First published at https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2018/04/02/why-moscow-foreign-philosophy-is-westphalian.html
These days there are two styles of foreign policy being practised; Paul Robinson here describes them: one is a “a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities”. In the other style, there are said to be two kinds of states: “the just and the unjust”; they are not “legally or morally equal”. Others have called the second “idealism” or “moral diplomacy”. There is a continuous tradition of the USA regarding itself as quite a new category of country as recounted here and so the moralistic stance is sometimes called “Wilsonian” after the President who wished to “teach the South American republics to elect good men” but it’s quite bipartisan: witness the “Roosevelt Corollary” in which Theodore Roosevelt arrogated to the United States of America, as a “civilised country”, the right to intervene “in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence”. Neither of these approaches is new: there have always been countries that have believed that their gods gave them the mission of instructing and disciplining their neighbours and there have always been countries that were content to leave others alone.

The moralistic position is erected on the assumption that the speaker’s country is virtuous; that its virtue is evident and demonstrable: that its virtue is a fact. The lack of virtue of the other country is also a fact. Some countries are virtuous and others are not and the virtuous ones are permitted to do things the others can’t. Not assumption but reality; not hope but realisation; not relative but absolute; not subjective but objective. Stated that baldly, one wonders how any adult can believe such a thing. But they do. And with straight faces too:

Our children need to know that they – the citizens of the exceptional country, the most powerful, good and noble country in the history of mankind.

Most of all, America is indispensible — and exceptional — because of our values… The world looks to us to stand up for human rights, LGBT rights, religious and ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities and people everywhere who yearn for peace. We challenge ourselves and other nations to do better.

How fortunate that the best and noblest country in human history is also the most powerful! The United States is the current headquarters of the notion that some (or is it only one?) countries are “exceptional” and operate under different, but higher, standards than mere ordinary ones. In the last couple of decades the idea has spread throughout the Western world generally via, as Robinson observes, the (self-awarded) distinction of “those who respect and those who don’t respect human rights“. The West, it need hardly be said, considers itself to be a respecter.

So some of us are morally elevated and the rest of us are not. Those who aren’t should look to their defences: it’s bad for one’s life expectancy to be on the defaulters’ list as Slobodan Milosevich, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi can attest. It is striking how often this moral superiority is expressed by sanctions and bombing rather than by example, but the morally exceptional can do such things because they are morally exceptional. And, when Milosevic is exonerated, the WMD that was the pretext for Saddam’s overthrow isn’t there and it’s discovered that Qaddafi wasn’t “bombing his own people”, moral purity lets the exceptionalists shrug it off and move on; children die, but in a good cause. Exceptionalists bomb hospitals by mistake; the others do it on purpose.

The “idealistic” camp is led by Washington, while Moscow has come to be the chief spokesman for the “realistic” camp. Practically every speech Putin makes on foreign affairs has an appeal to “multilateralism” or to Robinson’s “traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities”. Here he is in an interview in 2000, but many many times since:

The world cannot develop effectively and positively if one state has a monopoly on taking and implementing whatever decisions it wants… In the history of mankind, such a drive for a monopoly has never ended well. For that reason, we are constantly proposing a different democratic world structure.

There are several reasons why Putin (and Yeltsin before him) calls for the primacy of the United Nations in a multilateral world system. Two are obviously self-serving: Russia is a permanent member of the UNSC and, second, it fears that it’s on the Exceptionalist hit list. And, given the predominance of “human rights violations” as justifications for “humanitarian interventions”, the annual condemnatory US State Department human rights report shows it has reason to fear.

But there is another reason why Moscow is dedicated to “a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities”. And it’s one that’s easy to forget:

The USSR spent 70 years pushing an “exceptionalist” foreign policy and it was a bust.

The USSR, as the “world’s first socialist state” was the standard-bearer for the “bright future of mankind”, a novus ordo seculorum, even a new type of human – “новый советский человек“. It was the exceptional country, it was the “most good and noble country in the history of mankind”, it was the leader of “people everywhere who yearn for peace”. It intervened all over the world in support of its self-awarded moral superiority. National Communist parties echoed Moscow’s superior wisdom. The German Communist Party collaborated with the Nazis to weaken the Weimar Republic. Why? Because socialism would prevail when Weimar went down. But it didn’t: the Nazis prevailed and the USSR paid a mighty price for their triumph. Cuba, a socialist state (“The Island of Freedom”), had to be supported by the Leader of World Socialism. That support brought the world close to a nuclear war. Any little movement that called itself socialist called for Moscow’s help, even countries the Politburo’s decrepit members had never heard of. They had to be provided with weapons, loans, aid and diplomatic support. It would have been impossible for the World’s First Socialist state not to intervene in Afghanistan when the so-called socialist government there began to wobble. Once socialist, socialist forever:

When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.

How could the USSR avoid lending money or weapons to any state that said it was socialist? Peace movements had to be infiltrated because theory said that only socialism brought peace. Being exceptional has heavy obligations:

More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. (John Kennedy actually, but Brezhnev probably said something like it, although at greater length.)

And it all came to nothing. Consider, for example, Poland. The USSR liberated it from the Nazis who had killed off about a fifth of the population; Stalin redrew the map so that, for the first time in history, all historical Poland was united and that territory was almost completely ethnically homogeneous. The USSR intervened in Polish politics and civil life for four decades by enforcing, as it believed it was morally obliged to do, the “bright future of mankind” to the expected benefit of the Polish people. Or so the exceptionalists in the Kremlin said. And with what result? The moment it became clear that the tanks weren’t coming, Poland threw off the Soviets, the alliance and the whole socialist package. And so throughout the other Fraternal Socialist States. It was a bubble. Exceptional countries have no friends because they have no equals, they can only have clients; but clients have to be fed or coerced.

The Russian Federation, as the successor to the USSR, inherited what it owed and what it was owed. But there was a big difference: the debts were real; the credits were not. Russia has paid all that it owed and written off most of what it was owed. In the case of Cuba, in 2014 Putin wrote off $32 billion in debt. The USSR had lent money to African “socialist” countries – as Leader of the Socialist World how could it refuse? Putin just wrote off $20 billion of that. And so on. Exceptionalism was money down the hole.

In 1987 a short piece by Yevgeniy Primakov appeared in Pravda: “A New Philosophy of Foreign Policy”. Essentially it argued that the USSR’s foreign policy had been a failure: it had reduced security and was bankrupting the country. After 70 years of exceptionalism, what was left? No friendship, often the opposite. No monetary profit, just costs. The Leader of the Socialist Bloc and the Bloc itself evaporated as if they had never been. It was all for nothing. And worse than nothing: here’s Putin himself in 1999:

For almost three-fourths of the outgoing century Russia lived under the sign of the implementation of the communist doctrine. It would be a mistake not to see and, even more so, to deny the unquestionable achievements of those times. But it would be an even bigger mistake not to realise the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for that Bolshevist experiment. What is more, it would be a mistake not to understand its historic futility. Communism and the power of Soviets did not make Russia a prosperous country with a dynamically developing society and free people. Communism vividly demonstrated its inaptitude for sound self-development, dooming our country to a steady lag behind economically advanced countries. It was a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation.

“Outrageous price”. “Historic futility”. “Inaptitude”. “Steady lag”. “A road to a blind alley”. Nothing: no money, no friends, no power, no prosperity. Nothing: neither at home nor abroad.

Moscow knows the exceptionalist road is “a road to a blind alley” because it wasted 70 years on that road. However imperfect and irritating the “traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities” may be, Moscow knows that “idealism” is completely worthless.

It’s worth observing that the “Westphalian system” is named after the several agreements in 1648 that ended the religious wars in Europe by accepting the principle of cuius regio, eius religio or that each state would be allowed to do things its own way. In other words, Westphalianism was accepted only after idealism had burned everything to the ground.

It’s an old lesson that Russia has learned but Washington, with its still-large purse, hasn’t. Yet.





(Now that the book is out I publish my entry. Most of the people who wrote their “how I got here” sections were awakened by the relentlessly one-sided coverage of Russia by the MSM: they suspected that it couldn’t possibly be that one-sided and started looking.

Putin’s Praetorians: Confessions of the Top Kremlin Trolls Kindle Edition; Phil Butler (Author), Patricia Revita (Illustrator), Pepe Escobar (Foreword)

I started work for the Canadian Department of National Defence in 1977 in the Directorate of Land Operational Research of the Operational Research and Analysis Establishment. I participated in many training games in real time and research games in very slow time. The scenarios were always the same: we (Canada had a brigade group in West Germany) were defending against an attack by the Soviet/Warsaw Pact side. In those days NATO was a defensive organisation and, as we later found out, so was the other side: each was awaiting the other to attack. Which, come to think of it, is probably why we’re all here today.

I enjoyed my six years, often as the only civilian in a sea of uniforms, but I realised that a history PhD stood no change of running the directorate so, when the slot opened, I contrived to switch to the Directorate of Strategic Analysis as the USSR guy. I should say straight off that I have never taken a university course on Russia or the USSR. And, in retrospect, I think that was fortunate because in much of the English-speaking world the field seems to be dominated by Balts, Poles or Ukrainians who hate Russia. So I avoided that “Russians are the enemy, whatever flag they fly” indoctrination: I always thought the Russians were just as much the victims of the ideology as any one else and am amused how the others have airbrushed their Bolsheviks out of their pictures just as determinedly as Stalin removed “unpersons” from his.

That was November 1984 and Chernenko was GenSek and, when he died in March 1985, Gorbachev succeeded. While I didn’t think the USSR was all that healthy or successful an enterprise, I did expect it to last a lot longer and when Gorbachev started talking about glasnost and perestroyka I thought back to the 20th Party Congress, the Lieberman reforms, Andropov’s reforms and didn’t expect much.

In 1987 two things made me think again. I attended a Wilton Park conference (the first of many) attended by Dr Leonid Abalkin. He took the conference over and, with the patient interpretation of someone from the Embassy, talked for hours. The Soviet economy was a failure and couldn’t be reformed. That was something different. Then, on the front page of Pravda, appeared a short essay with the title “A New Philosophy of Foreign Policy” by Yevgeniy Primakov. I pricked up my ears: a new philosophy? But surely good old Marxism-Leninism is valid for all times and places. As I read on, I realised that this was also something new: the author was bluntly saying that Soviet foreign policy had been a failure, it was ruining the country and creating enemies. These two were telling us that the USSR just didn’t work. As Putin told Stone, “it was not efficient in its roots”.

These things convinced me that real change was being attempted. Not just fiddling around at the edges but something that would end the whole Marxist-Leninist construct. As far as I was concerned, it had been the communist system that was our enemy and, if it was thrown off, we should be happy. Sometime around then I was interviewed for a job at NATO and the question was what, with all these changes, was NATO’s future. I said it should become an alliance of the civilised countries against whatever dangers were out there: the present members of course, but also the USSR, Japan and so on.

Well, that didn’t happen did it? I remember a very knowledgeable boss assuring me that NATO expansion was such a stupid idea that it would never happen. He was wrong too.

In 1814 the victors – Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria – sat down in Vienna, with France, to re-design the world. They were wise enough to understood that a settlement that excluded France wouldn’t last. In 1919 this was forgotten and the settlement – and short-lived it was – excluded the loser. In 1945 Japan and Germany were included in the winners’ circle. At the end of the Cold War, repeating the Versailles mistake, we excluded Russia. It was soon obvious, whatever meretricious platitudes stumbled from the lips of wooden-faced stooges, that NATO was an anti-Russia organisation of the “winners”.

But I retained hope. I think my most reprinted piece has been “The Third Turn” of November 2010 and in it I argued that Russia had passed through two periods in the Western imagination: first as the Little Brother then as the Assertive Enemy but that we were now approaching a time in which it would be seen as a normal country.

Well, that didn’t happen did it?

And so the great opportunity to integrate Russia into the winners’ circle was thrown away.

For a long time I thought it was stupidity and ignorance. I knew the implacably hostile were out there: Brzezinski and the legions of “think” tanks (my website has a collection of anti-Russia quotations I’ve collected over the years) but I greatly underestimated their persistence. Stupidity and ignorance; you can argue with those (or hope to). But you can’t argue with the anti-Russians. Russia wants to re-conquer the empire so it invaded Georgia. But it didn’t hold on to it, did it? No but that’s because we stopped it. Putin kills reporters. Name one. You know, whatshername. Provocative exercises on NATO’s borders. But NATO keeps moving closer to Russia. Irrelevant, NATO’s peaceful. Putin is the richest thief in the world. Says who? Everybody. Putin hacked the US election. How? Somehow.

I quoted Hanlan’s razor a lot – “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. And, stupidity and ignorance there were (a favourite being John McCain’s notion that the appropriate venue for a response to a Putin piece in the NYT was Pravda. And then he picked the wrong Pravda! (But he won’t hate Russia or Putin any the less if he were told that, would he?) At some point I came to understand that malice was the real driver.

I suppose it grew on me bit by bit – all the stupidity converged on the same point and it never stopped; but real stupidity and ignorance don’t work that way: people learn, however slowly. I think the change for me was Libya. I started out thinking stupidity but, as it piled up, it became clear that it was malice. I’d seen lies in the Kosovo war but it was Libya that convinced me that it wasn’t just a few lies, it was all lies. (My guess is that Libya was an important development in Putin’s view of NATO/US too.)

Naive perhaps but, for most of history stupidity has adequately explained things and malice is, after all, a species of stupidity.

So what’s the point of writing? I’ll never convince the Russia haters, and there’s little chance of getting through to the stupid and ignorant. And most people aren’t very interested anyway.

Well, this is where malice meets stupidity. If we consider the Project for a New American Century, the neocon game plan “to promote American global leadership”, what do we see twenty years later? Brzezinski laid out the strategy in The Grand Chessboard at the same time. What today? Well, last year he had to admit that the “era” of US dominance, he was so confident of twenty years earlier, was over. There’s no need to belabour the point: while the US by most measures is still the world’s dominant power, its mighty military is defeated everywhere and doesn’t realise it, its manufacturing capacity has been mostly outsourced to China, domestic politics and stability degenerate while we watch and there’s opioids, spectacular debt levels, incarceration, infant mortality, недоговороспособны and on and on. Donald Trump was elected on the promise to Make America Great…. Again. Hardly the hyperpower to lead the globe is it?

The Twentieth Century was the “American Century” thanks to limitless manufacturing capacity allied to great inventiveness anchored on a stable political base. What is left of these three in 2017? Can America be made “great” again? And wars: wars everywhere and everywhere the same. And what other than malice has brought it to this state? Malice has become stupidity: the neocons, Brzezinskis, the Russia haters, the Exceptionalists, scheming “to promote American global leadership”, have weakened the USA. Perhaps irreparably.

So, who’s the audience today? The converted and people at the point when a little push can break their conditioning have always been there. But now there is a potentially huge audience for our efforts: the audience of the awakening.

Which brings me back to where I started. Except that it’s the USA this time:


We’re here and we’re waiting for you: you’ve been lied to but that doesn’t mean that everything is a lie.

Presidential Election 1996

I was an official observer on several elections when I was posted there. This is the start of counting at the Kubinka air base in Moscow Oblast. We were made welcome and I was even given a filled-in copy of the protocol of the results. Lebed 640, Yeltsin 394, Zyuganov 238, Yavlinskiy 190. Brintsalov — anybody remember him? — 6. 21 years ago today.

My wife just read this and made the intelligent observation that I had written it to look as if we arrived and were immediately given the final result. Not at all: we watched, over several hours, the whole tedious process of the ballots being sorted, counted and registered. We wandered around as much as we wanted, looked at anything we wanted to and oversaw the whole process. Didn’t see anything that looked wrong anywhere in the 20 or so polling stations we looked at (other than the whole family , children and all, going into the voting booth). 

And, as a followup, when we got home and voted in an election in Ottawa, we discovered that someone we had never heard of and had never rented our house to, was on the list at our address. We protested and Lo and Behold! another list, with our names on it was discovered.

Should have raised a stink but was too dumbfounded.

Cheating. On elections. In Dear Old Canada!

(BTW. I must have been in 60 or 70 Russian voting stations and never saw anything like  that.)


Underestimate Russia and be surprised

These pieces are papers that I believe to be still relevant; they were published earlier elsewhere under a pseudonym. They have been very slightly edited and hyperlinks have been checked.

I originally wrote this in November 2015. It seems appropriate, around Victory Day, to republish it. The manufacturers of Nazi battle standards would have been surprised had they known where they would end up. Likewise French cannon foundries. As there is more and more war talk in the West, it is as well to remember that, while you can easily start a war with Russia, it probably won’t be you who finishes it.

The USA/NATO has been surprised – or is stunned a better word? – by the Russian operation in Syria. The fact that it intervened; the speed with which it did it; the secrecy with which it did it; the numbers of sorties being flown; the accuracy and effectiveness of the strikes. But especially by the discovery that insignificant boats in the Caspian Sea – of all places – have a surprisingly long reach. McCain’s gas station or Obama’s negligible Russia couldn’t possibly be expected to do such things. And, if half the rumours about Russia’s “A2/AD bubble” are true, there’s another huge surprise as well.

Russia, over its millennium of history, has been usually successful in war, and especially so when defeating invaders. The Mongols were eventually seen off, the Teutonic Knights sent home, the Polish-Lithuanian invaders driven out, the Swedes defeated and Napoleon and Hitler were followed home by avenging armies. The West is only faintly aware of this record: it tends to remember Russia’s rare defeats like the Japanese war or World War I and, when Russia (or the USSR) wins, the common opinion in the West is that victory was really owed to factors like “General Winter” or endless manpower. In short, the Western meme is that Russia doesn’t really win, the other side loses.

This is, to put it mildly, incorrect. Dominic Lieven’s book “Russia Against Napoleon” destroys the meme. The author establishes the case that the Emperor Alexander and his government foresaw that war with Napoleon was inevitable, studied how Napoleon fought and made the necessary preparations to defeat him. And defeat him they did. Fighting an army as big as the one that invaded in 1812 led by as brilliant a commander as Napoleon is never going to be easy and Alexander probably didn’t envisage a battle as bloody as Borodino, so close to Moscow, to be indecisive. I’m sure nobody planned for Moscow to be occupied and burned. But, even so, Alexander held to his purpose. He knew that Napoleon’s typical campaign was a swift battlefield victory, followed by negotiations, perhaps the loss of a few bits of territory, a relative or two being made into a prince, and then the gathering of the defeated power into the French camp. In short, Napoleon expected that he and Alexander would meet again when Alexander had been taught a lesson: Russia would then rejoin the “continental system” and its navy would keep the Royal Navy out of the Baltic. Something limited like that. But Alexander was fighting a different war and never came to him. Moscow burned and Napoleon gave up waiting and went home. Certainly, “General Winter” played his part, but the French retreat turned into a rout as they were driven faster and faster by the menacing proximity of the rebuilt Russian Army, harried by warmly dressed Cossack raiders with endless remounts and enraged partisans roused into the first Great Patriotic War. This famous graph tells the story: four hundred thousand went in, ten thousand came out and the Russian army followed Napoleon all the way back to Paris. Lieven explains the planning and the enormous logistics operation which sustained a large army all the 1500 miles from Moscow to Paris. Very far indeed from the Western story of masses of men hurled at a freezing enemy.

In short: Alexander understood how Napoleon did things and surprised him with proper preparation and a full strategy. This, I believe, is the essence of the “Russian way in warfare”. Know and understand the enemy and surprise him. We have just seen this again in Syria. And, for that matter, over and over again in the Ukraine crisis where nothing has gone the way Nuland & Co intended. And in Ossetia in 2008.

While the First World War was a disaster for Russia, surprise and intelligence was present. Germany’s plan to deal with enemies both east and west assumed Russia would take so long to mobilize that the bulk of the German Army could be sent west to knock France out quickly – as it had done in 1870 – and return in time to meet the Russians. The Russians, who perhaps knew this, attacked early and threw the Germans into consternation. Their attack, however, went wrong: the Russian commanders were incompetent, the German commanders weren’t and the Germans were saved. Intelligence and surprise were there, but the execution was bungled. A second intelligence/surprise was the Brusilov Offensive in 1916 (again something not much known in the West). The attack was notable for two innovations later adopted in the Western Front: a short, intense, accurate artillery bombardment immediately followed up by attacks of small groups of specially trained shock troops. Very different indeed from the synchronous Somme offensive on the Western Front with its prolonged bombardment and the slow advance of thousands of heavily burdened soldiers. But, in the end, Russia was overwhelmed by the strains of the first industrial war and undermined by German and Austrian subterfuges and collapsed. Intelligence and surprise weren’t enough.

Intelligence and surprise returned in the Soviet period. In the Far East we saw the perfect combination of surprise in 1939 with the annihilation of a Japanese army at the battle of Khalkin-Gol and intelligence in 1941 with Richard Sorge‘s discovery that Japan was turning south. This intelligence allowed Stavka to transfer divisions, that the Germans had no idea existed, to Moscow and surprise them with the first Soviet victory at the Battle of Moscow. Certainly Hitler surprised Stalin with his attack (although he shouldn’t have because Soviet intelligence picked up many warning signs) but that appears to have been the last German surprise of the war. From then on it was the Soviets who foresaw German plans and surprised them time and time again – the counter attack at Stalingrad and the entire Battle of Kursk being two of the most dramatic examples of the Soviets preparing for what their intelligence told them was coming and achieving complete surprise with their counter-attack. [And, as I have just learned today, the Soviets knew the details of the final German thrust on Moscow]. Again, surprise and intelligence, almost all of it on the Soviet side. (Which should make one wonder what Reinhard Gehlen, head of the German Army’s Soviet intelligence section had to sell the Americans in 1945, shouldn’t it?)

So then, Syria is just the latest example of something that has been present in Russian and Soviet war-fighting doctrine for at least two centuries.

A good piece of advice, then: if you are contemplating a war (even a non-shooting war) against Russia you’d better assume that they have a pretty good idea of what you are doing but that you have very little idea of what they are doing.

It’s much more likely that you will be surprised than you will surprise them.

Lots of people in lots of places over lots of years have underestimated Russia. Most of them have regretted it.

Is there anything in the last couple of years in the West’s anti-Russia campaign that would cause anyone to think otherwise?

Why Russia Ran Rings Around the USA in the Obama Years

These pieces are papers that I believe to be still relevant; they were published earlier elsewhere under a pseudonym. They have been very slightly edited and hyperlinks have been checked.

Originally written in October 2015 but I don’t see much to change my opinion about. When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the West had it all – prestige, success, power, a winning example. It is astounding how much it has thrown away in the succeeding three decades.

Admittedly, there is a new Administration in the USA with new promises to mind its own business:

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.

We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.

Can Trump get the USA to stop its (wasteful, destructive, murderous and counterproductive) meddling and can he, as he has promised, find a better relationship with Russia? Can he emplace a better, more coherent, more intelligent, more focussed team than the arrogant incompetents of the last eight years? It is the biggest question today.

The anti-Russian hysteria gripping the chattering classes shows that Trump’s up against a lot of opposition.

But I don’t believe the story is over yet.

Despite its “failing economy“, “isolation“, “ancient weapons“, “instability” and all the other tired (and ageless: Russia was “failing” in 2005 and in 2000) tropes, time and time again, Moscow confounds, surprises and outmanoeuvres Washington. How does it do it?

Moscow has a competent team; Washington has ??? Putin, Medvedev, Ivanov, Shoygu, Lavrov. On the other side… well, you fill in the names. [Note Apr 2017: There is a new Administration and we will see what difference that makes.] The proof is that Russia has risen from a negligible position in 2000 to one that sets a lot of the agenda.

Moscow stays at home; Washington goes abroad. John Quincy Adams advised the young American republic not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But today…. US special forces deployed to 150 countries in the past three years; hundreds and hundreds of foreign military bases. Not even the most dedicated anti-Russia conspiricist could name 15 countries he thought Russian special forces had been deployed in nor more than a handful of foreign bases. And so, while Moscow sticks to its own interests, Washington sticks its interests into everything and everywhere.

Moscow is grounded in reality; Washington grounded in illusion. I don’t think we could have a better illustration than the two leaders’ speeches at the UNGA [in 2015]. In which, together with all the hypocritical piffle about “we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law”, “fidelity to international order”, “basic principles of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce”, “helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant” is the meat: “I lead the strongest military that the world has ever known, and I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary.” As this writer put it, the schoolyard bully condemns bullying. Putin stuck to his themes of multilateralism (and so did Xi Jinping; something to be noticed: that’s two nuclear powers, two UNSC permanent seats and the first and fifth economies (World Bank, PPP) agreeing that “The future of the world must be shaped by all countries. All countries are equals.”). Putin asked “do you at least realize now what you’ve done?” and answered his question realistically “But I’m afraid that this question will remain unanswered, because they have never abandoned their policy, which is based on arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity.” And finally: “Gentlemen, the people you are dealing with are cruel but they are not dumb. They are as smart as you are. So, it’s a big question: who’s playing whom here?” Who, indeed? (One of the top ISIS commanders was trained by the US back when it was thought useful to have jihadists it “controlled” fighting Russia. Who was playing whom then?) But Obama’s still rearranging the li-los in cloud cuckoo land: Putin went into Syria out of weakness and he’s only got Syria and Iran while the USA has the rest of the world.

Moscow plans; Washington assumes. It seems that Israel got more than the brusque one-hour announcement the US received of the coming strikes. A coordination centre is operating in Baghdad. There are constant stories that China is on board (I don’t believe Debka’s reports that Chinese military assets are already there but China may well appear in some way). [Note Apr 2017: not militarily but it will likely play a part in rebuilding Syria]. Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and the Kurds are all on board. Obviously this was carefully planned over some time. In short, Putin & Co got their ducks in a row and moved very quickly. [Note Apr 2017: and so it continues]. Compare the light-hearted way in which the Ukraine disaster began: cookies and cell phone chats, the premature US Navy bid for Sevastopol, the silly confidence that it would be all wrapped up soon. To say nothing of the “surprising” fallout from the Libya and Iraq wars. Of course if the aim of Washington is to create chaos, as some wonder, then it has been all carefully thought out. And chaos it has.

Moscow has consistency; Washington has confusion. Take Syria for example. The Russian policy is to fight ISIS and its attachments; it supports Assad because it saw in Libya and Iraq that overthrowing the incumbent leads to worse. The only way to do this is by supporting the forces that are actually fighting ISIS on the ground. As well there is the principle that Assad is the recognised government of the country. And so Russia has forged agreements with the forces actually fighting ISIS. The US policy is to attack ISIS (but not very effectively) but also to attack Assad using its “four or five” moderate rebels. Oh, wait, you tell us there’s a CIA-trained group we haven’t heard about before somewhere? Or should Washington ally itself with Al-Qaeda? ISIS has a lot of US weapons: accident? Intention? some secret operation? who knows? No consistency or coherence there.

Moscow has a united team; what does the USA have? As I have written earlier, I suspect that the US intelligence community has been shut out of Washington’s decisions and now wants to clear itself of blame for the ever unrolling disaster. We won’t hear anything from Moscow like that; and it’s not because Putin’s a “dictator”.

So it’s not that complicated: competency, attention to first principles, reality, planning, consistency of purpose and unity of execution beats incompetency, interfering in everything everywhere, illusion, sloppy assumptions, confusion and disunity.

Obama changes his mind on Russia

It’s been quite a progression, hasn’t it?

Part One: Weak, Regional, Failing

Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness.

Netherlands, 25 March 2014

But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.

Economist interview, 2 August 2014

Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve. (Applause.)

State of the Union Address, 20 January 2015

Part Two: Maybe not

The bottom line is, is that we think that Russia is a large important country with a military that is second only to ours, and has to be a part of the solution on the world stage, rather than part of the problem.

Washington, 18 October 2016

Part Three: Powerful, Worldwide

With respect to Russia, my principal approach to Russia has been constant since I first came into office. Russia is an important country. It is a military superpower. It has influence in the region and it has influence around the world. And in order for us to solve many big problems around the world, it is in our interest to work with Russia and obtain their cooperation.

Berlin, 17 November 2016

“constant since I first came into office”

The Greatest Kremlinological Theory Ever: Bald and Hairy

Note: a version of this appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1996 and I am amazed to see it preserved on the Web. I think I originally wrote it for the now-defunct Moscow Tribune about that time.

It was delightful to read Jennifer Rossa’s piece in the Moscow Tribune on 29 February 1996 resurrecting the greatest of all Kremlinological theories. What is known among the professionals as the Hirsute Analytical Tool – the alternation of bald and hairy Soviet leaders – was greatly relied on after its discovery in 1955. A theory of great predictive power, it was the crown jewel of the science of Kremlinology.

However, the HAT has greater power yet: as it survived the communist period so it pre-dated it. Alexander I (1801-1825) was balding; Nicholas I (1825-1855) was also balding. But then the cycle settled down: Alexander II (1855-1881) had a full head of hair, Alexander III (1881-1894) was balding and Nicholas II (1894-1917) had hair. Note, however, the Imperial Corollary: emperors are balding, communists are fully bald.

Unnoticed by other researchers, and here presented for the first time, is the Facial Fur Addendum. Facial fur started gently in the 19th century, rose to a crescendo, died away among the communists and bald faces have been the rule ever since. Alexander I was clean shaven, Nicholas I had a moustache, Alexander II had mutton chops, Alexander III and Nicholas II had full beards. Lenin had a beard, but only a goatee, and Stalin, the last in the series, had a moustache.

The HAT refers only to male rulers of course and Russia had several female rulers in the eighteenth century but not since. Tentative analysis suggests the existence of a long term cycle – possibly involving Big Hair (which Catherine certainly had). The return of women rulers is indicated for the next century.

The HAT is worthless at predicting length of term. For example, Stalin, a Hairy Guy, was in power for nearly 30 years while Chernenko, another Hairy Guy, was in power for only eighteen months. Therefore, it is quite wrong to suggest that the HAT predicts that President Yeltsin will lose the June election. The Hat was discovered in an imperial period when rulers tended to hold office for life. It may not apply to a republican, democratic Russia. If it is still valid, all it predicts is that President Yeltsin’s eventual successor will be a Bald Guy, possibly with a neat moustache.

Note: I was greatly amused to see, when Putin re-appeared as President, that the HAT has lost none of its power. And here is the latest version:

bald and hairy

The August 1991 Coup Attempt and Me

David Jones (who just died the other day. RIP) organised an annual meeting at his ancestral home in Bedford Basin, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Purpose to talk about all the stuff that was going on in the USSR. I was one of the participants (greatly outranked by most of the others. Thank you David).

So, down I went to Halifax in August 1991 by car with my wife for the latest. We have the meeting; serious bunch of people, knowledgeable and informed. I remember, on the last day, having a debate with one of the participants on the subject that the Soviet Armed Forces had more power than ever before; I argued no, they were just as divided on perestroyka, glasnost, Gorbachev and what was happening as any other part of the USSR and could not be considered as monolithic at all. Anyway, after convivial discussions boozing chatting and so on, we get into the car to drive back to Ottawa on Sunday. Overnight somewhere in Vermont.

Turn on the TV in the motel Monday 19 August and there’s the news of the coup – tanks on the street, Gorbachev overthrown, lots of people saying “told you it wouldn’t last”. Sinking feeling in the stomach – it always hurts to be proved wrong. Here I am saying no coup and I’m instantly contradicted by the facts. And will probably get home to be fired (I heard years later that one senior had been joyfully saying that at least we’ll never have to hear from Armstrong again.) But tank crews arguing with citizens is not the sign of a successful coup I think as I drive. As the day wears on and we listen to whatever we can get (no Internet then, boys and girls, only what we now scornfully call the Lame Stream Media; so you had to listen carefully through the piffle and bias and deduce heavily) it occurs to me that this coup really isn’t working out very well. In short, coups have to be fast and total (or at least look that way) or they trickle away.

So Tuesday, into the office. Get some intelligence that confirms my suspicion that the coup isn’t really working and won’t take. (And also do some thinking; two things are missing: nobody from the CPSU in the Extraordinary Committee and where are the planes flying low and loud? In short, not everyone is on board.) Get a phone call from the Globe and Mail. Tell the reporter (I was new to the business then – I trust reporters a lot less now) that the coup is a bust and will fail.

Wednesday. Front page of G&M – Foreign Affairs says um ah maybe yes maybe no; so-called Defence Department “Expert” by name (sneer sneer) is so inexpert (sneer sneer) as to say no one expected the coup attempt and it will fail (hah hah, what a doofus!) Even made Quote of the Day: if the coup succeeds I will eat my hat. On my desk a stack of telephone messages. Phone the Director, phone the Director General, phone the ADM, phone the Minister! But, by Wednesday, it was clear that the coup had failed and that it was wrapping up. So I phone nobody.

Thursday lots of phone calls from various media outlets asking for interviews because I’m the only (later learned that I wasn’t actually the only) “expert” (not so sneery now) in the whole Canadian Government to have got it right. Asked my boss what to do. He said (wisely) that, since the then foreign minister had said that Canada would probably have to recognise the junta, I would be smarter, from a career perspective, to keep my mouth shut.

So, dear comrades, that’s why

  1. I’m not world famous today but
  2. I am living happily on a solid government pension.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere for you younguns but I don’t know what it is.

(Pre Internet so I can’t find the Globe and Mail reference. Have the cutting somewhere; if I find it, I’ll post it.)