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.