First published Strategic Culture Foundation

The Roman Empire fell because it did something the author doesn’t approve of. And the American Empire or Putin’s Russia or Communist China will fall because they also do what the author dislikes. It’s a fun trope and you see it all the time. It’s easy to do and lets the author pretend to be the edjamakated sort of fellow who can use Pompey, Pluto and Plato in a sentence rather than a hack re-wording the latest instructions from the Military-Industrial-Media-Complex. Now that the American Empire has been defeated by its allies over Nord Stream and by its enemies in Afghanistan, we can expect to see a lot more of it.

But exactly when did the Roman Empire end? We need a date so we can blame that end on that thing that we dislike. Edward Gibbon wrote a rather large book about its decline and fall: it begins in the 200s and ends in the 1400s. That’s 1200 years of declining and falling; hard to find a single cause in all that.

The end of the Roman Republic – that’s an easier thing to date. Most would agree on the date at which Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus became supreme after the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra in 30BP. But even that becomes hazy when we take into account the Roman pretence that Rome never changes even while it’s changing. And the issue is further complicated by the Romans’ love of great antiquity which meant that they never stopped doing something that they had once done. So the ancient priesthood of the flamines with their curious costumes and taboos endured; the Sibylline Books, lost but then restored, were consulted even into the Christian period; they honoured geese and punished dogs; the sacred fire burned; the lowering of the flag stopped the trial. So, no matter how cataclysmic the crisis, at the end, the Republic was once again “restored” just as it was. And that is what Octavianus claimed to have done – consuls, the Senate, praetors and all the rest remained but he, now named the August One, was merely the first man in Rome. He had restored the Republic. And we will see this throughout: whatever happens, nothing has happened; the pretence is kept up.

410. That’s the date it ended. The Visigoths, under Alaric, sack Rome. But Rome isn’t the capital of the Empire nor even of the Western Empire at this time. And Alaric, who had been a Roman soldier, is seen by many as unsuccessfully seeking a formal position inside the Empire. But the date is significant because, among English-speaking historians, it is probably the origin of the notion that “the Roman Empire fell” at some definable time. Roman Britain seems to have been generally prosperous and peaceful (with some friction north of the Wall) for three centuries until the middle of the 300s when sea raiders and northerners combined to shake its security, a general then took many soldiers to the continent in an unsuccessful bid for the crown and the last soldiers left in the early 400s to defend Rome. This left the Romanised (and Christianised) British to the mercies of the raiders. Little but legends survive from this time; this is the era of Arthur: but was he in Cornwall or the Borders? did he even exist? was he Roman, Briton or Sarmatian? king or war leader? Libraries are full of books of speculation; no one knows and archaeology doesn’t help. Gradually the Britons were pushed out and Saxons settled what was now called “England”. Recorded history picks up again in the 700s when the Saxons become Christianised. So in Roman Britain, there certainly is a “fall” in the early 400s, followed by a three-century “dark” age, followed by a gradual growing of the “light” as Christian Saxons struggle against a new round of pagan raiders from the seas. Here, the Roman Empire did “end”. But not for any moralistic reason – the legions left and Britannia was a juicy target.

The history on the Continent is quite different. Barbarians, yes, but always pretending to rule by permission of the Emperor in the East and seeking a Roman-style title. Henri Pirenne’s researches make this clear. Take, for example another “end date” – 478. The last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus (a name ironically combining the founders of Republican Rome and Imperial Rome) is overthrown by the barbarian Odoacer. But Odoacer is careful to seek authority to rule from the Emperor in Constantinople and to consult the Roman Senate. So the pretence of the unchanging Roman Empire is kept up. And this kept on – a barbarian king, formerly a soldier of the Empire, would take power and the Emperor in the East would appoint him to some Roman position and he would be king of his people and an official in the Empire. Marius is Consul seven times, Sulla appoints himself Dictator, Caesar becomes Dictator for life: it’s all perfectly Roman and in accordance with the Twelve Tables. Given a little twisting of the rules. Which now become the new rules.

Of course it’s pretence and of course each iteration is a blurred copy of the last. But it’s a continuous process and one cannot find – except by making some arbitrary decision – a moment at which one thing ends and another begins. An important moment in the Western Empire comes when Charlemagne declares himself Emperor of the West. Crowned by the Bishop of Rome without reference to the Emperor in the East. That’s a split; but it’s all done in Latin, it’s all Christian and it’s still calling itself the Roman Empire headed by the Imperator Romanorum. Charlemagne even referred to himself occasionally as Augustus and claimed to have renewed the Empire. So 800 marks a moment to be sure, but there’s still something in the west calling itself the Roman Empire and it’s not entirely fanciful to do so.

The Holy Roman Empire existed until 1806. That’s another thousand years after Charlemagne created it and by 1806 there’s no doubt that Caesar Augustus would recognise nothing in it – but how much would he have recognised in Constantinople in 600? Certainly some time in those thousand years the (Western) Roman Empire ceased to have any content beyond the name. But one cannot find a “moment”: it just faded away over time until nothing was left but the name and Bonaparte – having just made himself emperor in a ceremony redolent of Rome and Charlemagne – puffed the last bit of dust away.

Meanwhile in the East the Empire continued. Its hold on the Western Empire waxed and waned but by the 800s had disappeared in form and in reality (although it kept Venice). But it certainly endured in the East; rich and powerful. What did it in was the century of destructive war with the Persian Empire beginning in the early 500s which so weakened the two that they were unable to resist the Muslims. By the mid 700s, Islam ruled over Roman Africa, Egypt, Spain, most of today’s Middle East and the Persian Empire itself. The Eastern Roman Empire was left with the Balkans and Anatolia. Over the subsequent seven centuries, Islam, which never lost its desire to rule over “The City“, ate more and more until the Empire was reduced to the bounds of the city itself and, when it fell in 1453, that was the end. And that’s the date Gibbon picked.

So, when did the Roman Empire “fall”? There isn’t any date – unless you take 1806 or 1453 – and therefore there isn’t any “cause”.

So the next time – and that time will be soon – you read someone pontificating that the Roman Empire fell because it did something he doesn’t approve of and the USA or Russia or China is doing the same – smile. It’s just gas and persiflage.

(The fall of the Republic, on the other hand, could be framed as the inability of a smallish city state to deal with an expanding empire, the strain of the need for large armies and foreign garrisons, greed and ambition fed by the tremendous inrush of loot, the impoverishment of many ordinary citizens. You don’t often see that comparison, but here’s one: Donald Trump as Tiberius Gracchus; “farcical” sneers the reviewer – well it is the NYT. All I can say is that there is a certain parallel and wait till he meets Cataline and Clodius!)


(First published Strategic Culture Foundation)

The lesson of Afghanistan is not that the US is washed up as a great power. The lesson is that the US is such a great power, militarily and economically, that it is continually tempted to try hopeless things that nobody else on earth – including China – would ever attempt.

David Frum gives new meaning to the expression “in denial”.

Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals, or the ambassadors, or people in the administration saying we’re never going to do this again. That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam. We’re never going to do this again. Lo and behold we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do this again.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)

Bill Ehrhart arrived in Vietnam in 1967 believing everything. His first indication that all was not as expected came when he wasn’t welcomed the way Allied soldiers had been in 1944. A couple of days later he was shocked to see “detainees”, bound hand and foot, casually tossed off a high vehicle by other Marines. This didn’t seem to be the way to treat people the Americans were there to help said he to his companion who told him to keep his mouth shut “until you know what’s going on around here”. And, he continues in this video, “it went downhill from there”. Every day patrols met “snipers and mines” but he saw hardly any enemy soldiers. He came to realise that the Viet Cong didn’t have to force people to fight the Americans; once a Marine patrol had destroyed its way through a village, they’d have all the recruits they needed:

the longer we stayed in Vietnam, the more Viet Cong there were, because we created them; we produced them… The Vietnamese people hated me and I gave them every reason to hate me.

The war he saw bore no resemblance to the optimistic stuff he read in Time Magazine and other mass media. So he hunkered down, stopped asking the questions of what and why – “the questions themselves were too ugly even to ask” – did what he did and waited for the date when he would go home.

This story is from Afghanistan but it fits Ehrhart’s conclusion perfectly. The first Americans into a valley in 2001 make contact with a local timber baron; he tells them his rival is a Taliban supporter; the rival is bombed; he loses his business, some of his family are killed and he does join Taliban. You can just imagine the locals, when these dumb and ignorant – but terribly destructive – aliens drop out of the sky, calculating how best to manipulate them. The Americans never think to reflect on Putin’s observation of five years ago:

The extremists in this case are more cunning, clever and stronger than you, and if you play these games with them, you will always lose.

Or try to answer his question: “who’s playing who here?

The scene shifts to Afghanistan as we move four decades ahead from Ehrhard’s observations. For example, in this account in the Military Times:

  • Expecting to be welcomed: “I just felt we were over there fighting an enemy who attacked America and liberating the people of Afghanistan from Taliban rule”.
  • They’re all the enemy: “It was such a complex war with more than one enemy, not just the Taliban… Sometimes it seemed like it was just some young, bored kids shooting at us”.
  • The happy-happy reports are all fake: “Seeing politicians use Afghanistan and Iraq as a talking points without any action, then seeing young men and women run through deployment after deployment until they have nothing left to give, only to be discarded and left to figure out how to cope…”.

What’s the difference between these American soldiers’ experiences in Afghanistan and their predecessors’ in Vietnam?

Ehrhart doesn’t talk about personnel rotation policy in Vietnam although there is an allusion to it: he knew to the day when his time would end and, as it happened, he was literally plucked out of a firefight and sent home. The practice was that junior officers were at the front for six months and other ranks for one year. Thus an individual infantryman might go through two or three platoon commanders with fellow platoon members appearing and disappearing as their dates came up. The effects of unit cohesion were devastating – indeed there was no unit cohesion at all. This rotation policy was argued to be one of the reasons for the defeat as described in this essay. A colleague of mine was peripherally involved in this discussion as he presented the British/Commonwealth “regimental system” in which units and subunits went in together and came out together. But what do we see in Afghanistan four decades later?

Hearts and minds sounded great on paper, but it was often seen as an empty promise to the locals… We would inevitably break those promises in one of two ways. First, the command may just up and move us to a different area, leaving those who helped us high and dry. Second, frequent deployment rotations meant personal relationships would only last, at most, a few months to a year.

And, of course, that great favourite of the American Way of War – bombing. Lots of bombing. In the Vietnam War the US is said to have dropped seven million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I haven’t found tonnage numbers for Afghanistan, but there are numbers on “weapons releases”. This presumably includes bombs (but was each “dumb” bomb really counted?) and missiles but not artillery or – vide the destruction of the MSF hospital in KunduzHercules gunships. The numbers I can find say that there were, between 2013 and 2019, about 26,500 “releases” plus about another 21,000 going back to 2006. Another estimate puts it at at least 81,000 in total. It is generally accepted that 160,000 tons were dropped on Japan proper – a country with numerous shipyards, naval bases, aircraft and munition factories; few of which existed in Vietnam and none at all in Afghanistan. What were they bombing?

The next similarity is that reports in both wars were, to put it gently, doctored to make things look better than they were. The Pentagon Papers have their direct match in the Afghanistan Papers. From each it is clear that the authorities knew, from the first few years, that it was a failure; but they hid, lied and obfuscated. Each commander kicked the failure down the road for his successor to deal with. Official accounts of each war show plenty of “light at the end of the tunnel”, “turning the corner” year after year until the last corner was turned and the lights went out.

In Vietnam the enemy was moving under forest cover, so the US forces dropped immense quantities – tens of thousands of cubic metres – of defoliants to clear away the leaves they were hiding under. Few trees in Afghanistan so instead there was geological bombing “blasting away mountain passes and potential cover to limit where and how militants can operate”. An insane use of technology and destructive power substituting for tactical competence. And little to no effect on the outcome.

Accounts of soldiers’ experiences in Vietnam speak of patrols that, when they run into snipers or mines, call in artillery or airstrikes at vague targets – effectively saturation bombing – and helicopter out. We hear the same thing in Afghanistan. The only difference being that patrols in the former were on foot and in the latter in vehicles. It sees that the patrols had little purpose other than to show a presence: they’re not armies moving closer to Berlin or some other objective, they are just moving around. Something to do with “hearts and minds”, I suppose. But targets for the enemy and the opportunity for immense random destruction in retaliation.

Fake metrics are another similarity. Robert McNamara was US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1966 – the very height of the Vietnam War. He had been a “whiz kid” at Ford and had had the knack of impressing his superiors with flow charts and numbers. His behaviour in Vietnam has led to an entire fallacy being named in his honour. The “McNamara Fallacy” is described by Daniel Yankelovich as the following four steps

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes.

The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading.

The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness.

The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

In the Vietnam case the “easily measured” was the famous body count – number of enemy soldiers killed: the higher the number, the closer to “the light at the end of the tunnel”. According to this source, a rough calculation suggests that in 1965 there were more than five million males aged 15-39 in Vietnam and another seven million younger. That’s lot of bodies between the USA and victory. Secondly, if that’s what the boss wants to hear, that’s what we’ll tell him and the metric rapidly became GIGO. In Afghanistan, according to this account, it was dollars spent:

Perversely, because it was the easiest thing to monitor, the amount of money spent by a program often became the most important measure of success. A USAID official told SIGAR, “The Hill was always asking, ‘Did you spend the money?’…I didn’t hear many questions about what the effects were.”

Schools, hospitals, roads: hard to find, hard to measure (especially with widespread corruption) – bundles of hundred-dollar bills out the door easy to measure and so that became Afghanistan’s version of McNamara’s Fallacy. The make-believe precision measurement of nothing.

In a word, everything I’ve written about the American Way of War has been illustrated in the Afghanistan failure. The initial success feeding the appetite for further engagement and ever-larger aims. The assumption of free air movement and reliable communications. The obsession with technology. The self-replicating intelligence feedback cycle in which you only hear what you want to hear culminating in the final error of how much time was left to get out. The reinforcement of failure – bombing hasn’t worked, do more of it; can’t find the enemy, change the terrain. Worthless metrics. Inability to see things from the enemy’s perspective.

The only difference between the American performances in Vietnam and Afghanistan is that in the first, the vehicles were painted green and in the second, sand. They should sit out the next one.


17 November 2015. I wrote this under a pseudonym when I was writing for Russia Insider (A site which has betrayed its intention and which I — AGAIN — refuse the right to reprint my stuff: something I deny to no one else). I am inspired to do this by this piece Fuller just wrote. Go and read it and then come back. We now see the utter collapse of the whole project. Forty years and thousands — hundreds of thousands — of destroyed lives later.

Bigger Than Big, Maybe Even Huger Than Huge

Almost like Brzezinski saying he got it wrong

When I heard of the Paris atrocities I thought: Oh no, here we go again. Fake sincerity, prayers “going out”, “attack on values”, “stand together”, flag overlays on Facebook, mounds of flowers, op-ed writers flogging their dead horses, solemn parade with linked arms (but will they invite Poroshenko this time?), T shirt slogans and all the rest of the sentimental bogosity. What there would not be is any consideration or discussion of Wahhabism, the US causative element, NATO and its activity in the home countries of refugees, “moderate rebels” or anything actually challenging. Just another wallow in false emotion and cheap threats. And, oh yes, some bombing. Always some bombing.

Never would there be any actual thought about causes and effects, how these things came to be and certainly not even the tiniest admission that we – we the exceptionals – just might have a responsibility. Nor would we hear about all the other atrocities in places that don’t get the full soppy treatment. Especially not Syria which has had four years in which every day is a Paris. And certainly not any thought that the explosives and weapons used in Paris might just have been supplied… by Paris.

Well, perhaps I’m wrong. And very glad to be too.

Read this:

I reach this view with much mixed feeling. Over the years I have grown increasingly convinced that western military interventions and wars to “fix” the Middle East have not only failed, but have vastly exacerbated nearly all regional situations. Washington has at the end of the day, in effect, “lost” every one of its recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. The West has been as much the problem as the solution.

And now read this:

The policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and of helping them against our adversaries worked marvelously well in Afghanistan against [the Russians]. The same doctrines can still be used to destabilize what remains of Russian power, and especially to counter the Chinese influence in Central Asia.

Different guys, right? Nope. Same guy, different times.

The author is Graham Fuller. Here’s his bio on his website, and here’s what Wikipedia says. Details are sparse – of course – but he is widely regarded as one of the key people in the US support of the mujaheddin in the Afghanistan-Soviet war.

In other words, Fuller was one of the architects of the US policy to use jihadists in one part of the world expecting to put them back in the box afterwards. (The arrogance of the hyperpower: we’re the actors, you’re the puppets). Now he realizes they’re not puppets and they didn’t quietly go back in the box when the hyperpower was finished using them. Now he says:

The elimination of ISIS requires every significant stake-holder to be present: UN, US, EU, Canada, Russia, Iran, Kurds, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, Egypt and others. China, aspiring to a major world role, cannot sit this one out either. This convocation requires real heft and clout to impose some rough plan of action. Above all, the UN must head up future operations involving the indispensable future ground operations. If ever an neutral face was essential, this is it.

Which is exactly what Putin is calling for.

Speaking of Putin, I guess Fuller now agrees that

It is equally irresponsible to manipulate extremist groups and use them to achieve your political goals, hoping that later you’ll find a way to get rid of them or somehow eliminate them.” And “So, it’s a big question: who’s playing who here?

So, maybe the Paris atrocity will lead to some clear thinking. And, as there can’t be any real action without clear thinking…

But Fuller’s only one man, plenty more have to now come to the same understanding.


First published Strategic Culture Foundation. picked up by ZeroHedge, Verity Weekly, scottadamsshow, usanewsguru,,, patriotnews, financial world,

(Note: by tradition, going back to the first Prussian Kriegsspiel, your side is “Blue”, the other side is “Red”. Soviets did it the other way round.)

According to David Halberstam, when Washington was considering escalating its presence in Vietnam, a wargame was held to test options. More bombing aircraft were put into airfields in Vietnam; Red attacked the airfields. Blue brought in more troops to guard the airfields; Red started attacking the supply lines for those troops. More troops to guard the supply lines; more attacks on their support systems. And so on: everything the American side thought up was quickly and easily countered by the Vietnam team. The results were ignored: only a game, not really real.

Forward to 2002 and a very large and complicated exercise simulating a US attack on – not named, but obviously – Iran. The retired USMC general playing Red – a no-nonsense experienced soldier who didn’t believe technology was the answer to everything (especially the projected wonders that the wargame granted to the American side), scorned business-school buzzwords like “network-centric” – thought outside the box and used low-tech weaponry. When the US high-tech took out his communications, as he knew they would, he went silent – his communications were by motorcycle dispatch riders, coded messages in Friday prayers and similar old-school techniques. He fired more missiles that the Blue side could handle and sank most of the invasion force and finished off the rest with swarms of small boats. “The whole thing was over in five, maybe ten minutes“. The invasion force was brought back to life, the rules were modified to reduce the defenders’ abilities – the Red force commander was on the point of destroying the reconstituted landing forces – and the US side “won”. He walked out when he decided that the game was too rigged for him to bother doing anything; as he said in a report: “this whole thing was prostituted; it was a sham intended to prove what they wanted to prove“.

Each of these wargames was supposed to be a learning and testing experience. The first was testing what to do and how to do it in Vietnam, the second, more ambitious, was supposed to test the whole package of the new US military in every aspect – it is said to have cost a quarter of a billion dollars and involved 13,000 participants. What was learned from the two? Certainly nothing was learned from the Vietnam wargame – Washington went ahead and put troops in – just a few at first but rising to an incredible 500,000 at the height and dropped a fantastic number of bombs; corners were turned, light was seen at the end of the tunnel but everyone knew it was a lost cause and no one wanted to say so. The enemy countered and endured everything and, at the end, the US went home defeated. The war game turned out to be a rather accurate predictor of the future. And it doesn’t appear that the US military have learned anything from the 2002 experience either. Certainly nothing in Washington’s behaviour towards Iran gives the impression that the US leadership imagines it could be defeated if it attacks Iran.

Nor, come to think of it, is there evidence that it learned anything much from the Vietnam reality either. Afghanistan was, in many respects, a replay of Vietnam: a determined low-tech force countered everything the US military could think up. In 2018, Les Gelb, the compiler of the Pentagon Papers said:

You know, we get involved in these wars and we don’t know a damn thing about those countries, the culture, the history, the politics, people on top and even down below. And, my heavens, these are not wars like World War II and World War I, where you have battalions fighting battalions. These are wars that depend on knowledge of who the people are, with the culture is like. And we jumped into them without knowing. That’s the damned essential message of the Pentagon Papers.

And now we move forward two decades. Last October another wargame simulated a US defence of Taiwan against a Chinese attack. Another test of some high-falutin war-fighting concept. (One might parenthetically ask how many of these concepts are actually business-school ideas given the predilection of US generals for MBAs. Probably the worst imaginable preparation for what our USMC “Iranian” commander called a “terrible, uncertain, chaotic, bloody business“.) General John Hyten, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman, and MBA, reported on the wargame:

Without overstating the issue, [Blue force] failed miserably. An aggressive red team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us. They knew exactly what we’re going to do before we did it.

The first thing that went wrong for the Blue force was that it suddenly lost all its communicationsas I have been saying (and the Chinese and Russians surely know) one of the fundamental assumptions of the US style in war-fighting is constant, reliable, assured communications. All its “smart” weapons need to be “talking” to their controllers all the time: stop the “talking” and they become immediately “stupid”. Then the US force was hit with wave after wave of missiles. And the rear areas were hit with waves of missiles. And that was that. And, in another wargame in 2020, Poland was annihilated by the Russians: Warsaw was surrounded in five days.

What stood out for me in Hyten’s refreshingly honest presentation was this: “studying the United States for the last 20 years”. Washington officials are not noted for their ability to see things from the other side’s point of view, but he certainly got that one right. China (and Russia and Iran) know that they are on Washington’s hitlist. They have been watching Washington fight wars for two or three decades (winning none of them, despite the hype); they know how Washington fights; they know its strengths and weaknesses. They have put a lot of thought into it. One might also observe that, while Washington fights its wars safely overseas, China, Russia and Iran have very strong memories of wars fought on their own territory. This gives them, as Andrei Martyanov is always pointing out, a rather different view of war – it’s not some affair of choice far away over there, it’s a horrible, deadly, bloody, immensely destructive process in your own home.

The United States has zero historic experience with defending the US proper against powerful and brutal enemies. It is a cultural difference, a profound one and it manifests itself across the whole spectrum of activities, not just the respective military-industrial complexes. In other words, Russians MUST build top of the line weaponry, because the safety of Russia depends on it.

Losing for them is not the American way of losing – no walking away, explaining away and forgetting away: it’s life or death. They take war seriously and they put the effort into thinking about how to defend themselves against an American attack. They know that air superiority and assured communications are the necessities of the American way of war; they know the US military expects to accumulate huge forces undisturbed. They haven’t used these years idly; they won’t wait for the Americans to leisurely assemble the force to bomb them. That’s why they have concentrated on EW and lots of missiles. The US won’t have secure communications, free air power or safe bases: Beijing. Moscow and Tehran, if they have to fight, will fight to win. And do whatever it takes; no umpire will appear to “call foul” and re-float the fleet.

In the real world, Ukraine’s “de-occupation” boasting was silenced in two weeks by a huge Russian mobilisation. Surely somebody in the Pentagon noticed that. HMS Defender’s adventure off Crimea (incidently the only one of the six ships of its class actually fit for sea – not, in itself, a very impressive performance) may also have taught some lessons about the consequences of silly gestures.

Nothing was learned from the Vietnam or Iran wargames, what about this one? General Hyten said:

the U.S. has reevaluated the joint warfighting concept. He said the new strategy being developed is “not quite a clean-sheet approach, because you can never take a clean sheet of paper if you want to get between now and 2030, you have to start with what you have.”

That sounds good – “clean-sheet” – but you know that nothing will really change. Vietnam was supposed to teach a lesson (and the US Army certainly did improve) but, essentially, it did the same things all over again in Afghanistan. For twice as long. I doubt that this exercise will cause the full-scale change that he’s talking about. Complacency will probably return.

Even so, one would like to be a fly on the wall when US senior military brief the President: “failed miserably”, Afghanistan defeat (coming soon to Iraq and Syria), Russian and Chinese military power, hypersonic manoeuvring missiles, EW, layered air defence. The briefings can’t be too upbeat, can they? Could this be why the big exercise in the Black Sea ended so quietly? Could this be in the background of the decision to stop trying to block Nord Stream? Could this be a reason why Biden asked to meet with Putin? The couch-warriors will never understand this of course, but perhaps one can hope that the generals will – Hyten seems to have but, just as American wars are a sequence of one-year wars because each commander kicks the failure down the road for his successor to worry about, his replacement may return to the complacency of being at the top of “the greatest military in the history of the world“.

But, one can hope they’ll learn a little humility.


First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Every time – and we’ve just had an illustration – someone in Kiev makes trouble for Russia, the Internet is full of people crying on Putin to just go in and knock them over. A sub-variant of this is that Moscow should have invaded after the Maidan coup, arrested all the nazis and put Yanukovych back to serve out the rest of his term under the now-forgotten agreement hammered out by the EU.

But there’s actually a good reason why Moscow, in Ukraine or earlier in Georgia, did not invade and knock Zelensky or Saakashvili over and why it doesn’t forcefully deal with other irritations. And that reason is a very simple one: it’s not that it couldn’t have done it – there was nothing between Russian power and Tbilisi in 2008 or between it and Kiev in 2021 – but, simply, experience. Both Moscow’s experience and its observation of others’ experiences.

We will start with others’ experience. The Royal Navy began to switch to oil fuel just before the First World War and that made assured oil sources vitally important to it and, by extension, to Britain and other naval powers. Iran (Persia) was a major source and Britain made a rather one-sided agreement after the war giving a British company excessive rights to oil sources in Iran. Iran was heavily influenced by Britain from that point on, to the growing resentment of the Iranians who saw themselves getting little out of the arrangement. In 1951 Mohammed Mosaddegh became Prime Minister and nationalised the oil company. A pause should be made here – later experience has shown that such nationalisations are very far from catastrophic: the oil has to be sold to somebody, the price isn’t set by the selling country and, in the end, it’s actually a business matter that can be settled by business methods. The Suez Canal functions and so does the Panama Canal despite local control; state-owned companies sell their oil and life goes on. But such was not considered acceptable – fear of communism or the Soviet Union gaining control or just amour-propre – and, in the end, it was decided to solve the problem by getting rid of him. Mosaddegh was overthrown in a coup organised by London and Washington but mostly carried out by the CIA. And so the problem was solved. Officially denied by London and Washington for years, the CIA’s involvement was confirmed in 2000 and more documents were released in 2017. But the Iranians always knew who did it and the coup greatly contributed to their dislike of the USA and was a strong motivation in the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Today Iran is perceived in Washington as a “daily threat” and its extensive armoury of missiles “a significant threat“. Several decades of neocon/PNAC/exceptionalist harebrained machinations against the “Iranian threat” has made it more powerful, more influential and more determined than before. It is now a very significant obstacle to American ambitions to control the MENA. So, in retrospect, the overthrow of Mosaddegh was not so successful after all and sixty years later the problem is very far from “solved”. Doing business with Mosaddegh, in the long run, would have been the better response and Iran might even be well-disposed towards the USA and its allies or at least indifferent today. Knocking Mosaddegh over worked at first, but the effect didn’t last.

This was then-new CIA’s first known venture into “knocking him over” although Washington was well-practised in the custom – perhaps the first was the coup that overthrew Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii in 1893 – but there were to be many more. Diem in Vietnam; but that didn’t work either and the Vietnam War just got worse until the USA retired in defeat. For years Washington has proceeded under the delusion that it’s just one person that stands in its way and with him removed the road will be smooth. It never is, but Washington never stops trying. Washington has overthrown many governments in Latin America without, it appears, bringing stability or friendship any more genuine than the passing dependency of the current beneficiary. Even Newsweek ran a piece concluding: “As it stands, however, the only evidence we have of anyone interfering with any election or government implicates the U.S. — not Russia. But don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.” Seventy-two attempts during the Cold War calculated the Washington Post. Knocking him over is very much the American style of diplomacy.

The resentment of the outsider’s interference never goes away. And, as the case of the Shah illustrates, any excesses the puppet commits are attributed to the puppet-master. Americans are very offended with the “Great Satan” chants and flag-burnings but – typically – they cannot understand the why of it: Iranians blame Washington for everything bad between the overthrow of Mosaddegh and the departure of the Shah and continual hostility thereafter. And, from the arming of Saddam Hussein, the naval battle and the civilian plane in 1988 to the killing of Solomeini last year, they can enumerate examples. Far better from Washington’s perspective if Mosaddegh had been left in power.

Another disastrous CIA enterprise was the subversion of Soviet-supported governments in Afghanistan especially the post-Soviet one of Najibullah. In doing so, Washington built up the very elements that would, after an involvement that more than doubled the Soviet stay, send it and its allies home in defeat. There is no doubt that Washington would be happier with a Najibullah in Kabul than with what will be there in a year.

Speaking of Afghanistan, we now turn to Moscow’s direct experience of failure. In 1978 the local communist party pulled off a coup in Kabul no doubt with some involvement from Moscow. But the Afghan communist party was deeply split and the government was too hasty in communisation; dissatisfaction grew and the communist government trembled. This could not be tolerated under the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine and Moscow decided to end the problem by knocking him over; it invaded, the present leader was killed and replaced by Babrak Karmal from the rival faction. Karmal eased off on the communisation but it was too late; the revolt expanded, the Soviets got bogged down and finally left the, in Gorbachev’s words, “bleeding sore” in 1989.

In Hungary in 1956, Imre Nagy, a long-time communist, spoke in favour of a “new course” reform after Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin’s “cult of personality”. This led to revolution and a Soviet invasion which deposed Nagy and later tried and executed him. A similar attempt in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubček of “Socialism with a human face” in 1968 was similarly crushed by an invasion and deposition of Dubček. He at least was spared to live to see the end of the Soviet Union.

So Moscow can remember three cases in which, under previous management, it just “knocked the guy over”: Nagy, Dubček and Hafizullah Amin. In no case was there any profit except in the short run. Hungary and Czechoslovakia dropped the Warsaw Pact, the USSR and communism as soon as they possibly could and the resentment carried them into NATO. The Afghanistan War limped on until Moscow admitted defeat and handed it, as you might say, off to Washington so it could be defeated there in its turn. (Speaking of cunning schemes that have disastrous results for the schemer, the case can be made that it all began with Brzezinski.)

Had Washington and London left Mosaddegh alone they would both be happier today and, in all likelihood the price of oil would be the same and the supply just as assured. Admittedly it’s hindsight but hindsight is supposed to produce foresight. Washington’s endless interventions in Latin America have brought only short-term benefits and have left a legacy of hatred that will, one day, boil up. Washington would have been wiser to have left Afghanistan as it was just as Moscow would have been. Overthrowing Nagy and Dubček brought short-term gain and laid the ground for longer term problems – especially as Prague has become a Tabaqui thinking itself safe between Shere Khan’s paws.

In short, the lesson of history is that, in almost every case, “knocking him over” gives a geopolitical quick sugar hit that will be paid for later. Moscow knows this because it is smart enough to learn from its own and Washington’s failures. I can never stress too often that Moscow was once an exceptionalist power: for seven decades it was the capital of the leading and guiding light of history as the “world’s first socialist state”, the standard-bearer for the “bright future of mankind”, producer of a new type of human being and that exceptionalism brought it neither friends nor prosperity. Putin himself called it “a road to a blind alley“. But Washington is still in its exceptionalist phase and thinks that doing the same thing again this time will succeed.

And sometimes there isn’t even the quick sugar hit: for each in Afghanistan the hangover began within a few weeks. If Moscow had driven into Tbilisi and sent Saakashvili running – Shere Khan would not have come to Tabaqui’s defence then or in Ukraine – Moscow would then have to do something to create a Georgia more to its liking. Conceivably Russian intervention could have kept Yanukovych surviving under the EU-brokered agreement but it is highly probable that the next election would have brought the Maidan people to power and the situation would be much as it is today as far as Moscow is concerned. As for a swift drive on Kiev last month, there is no doubt Moscow had the military might to do it, but then what? As Bismarck observed, one can do anything with bayonets except sit on them.

And Moscow has enough experience in the USSR days of trying to sit on bayonets and can watch Washington’s failures.

In short, Moscow knows what Washington has not yet learnt: it’s not just one guy, it’s a whole country and sugar hits don’t last.


First published Strategic Culture Foundation

In my career I used to participate in regular meetings with an American intelligence agency. I – we – were always fascinated by their obsession with individuals. One time they proudly presented each of our group with a chart showing the Boss’ associates distributed into three groups. I’m sure creating this had cost a lot of time and money, but what use was it? Did it allow us to predict better, understand better? Of course it didn’t. Quite apart from the absurdity of thinking that an individual was 100% in one group and 0% in the other two – least one fitted two groups equally well – the truth was that they were a team which made decisions and outsiders had no idea what went on inside the process. The three-group division just led to more ungrounded speculation – if some decision were imagined to be to the benefit of one group, then a flurry of speculation about who was up and who was down would erupt. Theorising in the absence of data: a labour of crackpots. Lots of money, time and promotions but very little understanding. On another occasion their predictions at a leadership change were entirely personal – if X, then this, if Y, then that. (And the person who actually did succeed wasn’t on their list.) My group’s approach was to try and describe what constraints the as-yet-unknown successor would have to deal with. We were trying to work out the context; they were talking personalities. But there is an objective reality: and the most powerful and strong-willed individual can only shape the future within the existing possibilities. The American assumption seemed to be that the boss had unconstrained choices. Now it’s true that they thought of the country as a “dictatorship” but never even in the greatest tyranny has the ruler been able to do anything he wanted to. No wonder they have, over the ensuing twenty years, been invariably wrong. The simple-minded and ignorant obsession with personalities leads nowhere.

Did it begin with the Calvinists of Plymouth Rock and their division of humanity into the saved and the damned? Was it reinforced a century and a half later by the conviction that King George single-handedly caused “repeated Injuries and Usurpations” and urged on “the merciless Indian Savages”? Or is it of more recent origin? Hollywood’s rugged individuals saving the day at the end of the movie? Who can say, but it seems to be hard-wired into the American view of the world – or at least their view of the rest of the world. And the news media play along every time: the problem is Leader X, if we replace him, all will be better.

I have just finished a book about the CIA which mentions the Kennedy Administration’s obsession about Fidel Castro. “‘We were hysterical about Castro,’ Defense Secretary Robert McNamara acknowledged”; there were innumerable assassination plots. The missile crisis seems to have brought Kennedy to his senses and, a couple of months before his assassination, the CIA principal had to tell the mobster he had picked to organise it that the plot to kill Castro had been terminated. None of it amounted to anything and, in the words of one player “so much of the goddamn stuff was really juvenile.” Sixty years later, Fidel Castro is gone but Cuba remains – still defiant.

Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran was a problem; after he was overthrown Iran was not a problem for a while but today it’s an even bigger problem; and they still resent his overthrow. Ngô Đình Diệm in Vietnam was a problem; but his death just led to more war. Mohamed Farrah Aidid of Somalia was another who had to go, but after the Battle Of Mogadishu it was the Americans and NATO who went; Somalia, much now as it was then, has faded from the news. Slobodan Milošević was the Butcher of the Balkans until a court found that he wasn’t so guilty after all. Saddam Hussein was a pretty comprehensive problem, the NYT informed us; now he’s gone and Iraq is still a problem – can’t win it, can’t leave it. Kims in North Korea come and go; it remains the same. And so on and on – Assad, Maduro, Qaddafi, Arafat, Daniel Ortega and Yanukovych; all individuals who were imagined to be the single roadblock in the path of… The Better, Progress, Democracy and all other Good Things.

But the two biggest are Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinpeng. I have written enough about the crazy American obsession with Putin: five years ago I wrote A Brief Compendium of Nonsense About Putin. Since then he has grown in monstrosity: election rigger, computer hacker, serial poisoner, “Russia under Putin poses an existential threat to the United States and other countries of the West, Russia’s neighbors, and his own people” is a typical effusion. Note the personalism: the “existential threat” is “Russia under Putin”, not “Russia”. If only Putin could be got rid of…

The author of this piece goes on: “China will be at the top of the to-do list”. And the Atlantic Council has emitted The Longer Telegram: Toward A New American China Strategy written by Anonymous. Clearly it is supposed to echo Mr X’s (George Kennan’s) Long Telegram. But some differences: this is longer – much longer, grinding on for seven times the length of Kennan’s essay. Secondly, Kennan himself didn’t think that his recommendations had been well followed and was utterly opposed to NATO expansion and Western triumphantasies. I will certainly not waste my time reading this midden of prolixity (one wishes an ex-PFC Wintergreen had binned it), the summary is more than enough – and it’s longer than Kennan’s essay. The very first sentence puts us on familiar ground

The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.

“China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping”, “Russia under Putin”. Back to personalities.

…Xi has returned China… quasi-Maoist personality cult… systematic elimination of his political opponents…. Xi has used ethnonationalism… Xi’s China… Xi has demonstrated… China under… Xi is no longer just a problem for US primacy. He now presents a serious problem for the whole of the democratic world…

He is the problem and “All US political and policy responses to China therefore should be focused through the principal lens of Xi himself.” No Xi, no problem; no Putin, no problem; no Saddam, no problem; no Qaddafi, no problem. Away we go again.

Better informed people point out that Xi Jinpeng’s policies have a context: we start with Deng Xiaoping’s strategic guideline “hide capabilities and bide time”. Once capabilities could no longer be hidden, they moved to Hu Jintao’s “Actively Accomplish Something”. That something – or rather, those many somethings – are being actively accomplished by Xi Jinpeng. Far from a polity captured by a personality, China has a collective leadership focussed on a long-term strategy.

But that is only one voice in the background and the personality-obsessed (Very Much) Longer Telegram comes from the Atlantic Council which has a far greater influence on US and NATO activities. As it is engummed in personalism, so are they.

What do the personality-obsessed suggest be done to get rid of Xi? Well, this is a little more difficult than other cases: bombing got rid of Saddam and Qaddafi but China is too strong. Economic measures, as even someone as dim as Anonymous realises, might hurt the USA more than China. Stripped of nostalgianism (the US must “retain collective economic and technological superiority”), delusion (“Dividing Russia from China in the future is equally [critical]”) and degraded touchstones (“current rules-based liberal international order and, critically, its ideological underpinnings, including core democratic values”), the strategy offered is pitiful.

We are invited to be “laser focused” on the assumption that Xi’s so-called one man rule is resented by many in China; if a wedge can be driven into the leadership, Beijing will return to the happy pre-Xi state when

China, under all five of its post-Mao leaders prior to Xi, was able to work with the United States. Under them, China aimed to join the existing international order, not to remake it in China’s own image. Now, however, the mission for US China strategy should be to see China return to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo.

One is reminded of Napoleon’s delusion that Russia’s nobles could be wedged away from Alexander and the undying conviction that one more targetted sanction will make Putin’s henchmen kick him out. But, enough of Anonymous’ fancies – they have no base in reality: the USA out-sourced its manufacturing to China long ago and won’t be getting it back, wokeism is killing its education system, its politics are broken, its military is losing everywhere and doesn’t realise it, a tsunami of debt has built up. Most absurd of all, after years of needless hostility to Russia, Washington has no hope of separating Moscow from Beijing. And Xi Jinpeng is not some rogue who seized control – he is the top of a robust pyramid.

The only significance of this paltry effort is that it gives us another – and depressingly influential – example of the curious American obsession with personalities – everything in Chinese-US relations was going along swimmingly until Xi. But actually, as anyone capable of seeing reality knows, China is much, much more than one man.

China/Russia/Iran/Iraq/insert-name-of-country was happy to accept its place in the Rules-Based International Order until that nasty Xi/Putin/Ayatollah/Saddam/insert-name changed everything; get rid of him and it will all fix itself.

When are they going to understand that it’s a whole country, not just one guy?


(Miscellaneous comments from pieces dealing with Russia I’ve collected. Most of them anonymous or with pseudonyms, they illustrate either rabid hostility to everything Russian or stone-dead ignorance of reality. I post from time to time when I see them, spelling mistakes and all.)

Libyans ousted a dictator, but an ensuing civil war has
drawn in Russia, Turkey and others with a thirst for control

Washington Post


First published Strategic Culture Foundation

(This is the second of a two-part series on the 1996 Russian presidential election. They are based on notes I made at the time in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. I was an accredited observer in both rounds in Moscow Oblast. A reporter accompanied me on the first round and a program appeared on CBC Newsworld, but I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.)

The first round results had Yeltsin edging Zyuganov and Lebed running a strong third. While I got the placing of the top two wrong I did correctly understand Zyuganov’s inability to build on his December vote. But, Zyuganov had hardly been one of the CPSU’s stars: his highest position being in the central propaganda department, a place where they put the clunkers. The strong showing of Aleksandr Lebed was significant. What seems to have happened is that the people whom I, based on past practice, expected to swell Zhirinovskiy’s poll figures, voted for him instead. Likewise, Yavlinskiy slipped badly: clearly many of his voters went over to Yeltsin, understanding that a vote for him was wasted; the beginning of the end for him: a recent poll shows that he and his Yabloko party have completely faded from the political scene. But what I had got right was the central reality that the majority didn’t want the communists back and they understood that to vote for anyone but Yeltsin was effectively to vote for Zyuganov. The reality that Yeltsin was unpopular and that conditions were miserable for most Russians had no effect on this decision. Neither did American election wizards nor flashy rock concerts.

Anyway, Lebed was the kingmaker and a deal was swiftly made. Yeltsin replaced Pavel Grachev as Defence Minister with Lebed’s nominee; Lebed himself was appointed Secretary of the Security Council of Russia. His reasons for supporting Yeltsin were strikingly similar to my villager’s: “I was facing two ideas – an old one that has shed lots of blood and a new one which is being implemented very badly at the moment but has a future. I have chosen the new idea”.

In fact, the election results were rather sophisticated. The electorate essentially told Yeltsin that he was re-elected but there must be more order, less corruption and the war in Chechnya must be stopped. And, to a considerable extent, they got what they wanted. Lebed stopped the war and, eventually, we got to Putin and his team. The better future did run through that 1996 choice.

After the first round results it was a matter of calculating whose votes would go where in the second round. I made a simple Excel program in which I played with various assumptions and I concluded that the probability of Yeltsin’s second round victory was pretty robust. Lebed’s support for Yeltsin was a major plus and now the anti-communist vote (“reformers” as they were simple-mindedly labelled in the West) had the choice of staying home and risking a communist return, or holding their noses and voting Yeltsin. A VTsIOM poll, taken before Lebed’s appointment, showed agreement with my assessment of movement from supporters of their candidate to Yeltsin in the second round: 39% of Lebed’s (14% to Zyuganov); 51% percent of Yavlinskiy’s (6% to Zyuganov); 14% of Zhirinovskiy’s (25% percent to Zyuganov).

The whole point is that, whatever people may think today,

you didn’t have to like Yeltsin to vote for him.

With respect to considerations of whether the vote was fraudulent there are some reflections to be made. While I do not rule out small-scale shaving of numbers, the objective realities were that Zyuganov’s support was high but flat and the anti-communists would unite around someone. A fact, that many today are unwilling to accept, is that the majority did not want the communists back. Therefore a communist defeat was always probable and the question was who would be the one to defeat them. In the absence of a “third force”, Yeltsin was the most likely beneficiary. No need for fakery or American wizardry.

The second vote on 3 July met everyone’s expectations with Yeltsin four points over 50% and Zyuganov stuck at 40.7%. The remainder ticked the “Against all” box.

In retrospect the election was a supremely important moment in post-USSR Russian history because it opened a path that has proved to be successful. In 1996 there were two opposing stories about recent Russian history. I wrote a report arguing that the election had shown that the majority favoured one of the stories. I am rather interested that today the losing story has gained at least partial acceptance in the West. And some Russians never abandoned it. And strange that is: if you approve of the Putin Team, as most Russians do, the real world reality is that Putin would not have appeared had the 1996 vote gone the other way. But politics are often more passionate than rational.

Since the breakup of the USSR, the Russian opposition had a consistent opinion that Yeltsin was not the legitimate head of a legitimate state: he had been elected in 1991 as president of a Russia which was part of the USSR; he was one of the trio that had broken up the USSR; he prolonged his rule by extra-constitutional means including violence; his so-called reforms were the robbery of the common wealth. The electorate knew this and Yeltsin and his gang could not survive a fair election. The theory was bolstered by the success of opposition parties in the elections after 1991. The strong version was that the whole process had been orchestrated by Russia’s enemies in the West and that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were the accomplices or dupes of these foreign conspirators. It was a story which explained how the – to them – popular and successful USSR had so quickly collapsed. This story was the glue that held together an opposition at whose rallies could be seen posters of both Nikolay II and his murderer.

Therefore the 1996 presidential election could be seen as a contest over the correct interpretation of the “October events” of 1993. The opposition claimed that the defenders of constitutional order were destroyed by an unconstitutional regime; Yeltsin’s supporters maintained that constitutional order, faced with an armed revolt, took forceful but legal measures. The election was an opportunity for the people to choose one or the other. The opposition believed that the Yeltsin gang could not afford to lose and therefore would never risk a free election. This notion took a beating: Yeltsin did have the courage to risk election and he won. The population did not buy the opposition historiography; they decided that Yeltsin had been the legitimate head of a legitimate state. Which is not to say that they approved of all that he did or even liked him very much. As argued above, Yeltsin was the lesser evil.

The 1996 election was highly significant: it returned legitimacy to the government. A quarter of a century later, Putin, chosen by Yeltsin himself, is undeniably the legitimate president of all the Russias.

It is, however, interesting to see in 2021, references to Yeltsin’s having destroyed Russia’s democracy in October 1993. That is, in my opinion, a ridiculously over-simplifed view.

The October crisis of 1993 had several causes and those most remembered are the differences grounded in opposition to the Yeltsin team’s policy which, in essence, was the uprooting of the communist structure accompanied by an orgy of looting and the destruction of people’s savings and livelihoods. A frightful and lawless time for most.

But there was a structural cause which made a struggle inevitable. Gorbachev’s 1988 design to democratise the USSR involved a Congress of Peoples’ Deputies which elected a sitting legislature, the Supreme Soviet; that body elected a chairman who would be the leader of the country. And so, through 1989, Gorbachev chaired the meetings of the Supreme Soviet. As time went on, however, it became evident that the country’s leader could not do what he had to while refereeing endless debates. It also became clear that the Supreme Soviet was too big and too prone to mere talk. In 1990 the system was changed: the Supreme Soviet continued to exist but grafted onto it was an executive presidency. Gorbachev became president and his deputy became speaker of the Supreme Soviet. Exactly the same process was followed in the RSFSR: a Russian Congress, Supreme Soviet and Boris Yeltsin as speaker. Yeltsin learned what Gorbachev had and in 1991 the Russian Federation adopted a presidential system; Yeltsin became president and deputy speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov became speaker.

This solved the problem of ensuring a powerful executive to do all the unpopular things that had to be done but, in doing so, created another problem: which was supreme? The Congress of Peoples’ Deputies had been elected to be the nation’s sovereign power, the Supreme Soviet its daily manifestation and its speaker the leader of the country. Then these powers were given to the president. So there were two supreme powers, two first citizens and any act by one actor which was opposed by the other could be deemed unconstitutional. Thus, as Yeltsin was determined to act, most of his actions were considered unconstitutional by partisans of the Supreme Soviet; to Yeltsin’s side it was they who were unconstitutional.

It was dual power. And there are only two ways to settle a dual problem condition. If one or both of the powers agrees to step down, a peaceful resolution is possible. If not, it’s war. In England in the 1600s the struggle was between King and Parliament; the issue was settled over forty years by civil war, regicide, dictatorship, restoration of a limited monarchy, a second overthrow of the king and a second and more limited monarchy. In the USA the question was whether states which had created the union could leave it; a four-year war determined that they could not. And so, Russia, like the other two, fought it out in October 1993 with, it should be noted, much less blood shed. In December a new Constitution formalised the supremacy of the Russian president. In October the opposition to Russian President Yeltsin was led by his successor as chair of the Supreme Soviet Ruslan Khasbulatov and his Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoy. Exactly the same thing had happened in the August 1991 coup attempt against USSR President Gorbachev which was was led by Anatoliy Lukyanov (his successor as chair of the Supreme Soviet) and Gennadiy Yanayev his Vice-President. Yes there were policy disputes, but dual power was the root cause.

In conclusion:

  • The 1996 presidential election was an immensely important turning point in post-USSR Russian history; it made possible what we have in 2021.
  • My first essay argued that Yeltsin won because the majority did not want the communists back and Zyuganov could not extend his appeal past his base. The stagnation of Zyuganov’s support and the gradual migration over to Yeltsin of other peoples’ support was clearly shown by the many contemporary polls. If anything, Betaneli’s polls made the argument more compellingly because his findings, starting so far away from the others’, converged with them at the end. American election whiz kids had nothing to do with this: at most they might have made a bit of difference in the margins; they “rescued” nothing.
  • My second piece argued that the election resolved the legitimacy argument and the historiographical dispute in Yeltsin’s favour. The executive president, not the speaker of the Supreme Soviet/parliament, was Russia’s first citizen. This has endured.

To repeat Lebed and my villager: the one way had been exhausted, so they gave the other – dismal as it had been – a chance. And they were correct: it is very hard to see how one could get to today’s Russia – pretty successful by any measurement and growing more so – had Zyuganov won the 1996 election.

(As a postscript to illustrate the stagnation of Russian politics, of the top five of 1996, Yeltsin is dead, Zyuganov is still head of the KPRF, Lebed is dead, Yavlinskiy is still around but no longer head of Yabloko, Zhirinovskiy is still the head of the LDPR. Of the other players, Yeltsin, Lukyanov and Yanayev are dead and Gorbachev, Rutskoy and Khasbulatov still alive. Putin is the new boy.)

Unfortunately the American boasting (I have a memory – I was Canada’s representative on the G7 group that met monthly – that we rather laughed at their claims) and subsequent stories have kept alive the notion that the election was fixed, that Zyuganov really would have won and that the opposition view of Yeltsin the usurper who used tanks to destroy Russia’s nascent democracy was correct.

It’s curious to see that story still living 25 years after. Even among those who support the future made possible by that 1996 turning point.


(First published Strategic Culture Foundation

(This is the first of a two-part series on the 1996 Russian presidential election. They are based on notes I made at the time in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. I was an accredited observer in both rounds in Moscow Oblast. A reporter accompanied me on the first round and a program appeared on CBC Newsworld, but I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.)

When, four years ago, the losers concocted the story that the Russians had got Trump elected and beginning the unending series of stories, investigations and allegations, many people said that that was fair enough because Americans had got Yeltsin elected president of Russia in 1996. There was even a Time magazine story to that effect “Yanks to the Rescue“. You can see the argument made on this video.

I was there and I don’t believe it. I watched the polls carefully and a month before the first vote reported:

So the fundamental facts are these: Yeltsin is the only man who can stop the communists and Zyuganov is doing nothing effective to broaden his base from those who supported him in December… This election will be about the lesser of two evils and, at the moment, and with the dynamic of the situation, Yeltsin appears to enjoy that status.

Most Russians didn’t want the communists back and understood, that, like him or like him not – and he wasn’t popular – voting for Yeltsin was the only way to avoid them coming back.

I earlier published an anecdote of a conversation I had with a villager during the election who said that, while life in the village had been pretty dismal, he hoped it could be better for his children and that was why he was voting for Yeltsin. And he was correct: the route to the future did run through Yeltsin. Yeltsin gave way to Putin and the Putin team has achieved much. Russia in 2021 would look very different indeed had Zyuganov, still alive, won in 1996.

Therefore, 1996 was a tremendously important inflection point.

The first key to rationally analysing probabilities was to consider the election realities of Gennadiy Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). Any observer knew that the communists had a solid and dependable base that would certainly turn out. There was good data from the December 1995 Duma elections when all “communist” parties (not only Zyuganov’s KPRF) received about a third of the votes. It was a reasonable assumption that Zyuganov would retain most of this support six months later. “Brownshirts” took about another 20 percent with Zhirinovskiy’s party (LDPR) taking about half of that. It could also be assumed that he would stay in the race and keep most of his votes. But some of the “brownshirt” vote would go to Zyuganov who campaigned pretty hard for derzhava (Great Power State). Therefore, in January, before any polling was done, we could assume a theoretical maximum for Zyuganov of 35-40%. Zyuganov’s problem was how to attract the other 10-15%. He could get it by persuading people that he wasn’t really a hard communist; that would lose him some of his core but, because they had no other place to go, he could expect to keep most of them. The rules required a run-off between the top two if no one won over fifty percent on the first round. It was highly probable that Zyuganov would get to the second round; the question was who the other finisher would be.

And this is what the video referred to above doesn’t understand: Zyuganov had got the largest vote in December but he hadn’t got more than half; to win the presidency he had to get more than half. Zyuganov’s situation, not Yeltsin and Clinton, was the fixed background against which any analysis had to take place. None of this had anything to do with American whiz kids or money squandered on American-style pizazz: the fundamental reality of Russian politics in the 1990s was there was a strong core of communists – about a third of the population – who would certainly turn out and vote. And that was the situation that opinion polls showed in January: Zyuganov was well in front of Yavlinskiy, Zhirinovskiy, Fedorov and Lebed with President Yeltsin in the middle of the pack. Thus, from the perspective of January 1996, Zyuganov looked like the sure winner.

Some people have stuck at the January moment, failing to take the dynamics into account. But the December election had shown a second reality and that was that the majority did not want the communists back: the communists got a third but they didn’t get half. The dynamic of the interaction of these two realities was the key to understanding the election outcome. And over the next six months what I consider to be the central understanding gradually emerged: if you do anything but vote for Yeltsin, you are effectively voting for Zyuganov. Splitting the vote means Zyuganov wins; staying at home means Zyuganov wins. Only voting for Yeltsin will keep Zyuganov out.

There was one outlying pollster which, although differing from the others at the beginning, served to confirm this trend: Nuzgar Betaneli and his Institute of the Sociology of Parliamentarianism. While the other pollsters asked for whom would you vote today, he claimed to be predicting the final result, although he never explained his methodology, and, as events showed, he wasn’t able to see any farther into the future than the others. In April he gave Yeltsin 16-20% and Zyuganov 38-47%. There was a rumour that his results accorded with the Kremlin’s internal polls and caused an apparent panic which was reflected in Korzhakov’s musings that the election should be postponed or cancelled.

But by May he had upped Yeltsin to 27% and dropped Zyuganov to 42%. In short, Betaneli agreed that Zyuganov was staying within his bounds but that Yeltsin had burst through his. This was the essence of the election dynamics. Betaneli agreed with other pollsters on the remaining candidates; his main disagreement was putting Zyuganov up to 15 points ahead of everyone else’s estimate. At this point numbers were less important than the dynamic. Again, there was no need for American legerdemain, just the reality that Zyuganov wasn’t expanding his appeal, a majority did not want the communists back and they were holding their noses and going for Yeltsin as the most viable alternative.

Two realities made Yeltsin the anticommunist centre: the first was the power of incumbency and the second the lack of a “third force”. He could have been pinched out had the “liberals” coalesced but that would have required Yavlinskiy, Fedorov, Lebed and Gorbachev to sink their differences and unite around one of them. Another scheme floated was a “government of national trust” uniting everyone and leading to a postponement of the elections. But nobody was willing to give over to another and neither of these ideas ever got off the ground. (This was the time of the colourful expression “taxi parties”: all the members could fit into a taxi and drive around in circles. But no taxi would ever merge with another.)

As time went on we could see people, understanding the dynamic, swallowing their misgivings and declaring for Yeltsin. Pamyat, the very first super-nationalist faction, declared for him; Yegor Gaydar, in opposition for more than a year, and Boris Fedorov, whom he fired, came over. Cossack leaders supported him because he’d done something for them. The Russian Orthodox Church quietly instructed its clergy to remind parishioners what the communists had done to it. Primorskiy Region’s Governor Nazdrachenko, who had strongly opposed the border settlement with China, supported him. Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, a very canny player, strongly supported him.

By late May the trend was very pronounced and Betaneli, for all his claims to be able to see farther, was no longer the outlier. The average of ROMIR, CESSI and VTsIOM gave Yeltsin 33.5% and Zyuganov 23.2%. Betaneli had the two even at 36% each. The dynamic was holding: Zyuganov stagnant and the other candidates leaking support to Yeltsin.

The last three polls were VTsIOM (11 June), ROMIR (10 June) and ISP (Betaneli) (7 June). All got the most important thing right which was the steady rise of Yeltsin’s rating over the campaign and the flatness of Zyuganov’s support through the same period. The first two got the order of the top five right; ISP had Yavlinskiy beating Lebed. VTsIOM had very accurate predictions for Yeltsin and Zhirinovskiy and the best fit for Lebed and did detect a rise in his score at the last moment (from seven to ten percent). ROMIR was best for Yavlinskiy and ISP best for Zyuganov. So, generally speaking, the pollsters were in the ball park; Betaneli/ISP, having reversed his starting position, had Yeltsin at 40% and Zyuganov at 31%.

I spent some effort calculating “correction factors” for the polling numbers because polling was pretty new to Russia and there were a lot of errors that observation over time had shown. Generally, “liberals” were over-estimated, Zhirinovskiy very under-estimated and communists somewhat under-estimated. But I kept to the lode star that, whatever the numbers produced by individual pollsters, the dynamic was the indicator: Zyuganov flat, Yeltsin gathering the others. And so my final prediction was that Yeltsin would win a second term although I thought he might come second to Zyuganov on the first round and I expected Zhirinovskiy to come third. For what it’s worth, a panel at the Carnegie Institute just before the vote estimated Zyuganov 31%, Yeltsin 28% and Zhirinovskiy 10-11%.

In the event, we were both wrong: in the first round Yeltsin edged Zyuganov 35.8% to 32.5, Lebed was a strong third at 14.7%, Yavlinskiy was 7.4 %, Zhirinovskiy 5.8% and the others were deep in the weeds (Brytsalov coming dead last. Anybody remember him? YouTube does). I observed the election counting at a military base near Moscow and there Lebed won comfortably with Yeltsin second.

One of the things that the Americans were supposed to have done was put some zip into Yeltsin’s campaign ads. I saw little evidence of that. Perhaps Yeltsin’s most effective ad was this one but there was nothing very impressive about the others. The best ads I saw were for Lebed. The one I most remember was at a work site where people were complaining that the country was going to the dogs and there wasn’t anyone who could lead the way out, a sprightly girl pipes up “есть такой человек, ты его знаешь!” (There is such a man, you know him) and Lebed’s face would appear. (And, amazingly, YouTube has preserved one of the series.) This played to his reputation as a man who could make hard decisions and was the very essence of мужественность (manliness, courage). Something he was to prove later in the year when he went to Chechnya, recognised the war was lost, and swiftly negotiated a ceasefire and withdrawal with Aslan Maskhadov. Zyuganov’s advertising was very Soviet – long screeds on cheap paper which probably didn’t shift a single vote.

The media coverage did heavily favour Yeltsin. Some of it was understandable: Yeltsin used the power of incumbency, was doing newsworthy things and his campaign style was far more active than Zyuganov’s; added to which, most reporters did not want a return to the days of GlavLit censorship. But the coverage was pretty heavy-handed: for example, in the last week, TV carried a program about the Cheka terror, an unflattering movie about Stalin and a hagiographic profile of Nikolay II. But Yeltsin ran a much better campaign than Zyuganov: he bribed the taxpayers with their own money (not unknown in our politics), apparently defused the Chechnya disaster, buried the health issue with his frenetic activity and directed his campaign to the issues people were concerned about; and he was cunning: in Novocherkassk he spoke of the strikers gunned down in 1962. So, while he shamelessly used the incumbent’s advantages, he did things that deserved coverage.

So, the dynamic operated: Zyuganov never got past his start state and Yeltsin gathered in the anti-communist vote. Not that surprising. American political operators had little effect.


I was an election observer when I was stationed in Russia on the 1996 Presidential election. I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about elections these days and I just remembered this anecdote. This was during the first round of the election.

In those days the rules were that a ballot box, together with officials and observers would be sent to isolated places and there the people would vote. I decided it would be interesting to follow one of these boxes and see what happened. I can’t remember exactly where it was, somewhere near Odintsovo in Moscow Oblast I think. Anyway, we followed the procession out to the village where the people were waiting for us and one by one they showed their identification and voted. One of the villagers, no doubt curious to see a car with a diplomatic licence plate, came over to ask who I was and what we were doing there. After I explained that we were one of the international observer teams all over Russia, we talked for a bit. He appeared to be in his sixties and he told me that he had lived in the village all his life and that conditions there had been pretty crummy for most of the time. He thought something might be getting better in the 1960s – I assumed he was referring to the Lieberman reforms – but that was a disappointment too. There wasn’t much hope left for him, he said, but things might be better for his children. And that was why he was voting for Yeltsin.

The rule was that the travelling boxes had to be counted first so I made sure that when the count began we were in the voting centre to which the box belonged. I wasn’t surprised to see a solid majority for Yeltsin from that box and I concluded that the man had given voice to the general feelings of the villages and other places the box went to (I remember a hospital as one of them).

There were a lot of hot-shot American election handlers in Russia in 1996 and some of them came home and boasted that they had got Yeltsin elected. There’s even a Time magazine story about it: Yanks to the rescue. Well I’m not so sure. I spent a lot of time analysing opinion polls as they developed over the campaign and I saw that the numbers for Zyuganov started pretty high – something over a third – but, over time, there was little change, neither up nor down. On the other hand, there was a steady drain from the other candidates to Yeltsin. I knew that the communists certainly would turn out and certainly would vote for Zyuganov and everybody else knew it too. Therefore, I interpreted the polls as showing that, one by one, Russians came to understand that if you didn’t want the communists back you had to vote for Yeltsin. Whether you liked him or not. Effectively, to vote for anybody but Yeltsin was to vote for Zyuganov and the communists and everybody had been there and seen that already. In my report at the time I said: “So the fundamental facts are these: Yeltsin is the only man who can stop the communists and Zyuganov is doing nothing effective to broaden his base from those who supported him in December” and “This election will be about the lesser of two evils and, at the moment, and with the dynamic of the situation, Yeltsin appears to enjoy that status”.

So I often think of what this guy told me because it was an actual face-to-face confirmation of what I had already deduced: for all his inadequacies, the only path to a better future ran through Yeltsin. Flashy advertising had no effect on that decision. (And, by the way, the flashiest ads I saw were not for Yeltsin but for Lebed.)

And, you know, my guy was perfectly correct: the future did run through Yeltsin and I’m sure that he – if he’s still alive a quarter of a century later – would feel that he made the right choice and I’m sure his children and their children do too.

(Speaking of elections. In Russia then voters had to identify themselves, scrutineers from all the parties were allowed – required – to see everything, if there was any problem with the travelling boxes, the whole box was thrown away. Ballots were strictly accounted for and were filled out by hand – no mysterious machines. In the sixty or seventy polling stations I was in over three elections sessions, I never saw anything suspicious. And the counts were completed pretty quickly too. Later transparent ballot boxes and CCTVs were introduced. But what do Russians know about elections?)

Here’s a Yeltsin poster from the election that makes the point. However dismal things were in 1996, people could remember the last days of the USSR and the empty shelves and the ration cards. The caption is “Think and Vote”.