AMERICANS, WAR – SLOW LEARNERS

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Nothing short of genius can account for losing so consistently given the enormous resources available to American forces. In light of this very low level of military competence, maybe wars are not our best choice of hobby.

– Fred Reed (who probably learned this in Vietnam)

According to a popular Internet calculation, the United States of America has not been at war with somebody for only 21 years since 1776. Or maybe it’s only 17 years. Wikipedia attempts a list. It’s a long one. You’d think that a country that had been at war for that much of its existence, would be pretty good at it.

But you’d be wrong. The “greatest military in the history of the world” has doubled the USSR’s time in Afghanistan and apparently it’s unthinkable that it should not hang in for the triple. Should the President want to pull some troops out of somewhere, there will be a chorus shrieking “dangerous precedent” or losing leadership and months later nothing much will have happened.

One cannot avoid asking when did the USA last win a war. You can argue about what “win” looks like but there’s no argument about a surrender ceremony in the enemy’s capital, whether Tokyo Bay or Berlin. That is victory. Helicopters off the Embassy roof is not, pool parties in a US Embassy is not, “Black Hawk down” is not. Doubling the USSR’s record in Afghanistan is not. Restoring the status quo ante in Korea is not defeat exactly, but it’s pretty far from what MacArthur expected when he moved on the Yalu. When did the USA last win a war? And none of the post 1945 wars have been against first-class opponents.

And few of the pre-1941 wars were either. Which brings me to the point of this essay. The USA has spent much of its existence at war, but very seldom against peers. The peer wars are few: the War of Independence against Britain (but with enormous – and at Yorktown probably decisive – help from France). Britain again in 1812-1814 (but British power was mostly directed against Napoleon). Germany in 1917-1918, Germany and Japan 1941-1945.

Most American opponents have been small fry.

Take, for example, the continual wars against what the Declaration of Independence calls “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions“. (Starting, incidentally, a long American tradition of depicting enemies as outside the law and therefore deserving of extermination.) The Indians were brave and skilful fighters but there were always too few of them. Furthermore, as every Indian warrior was a free individual, Indian forces melted away when individuals concluded that there was nothing it for them. Because there were so few warriors in a given nation, Indian war bands would not endure the sort of casualties that European soldiers did. And, always in the background, the carnage from European diseases like the smallpox epidemic of 1837 which killed tens of thousands in the western nations. Thus whatever Indian resistance survived could usually be divided, bought off, cheated away and, if it came to a fight, the individual Indian nation was generally so small and so isolated, that victory was assured. The one great attempt to unite all the western nations was Tecumseh’s. He understood that the only chance would come if the Indians, one united force, showed the Americans that they had to be taken seriously. He spent years trying to organise the nations but, in the end, the premature action of his brother Tenskwatawa led to defeat of his headquarters base in 1811. Tecumseh himself was killed two years later fighting a rear-guard action in Ontario. It is because defeats of American forces were so rare that Little Big Horn has passed into legend; but the American casualties of about 250 would have been a minor skirmish a decade earlier. And the victory led to nothing for the Indians anyway; they lost the Black Hills and were forced into reservations. Brave and spirited fighters, but, in the end, no match for industrialised numbers.

The USA fought several wars against Spain and Mexico, gaining territory as it did. Despite the occasional “last stand” like The Alamo, these were also one-sided. The Spanish-American War is the outstanding example: for about 4000 casualties (half from disease), the USA drove Spain completely out of the Americas and took the Philippines, obliterating the Spanish Fleet at Manila Bay. More easy victories over greatly outmatched adversaries.

The other group of wars the US was involved in before 1941 were the empire-gathering wars. One of the first was the take over of the independent and internationally-recognised Kingdom of Hawaii; the sugar barons organised a coup against Queen Liliuokalani with the help of troops from US warships and no shooting was necessary. Not so with the long bloody campaign in the Philippines, forgotten until President Duterte reminded the world of it. And there were many more interventions in small countries; some mentioned by Major General Smedley Butler in his famous book War is a Racket.

Minor opponents indeed.

Andrei Martyanov has argued that the US military simply has no idea what a really big war is. Its peer wars off stage (since 1812) made it stronger; its home wars were profitable thefts. It believes wars are easy, quick, profitable, successful. Self delusion in war is defeat: post 1945 US wars are failure delusionally entered into. To quote Fred Reed again:

The American military’s normal procedure is to overestimate American power, underestimate the enemy, and misunderstand the kind of war it is getting into.

The only exceptions are the Korean War – a draw at best – and trivial successes like Grenada or Panama. As I have argued elsewhere, there is something wrong with American war-fighting doctrine: no one seems to have any idea of what to do after the first few weeks and the wars degenerate into a annual succession of commanders determined not to be the one who lost; each keeping it going until he leaves. The problem is kicked down the road. Resets, three block war fantasies, winning hearts and minds, precision bombing, optimistic pieces saying “this time we’ve got it right“, surges. Imagination replaces the forthright study of warfare. Everybody on the inside knows they’re lost – “Newly released interviews on the U.S. war reveal the coordinated spin effort and dodgy metrics behind a forever war“; that’s Afghanistan, earlier the Pentagon Papers in Vietnam – but further down the road. When they finally end, the excuses begin: “you won every major battle of that war. Every single one”, Obama lost Iraq.

And always bombing. Bombing is the America way in war. Korea received nearly four times as much bomb tonnage as Japan had. On Vietnam the US dropped more than three times the tonnage that it had in the whole of the Second World War. Today’s numbers are staggering: Afghanistan received, between 2013 and 2019, 26 thousand “weapons releases“. 26,171 bombs around the world in 2016 alone. Geological bombing. Precision attacks, they say. But the reality is quite different – not all of the bombs are “smart bombs” and smart bombs are only as smart as the intelligence that directs them. The truth is that, with the enormous amount of bombs and bad intelligence directing the “smart bombs”, the end result is Raqqa – everything destroyed.

If you want a single word to summarize American war-making in this last decade and a half, I would suggest rubble… In addition, to catch the essence of such war in this century, two new words might be useful — rubblize and rubblization.

The US Army once really studied war and produced first-class studies of the Soviet performance in the Second World War. These studies served two purposes: introducing Americans who thought Patton won the war to who and what actually did and showing how the masters of the operational level of war performed. Now it’s just silliness from think tanks. A fine example of fantasy masquerading as serious thought is the “Sulwaki Corridor” industry of which this piece from the “world’s leading experts… cutting-edge research… fresh insight…” may stand as an amusing example. The “corridor” in question is the border between Lithuania and Poland. “Defending Suwalki is therefore important for NATO’s credibility and for Western cohesion” and so on. The authors expect us to believe that, in a war against NATO, Russia would have any concern about the paltry military assets in the Baltics. If Moscow really decided it had to fight NATO, it would strike with everything it had. The war would not start in the “Sulwaki Corridor” – there would be salvoes of missiles hitting targets all over Europe, the USA and Canada. The first day would see the destruction of a lot of NATO’s infrastructure: bases, ports, airfields, depots, communications. The second day would see more. (And that’s the “conventional” war.) Far from being the cockpit of war, the “Sulwaki Corridor” would be a quiet rest area. As Martyanov loves to say: too much Hollywood, too much Patton, too many academics saying what they’re paid to believe and believe to be paid. The US has no idea.

And today it’s losing its wars against lesser opponents. This essay on how the Houthis are winning – from the Jamestown Foundation, a cheerleader for American wars – could equally well be applied to Vietnam or any of the other “forever wars” of Washington.

The resiliency of the Houthis stems from their leadership’s understanding and consistent application of the algebra of insurgency.

The American way of warfare assumes unchallenged air superiority and reliable communications. What would happen if the complacent US forces meet serious integrated air defence and genuine electronic warfare capabilities? The little they have seen of Russian EW capabilities in Syria and Ukraine has made their “eyes water“; some foresee a “Waterloo” in the South China Sea. Countries on Washington’s target list know its dependence.

The fact is that, over all the years and all its wars the US has rarely had to fight anybody its own size or close to it. This has created an expectation of easy and quick victory. Knowledge of the terrible, full out, stunning destruction and superhuman efforts of a real war against powerful and determined enemies has faded away, if they ever had it. American wars, always somewhere else, have become the easy business of carpet bombing – rubblising – the enemy with little shooting back. Where there is shooting back, on the ground, after the initial quick win, it’s “forever” attrition by IED, ambush, sniping, raids as commanders come and go. The result? Random destruction from the air and forever wars on the ground.

There is of course one other time when the United States fought a first class opponent and that is when it fought itself. According to these official numbers, the US Civil War killed about 500,000 Americans. Which is about half the deaths from all of the other US wars. Of all the Americans killed in all their wars – Independence, Indians, Mexico, two world wars. Korea, Cold War, GWOT – other Americans killed about a third of them.

RUSSIANS DON’T WANT TO BE EUROPEANS

Pravda lied to us about the USSR, but it told the truth about the West.

– Contemporary Russian joke

For fifty years, secretly and openly, we wanted to live like you, but not any longer.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

In a previous essay I argued that Russia was not a European country. It was its own thing – a civilisation-state. I used a Toynbeean argument that the history of Europe could be written without ever using the word “Russia” up until the time of Peter the Great. I expected to cause some angst given the associations that the word “European” has accumulated over the five centuries of world rule. Promotion to European status was attractive: vide Mohandas Gandhi looking quite unusual in a stiff collar and tie. Russians felt this appeal especially in the late 1800s when so many rich cultured Russians were to be found in the fashionable watering-holes of Europe that it was worth building churches for their use. The height of sophisticated table service was à la Russe. A Russian was one of Freud’s most famous patients. Russians were especially welcome in France as an ally against Germany.

The Bolshevik coup rather spoiled this trend – even if Soviet Russia became a new sort of ideal for world communists. But with the end of the USSR, the idea re-surfaced. The height of the notion that Russia had “joined” or even “re-joined” Europe was in the Gorbachev years of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, or even from Vancouver to Vladivostok. “A new era of Democracy, Peace and Unity” “a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our peoples have cherished for decades”. Attractive, appealing; many welcomed it. But not all: for them Russia, with or without communists, was The Enemy. Whatever Moscow was actually doing – breakup of the Warsaw Pact, collapse of the USSR, taking on the USSR’s debts, moving tanks and guns out of Europe, signing on to every declaration the West asked it to, filling its government with Western advisors – it was just biding its time and plotting revenge.

NATO has proved itself to be peaceful and the West’s CFE commitments add to that assurance. But as Russia recovers and rearms, as history suggests it will, Moscow’s imperialist urge might well rise again. Then it will be too late and ‘provocative’ to redraw the defence line. (William Safire, International Herald Tribune, 3 Oct 1995.)

Russians have no one to blame but themselves for the brutal dictatorship they built in their own country and imposed on their neighbours. (Chrystia Freeland, Financial Times, 29 May 1996.)

Caspar Weinberger issued a powerful warning that American policy makers, in their preoccupation with NATO’s expansion, may be missing the fact that Russia has a truly ominous enlargement initiative of its own – ‘dominance of the energy resources in the Caspian Sea region.’ As he observes in the attached op.ed. article which appeared on 9 May in the New York Times… ‘If Moscow succeeds, its victory could prove much more significant than the West’s success in enlarging NATO.’ (Center for Security Policy, Washington, 12 May 1997.)

As is generally known, Russia has had great difficulty adjusting to the fact that its empire, built by conquest over centuries, disappeared in 1991, depriving it of rich borderlands and nearly half its population. (Richard Pipes: “Russia’s Designs on Georgia”; http:/www.intellectualcapital.com 14 May 1998.)

There is an expansionist mentality among Russia’s ruling elite, deeply rooted in the country’s past, which makes it difficult for them to consider forming a partnership with the West. This almost permanent urge for territorial expansion has at the same time become a scourge for the Russian people, who continue to live in appalling poverty in a country rich in resources. (Jan Nowak “What NATO can do for Russia” Washington Times, 19 Apr 2000.)

Note that the quotations above date from the Yeltsin period. When he left, the whole period was re-marketed, re-polished and re-truthed into a potential golden age:

The U.S. will remember Boris Yeltsin as someone who, despite his limitations, meant well and worked to bring his country back to the family of nations, to freedom and humanity, which have been so often lacking in Russia’s tortured history.

These people won the opinion battle: rather than comity, unity, hopes and expectations, reality recorded NATO expansion, the NATO/US war in Kosova, NATO/US interventions everywhere, NATO/US colour revolutions, NATO/US meddling in Russia’s neighbours, NATO/US wars in the Middle East – the never-ending “serious security challenges” of Russia, Russia, Russia.

Russians today must wonder whether all the welcoming words and happy thoughts were just a fraud to get the tanks out of Eastern Europe. To older Russians, NATO expansion was a military alliance ever closer; to young Russians, a slamming of a door in their faces. To George Kennan, “a tragic mistake“. There’s little point in going through the three decades since the Charter of Paris: none of it happened. I’m not here interested in attempting to ascribe blame – although the importance of NATO expansion cannot be glossed over with piffle like “Just as the origins of NATO expansion were benign, so too has been its impact on Russian security” – but many Russians agree with the bittersweet joke quoted above: Pravda was lying when it said the USSR was wonderful but telling the truth when it said the West was bad.

Years of accusations that Putin kills reporters, shoots down airliners, poisons people, steals money, invades his neighbours, has too many watches, sics his dog on Merkel, gunslinger walk and so on and on: no accusation too stupid to gain eyeballs. Conclusions presented before evidence, evidence too secret to be shown, trials in camera, verdicts pre-written. 2012 “The Dictator” 2016 “Vladimir Putin will always be America’s enemy” 2017 “Inside Putin’s Campaign to Destroy U.S. Democracy” 2020 “Putin, a criminal and incompetent president, is an enemy of his own people“. The people who called Russia the once and future enemy were on the margins in the Yeltsin period, now they set the tone. You can even get Pulitzer Prizes for making up anti-Russia stories.

One accusation fades, another one appears. Rachel Maddow doesn’t apologise to her audience for all their time she wasted, nor does Hillary Clinton admit she lost the election fair and square. Nor will either apologise to Putin. Silence about the last Putindunnit fraud as we invent the new one: the riots in the USA are out of the “Russian play book“. And, when Russians aren’t met with hostility, it’s the most absurd condescension: Mercouris gives a perfect illustration of Macron trying to treat Putin like a colonial subject come to learn manners.

Well, Russians have figured it out: they weren’t welcome, they aren’t welcome and they never will be welcome. They are forever aliens. A 2014 poll shows it:

Russians’ attitudes toward the United States and President Barack Obama are extremely unfavorable and have grown sharply more negative in the last couple of years. While opinions toward the European Union also worsened, Russians increasingly view China favorably. Russians see China as an ally and the United States and the European Union as adversaries

It is unlikely, to put it mildly, that another 6 years of hysterical Russophobia will have convinced the Russian public that the West is more welcoming.

At the same time Russians – who it should be understood are well exposed to happenings in the West: lots of them travel, lots of them have Internet and can read and see what’s out there – are deciding that the West is not as attractive as they thought it was. Westerners obsess on LBGT issues but it’s far deeper than that. Russia is, by current Western standards, pretty conservative on social issues. Which is to say that it is much as the West was in the 1950s. They aren’t impressed by what they see. In 2004 only 29% thought the West was a “good model” and four years later that had dropped four points. Ten more years of riots, unemployment, police violence, wars and opioids will not have added any points.

So, as far as Russians are concerned, the West has lost most of the attractiveness that, in the USSR days, they thought it had. Rejection, blame, accusations, condescension, insult, propaganda – a fast tarnishing model.

Gordon Hahn, an astute observer, saw this a year ago. For three centuries Russia has been “on its Western journey”. Which, Hahn argues, by entangling Russia in Europe’s ever-shifting alliance patterns and wars, was not much to Russia’s advantage: “a weighty downside”. He concludes that, after the Western rejection of all Moscow’s overtures and after observing the West’s actual practice of its lofty “values”,

Putin’s Russia now rejects the post-modernist West and its neo-imperial civilizational, indeed, ‘civilizationalist’ ambitions in Russia’s neighborhood and beyond. Instead of seeking to be part of the West or defeat the Western geopolitical paradigm, it seeks along with China and, in some respects, India and several more regional powers in building an alternative global civilization to that in the post-modern West, with which Russia, China and others will merely seek to coexist.

Perhaps, one day, he concludes, Russia will turn West again but it won’t be soon. Vladislav Surkov, a man who has been in and around power in Russia for some time, thinks the same: Russia tried the East, tried the West, nowhere has it been welcome.

Russia is a west-eastern half-breed country. (Россия это западно-восточная страна-полукровка.)

We have just had Putin himself call Russia a “separate civilisation“.

I agree, it’s over. The romance has been burned out, trampled on, spat on. We return to Simonyan’s essay. She spent a year in the USA so she’s hardly ignorant of the actuality. The title says it: “Why we don’t respect the West anymore” – it should be read. I think she speaks for a lot of Russians (and many, many others in the world as well).

with all your injustice and cruelty, inquisitorial hypocrisy and lies you forced us to stop respecting you. You and your so called ‘values.’

RUSSIA HATERS THEN AND NOW

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Max Planck

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

I’ve been at the Russia business for a while – since the days of Konstantin Chernenko in fact. As I’ve related elsewhere it was the summer of 1987 when I began to realise that things were really changing. Sometime around then I was invited to Massey College to debate with a Soviet diplomat the proposition that perestroyka meant the end of Marxism-Leninism; which, of course, it did. While I saw changes coming and was listened to seriously by my superiors in the Department of National Defence (DND) there were plenty of people who said that change was impossible. One senior guy from Foreign Affairs said his experience in Algeria showed him these regimes could never change and soon after he caused a paper to be produced that argued that the threat of nuclear war over Africa was very high. (!) The last words a local professor said to me was that change was impossible. I used to, when I gave presentations, ask the audience when they thought things were really changing in the USSR. Most of them would say when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Well, I would say, I realized it back then; just think how much farther along I am on the curve.

One of the half-witted theories floating around at the time was the recoil theory. The Soviets were pulling out of Eastern Europe so as to better bounce back and grab it later. Or something; never fully articulated – how could such a daft notion be? – yes, one can’t deny that they were pulling their tanks out but those cunning commies must be up to something. The idea was supported by a KGB defector who said that it was all a huge deception. There was a real outburst of excitement when a lot of tanks were moved out of the CFE area – see! They are cheating! the bounce back is beginning. This faded away when the satellite photos showed the tanks just pushed off the flatcars into the fields. The CFE Treaty requirements for cutting up a tank were very expensive; Moscow had no money so the tanks were sent out there to decay in the rain. (Which they did – one of my colleagues was an inspector and years later saw the sad rusted things). The necessity of pulling a lot of personnel out quickly meant that they were dumped wherever they could be – Norwegians, on one of our visits, worried that there were too many in the Kola Peninsula. And dumped they were – there were reports of officers and their families living in railway cars or even helicopters. Moscow wasn’t trying anything funny: the sudden withdrawals were just very difficult, especially with an economy that was collapsing. But it did what it promised it would do.

Change was happening and senior leadership at DND was open to it: I was given the chance to address the most senior group to make my pitch (1988?); I said that everything I saw indicated that Gorbachev would make a big arms reduction announcement soon. Which he did but, alas, one day too soon for publication of the paper the military intelligence people had written saying I was wrong. (Shortly before the Pentagon had put out a list of Soviet tank holdings which included a thousand or so useful T-10s; the naysayers scoffed at Gorbachev’s promise because, among other cuts, he was eliminating the now useless T-10s – an early case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t). With some opposition from Foreign Affairs, military to military talks were held (the first ever I believe) in 1989. As usual, being in the same business, the military got on well and the sole civilian lay low lest they turn on him. The talks continued and there were port visits as well.

But, there were still plenty of naysayers. For example a man who is today a player in the ludicrously titled Integrity Initiative informed us that all Russians were natural liars. In the Soviet days he’d tried to buy some scarce item, was told there was none and seen it sold to another. Liars every one! No, not liars, a shortage economy: you don’t sell a rare item to some foreigner who can’t do anything for you in return. I’ll bet he’s still telling people they’re all liars. Another now-II guy revealed to me what a complete uncoordinated balls-up NATO’s Kosovo war was; he now sings war songs on behalf of NATO. Another, quite reasonable then, turned ferocious when he lost an argument with me on JRL. Another young guy who’s part of the II slate started out balanced but is now writing Russian horror comics. Now I have some sympathy with young people starting out – I very much doubt anyone today could have the career I had either in government or academia; Russia is the enemy and if you don’t sing that tune, or pretend to, the doors will probably close in your face. But that doesn’t mean that you have to mention the “Gerasimov Doctrine” as if it were anything but obvious projection onto Russia of what NATO actually does. But it’s true: I had a career in which nobody ever told me what the “correct answer” was – other than the good advice I got in August 1991 – and I don’t think you could today. Which is just another sign of the general loss of freedom and deterioration of the intellectual climate of the West.

The August Coup attempt gave many of these a (brief) second wind – I was one of the very few in the government who said it would be a failure; over at Foreign Affairs they were all ready to recognise the junta – almost with, I think, a sense of relief that things were returning to the tried and true.

When I came back from Moscow in 1996 I was invited to one of the regular meetings our intelligence people had with our southern neighbours. One of them said that, he knew he’d been saying this for years, but finally the signs were all there of… a military coup. (In fairness, the others didn’t think much of that. By the way, has there ever been a military coup in Russia? palace coups, certainly, but no military ones). It was at that meeting when I realised that my three years there had given me a lot of on the ground experience – I’d been in grocery stores, watched the evolution of kiosks, seen the decaying Soviet Navy in Murmansk, talked to senior clergy, watched Mayor Luzhkov’s clean-up of the city, stayed in gigantic Intourist hotels in the provinces, flown, travelled by train and so on. Even met a shaman in Buryatia. A huge country and just a tiny bit seen by me but way more than most of the others. I had noticed this before on a visit to Stockholm to give a lecture. The USSR/Russia had been a far-off galaxy and, as the all-Russians-are-liars-guy showed, even some of those who’d actually visited hadn’t been very astute observers.

So the Russia-haters (Russia-fearers?) were active then too. The difference being that they didn’t have the complete influence that they now seem to have. They have persevered, over the years, shouting “Russia is the enemy!” and today they dominate. Maybe, as Planck suggests, we will just have to wait for time; they certainly can’t be argued with as this official statement shows:

Russia has generally followed international law and procedure in establishing the limits of its extended continental shelf. Russia could choose to unilaterally establish those limits if the procedures prove unfavorable and could utilize its military capabilities in an effort to deny access to disputed Arctic waters or resources. (My italics)

If forced to admit that Moscow is playing by the rules, they retort that it’s only to better break them tomorrow. They would pride themselves on having expanded NATO so as to be ready. They are the ones today who say – with no consciousness of irony – that “Russia maintains military presence close to NATO borders“.

Up to, say, 2005 nobody gave them much space because Russia was so obviously finished and dead but when Putin began to bring it back they got more attention. They joined forces with the America-first people: Russia’s contumacy could not be permitted in the post Cold War triumphalism of the New American Century. But what really put these people in the driver’s seat was the Clinton campaign’s excusing its failure by blaming Russia, the compliant corporate media’s amplification of the story and the bogus collusion story from “all 17 intelligence agencies”. You’d think that, with COVID-19 and all the dud “bombshells“, they’d be quietly dropping it, but no: they’re still trying to find that bombshell.

And it’s so easy to be one of them. Just start with the latest unproven charge – Skripal and MH17 are back in the news – then accuse them of being behind something current – BLM, gillet jaunes – throw in a selection of other unproven accusations, election interference, don’t forget a piety about the “Rules-Based International Order”; and presto! another op-ed or output from a NATO churn outfit. You could probably program a computer to do it: an anti-Russian version of the PoMo Generator. Maybe like the people at II you can strike it rich by getting the government to top up your pension in return for a little easy fantasising. The danger is that they’re training up a new generation on this easy and remunerative behaviour and Planck’s change will be postponed another generation.

But Putin turned out to be a Russia-first man, a Russian patriot, determined not to bend the knee. Not the least of the fascinations, by the way, is that the Yeltsin years are now regarded by the Russia-haters as a time when Russia was “on the right path”. Not what they were saying at the time, of course: Russia was menacing its neighbours, throwing away democracy and just generally all-round bad during the Yeltsin years too. Putin has grown and grown to monstrous proportions in these people’s minds as this selection of magazine covers shows. His “playbook” is the One Ring To Rule Them All. He controls the world with his 25¢ Facebook warriors, sowing division in a division-free paradise. Even crazier than the recoil theory!

As for my former employer, we’ve stopped talking to the Russians; we’re maintaining “security and stability” by keeping Putin out of Latvia and honouring nazis in Ukraine. The naysayers won that one too.

Ten years ago I wrote a piece arguing that, after periods of Russia being the West’s little brother and then the assertive enemy, we were coming to a time when Russia would be seen as another country with which to have normal relations. Well, that didn’t happen, The Russia-haters won the debate.

To sum up, a former head of GCHQ said at one of my presentations in the Putin era, “they just don’t share our values”. Russians would probably agree, but not in the way he meant.

RUSSIA IS NOT EUROPEAN

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

A considerable amount of baggage has become attached to the word “European” over the half-millennium that Europe has dominated the world. There’s the geographical meaning – from the Atlantic to the Urals – but, because Europe is a peninsula on the western end of Asia, the frontier is subject to debate. Diplomats sometimes use the word to mean members of the European Union. But the most important meaning is the value-laden one – to be “European” is to be modern, civilised, rational, to hold “values”, to be successful. To be powerful. Not to be “European” is to be none of these things, perhaps even their opposites. Europeans are rulers and exemplars; the others are subjects and inferiors. Throughout the period of European domination, to be considered “European” was favoured and to adopt European habits, dress styles, education and appearance was desirable. Not to be “European”, on the other hand, was an insult: your culture didn’t make the grade. This meaning is commonly found today, especially in the smug phrase “European values“.

I have been considering writing this essay for some years but have put off doing so because I know that for many readers “Europe” means “best” and to say Russia is not European is to say that it’s not good enough. But at last President Putin has given me the opening: “Россия – это не просто страна, это действительно отдельная цивилизация“. “Russia, it’s not simply a country it is certainly a separate civilisation”. And who would dare disagree with him?

I have always regarded Russia, to quote Macron’s term, as a civilisation-state. It is its own thing – not European not Asiatic, it’s Russian. If we use Toynbee’s nomenclature it, like Western Christendom, is a daughter society of the Hellenic society.

To make my argument I will use Toynbee’s methodology in his Study of History to determine what he calls a “society” – a distinct, self-contained entity about which history in the largest scale can be studied. Is Britain one of these? is it, as many Britons thought in his day, a stand-alone culture? His argument was to imagine a history of Britain in a series of chapters. Let us start the book with a first chapter: Celtic Britain. Immediately there is a problem because a huge footnote has to be inserted to explain who the Celts were and where they came from because they didn’t originate in Britain; they arrived there fully-formed, so to speak. Then Chapter 2 might be Roman Britain. Again a huge footnote to explain their non-British origins and history. Then Chapter 3 about the Saxons and again a big footnote. Chapter 4 The Normans and so on. In short each chapter of British history leads one to huge digressions outside of Britain; therefore, Toynbee argued, Britain must be a part of some other society which has a more-or-less self-contained story – Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans all originate in Europe; no footnotes are needed. This seems to me to be a powerful argument.

Let us apply it to Russia and Europe. We’ll start our European history – you have to start somewhere – with Chapter 1 The Roman Empire. We’d speak about its origin, its conquests, its decay, its legacy. There’s no similar chapter in our Russian book: Russia wasn’t part of the Roman Empire and, in fact, there isn’t much history of Russia up until the 800s. Chapter 2 of our Europe history book would probably be Christianity; Russia and Europe share that but again there’s a big difference. The Roman Empire became officially Christian in the early 300s and the religion spread throughout the Empire. Missionaries from Europe spread the word out to and past the limits of the Empire to Germany and Ireland. The Russian experience is both later and different: Grand Duke Vladimir made a conscious, top-down decision to Christianise and adopted the Christianity of Byzantium; European Christianity was Rome-centred from the start. Chapter 3 of our European history book would cover Charlemagne and the re-creation – independently of Constantinople – of a Christian Roman Empire centred on the formerly pagan and barbarian invaders; nothing like that in Russia which still has two centuries to go before it’s Christianised. Chapter 4 might be the Empire-Papacy struggle – nothing like that in Russia. Chapter 5 is The Renaissance and again there no equivalent in Russia. In fact, you could write most of the European history book without ever mentioning the word “Russia” up until the 1700s.

What of the Russian history book? Its Chapter 1 would probably be about the Varangians and the creation of a region of loosely connected city states at least nominally Orthodox; much of this story would be somewhat mythical or archaeological. Chapter 2 would cover the development of what is now called Kievan Rus, the trade with Byzantium and the many contacts with Europe – a Russian became Queen of France. At this point one could argue (leaving aside the growing importance of the difference of religion particularly after the Great Schism of 1054) that Russia and Europe might have become so entwined as to become one. But our Russian Chapter 3 brings the difference that is all the difference: The Mongols. In a series of lightning campaigns the Mongol forces overran the Russias, destroyed Kiev and forced all the Russian principalities to submit to Mongol rule and to give tribute. Nothing like this happened in Europe, although it might have: the Mongol forces retreated from Hungary in 1242 and never returned. This is another Great If of history; had the Mongols continued to the Atlantic, a second possible entwining of Russia and Europe might have happened. But they departed Europe and remained in Russia.

Much has been written about the effect of Mongol rule on Russia’s development but all agree that it shaped its future very strongly. The two and a half centuries of what the Russians call the “Tatar yoke” cover a time in contemporary Europe that begins when Thomas Aquinas is a boy and ends when Columbus is a young man – a period of enormous change in European civilisation. But in Russia they are years of compliance, endurance and resistance. The recovery of the “Russian Lands” was led by Muscovy, formerly a not very important part of Russia. The textbook date for the end of the “Tatar yoke” was the withdrawal of Mongol forces in the face of a Russian army at the Ugra River in 1480 but it was actually only with Catherine’s regathering of Crimea and “New Russia” in the late 1700s that the very last Mongol ruler of Russian Lands was displaced.

So, our hypothetical European and Russian history books have quite different chapters and that means that they have quite different histories; we’re talking about two things, not one thing.

Europe became immensely powerful in the 1500s, conquered the rest of the world and minor European players like Belgium snatched a pierce for themselves. Even mighty China was subjugated – its “century of humiliation”. Russia was one of the very few exceptions; despite several tries, Europe never conquered it. Peter the Great Europeanised Russia, built a navy, founded the gun factories at Tula, shaved beards, eliminated caftans and required the upper classes to dress like French dancing masters. He did it in order to better prepare Russia to fight Sweden, at that time the dominant power in the area. When Charles XII was defeated by Peter at Poltava in 1709 Russia arrived on the European scene as a great power that had to be taken into account. A century later, Emperor Alexander was one of the five people who redesigned Europe.

Europeans underestimate the importance of their skill at war, preferring to think that it was their values or their political skills or their modernity or their science that made them pre-eminent for five centuries. But their killing power (and their killing diseases) were mighty allies: “Whatever happens we have got The Maxim Gun, and they have not“. Peter, facing attack from Europe, learned European killing ways and so Russia remained independent. Many resisted Western aggression and failed – Tecumseh, Túpac Amaru, Cetshwayo, the Rani of Jhansi – but Peter succeeded. In short, Russia’s (and Japan’s) voluntary Europeanisation was motivated by the desire to learn the European way of war so as to keep independence. At Poltava in 1709, at Vienna in 1814, at Berlin in 1945, an independent Russia became a major force in Europe.

The realities that Europe was never able to conquer it, that Russians look and sound like Europeans on the surface, that in the European constellation Russia is a Great Power have caused no little confusion. Many people have come to believe that Russia is a part of European civilisation but a defective part: a European country, but a bad one. But, once one realises that Russia is not a European country and has a quite different history that moved in parallel with little contact for centuries, one can see past these illusions. Different forces shaped it and different results happened.

Not inferior, not “Asiatic”, not uncivilised, not uncultured; different. A “civilisation state”. As is China.

A NEW YEAR’S FANTASY

(First published Strategic Culture Foundation

History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind

– Edward Gibbon

Counterfactual history is generally a waste of time because, in the end, it’s just speculation. But it’s fun and it can sometimes illuminate factual history.

For example, take the aborted Soviet-French-British alliance to stop Hitler. It came to nothing for a number of reasons but, had it happened, history would have been very different. (And – dare I say it? – probably better. And not the least of the benefits would be that we would be freed from the endless appeals to “Munich” to encourage us to stand firm and bomb the “Next Hitler”.) But I am not going to explore that counterfactual history in which the UK, USSR and France got together, Poland was convinced to let a million Soviet soldiers in and the German military, seeing the hopelessness of it all, overthrew Hitler and the future followed a different set of possibilities (Poland probably being occupied each time).

I am going to consider a counter-factual post Cold War history. Not because I believe – cynical as I have now become – that there was much of a chance of triumphalist Washington, in thrall to PNAC fantasies, allowing it to happen; I do it to illuminate some of the mess that we are in today.

After the Second World War, Stalin, either because he was a dedicated expansionist enemy of the West or because he was determined that, the next time, invaders would have to start their attack farther away from Moscow, absorbed most of the countries the Soviet Army captured/liberated. Communists – and each country had plenty – were put into power. (I invite the reader to speculate: they were absorbed but which was his true motive?) After the Washington Treaty, Moscow formed the Warsaw Treaty. But while the former was, more or less, voluntary, the latter was not and, the moment the USSR weakened, everybody wanted out. Mikhail Gorbachev, GenSek in 1985, began glasnost and perestroyka, believing that the USSR as it was had exhausted its possibilities; one thing led to another, the Berlin Wall came down, the Warsaw Treaty organisation collapsed: when the USSR’s “allies” realised the tanks weren’t coming, they jumped. The USSR itself then fell apart and a whole new world was there for the making.

This is what happened, now begins my counterfactual speculation.

The Western (=NATO) capitals – none of which had foreseen these events – get together and think about how to profit from the collapse of their enemy and how to build a more secure world. A world that is not just better for themselves but more secure for everybody because the wise people in NATO understand that they cannot be secure if their neighbours are not: they know that security is indivisible.

The wise men and women of NATO ponder – it is their world-historical moment; they will create tomorrow. Alternate futures pass before their eyes, they have the power to choose one and eliminate the others; they will pick, out of all the possibilities, the one road the world will travel. Their challenge, now that a great war has ended, is how to fashion a wise ending to the struggle. Not a triumphant ending but a wise one; not just for us but for our descendants. Not momentary but enduring; not a quick sugar hit but lasting nutrition. Many roads to failure; only a few to success.

They take their place with modesty: while, naturally believing that their “free world” system was and is preferable to Marxism-Leninism, they are wise enough and modest enough to know that reality comes in shades of grey. No triumphalism here: just the pragmatic desire to build stability and peace. No boasting: just an acknowledgement that both sides have won.

They remember other decision points when a few created the future. The French Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars killed and maimed millions and devastated and squandered wealth throughout Europe. The easy end would have been to blame France and try to squash it for all time. But the victors – Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria – were wiser: they included France in the settlement; and their settlement avoided a great European war for a century. They knew that France would always be an important player and therefore had to be invested in the settlement. If it weren’t invested in the settlement it would be invested in breaking the settlement. It’s the essence of The Deal: everybody gets something and everybody has an interest in keeping things the way they are. When no one wants to tip it over, you have stability. The victors of 1919 forgot this principle and their settlement collapsed into an even worse war in twenty years. The victors of that war remembered the 1814 principle (partially) and integrated Germany, Italy and Japan into the winners’ circle.

The wise ones of NATO know this history; they know that the losers have to be made into winners so that the peace can have a chance of lasting; they remember the terrible example of the 1919 failure. There’s no place for boasting or triumphantasising. They bend their powerful minds in the Great Peace Conference of 1991 (counterfactual fantasy event) to calculate how to accommodate everybody’s security concerns. They know that security is indivisible: if one doesn’t feel secure then, sooner or later, no one will.

They start with two realities: 1) Moscow’s former allies – or at least their current leaders – hate and fear Moscow and 2) Moscow doesn’t trust NATO. The Wise Ones waste no time moralising, they know these are the materials with which they have to work and have to make to fit together.

Expand NATO? No, say the Wise Ones: while it will please people in Warsaw or Prague (at least until they get the bill), it will make Moscow nervous and that violates the principle of indivisible security. If making Warsaw happy makes Moscow unhappy, then, at the end of the day, they will both be unhappy and, if they’re both are unhappy, then we will all be unhappy too. Indivisibility of security is the kernel of wisdom that the Wise Ones hold to. If nobody is unhappy then everybody is happy: it’s the geopolitical version of “happy wife, happy life”.

So, the question is this: how do we make a settlement to the Cold War in which NATO, the former Warsaw Treaty, former-USSR and Moscow all feel secure at the same time? Fortunately, at this unrepeatable moment in world history, the NATO leadership is replete with wise, knowledgeable and thoughtful people, well-informed about past errors, determined to do better, with the vision, modesty and ingenuity to square the circle. (I warned you it was counterfactual). They figure it out:

  1. They tell Warsaw, Prague, Kiev and the rest of them to form an alliance (Central European Treaty Organisation or some such name) grounded on NATO’s Article 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all).
  2. They get a formal, signed, ceremonial declaration from NATO that, should Russia attack any member of the Central European Treaty Organisation, NATO will come to its defence.
  3. They get a formal, signed, ceremonial declaration from Moscow that should NATO attack any member of the CETO, Moscow will come to its defence.

So, between NATO and Russia, there would have been a belt of neither-one-nor-the-other-but-guaranteed-by-both countries. CETO would have lots of weapons and a high degree of interoperability and command structure left over from the Soviet days; therefore they would be able to mount quite effective defences with what they already had. Their weapons, being Soviet and very rugged, would work for years to come so they wouldn’t have to spend much on their defence.

(Note that, we have, as a sort of scale model of something like this, the relationship between Malta and Italy. From 1981 Malta is officially neutral and its neutrality is guaranteed by Italy, a NATO member. The USSR recognised this neutrality soon after.)

If a CETO had been formed, guaranteed by NATO and Russia, wouldn’t everybody be 1) happier and 2) more secure?

But that didn’t happen. We all know what did: the men and women of NATO were not so wise, they missed their world-historical moment and they went for the triumphantasising quick sugar hit.

So I wish you all a happy

New Year

in which you may reflect upon what might have been

but wasn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

TWENTY YEARS LATER – WHAT PUTIN FORGOT

(First published Strategic Culture Foundation

This site has just published my assessment of what Putin (and his team) got right in the program laid out, twenty years ago, in his essay “Russia at the turn of the millennium”. I concluded that he outlined four main projects: 1) Improve the economy. 2) Re-establish central control. 3) Establish a rule of law. 4) Improve Russia’s position in the world. I assessed that he accomplished three of them triumphantly and one reasonably well.

But, re-reading the essay, I noticed something that he did not mention. A something that in the twenty years has become rather important. Here is his only mention in the essay of that thing.

Russia was and will remain a great power.. It is preconditioned by the inseparable characteristics of its geopolitical, economic and cultural existence. They determined the mentality of Russians and the policy of the government throughout the history of Russia and they cannot but do so at present. But Russian mentality should be expanded by new ideas. In the present world the might of a country as a great power is manifested more in its ability to be the leader in creating and using advanced technologies, ensuring a high level of people’s wellbeing, reliably protecting its security and upholding its national interests in the international arena, than in its military strength.

Once. That’s it. That’s the only time “military strength” is mentioned and it is mentioned disparagingly: other things – technologies, wellbeing, diplomacy – are more important in this new world of the Twenty-first Century as Putin then saw it.

There is, in fact, almost nothing in the essay about the outside world and therefore little from which to deduce Putin’s expectations of how his program would be received. At one point he writes that Russia, after the dead end of the Soviet years, “has entered the highway by which the whole of humanity is travelling”, in another that an important aim is to “integrate the Russian economy into world economic structures”. This sounds as if he either expected Russia to be welcomed into these structures or that its arrival on the highway would, at least, not be impeded.

But, in one of his first interviews to a foreign source, a German newspaper in June 2000, the outside world made it presence known in three issues – the US flouting of the ABM Treaty, US missiles in Europe and NATO expansion. A year later an interview with American reporters (JRL 20 Jun 2001) is almost completely given over to American plans to place ballistic missile defences in Europe. In short, he wasn’t at his new job very long before his daily schedule started to have a large foreign component. And, from his perspective, all problems. We see in these first interviews points that Putin will return to over and over again in the coming years. He doubts that the Bush-era ABM systems have much to do with “rogue states”; he regards the ABM Treaty as vital to nuclear stability; he objects to the expansion of NATO. But most of all, he talks of a multipolar world, or as some call it a “Westphalian” system, of sovereign countries. This, he argues, again and again, is the only route to peace and stability. These themes feature in almost every speech on foreign issues he has made since. Given weight by the knowledge that Moscow wasted 70 years on the exceptionalist, moralistic path – a dead end as he said in his millennium essay.

So if, as the essay suggests, Putin was expecting the mostly domestic task of reconstructing Russia – “the price which we have to pay for the economy we inherited from the Soviet Union” – to proceed with a benign reaction from the outside world, he was soon disabused of the notion. The West, for all its honeyed words, was taking advantage of Russia’s weakness.

In short, he forgot the saying attributed to the Emperor Alexander III thatRussia has only two allies – its Army and its Navy”.

Eventually missiles were emplaced in Europe, the ABM Treaty and two of the other keystone arms control treaties were abandoned and NATO kept expanding. And much else. By February 2007 Putin had had enough and said so in the famous Munich Conference speech. The essence of his speech – and who today can deny its prescience? – is that that “security for one is security for all”. He proclaimed the unipolar world dead – as it has become. He decried the ignoring of international law; today there isn’t even the pretence: keep their oil, Bolivia coup. He pointed out the broken promise about NATO expansion – no longer can it be denied. He never quite gives up hope: who can forget his question, referring to the mess in the Middle East caused by Washington and its minions (September 2015): “I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done?” or (October 2016) “I address the players once again: 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.

So, at some point between 1999 with the millennium essay and the Munich speech of 2007, Putin realised that the reconstruction of Russia would have to proceed in a hostile atmosphere; Washington and its allies did not want a strong Russia as a partner or or even as peaceful competitor: they wanted the Russia of 1999 – poor, divided, lawless and insignificant. Or perhaps his turning point was NATO’s destruction of Libya in 2015. Or when Washington did kill the ABM Treaty in 2002. Most likely, though, it was a gradual process by which Putin and his team realised they had to look to Alexander’s allies.

And they did. They warned – Putin told the American reporters in 2001 “We are offering cooperation. If that is acceptable, we will do this with pleasure. If not, then we will act independently” – and, quietly, they did.

In March 2018 he showed the Federal Assembly and the world what the Team had been working on. A final reminder:

We proposed working together in this area [prolonging the ABM Treaty – ‘the cornerstone of the international security system’] to ease concerns and maintain the atmosphere of trust. At one point, I thought that a compromise was possible, but this was not to be. All our proposals, absolutely all of them, were rejected. And then we said that we would have to improve our modern strike systems to protect our security.

Six new super weapons: the Sarmat ICBM, Burevestnik nuclear powered cruise missile, Poseidon nuclear powered underwater cruise missile, Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched missile, Avangard hypersonic manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle and the Peresvet combat laser. He warned:

Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any range at all, will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences.

He couldn’t resist adding “nobody wanted to listen to us. So listen now.” They scoffed: just virtual reality. But they’re not; US inspectors have been shown the Avangard which, with its ability to hit anywhere in less than half an hour, ends the US dream of antiballistic missile defence. The two cruise missiles present a unprecedented threat – lurking over Antarctica or in the ocean deeps for months ready to strike? A volley of Kinzhals coming in at Mach ten will obliterate any carrier group or staging harbour or base in Europe. Checkmate.

But there’s more: great advances have been made on conventional defence as well. As I argue here, the Putin Team understood that the two essentials of NATO’s war-fighting doctrine are air superiority and assured communications. They won’t have them against Russia. The First Guards Tank Army has been revived and far exceeds anything that NATO has in offensive power. NATO has been writing NSF cheques for years and Moscow has called its bluff.

So, eventually, the Putin Team did take Alexander’s advice. Russia’s army and navy and air force have probably made Russia more secure against attack than at any time since his Great Uncle entered his capital in triumph two years after Napoleon’s attack or when Marshal Zhukov accepted the enemy’s surrender in his capital four years after Hitler’s attack.

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And, as an afterword, at Munich Putin said this:

It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.

Do we not see this today? The USA is tearing itself apart over imagined Russian collusion, imagined Russian electoral interference and real Ukrainian corruption. And, meanwhile, the forever wars go on and on.

TWENTY YEARS LATER – HOW DID PUTIN DO?

(First published Strategic Culture Foundation picked up by JRL, Greanville Post, The Liberty Beacon, Technical Politics, Covert Geopolitics, Astute News, Europe Reloaded, The Falling Darkness,

(NOTE: Thanks to Veleslav Grivov who pointed out that in my World Bank figures below, the billions should be trillions and the millions billions. Too many zeroes for me!)

Twenty years ago a not very well-known Vladimir Putin published an essay “Russia at the turn of the millennium”. It was printed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta and at the Russian government website. The only copy that I can find on the Net in English now is here but I will be referring to the official English translation and Russian text that I downloaded at the time.

Putin had been Prime Minister for about five months and, when Yeltsin resigned the day after the publication of this essay, he became Acting President. Since that day his team has been running Russia. It is reasonable to regard this essay as his program and, on its twenty-year anniversary, appropriate to see how well he (and his team – it’s not a one-man operation) have done.

I concluded that he outlined four main projects:

  • Improve the economy.

  • Re-establish central control.

  • Establish a rule of law.

  • Improve Russia’s position in the world.

Putin took power at a time when people were seriously saying Russia is Finished. And, however silly this may look now when we are hysterically told every day that “Putin’s Russia” is infiltrating, controlling, interfering, attacking, hacking, conquering, violating, cheating it is worth running over what the author said. Assassinations, mafiya, corruption, kryshas, oligarchs, unpaid salaries, military collapse: “the Russians are likely to face a long, slow, relatively peaceful decline into obscurity – a process that is well under way”. The author acknowledged the changing of the guard – the piece was published in May 2000 – but believed Putin was picked only because he had the “security connections to protect” Yeltsin’s entourage; he was just another centraliser building a personality cult in “Zaire With Permafrost.”

The author – like almost everyone else – got Putin wrong but generally he was describing the reality of Russia in 2000. It was a mess. In Putin’s own words last June:

But I must note that during that time our social sphere, industry and the defence sector collapsed. We lost the defence industry, we practically destroyed the Armed Forces, led the country into a civil war, to bloodshed in the Caucasus, and brought the country to the verge of losing sovereignty and collapse.

As far as I know, most Western intelligence agencies (but not the one I was involved with) would have agreed with his prediction that Russia was, inevitably, going down to “obscurity”. The fear then was of chaos – rogue generals, nuclear weapons gone missing (remember suitcase nukes, “red mercury“?): Russia’s weakness was the threat, not its strength. We appreciated how badly off Russia was but also knew that Russia in its thousand years has often been down but never out. We also knew that there was more to Putin than the absurdities that were said about him of which I especially remember this:

Psychiatry recognizes a condition known as ‘moral idiocy’. Every time he opens his mouth in public, Putin confirms this diagnosis for himself.

In my group we took note that he had been the trusted disciple of Anatoliy Sobchak who was, in the terminology of the time, a “reformer” and therefore a “good Russian”. We had also read the millennium paper and saw the program. I am not pretending that, in 1999, I or my colleagues expected him to do all this but at least we saw the possibilities. We, as it were, saw a half full glass where others saw a glass quickly emptying.

************************************

He and his team were trying to make Russia prosperous, united, law-governed and internationally significant. A formidable program from the perspective of 1999 to be sure. How well have they done?

Taking the economy first. One of the famous quotations from the millennium paper was this:

It will take us approximately fifteen years and an annual growth of our Gross Domestic Product by 8 percent a year to reach the per capita GDP level of present-day Portugal or Spain,

That mission has been accomplished and much more than merely accomplished. According to the World Bank Russia’s GDP in purchasing power parity in 2018 (4.0 billion trillion) was nearly 12 times as high as Portugal’s (339 million billion) and twice Spain’s (1.8 billion trillion). It was in fact larger than France’s (3.0 billion trillion) or the UK’s (3.0 billion trillion), two other countries he mentioned. (By comparison, China 25 billion trillion and USA 20 billion trillion). Valuations of Russia’s GDP in US dollars contradict reality: as I have argued elsewhere, Russia’s economy is in fact full-service and it is one of four potential autarkies on the planet. And, the way things are going, it won’t become any less so: as Awara points out it is one of the most independent economies in the world, well positioned to survive a world recession. While individual Russians could certainly be richer, the improvement from the desperate situation in 2000 is extraordinary. Ironically, Western sanctions (and Moscow’s adroit response) have strengthened the Russian economy; as Putin said in his last direct line program:

Look, if ten years ago I or anyone else in this hall had been told that we would be exporting agricultural products worth $25.7 billion, like we did last year, I would have laughed in the face of the person who said this.

An outstanding success.

The second point was re-centralising power. In 2000 there were concerns that the federation might break up: the CIA in 2004 (has there ever been an organisation with a worse track record of Russia predictions?) thought it could break into as many as eight different parts by 2015. Many of the “subjects of the federation” had negotiated sovereignty pacts with Moscow and, as of 2000, Chechnya was effectively independent. So, in fact, the CIA’s prediction was not, of itself, idiotic but it assumed a temporary weakness to be a permanent condition: a longer view of Russia’s track record shows weak periods but it always comes back. As Putin said in the millennium paper:

For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change.

Russia is a civilisation statePresident Macron’s expression – Europe by contrast has always been a series of (quarrelling) independent states. For much of the time, the state – the King’s power – was something to be resisted or limited. Russia, on the other hand, during its “prey-fish” period, learned to value the state as the guarantor of its existence. And so, to Russians, state power is much more important than it is to most Europeans. Western commentators have to understand this or else they look like fools to Russians: Russians think centralisation is good, they respect state power, not slavishly as Western prejudice would have it, but because Russia has fought for its existence too many times for them to want to risk anarchy. Putin and his team have re-established state power; that someone like David Satter thinks Putin is a dictator or the Western media calls his elections fake, matters nothing to Russians. Russia exists again and it’s full of Russians. A rather interesting illustration can be seen in this video when the Chechen MP in Syria says we are all Russians. The Russian language has two words that would be translated as “Russian”: one for ethnic Russians, the other for citizens of the country. A Chechen can’t be the first (and wouldn’t want to be) but he can be proud of being the second. Again, we have to agree that the Putin Team achieved its second aim.

The third aim was rule of law. And here assessment is on more uncertain grounds. The first question to ask is whether any country actually does have a “rule of law”. Britain is holding Assange in jail on rape charges jumping bail… what charges? What exactly did Maria Butina do? Why did Canada seize a Chinese executive? Whataboutism they call this but it establishes the base of reality – all countries have corruption, all countries have one law for the powerful and another for the weak; it’s not absolute, it’s a matter of degree. Certainly, by any standards, twenty years ago Russia was very lawless; how lawless is it today and how successful has the Team been? I don’t know know of any good study on the matter – I don’t take Transparency International seriously: Ukraine less corrupt than Russia? – but it does appear that things are much better than they were. Certainly we hear very little about businesses needing criminals’ protection today and Russia’s ranking on ease of doing business is continually improving and is respectable today. This guide indicates some remaining problems but generally assumes that it’s possible for foreigners to do business there as does this guide. Recently we learned that “Nearly one in six Russian mayors have faced criminal prosecution over the past decade” which is either evidence of a lot of corruption or a lot of success combatting it. The construction of a new cosmodrome has involved much theft but other mega projects – like the Crimea Bridge or the new Moscow-St Petersburg highway – seem to have been carried out with little. A balanced (and sourced) piece argues that there has been considerable improvement in the rights of the accused in the twenty years. But a frequent complaint in Putin’s Q&A sessions are over-zealous officials destroying businesses – perhaps for venal purposes. So a cautious conclusion would suggest that the two decades have seen a reduction in criminality and an improvement in rule of law. How much of each is debatable and the argument is not helped by tendentious pieces asserting that the imitation of the American foreign agents law was “a landmark on the journey towards the end of the rule of law in modern-day Russia.” So some success in this aim but some distance to go still.

The fourth aim was to improve Russia’s standing in the world. Here another enormous turnaround is seen – even if not much to the liking of those who ruled the world in 2000. There’s no need to spell it out – despite the West’s efforts to isolate and weaken Russia, Putin is a welcome visitor in many places. The delirium over Russia’s imagined influence and control proves that it is hardly “decline[d] into obscurity”. Moscow’s status is, of course, especially recognised in Beijing where the Russia-China alliance grows stronger day by day. When we see the NYT, after years of “Trump and Putin: A Love Story“, solemnly opining “President Trump is correct to try to establish a sounder relationship with Russia and peel it away from China” or President Macron suggesting that Russia shouldn’t want to be “a minority ally of China” we see the belated realisation that twenty years’ of pushing around an “insignificant” Russia has not turned out so happily for the pushers. The NYT and Macron are too late: why would Moscow or Beijing ever trust the West again? Meanwhile Moscow manages to have, for example, good relations with Iran, Iraq and Syria as well as with Saudi Arabia and Israel; quite a contrast with Washington and much of the West.

************************************

So, in conclusion, twenty years later the program has been very successful.

Improve economy? Yes, dramatically, extra marks.

Re-centralise control? Yes, full marks.

Rule of law? Considerable progress, part marks.

Improve Russia’s role in the world? Yes, dramatically, extra marks.

The West resents this achievement and has been in an economic (sanctions) and diplomatic (ditto) war with Russia. But, many would argue, that the only Russia the West has ever liked is a weak one (except, of course, in times of war against Napoleon, the Kaiser or Hitler); enmity is a given and the only way the West would like Russia would be if the Putin Team had failed and it had remained, poor, divided, lawless and insignificant.

A remarkably successful achievement; not accomplished by accident or luck: a good plan, intelligently and flexibly carried out.

************************************

As an afterword, given the repetitive scare stories about the return of Stalin, here’s what Putin said about the Soviet period (Note: this is the official English translation; it takes some liberties with the original but is true to the spirit).

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.

Почти три четверти уходящего столетия Россия жила под знаком реализации коммунистической доктрины. Было бы ошибкой не видеть, а тем более отрицать несомненные достижения того времени. Но было бы еще большей ошибкой не сознавать той огромной цены, которую заплатили общество, народ в ходе этого социального эксперимента. Главное же, пожалуй, в том, что власть Советов не сделала страну процветающей, общество -динамично развивающимся, человека – свободным. Более того, идеологизированный подход к экономике обрек нашу страну на неуклонное отставание от развитых государств. Как ни горько признаваться в этом, но почти семь десятилетий мы двигались по тупиковому маршруту движения, который проходил в стороне от столбовой дороги цивилизации.

Hardly an endorsement is it?

MCCARTHYISM AND ME

Watching bits of the absurd circus in Washington with all these (thank you for your service you outstanding diplomat, you) brave bureaucrats worrying that the USA is not fighting Russia hard enough, I am reminded of this little story.

When I was a kid in public school in a small Canadian town (let’s say 1957ish) on Friday afternoons (all? some?) we had a time for skits and stories and so forth.

One of the skits I remember involved a number of kids stepping forward and saying “I’m so-and-so (some famous person – Pat Boone was one, I remember) and I’m a Russian”. This went on for several iterations and then some kid, carrying a roll of toilet paper, rushed from the back of the room shouting “I’m Bob and I’m a-rushin’ too!”

All fall about with laughter.

Well, Joe McCarthy blew up in 1954 so, in a small town far from anywhere, I guess the skit was reasonably au courant a couple of years later.

What sticks in my mind was the “Russian” bit – not “communist” which was what McCarthy was talking about, not “Soviet”, which is what they were.

Now you can say the joke, such as it was, wouldn’t have worked without “Russian” but my guess is that the “Russian” bit was the origin of the joke and not the other way round.

So commies were Soviets and Soviets were Russians and Russians were our enemies busy infiltrating us back then and I guess they still are.

THE WAR – AGAIN

(First published at Strategic Culture Foundation,

The USSR, with significant help from the rest of us, defeated Hitler and changed the world away from that dark and horrible future. At enormous cost.

Patrick Armstrong

I don’t usually waste my time taking apart run-of-the-mill anti-Russian stuff: there’s too much of it and it usually takes more effort to tear apart than it took the author to write. Fools and wise men, as the saying goes. But we have just had a number of pieces on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in Western news outlets. For example, the Washington Times, RFE/RL, The Guardian the Globe and Mail and Bloomberg. Governments have issued condemnations. The gist of them is that the pact showed that Hitler and Stalin were soul-mates and conspired to start the war and rip apart their neighbours. In most cases the authors try to tie this to today’s Russia: enemy then, enemy now.

Most of these pieces take it for granted Putin has some sort of approval of Stalin. But is it “approval” to call communism a road to a dead end – said earlier but most recently last December? What about his statement at the Butovo execution ground?

Those who were executed, sent to camps, shot and tortured number in the thousands and millions of people. Along with this, as a rule these were people with their own opinions. These were people who were not afraid to speak their mind. They were the most capable people. They are the pride of the nation.

Or about what he said when he unveiled the memorial in the centre of Moscow?

This horrific past must not be stricken from the national memory — let alone justified in any way — by any so-called higher good of the people.

One of Putin’s advisory councils speaks against statues to Stalin quoting a government resolution that it’s “unacceptable” to “justify the repressions” or deny that they happened. Paul Robinson has demonstrated the falsity of the “Stalin is back” here. It’s nonsense.

Another theme is that Moscow is distorting or whitewashing history. But the truth is that the articles are the ones distorting history. History is not supposed to be a box from which convenient accusations are selected, ignoring the rest: historians are supposed to try to figure out what happened and explain how it came to be. Most Western accounts of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact are selective briefs for the prosecution. Although I very much suspect that the authors don’t know any better and their outrage is founded on their ignorance.

23 August was the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement and its secret protocol for carving up Poland and other countries. An occasion to hammer Russia which was too good to pass up. But their argument – assertions really – collapse because none of them knows that what Stalin really wanted was an alliance with the Western powers to stop Hitler: the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement was Plan B, not Plan A.

When I was in university in the 1960s a text in one of my courses was AJP Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War. It mentioned the British-French mission sent to Moscow upon Stalin’s invitation to form a USSR-UK-France alliance to stop Hitler. This event has mostly slipped down the memory hole but periodically makes a reappearance as, for example, in 2008 “Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’“. Stalin’s anti-Hitler pact failed and, knowing that the USSR was on Hitler’s target list, he bought time with the pact and started grabbing territory so as to gain a buffer.

In other words, all these pieces, in their prosecutorial enthusiasm, leave out the context (or in the case of the Guardian, present the Russian view as mere – and, you’re supposed to understand, unwarranted – assertion). As I said, I was generally aware that Stalin had made an overture to Paris and London and therefore understood that the pact with Germany was his Plan B, but it wasn’t until I read this piece by Michael Jabara Carley that I understood just how comprehensive and long-lasting Stalin’s attempts to form an effective anti-Hitler coalition had been. I strongly recommend reading Carley’s essay in full but in summary Moscow understood the threat immediately and spent five or six years trying to get the Europeans to join with it in an anti-Hitler agreement. A weak mutual assistance pact with Paris appeared in 1935, approaches to London that year collapsed when it made a deal with Berlin, approaches to Bucharest and Prague failed, Warsaw was hopeless because of its early pact with Berlin and baked-in animosity. The Munich agreement of 1938 and (memory hole again) Warsaw’s collaboration with Berlin in eating Czechoslovakia just about ended Moscow’s hope but it tried one last time in late 1939. (The discussion here has some more details, particularly Chamberlain’s view and the British military’s warning that the Poles, alone, would last two weeks).

There were plenty of reasons why Stalin’s approaches were rejected by Western politicians: they didn’t see the threat, Chamberlain’s “most profound distrust of Russia”, no one liked communism, few trusted Stalin, many questioned the effectiveness of the Red Army, some hoped that the nazis and the communists would fight each other to the death, some preferred the nazis. Poland, whose territory was essential for an effective Soviet threat to Germany, was the decisive obstacle: Warsaw doubted that the Soviets, once in, would ever leave and believed, with its pact and collaboration with Berlin, that it was safe. So, Stalin’s Plan A never happened. Carley: “The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the result of the failure of nearly six years of Soviet effort to form an anti-Nazi alliance with the western powers”. Yes, the pact included a carve-up of several countries but Stalin was looking to the security of the USSR. (And, à la Fawlty Towers, don’t mention the Czechoslovakia carve up, it will spoil the morally superior position the West likes to take.) In the end Stalin miscalculated the timing: Hitler invaded before he’d knocked out Britain and its empire/commonwealth and before the Soviets had properly fortified their new borders.

The failure of Moscow’s long effort to put together an alliance to stop Hitler is the reason for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, not Stalin’s all-round nastiness and sense of fellowship with Hitler. Nasty the pact was, in a nasty period, but it was Stalin’s second choice. Those are the historical realities. Another historical reality (almost down the memory hole) is the fact that, if we’re talking about agreements with Hitler, Moscow was late to the party. Lots of leaders were fooled by Hitler but Stalin probably least of all.

Now, I suspect that the average Western newspaper consumer doesn’t know this background and – speaking for myself – I only found out about the Warsaw-Berlin pact a year or two ago. In fact, had it not been for remembering Taylor’s book, I would probably have been ignorant of Stalin’s Plan A too. The memory hole has swallowed much and most of the authors of these pieces seem quite unaware of that fact and are very offended when, for example, the Russians point out that Warsaw – officially the victim par excellence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – took its pound of flesh from Czechoslovakia.

Many of these pieces, after falsely establishing what they imagine to be a Stalin-Hitler common purpose, can’t resist trying to make a connection between what they imagine to have been Stalin’s motives then and Putin’s today. But it’s hard to see it. Yes, the effects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact endure but, surely, the biggest “deadly result” of Stalin’s failed Plan A is the war itself. There are at least two ways to look at the Soviet occupation/control of most of the territories it liberated from the nazis: 1) the behaviour of an aggressive expansionist power, 2) that of a power determined that its neighbours would never again be assembly areas for another attack and had learned that it would be on its own if it happened again. We all know which conclusion the Western Allies came to. Elsewhere I have speculated on the cause of that choice but that’s another bit of past living on in the present.

In short, the basic premise of these pieces is quite simply wrong: Stalin didn’t feel an affinity to Hitler and cheerfully join him to rip things apart. And when the Russian talk about the Western European share of responsibility for Hitler’s war, it’s not “odious sophistry” or “rewriting history” or “propaganda”, it’s because they know about Stalin’s failed anti-Hitler coalition and most Western commentators don’t. It is very plausible that a coalition of the USSR, France and Britain and the smaller threatened countries would have prevented the war altogether. We do know that one conspiracy to overthrow Hitler was aborted by Chamberlain’s appeasement. Perhaps when one truly understands that Stalin’s Plan A might have prevented the war altogether, one can understand how irritated the Russians are when they’re blamed for starting it.

While the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the starter’s gun for Hitler’s attack on Poland it is historical nonsense to present the pact as Stalin’s preferred option. And more nonsense to somehow tie it all to Putin.

And what of Poland? Alone, it did last only a few weeks, the nazis killed about 20% of the population and in the end the USSR occupied it anyway. (A bit reminiscent, come to think of it, of Poland, Napoleon and Russia.)

(There is, however, an unforced parallel which doesn’t occur to anybody: both Putin and Stalin looked first to the West for partners; both were disappointed. Stalin probably realised with Munich that his alliance idea was impossible and I believe that for Putin the moment came with Libya. They decided that the West was недоговороспособниы. That complicated Russian word contains within it the meaning that you cannot make an agreement with them and, even if you do, they will not keep it. So, there is some connection, after all, but it’s not what these people think.)

 

PUTIN AND 911

Andy Card: One of the president’s first thoughts, from Sarasota to Barksdale, was Vladimir Putin.

Gordon Johndroe: [Putin] was important—all these military systems were all put in place for nuclear alerts. If we went on alert, we needed Putin to know that we weren’t readying an attack on Russia. He was great—he said immediately that Russia wouldn’t respond, Russia would stand down, that he understood we were under attack and needed to be on alert.

Ari Fleischer: Putin was fantastic that day. He was a different Vladimir Putin in 2001. America could have had no better ally on September 11th than Russia and Putin.

‘We’re the Only Plane in the Sky’ Politico 9 Sep 2016

Of course it doesn’t occur to these Americans that maybe it wasn’t Putin who’s become “different” since then. How could that possibility ever appear in their exceptionalist minds?