Before Trump. the Russia obsession was there. (NYT, September 2015)
Before Trump. the Russia obsession was there. (NYT, September 2015)
Michael Edward “Mike” Luckovich (born January 28, 1960) is an editorial cartoonist who has worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1989. He is the 2005 winner of the Reuben, the National Cartoonists Society’s top award for cartoonist of the year, and is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes. He says “Normally with my cartoons I try to use humor to get across my point. After Sept. 11th, you just couldn’t use humor. The tragedy was so enormous, you couldn’t be funny. It’s almost like you have to come up with cartoons using a different part of your brain. I was just trying to come up with images that expressed the emotions that I was feeling and tried to focus in on different aspects of the tragedy that I thought were important.” (Wikipedia)
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.
Vladimir Putin has made a national sport of what-abouting. In 2014, when a journalist challenged him on his annexation of Crimea, Putin brought up the U.S. annexation of Texas. The American invasion of Iraq is constantly what-abouted on state television, to excuse all kinds of Russian behavior.
– Dan Zak: “Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump“. Washington Post, 18 August 2017
“Trump Embraces One Of Russia’s Favorite Propaganda Tactics — Whataboutism”
Essentially, it’s an appeal to hypocrisy ― a logical fallacy also known as “tu quoque.” Instead of proving that your opponent’s claim is wrong on its face, whataboutism argues that it’s hypocritical of the opponent to make that claim at all.
And, the author helpfully goes on to explain: “Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the Trump administration’s murky ties to Vladimir Putin and his associates, whataboutism is viewed by many as a Russian import.” Trumputin again! (Written, of course, before Mueller crashed.)
The author is half right: it’s hypocrisy, but it’s not an appeal to it, it’s a revelation of it.
As the quotations above show it’s a real meme: Google has thousands of hits on “trump putin whataboutism” – accusing someone of whataboutism, as apparently routinely practised by both, is supposed to be a final, complete and crushing response. Whataboutism is “a constant diversion away from actual relevant news items, facts, and arguments into constant accusations of hypocrisy” and a commonplace of Russian propaganda.
In a court of law someone who is accused of murder cannot defend himself by saying that his accuser has a dirty nose or, even, that he is himself a murderer. And neither is it accepted that the defence against an accusation of a dirty nose is saying that the accuser is a murderer. In a court of law the charge, whether dirty nose or murder, has to be proven to the satisfaction of the judge or jury; the personal behaviour of the accusing lawyer is not relevant.
But we’re not talking about a court of law here – we’re talking about an information war in which accusations are crafted to sway public opinion. In that “court” it is relevant to point out when the accusing dirty pot is calling the accused kettle black. Not to do so is a “diversion away from actual relevant facts” by changing the subject and pretending that the only subject is your crimes, not mine.
For example. Russia is routinely accused of violating the “Rules-Based International Order”. (What a great name: who wouldn’t want to live in a Rules-Based International Order and shun those who tried to overturn it?) A quick search turns up these accusations: “The Russian government wears its disdain for the rules-based international order as a badge of pride“; “What can the West do to keep Russia in check, when the country’s state policy is fundamentally at odds with the rules-based international order“; “It is Russia’s actions which threaten the international order on which we all depend“; “Today, I will set out how the Russian government under President Putin is taking steps that are weakening the rules-based order“; “Russia – a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – has repeatedly attacked the global rulebook of normal behaviour.” Lots more examples can easily be found. Said Rules-Based International Order is praised as having kept world peace, as a “cornerstone” and other kinds of goodnesses. So, clearly, Putin & Co, by trying to overthrow it, are committing a crime.
But, actually, the accusation is only another propaganda shot at the contumacious Putin. Leaving aside the self-satisfied hype, we’re supposed to agree that this “order” is worldwide although few in, say, Africa or Asia would have happy feelings about it. But, most significantly we are required to not listen to what Putin actually says; over and over again, year after year: (this month): “Let me reiterate: truly mutually respectful, pragmatic and consequently solid relations can only built between independent and sovereign states“, or his essay in the NYT in 2013 when he said “The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus”.
But enough of reality, back to whataboutism.
Many of these fulminations cite Crimea as the moment when Putin’s Russia irredeemably breached the Rules-Based International Order but the accusation was commonplace long before Putin appeared. Russia wanted “the right to do what it pleases in its own backyard” in 1994; was probably not going to be “an equal and fair player” and believed that “countries become strong only by making other countries weak” in 1996; was “subverting its neighbors’ independence” in 2006. In short “Russia is remarkably resistant to progress, material and moral“. In other words, fashions change but Russia is always the enemy: Russia wanted to dominate the energy reserves in the Caspian in 1997, but signed on to an equitable division in 2019. Never mind that accusation (and who remembers it now?) on to the next accusation! In 1997 we knew Russia wanted to trash the Rules-Based International Order, in 2019 we still know but fresh accusations replace the worn-out ones.
So, setting aside the fact that the Ukrainian constitution was nullified with the violent overthrow of the elected President, ignoring the fact that violence against Crimeans had already started, forgetting that the first action of the coup was to outlaw their language, ignorant that Crimea had the status of an autonomous republic, never mentioning there were already Russian troops legally there, pretending that the referendum was done at gunpoint, shedding crocodile tears over the suddenly discovered Crimean Tatars, carefully refusing to visit the place to see whether reality conforms to illusion and all the rest of it, let us do a little whataboutism.
If the return home of Crimea – that’s what the Crimeans call it – is to be considered a violation of the Rules-Based International Order, what was the smashing up of Yugoslavia? A popular expression of the self-determination of peoples or a foreign intervention for less shiny principles? What was the invasion of Afghanistan? Rules-Based or not? If the invasion of Afghanistan was “Rules-Based” on self-defence principles (still – 18 years later!) what was the “Rules-Base” for the invasion of Iraq? How about the destruction of Libya? By what principle of the Rules-Based International Order are US and allied troops in Syria? Especially “guarding” the oil fields? Where’s the “Rules-Base” that says Washington should care about what Maduro does in Venezuela, or is it a fundamental principle of the Rules-Based International Order that “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela“?
I reiterate that we are not in some courthouse in which, say the case of Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation is being tried in Courtroom Number 1 and the NATO attack on Libya in Courtroom Number 2, the NATO presence in Syria in Courtroom Number 3 and so on. In that case the Russian defence team would not be justified in saying that the other guys are in court too; it would have to argue the case at hand (relying no doubt heavily on Article 1.2 of the UN Charter); in the other courtroom the defence would be relying on… good question.
We are in the “court of public opinion” and here it is relevant that NATO & Co accuse Russia of doing things without admitting that they do much worse. After all, in Russia’s so-called sins – Crimea, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – we can find solid majority support from the local population. NATO would have a harder time finding that support in its various post Cold War interventions. Or, to put it more plainly: Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea are pretty peaceful places; the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc etc are not. (To say nothing of the departure of US troops from Syria being hastened with jeers and stones.)
Occasionally Western news/propaganda outlets will confess to “the long history of the US interfering with elections elsewhere” but only to airily dismiss the issue because “the days of its worst behavior are long behind it”. (Ukraine, Venezuela, Russia and Hong Kong are not, we must assume, “interferences” and it would be “whataboutism” to suggest that they are somehow worse than the imaginary Russian intervention in the US election.)
In short, what is dismissed as “whataboutism”, and therefore unworthy of discussion, is reminder to the listener of reality; in a world of moralistic accusations that Russia has violated the sacred Rules-Based International Order it is a pointer to the West’s hypocrisy. If we are supposed to think that Russia did something bad and unlawful in Ossetia or Crimea violating the so-called Rules-Based International Order why is it wrong to point out that NATO this century has never paid a moment’s attention to the UN Charter or any other part of the, admittedly feeble, structure of international law?
The Bible advises us not to obsess about the tiny speck in the other person’s eye while ignoring the big hunk of wood in our own: “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
And if that’s not “whataboutism” what is?
Remember the Spinal Tap scene where the witless band member explains that because their numbers go to 11 they can always get that little bit extra? Putin Derangement Syndrome went past 11 a long time ago: we need a whole new set of superlatives, “craziest” just won’t do any more
After writing this compendium of nonsense about Putin from Western sources in 2015, I ran a short series on Putin Derangement Syndrome; I gave up when Putin Derangement Syndrome and Trump Derangement Syndrome merged into a crescendo of craziness, far past what I could have imagined.
(And Trump Derangement Syndrome is also past 11 – “Why Ivanka Trump’s new haircut should make us very afraid“.)
In the past, American hysteria campaigns against the enemy-of-the-moment ended when their target did. Noriega went to jail, Milosevic died in jail, Hussein and Qadaffi were killed, bin Laden was killed, Aidid – but who remembers him? The frenzy built up and up and stopped at the end before it got to 11. But Putin is still there and growing stronger by the moment. And the frenzy therefore has to go past 10, past 11 and ever upwards. One of the craziest (to say nothing of disgusting) things was this absurd cartoon from the (formerly) staid NYT. But that was a whole year ago.
No longer bare chests, Aspergers, big fish, gunslinger walks – in 2015 they were laughing; today Putin has super powers. Two events sent it past 11. Somebody leaked e-mails from the DNC showing that it was rigging the nomination for Clinton and she lost a 99% certain election. Immediately, her campaign settled on blaming Russia for both.
That strategy had been set within twenty-four hours of her concession speech. [9 November 2016] Mook and Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument. (From Shattered, quoted here.)
The bogus – bogus because most of the people on his team were part of the conspiracy and knew there was no collusion – Mueller investigation dragged on until – despite the endless “bombshells” – it finally stopped. But the crazies insist… not guilty but… not exonerated! And Trumputin’s principal conspiracist rants on.
Wikipedia tells us that “A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.” The CIA, referring to the Kennedy assassination, is said to have coined the expression in 1967. The “trusted source” media (an description it likes to award itself) is dead set against “conspiracy theories” and quick to denounce them as crazy, prejudiced and criminal. For example, Trump’s statement that Mueller was a hitman, is a “conspiracy theory” as are Trump’s ideas about the Bidens and Ukraine.
Everything I mention below comes from “trusted sources”. Therefore we must assume that all of them – Putin wants Trump to buy Greenland, Russians want to get Americans arguing about pizza, Russians have no moral sense and all the rest – are not “conspiracy theories” but honestly “more probable”.
Mere evidence – for example that the DOJ Admits FBI Never Saw Crowdstrike Report on DNC Russian Hacking Claim… or No Evidence – Blame Russia: Top 5 Cases Moscow Was Unreasonably Accused of Election Meddling or U.S. States: We Weren’t Hacked by Russians in 2016 or The Myth of Russian Media Influence by Larry C Johnson.. or Biden admitting to doing what USA Today insists is nothing but a conspiracy theory invented by Trump – makes no difference. The dial is turned up one more and we are solemnly and (incoherently – Paul Robinson again) warned that Russia might/could meddle in Canada’s forthcoming election.
Anti-Russia prejudice can have unhappy consequences. We have just learned that Putin phoned Bush a couple of days before 911 to warn him that something long-prepared and big was coming out of Afghanistan. Other Russian warnings had been dismissed by Condoleezza Rice – supposedly a Russia “expert” – as “Russian bitterness toward Pakistan for supporting the Afghan mujahideen”. One is reminded of Chamberlain’s dismissal of Stalin’s attempts to form an anti-Hitler alliance because of his “most profound distrust of Russia” (see Habakkuk comment). In some alternate universe they listened to Moscow in the 1930s and in the 2000s, but, in the one we live in, they didn’t. And they don’t.
Or maybe (foolish optimism!) this is starting too end: after all, it’s been a complete failure. I especially enjoyed the NYT, that bastion of the Russian-conspiracy/Putin-superpowers/Trump-treason meme, solemnly opining: “That means President Trump is correct to try to establish a sounder relationship with Russia and peel it away from China. But his approach has been ham-handed and at times even counter to American interests and values.” Ham-handed! – here’s the NYT’s view of the Trump-Putin “love affair” again if you missed it the first time. And now it’s Trump’s fault that relations with Russia aren’t better! French President Macron has recently said that “I believe we should rebuild and revise the architecture of trust between Russia and the European Union.” And Trump rather brutally delivered the message to Ukraine’s new president that he ought to talk to Putin.
Well, we’ll see. Russophobia runs deep and the Russians have probably got the message. As long as we’re stuck in a mindset of “Nine Things Russia Must Do Before Being Allowed to Rejoin the G7” it’s not going to change. An arrogant invitation is not an invitation.
(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.
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?
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.)
Moscow will not engage in an exhausting arms race, and the country’s military spending will gradually decrease as Russia does not seek a role as the “world gendarme,” President Vladimir Putin said. Moscow is not seeking to get involved in a “pointless” new arms race, and will stick to “smart decisions” to strengthen its defensive capabilities, Putin said on Friday during an annual extended meeting of the Defense Ministry board. “Intelligence, brains, discipline and organization” must be the cornerstones of the country’s military doctrine, the Russian leader said. The last thing that Russia needs is an arms race that would “drain” its economy, and Moscow sure does not want that “in any scenario,” Putin pointed out.
It’s easy to forget it today, but the USSR was, in its time, an “exceptionalist” country. It was the world’s first socialist country – the “bright future“; it set an example for all to follow, it was destined by History. It had a mission and was required by History to assist any country that called itself “socialist”. The USSR had bases and interests all over the world. As the 1977 USSR Constitution said:
the Soviet state, a new type of state, the basic instrument for defending the gains of the revolution and for building socialism and communism. Humanity thereby began the epoch-making turn from capitalist to socialism.
A novus ordo seclorum indeed.
Russia, however, is just Russia. There is no feeling in Moscow that Russia must take the lead any place but Russia itself. One of the reasons, indeed, why Putin is always talking about the primacy of the UN, the independence of nation states, the impermissibility to interfere in internal activities – the so-called “Westphalian” position – is that he remembers the exceptionalist past and knows that it led to a dead end. Moscow has no interest in going abroad in search of internationalist causes.
Internationalism/exceptionalism and nationalism: the two have completely different approaches to constructing a military. The first is obsessed with “power projection“, “full spectrum superiority“, it imagines that its hypertrophied interests are challenged all over the planet. Its wants are expensive, indeterminate, unbounded. The other is only concerned with dealing with enemies in its neighbourhood. Its wants are affordable, exact, finite. The exceptionalist/interventionist has everything to defend everywhere; the nationalist has one thing to defend in one place. It is much easier and much cheaper to be a nationalist: the exceptionalist/interventionist USA spends much more than anyone else but always needs more; nationalist Russia can cut its expenditure.
The USSR’s desire to match or exceed the USA in all military areas was a contributing factor to the collapse of its alliance system and the USSR itself. Estimates are always a matter for debate, especially in a command economy that hid its numbers (even when they were calculable), but a common estimate is a minimum of 15% of the USSR’s production went to the military. But the true effort was probably higher. The USSR was involved all over the world shoring up socialism’s “bright future” and that cost it at home.
Putin & Co’s “bright future” is for Russia only and the world may do as it wants about any example or counterexample it may imagine there. While Putin may occasionally indulge himself by offering opinions about liberalism and oped writers gas on about the Putin/Trump populism threat, Putin & Co are just trying to do what they think best for Russia with, as their trust ratings suggest (in contrast with those of the rulers of the “liberal” West), the support and agreement of most Russians.
The military stance of the former exceptionalist country is all gone. As the USSR has faded away, so have its overseas bases and commitments: the Warsaw Pact is gone together with the forward deployment of Soviet armies; there are no advisors in Vietnam or Mozambique; Moscow awaits with bemusement the day next January when the surviving exceptionalist power and its minions will have been in Afghanistan twice as long as the USSR was. The United States, still exceptionalist, still imagining it is spreading freedom and democracy, preventing war and creating stability, has bases everywhere and thinks that it must protect “freedom of navigation” to and from China in the South China Sea. It has yet to learn the futility of seeing oneself as The World’s Example.
Putin & Co have learned: Russia has no World-Historical purpose and its military is just for Russia. They understand what this means for Russia’s Armed Forces:
Moscow doesn’t have to match the US military; it just has to checkmate it.
And it doesn’t have to checkmate it everywhere, only at home. The US Air Force can rampage anywhere but not in Russia’s airspace; the US Navy can go anywhere but not in Russia’s waters. It’s a much simpler job and it costs much less than what Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev were attempting; it’s much easier to achieve; it’s easier to plan and carry out. The exceptionalist/interventionist has to plan for Everything; the nationalist for One Thing.
Study the enemy, learn what he takes for granted and block it. And the two must haves of American conventional military power as it affects Russia are 1) air superiority and 2) assured, reliable communications; counter those and it’s checkmated: Russia doesn’t have to equal or surpass the US military across the board, just counter its must haves.
Russia’s comprehensive and interlocking air defence weaponry is well known and well respected: it covers the spectrum from defences against ballistic missiles to small RPVs, from complex missile/radar sets to MANPADS; all of it coordinated, interlocking with many redundancies. We hear US generals complaining about air defence bubbles and studies referring to Russia’s “anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) exclusion zones“. Russian air defence has not been put to the full-scale test but we have two good indications of its effectiveness. The first was the coordinated RPV attack on Russian bases in Syria last year in which seven were shot down and six taken over, three of them landed intact. Then, in the FUKUS attack of April 2018, the Russians say the Syrian AD system (most of which is old but has benefited from Russian coordination) shot down a large number of the cruise missiles. (FUKUS’ claims are not believable).
The other area, about which even less is known are Russian electronic warfare capabilities: “eye-watering” says a US general; “Right now in Syria we are operating in the most aggressive EW environment on the planet from our adversaries. They are testing us everyday, knocking our communications down, disabling our EC-130s, etcetera.” Of course, what the Americans know is only what Russia wants them to know. There is speculation about an ability to spoof GPS signals. AEGIS-equipped warships seem to have trouble locating themselves (HNoMS Helge Ingstad) or avoiding being run into (USS Lake Champlain, USS John McCain, USS Fitzgerald). Bad seamanship may, of course, be the cause and that’s what the US investigations claim. So more rumour than fact but a lot of rumour.
In the past two or three decades US air power has operated with impunity; it has assumed that all GPS-based systems (and there are many) will operate as planned and that communications will be free and clear. Not against Russia. With those certainties removed, the American war fighting doctrine will be left scrabbling.
But AD and EW are not the only Russian counters. When President Bush pulled the USA out of the ABM Treaty in 2001, Putin warned that Russia would have to respond. Mutual Assured Destruction may sound crazy but there’s a stability to it: neither side, under any circumstance, can get away with a first strike; therefore neither will try it. Last year we met the response: a new ICBM, a hypersonic re-entry vehicle, a nuclear-powered cruise missile with enormous flight time and a similar underwater cruise missile. No defence will stop them and so MAD returns. A hypersonic anti-shipping missile will keep the US Navy out of Russian waters. And, to deal with the US Army’s risible ground forces in Europe, with or without NATO’s other feeble forces, Russia has re-created the First Guards Tank Army. Checkmate again.
No free pass for US air power, strained and uncertain communications, a defeated ground attack and no defence against Russian nuclear weapons. That’s all and that’s enough.
And that is how Moscow does it while spending much less money than Washington. It studies Washington’s strengths and counters them: “smart decisions”. Washington is starting to realise Russia’s military power but it is blinded and can only see its reflection in the mirror: the so-called “rising threat from Russia” would be no threat to a Washington that stayed at home.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
– Sun Tzu
Just finished (very) quickly skim reading Mark Urban’s book on Skripal.
I learn four things (the first two of which Rob Slane had already told me).
The other two are
Apart from that, everything in the book is what you would expect to see (although I do love his mention that an Army nurse was one of the first responders – try Colonel Alison McCourt, Chief Nursing Officer of the British Army! Quite a coincidence, eh?)
But these nuggets are worth the hour of skimming.
I don’t see anything to harm Michael Anthony’s theory (Urban does raise the possibility of Skripal having something to do with the Dossier but airily dismisses it.)
(Response to a question from Sputnik)
I’m not very optimistic. As everyone knows, Trump years ago said it would be better to get along with Russia than not. A perfectly reasonable point of view and not a thought that Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon or Reagan would have had much trouble with. But Clinton lost the “more than a 99% chance” election and “Russian interference” became her favourite excuse; the typists of the complaisant US media snapped to attention and repeated and repeated the charge, pumping the intensity of “Russian interference” to ever higher levels.
Mueller’s report has killed the collusion charge but the other half of the lie, Russian interference, remains.
Until a real investigation is completed and people are charged, convicted and sent to jail – we who been following events can name many of them – producing effects so indisputable that even the readers of the NYT and WaPo, the watchers of MSNBC and CNN, the last partisans in Congress, are speechless, the loudly shouted charge that Trump is Putin’s stooge will block genuinely improved relations.
So, until – if – that happens, I can’t expect much except minor improvements. Which are better than nothing but a good deal short of what is necessary between two powers either of which can obliterate us.
First published Strategic Culture Foundation
Between one hundred billion and one hundred and sixty billion dollars. That’s a lot of moolah. Taking the lower number, that’s a line of thousand dollar bills half way to the Moon. Personal yacht? buy the latest Princess cruise ship, staff it, have it all to yourself forever and still have 99 billion or so to fool around with. A brand new Italian super car every day for ten years wouldn’t make much of a dent. You like to cruise? Reserve the Owner’s suite on every Princess cruise ship and have a private plane standing by 24/7 just in case. Hotels? Buy a couple in your favourite part of the world; permanently rent the Emperor’s Suite in a couple of dozen others. Put yourself into orbit on your private orbiter. Private planes? how about a double-decker Airbus? Only a billion for two. Private Caribbean island? Lots to choose from. Hire a bunch of healthy organ donors and a mobile hospital to follow you around. Anything. Build a new Great Pyramid, it’s chump change out of $100 billion. Endow a university chair to study your life and works. Fill Easter Island with giant statues of yourself. It would be impossible to spend that much in a human lifetime.
This, we are told, is the extent of Putin’s wealth.
In the book, “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy,” Aslund estimates that through the practice of “crony capitalism,” Putin has amassed a net worth between $100 billion and $160 billion, which would make him richer than the officially wealthiest man in the world, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos.
The origin of the “Putin is fabulously rich” story seems to have been this interview with Stanislav Belkovskiy (certainly he’s used as the source often enough.) Russia is about to collapse, nothing is working properly: agriculture, banking; all failing. But Putin & Co have trousered millions for the day when they will have to get out:
Putin knows that extremely destructive processes are going on that he simply can not control. Therefore, it is important for him to leave the game, as long as the explosion has not yet occurred. There will be no third term for him.
The acuity of this analysis is spoiled a bit by the fact that, twelve years later, Putin and Russia are still there. Belkovskiy turns out to be the cousin of Boris Berezovskiy which gives away his motivation. Boris Berezovskiy, by the way, was the chief anti-Putinist until he begged Putin to be allowed back in. Whereupon he committed suicide. They say.
And where, by the way, does Putin keep all the gelt?
Not a good idea to do it offshore, especially when you consider suggestions like “Why Exposing Putin’s Wealth Would Be Obama’s Best Revenge” or “Why not seize Putin’s assets?” or “US ready to target Russian president’s hidden $40bn stash“. But where inside? A gigantic bag of paper rubles will be worth nothing when Russia crashes. Gold? but gold is heavy and hard to move at the Last Moment. Title deeds? Gazprom shares? Same problem: if he’s squirrelling it away against the day the building collapses, it doesn’t make much sense to keep it in the building, does it?
But these are questions nobody asks.
Remember the Panama Papers? First they were about Putin; then when somebody noticed that the word “Putin” didn’t appear anywhere, they were by Putin. But bubbles keep bubbling. Leaked US diplomatic cables citing opposition sources (opposition sources are the gold standard of reliability, aren’t they?) NYT speculates away: “it [the Obama Administration] is sending a not-very-subtle message that it thinks it knows where the Russian leader has his money“. The Sun hit it out of the park in 2016: “many believe” “claimed” “claimed” “rumoured” “believe he could be” “alleged” “alleged” “said to be” “alleged”. How many tonnes of rumours equal one gram of fact?
In the rest of the month, nine government meetings, two phone calls to foreign leaders, eight meetings with foreign leaders or officials, five meetings with Russians, five international talks or forums, two trips inside Russia, three news conferences or interviews, one foreign trip and two ceremonies. Two days off, one of which was Easter when he went to church. And so on; the month before the same and the month after. Month after month.
Fun eh? Where’s the time to play with his yachts, visit his palaces, wind up his watch collection? The man works all the time. What’s the point of being the world’s richest man if you slave away in meeting after meeting, interviews, endless paperwork, strategy sessions, planning meetings, briefing notes, meeting preparations, debriefings? Doesn’t sound like some guy who’s trousered huge sums of money, does it? More like the hard-working president of his country.
But maybe the wealth is more of a concept, really. Navalniy, “Russia’s Last Opposition Hero“, helpfully suggests “The czar of corruption owns everything and nothing“. I guess that means Putin’s wealth is some figure between zero and infinity.
So, we’re supposed to believe that Putin has used his position to steal vast sums which he can safely hide neither at home nor abroad, sums of which he doesn’t spend a kopek because he’s too busy sending greetings to The Age of Archaeology: Discoveries, Goals, Perspectives International Forum, answering media questions about the latest meeting with the President of Turkey and holding meetings with the Russian Security Council. On his off days, he spends two hours standing in church.
But it’s all a GIGO circle: people with a grudge against Putin (Berezovskiy’s cousin, the inventor of the Magnitskiy fraud, Integrity Initiative trolls) tell the punters what they want to hear. There are lots of folk-tales about smart little guys tricking stupid giants (ATU 328 in fact); the giant, hearing what he wants to hear, believes it. Russia, they imagine, is a sort of mafia project of which Putin is the capo di tutti capi and dips his beak into every deal. After being told what they want to hear by people who want to tell them what they want to hear, they decide that sanctioning the underbosses will make them turn against Putin. And, with Washington’s customary expectation that changing the Boss will change the whole country, they do this. Over and over again.
And they never learn. Years of unbroken failure never seem to teach them anything. The sanctions aren’t working because the assumption is wrong. These are the very same people who promised a quick victory in Afghanistan, a quick victory in Iraq and are now promising a quick victory in Iran; their learning curve is absolutely flat.
As someone observed: the US bench (read NATO and the UK too) on Russia is very shallow. Their intelligence is lousy and their unbroken record of failure should teach them that.
But it doesn’t, they continue and people make money and serve their own ends by encouraging them to do so. Jack tricks the giant and gets a bag of gold. Two million quid in the case of Integrity Jack.