen advertised better futures turn to dust.

The truth is that, short of picking a side and helping it win (something that did not work out well in Libya and would surely be worse in Syria) there is nothing outsiders can do to stop the fighting. Irreconcilable ends are struggling: the regimes are fighting for their lives and the jihadists for their Caliphate; neutrals are ground between these millstones.

Public opinion in the West is easily swayed by biased and hysterical reporting and Western governments feel compelled to “do something” (even without the licence to interfere everywhere given by the “smart power” theory). NATO has now accumulated several “humanitarian interventions” with bad results. Not that the excitable Western media remembers Somalia or Kosovo, let alone Libya. But Russian and Chinese public opinion is not so easily swayed and Moscow and Beijing have a more realistic view of national interest. Thus there will likely not be a meeting of minds on a common approach other than anodyne (and unheard) calls for ceasefires.

And, I can’t help thinking, especially now that intervention in Mali has passed from possibility to actuality, that many a Western government is secretly relieved that it can blame Moscow and Beijing for blocking it from committing to another ill thought out “something” that will create another “something” later on.

Will US-Russia Relations Begin a New Chapter in 2013?

A very short answer.


The overwhelming support for the “Magnitskiy Bill” shows that there is a considerable non-partisan majority in Congress that believes that Russia is an exception to normal rules: trade with Russia yes, but never without conditions.

The USA is lost to rational considerations in this respect; for Americans Russia is both the Eternal Enemy and The Brother Who Won’t Listen to Good Advice.

To Americans in power, that is: to ordinary Americans, Russia hardly signifies in the reality of unemployment and food stamps.

The opportunity that opened in 1991 has been squandered: Washington, and we who follow its lead, have taken another step to create an enemy. And at a time when we do not need any more than we already have.

Russian Interests in Syria

Moscow’s objections to a NATO-led intervention in the civil war in Syria stand on three legs: principled, practical and personal. I suspect Beijing shares at least some of them.

The principled objections – which are what we hear most about – have to do with Moscow’s belief that the United Nations, for all its imperfections, provides a degree of international order and that the international principles of non-interference in internal activities and the inviolability of borders are important guides for international behaviour. The weakness of the principled argument, of course, is that a nation’s loudly-proclaimed principles vary according to its perceived national interest in each case. For example, in NATO’s Kosovo intervention in 1999, Moscow was strong on the principle of inviolability of borders while NATO spoke endlessly about the humanitarian imperative; each piously claimed the moral high ground. In the Ossetia war in 2008, these positions were exactly reversed while each continued to parade the moral superiority of its new principles. Principled objections, therefore, are selected according to self-interest. States make the arguments, they should not be completely ignored, but they are usually window-dressing for more deeply-felt objections.

Moscow’s practical objections ought to be clear from a consideration of the West’s previous “humanitarian interventions”. No one today ever mentions Somalia (1992) or Haiti (1994); the first being an utter disaster (it convinced Bin Laden of the “extent of your [the USA’s] impotence and weaknesses”) and the second ineffective. As to Kosovo (1999) we never heard about the KLA and organ harvesting at the time nor much else today about the people NATO put into power. The less said about today’s chaos in Libya (2011) the better. In short, the conclusions are – or ought to be – that none of these four “humanitarian interventions” bettered either human rights or stability. Moscow prefers less uncertainty in the world rather than more: it is very much a status quo power at the moment and it would like to avoid the chaos that another NATO-led “humanitarian intervention” would leave behind it.

Moscow’s personal objections are equally easy to understand. NATO has now overthrown Serbian power in Kosovo and Gaddafi’s rule in Libya; who’s next to be destabilised or overthrown? Russians see NATO expansion, all the fuss about Putin-the-monster which is the common stock of Western commentary and the rest and wonder whether there is an attempt to create or push a “coloured revolution” in Russia. (Not that the ones in Ukraine, Georgia or the Kyrgyz Republic turned out so well, come to think of it). Too many Russians see the West’s use of the word “democracy” as a geopolitical code for distinguishing between allies and targets. Another consideration is that every time the UN is bypassed Russia, as a member of the P5, is also bypassed.

So these three easily understandable objections are at the root of Moscow’s attempts to block NATO-led attempts to intervene in Syria,

And, given that the intervention in Kosovo took three and a half months and the overthrow of Kaddafi’s ramshackle regime about eight months, and that each involved much more effort and involvement than was light-heartedly assumed at the beginning, it is clear that a NATO-led effort to overthrow Assad would take a great deal of time and effort.

Perhaps Washington and its willing allies are secretly relieved that they can blame Moscow for preventing them from “resolving” the situation.

The Magnitsky Bill: The Sources of America’s Obsession with Russia

Why this bizarre American obsession about Russia – a power that truly is not very pertinent to Washington’s strategic and security concerns? Considering, for example, what Obama and Romney talked about in their foreign policy debate, we see that Moscow hardly featured. I’m perplexed and all I can offer in explanation is a jumble of partly-baked theories.

Perhaps lefties dislike Russia because it rejected socialism; indeed the Soviet experience stands as an indictment against the whole scheme. If you believe more government is the solution, or that equality is the answer, Russia’s rejection of the Soviet experiment is a standing rebuke to your convictions.

Righties dislike Russia because, communist or not (and how many think it still is?) it’s still Russia. But why should they dislike Russia per se? Apart from the communist period, Russia has never been very germane to American concerns – not, at least, since the Alaska Purchase. And yet, as David Foglesong has argued, many Americans were obsessed about Russia long before the Bolsheviks. Russia was then seen as a sort of backwards twin brother. But Americans had a long obsession with China too: all the missionaries, the “who lost China” excitement in the 1950s. Why Russia still?

Another notion is that Americans have to have a rival, an opponent, a counter, an enemy even. It’s geopolitical chiaroscuro: the light can only shine against the darkness. Russia is large, significant and gives a contrast more substantial than, say, Venezuela would. But, best of all, unlike China, US-Russia trade is pretty inconsequential. So Russia is a low-cost opponent. It’s safe to abuse Russia; abusing China comes with a cost.

In periodic American fits of moral censure, Russia is a safe target. An issue as trivial as Pussy Riot can be played up as a momentous moral outrage. On the other hand, any sustained condemnation of the treatment in Saudi Arabia of Shiites or Pakistani and Filipino servants would come with a cost. Outrage against Russian “occupation” of parts of Georgia is one thing; outrage about Chinese occupation of Tibet would be something else. It is always pleasing to illustrate one’s moral superiority by manifesting outrage against someone else’s moral imperfections but a target that can bite back would cost more than the transitory satisfaction of being among the Saved Remnant. Russia’s sins are a perfect fit: pleasing moral superiority without uncomfortable consequences.

Or is Russia an ungrateful child? In the 1990s there was much talk about US aid and advice reforming Russia, the “end of history” and all that. Russia was, evidently, on the edge of becoming “just like us”. But it didn’t and such back-sliding cannot be forgiven.

Or is Russia just one of those unfortunate countries whose fate it is to be explained by foreigners after a two-week visit? A palimpsest on which to write the presumptions you brought? Martin Malia wrote a fascinating book showing how Westerners from Voltaire onwards found Russia to be the perfect exemplar of whatever it was that they wished it to be. So, in Russia you can find whatever you’re looking for: a “geostrategic foe”, for example.

So abusing Russia satisfies many political needs: a safe opponent; a contrast that can be painted as dark as you like; an object of feel-good moral righteousness; a sullen teenager who won’t listen to Daddy; a blank slate on which to write.

But best of all, something like the “Magnitskiy Bill” feels good and it doesn’t cost anything much. The geopolitical equivalent of banning Big Gulps in New York City.

Post-US elections 2012: Toward A New World Order?

William of Ockham, if he were here, would probably tell us that the next four years in the USA will resemble the last four. Sluggish economy, growing deficit, high unemployment, drone strikes offstage, the occasional attack on a US facility, armed interventions (is Mali next?). Maybe he would be wrong. But he has been a reliable guide for seven centuries.

As for Russian-US relations, at least the US President doesn’t say that Russia is the “number one geopolitical foe” but he still says “America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America”.

Ask for what end the heav’nly bodies shine,

Earth for whose use, Pride answers, ‘Tis for mine!

What of Obama’s whispered “flexibility” on missile defence? Well, it might amount to some genuine considerations and satisfaction of Russia’s concerns, but it might just be some words. After all, what was preventing Obama from doing something in this direction in the last four years? We shall see, but I don’t expect anything much. And, as I have argued elsewhere, the famous “reset” has not reset Washington’s conviction that Moscow will never be a reliable sled dog in the team.

But the reality is that Washington’s foreign concerns will be driven, as they have been since 2001 (and earlier) by some unexpected development in the Middle East/jihadist nexus and not by anything that originates from Moscow.

How Will History Judge Putin?

I believe that “history” will judge Putin as one of the best leaders Russia has had in its thousand year history.

Or would have so judged him had he retired.

When he came to power, according to his “Russia in the New Millennium”, he set himself four tasks: to reverse the economic collapse, to reverse the decay of central power, to improve Russia’s status in the world and to institute a rule of law, or at least a rule of rules. On his watch these goals were achieved to a considerable extent (the last, less, to be sure). Most leaders are lucky if they can attain even a few of their goals, partially. Putin did much better.

But he missed one thing: to set an example to his successors that two terms are enough for any mortal.

If he built a system that can’t work without him, then it doesn’t work.

He runs the risk of “history” judging him the Turkmenbashi of Russia.