Getting it Wrong on Russia

Back in February I lamented the fact that finding sensible commentary on Russia is difficult because when it comes to that particular nation, people’s views fall into one of the following two categories:

1. Russia is America’s number one enemy, they rigged the US election in order to install their puppet Trump, they are hell-bent on taking over Europe by force and they must be confronted in Syria.

2. Russia is absolutely no threat to Europe, Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia and the annexation was perfectly above-board, they have been forced to launch a war in Eastern Ukraine because of Western plans to encircle them, they are directly threatened by NATO and they have shown us all how things ought to be done in Syria.

A recent article in The Spectator is a good case in point:

What amazes me is that if you bring up Russia in America and Europe today, people react the way academics used to back in the 1930s if one criticized Stalin and his purges. Fifty to 100 million died in the gulags, and lefties the world over turned a blind eye; now you say one nice thing about Putin and you’re toast.

That is true, and worthy of discussion.

Towards the late-1980s, the Soviet ambassador to Athens befriended my father, the coldest warrior of them all, and convinced him that all Gorby wanted was to conduct business with the West. He also reminded him what Georgi Arbatov had told dad when he had been a guest of the government during the Moscow Olympics of 1980: the greatest danger Russia faced was not America and the West but the 40 million Muslims within the Soviet Union.

I can only assume the author cites the opinion of his Dad’s mate because he believes it is true. It’s clearly bollocks. The greatest predictable threat to Russia in the 1980s was a nuclear war with America; the greatest unknown threat turned out to be the collapse of the USSR. Presumably the author thinks the words hold true today, but even that’s a tough sell. Considering their numbers, Russia has encountered very little trouble of the Islamist variety from Tatars, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Ingush and other Muslims from the former Soviet Union. The obvious exception is with the Chechens but their push for independence and the two subsequent wars were driven as much by nationalism as Islamism (and the Chechens have always been troublemakers from Moscow’s point of view). Over time the Chechen separatists became out-and-out Islamic terrorists, but they don’t represent the biggest danger to Russia. And it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the hardcore fighters in Chechnya were foreigners, and that the most feared “Chechen” fighters who joined ISIS seem to be ethnic Russians who converted to Islam.

Either way, Russian and former-Soviet Muslims are not and never were the greatest danger facing Russia. If we want me to say what I think that is, I’d go for the insistence of its leaders to concentrate power around themselves, weaken institutions, crush any opposition, and leave no succession plan making chaos more likely each time the regime changes every generation or two. Couple that with a populous and resource-hungry China on its distant borders.

One hundred years ago, after the Tsar’s murder, westerners thought of Russia as a savage, benighted land yearning to become a second America. That was a crock, if ever there was one. Russians are a spiritual people who yearn to connect with Christ, not Wall Street.

I don’t think this chap has spent much time in Russia or around Russians. It would take one to be willfully blind not to notice how much rampant consumerism, paid for with credit cards and bank loans, has gripped Russians. A few text messages passed between family members at Easter doesn’t change that.

After the collapse of communism, America committed its greatest mistake until the Iraqi invasion 11 years later. Instead of listening to George F. Kennan, a Russian expert and diplomat extraordinaire, and to Richard Nixon, who both advised helping the new state financially as well as politically, Uncle Sam heeded neocon siren voices and encircled Russia via Nato.

And just like that, we get the full, unalloyed, Kremlin take on things. It’s hard to know where to begin. The Americans did attempt to help Russia financially and politically: they poured in billions to stop the country from collapsing completely, secure its nuclear weapons, strengthen its institutions, and get a grip on an AIDS epidemic among many other things. As things turned out the economic advice was extremely naive in that they didn’t anticipate the degree to which Russians would murder one another while transforming their economy, but that can hardly be blamed on the Americans. Sure, there was a lot of asset stripping, theft, and other dodgy practices being carried out by individuals, some of whom had state backing, but to say the Americans didn’t try to help Russia after the collapse of the USSR might as well be taken from Putin’s Top Ten List of Things to Blame on America.

What annoys me about these sort of articles is they assume Russians themselves have no agency, as if they bear no responsibility for their own situation, and are always at the mercy of the US. To counter this, I’ll refer to this post from 2007 in which I list the business-related murders in the first part of 2000 alone, a decade after perestroika. Did Americans tell them to behave like this? No. This is simply how Russians behave, American advice or not.

And this:

Uncle Sam heeded neocon siren voices and encircled Russia via Nato.

Oh please. Again, this is straight out of the Kremlin book of propaganda. The Nato expansion was more about a bureaucratic organisation wanting to increase its headcount and footprint more than a grand strategy to encircle Russia. Had America wanted to destroy Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, they would have done so. As I said here:

By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.

Now I will concede that some Nato actions – the bombing of Serbia, for example – might be construed as offensive and give Putin & Co some cause for concern, but the idea that Nato represents any sort of threat to Russia is laughable. I am quite sure that the Russians themselves don’t believe it either, no matter how much they repeat it for political purposes.

Neocons then doubled down on their folly by convincing an idiotic president and his poodle Tony Blair to invade Iraq. A trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of dead later, not a single neocon has been jailed or tried for their crimes. But Putin has been demonised by those same neocons and their networks, and by newspapers such as the Mexican-owned New York Times.

So the idiocy of the Iraq War makes Putin off-limits for criticism? I agree that the neo-cons have no moral ground on which to criticise Putin, but it doesn’t make them wrong. Not that I think they are right either, but the premise is daft.

The Nato expansion into the former Soviet block is now being called a ‘tragic mistake’ by those of us not taken in by neocon propaganda. There was bound to be an authoritarian backlash in Russia as a result.

And there we have the Russians’ lack of agency again. Incorporating the Czech Republic into Nato in 1999 simply forced Putin to embark on aggressive, anti-western policies in 2007.

And then there is the monstrously corrupt privatisation, sanctioned by a drunken Yeltsin. (Chelsea fans and other beneficiaries in London and New York should put up a statue of the drunk. Swiss and Bahama-based bankers pray for him daily.)

The author  appears not to realise that the person he is praising and his entourage are the prime beneficiaries of this monstrously corrupt privatisation. Does he think Putin and Roman Abramovich are enemies? But again, note how a drunk Russian presiding over a corrupt privatisation programme from which ruthless Russian gangsters benefited is something to be blamed on foreigners.

Of course, there is a reason for all this nonsense, and it is contained in a paragraph near the start of the article:

I’ve recently been reading rather a lot about RT. My friend, the film director James Toback — who directed the greatest movie of all time, Seduced and Abandoned — tells me it is the only news channel he watches in New York. I may be biased against the BBC and American networks because of their hypocritical claim of impartiality (as impartial as Saudi clerics judging a Jewish smuggler), but I love RT as it doesn’t do fake news. And, unlike American broadcasters, it has a sense of humour.

Russia Today doesn’t do fake news? Right.

The author has made the same mistake most people do when commenting on Russia: they have (rightly) understood that the Western, mainstream media is wrong, biased, or both and stumbled across Russia Today. They have then, for reasons unknown only to themselves, abandoned all skepticism and accepted without question what they see and hear from the Kremlin-run channel. I have noticed a similar thing with some of my friends on Facebook: they have realised that the BBC is unreliable and so start posting quotes from Zerohedge, as if they are any more truthful.

The idea that perhaps the situation with Russia is complex, each issue must be viewed separately, and the truth lies somewhere between the BBC/CNN and RT escapes most contemporary commentators. Perhaps Putin isn’t benign, but maybe he’s not quite like Saddam Hussein either. Sure, Russia might have legitimate concerns over Nato’s behaviour, but that did not compel them to embark on land-grabs and launch an insurrection in East Ukraine. There is some middle ground here, but boy do I feel like I’m ploughing a lonely furrow through it.

(As an aside, some advice for the author after reading this passage:

And speaking of girls, at our last summer party, towards the end, when I was well fuelled, I met Olga, a very pretty Russian who works for Russia Today. Olga has perfect manners, something her male counterparts are not famous for, and is well spoken and graceful. Even the MoMC thought her too good for me when they met at my birthday party.

For those of us who have spent time in Russia, few things come across as more nauseating than a middle-aged Western man, having encountered a Russian woman for the first time in his life, telling people about it.)


18 thoughts on “Getting it Wrong on Russia

  1. But it isn’t a Spectator article. It’s a Taki column. He writes this stuff just to wind people up.

  2. I am taking our Boris along to the footie corporate box tomorrow with some other guests, he was elated and truly grateful when invited. Looking forward to seeing him let down his hair a bit and tell a few stories about changing steel pipes out in the middle of winter storm on a Barent Sea Rig and the like.

  3. He writes this stuff just to wind people up.

    Perhaps, but he’s being quoted approvingly in places.

  4. and resource-hungry China on its distant borders

    Tim – from your dealings with Russians, how real do they regard the threat from China? As you have pointed out, much is made by the Russian government of the threats (mainly imagined) posed by the West but little seems to be mentioned of potential Chinese designs on vast wastes of Siberia – or maybe I am not listening in the right places? While the risk of Chinese expansion in that direction is extremely low (at least at the moment), it is surely some orders of magnitude higher than NATO or the EU seeking to seize ‘lebensraum’ (today or in the future). Surely in a more sober moments, when they drop the whole victimhood complex that the West wants to do them down, Russians must admit to the more realistic threats that their country faces?

  5. Tim – from your dealings with Russians, how real do they regard the threat from China?

    They rarely, if ever, mention it. And when they do they say “We have nukes.”

    Surely in a more sober moments, when they drop the whole victimhood complex that the West wants to do them down, Russians must admit to the more realistic threats that their country faces?

    Alas, Russians are spectacularly bad at doing that.

  6. @Tim

    “The greatest predictable threat to Russia in the 1980s was a nuclear war with America; the greatest unknown threat turned out to be the collapse of the USSR”

    I disagree. Unless you equate Russia with the Kremlin (which the Kremlin does), the greatest known, yet largely unadmitted, threat to Russia (and a big chunk of the rest of the world) is the Kremlin and its enablers in the west. The collapse of the USSR, on the other hand, whas a slight chance (which was wasted) for Russia to neutralize that threat.

  7. Russia sold Alaska to the US, There were very few Russians there.
    Now very few Russians in East Siberia (though plenty of oil).
    Census data is unreliable but it seems there are already more Chinese than Russians there.
    Time to do a deal?

  8. Russia like China’s invincibility lies in its defence. The opportunity for victory will be political and it will be through Putin’s exceptionalism that it is taken. That is his role and why he is still around after all this time.

  9. And when they do they say “We have nukes.”

    Thanks Tim. I guess I’m surprised at the Russian complacency. I have seen somewhere that the numbers of Chinese immigrants in some of the Russian Far East outnumber the locals – that may not be correct.

    Russian foreign policy seems to ape in certain aspects that of self-proclaimed special victim groups within Western democracies. Russia, like these groups, seems to have some success in trying to ‘guilt out’ western governments with its supposed grievances (eg the unnecessary expansion of NATO and the EU’s ‘agression’ in Ukraine, each of which receive a sympathetic hearing in many quarters in the West). One gets the feeling that as with the fact any victimhood groups within China (to the extent they exist) have vastly less traction with their government, the Russians similarly know that a foreign policy involving virtue signalling grievance claims will not much of an impression in Beijing. So Moscow behaves accordingly?

  10. Unless you equate Russia with the Kremlin (which the Kremlin does), the greatest known, yet largely unadmitted, threat to Russia (and a big chunk of the rest of the world) is the Kremlin and its enablers in the west.

    That is an excellent point: I have indeed taken “Russia” in the context of this post to mean the country as its government sees it. Taken from the point of view of the citizens and the Russian culture, I agree that probably the biggest threat to them is the current Russian government. It’s not as though Russian governments don’t have a rather alarming history of being the biggest threat to ordinary Russian people.

  11. Come on, this is Taki, a most amusing and, as a rule, sophisticated troll. Plus, he’s of Greek heritage and lets it show from time to time. (Not that I don’t sympathize with the Greek view of the Kosovo affair but it helps to be aware of who’s talking.) He used to be something of a playboy, or at least pretended he was one, but he’s now in his 80s so must be semi-retired.

  12. Alex,

    Sorry, but I’d never heard of him: I just took the words as I found them. If he’s trolling, he’s not putting in much effort other than that required to repeat what half of Zerohedge is saying. At least it explains why this it appeared in The Spectator.

  13. I always assumed Taki owned the Spectator or something – I could see no other reason for them wanting to publish his column, which is often the kind of conspiracy-filled nonsense so loved in the Balkans.

    And yes, nothing so unsightly as an old expat carrying on about young local women. When I lived in China in my early-mid 20s we (I and my equally young friends) generally despised the middle-aged set as a pack of old letches – no doubt they didn’t think much of us either though.

    For observers of Chinese affairs there is much here that is familiar – the hawks who misunderstand a lot about the country, the useful idiots who seem to embibe Chinese propaganda neat and regurgitate it without the slightest introspection.

    RE: the threat from China. Curiously, Chinese do not talk nearly so much about the land taken from China by Russia in the far east as they do about Taiwan and the South China Sea. The Chinese authorities have no interest in stirring up tensions with the Russians at this point, it seems. True nationalists have not forgotten, however.

  14. The Spectator has run Taki’s column since 1977: he’s a fixture with a license to offend. It takes some cheek to say RT “doesn’t do fake news” but a good troll must take the risk of getting mistaken for a stand-up comedian. (On the other hand, it is theoretically possible that RT stopped running fake news after Ofcom sanctioned them in September 2015. Hard to believe, of course, but possible.) Generally speaking, Taki is allowed to say outrageous things his bosses and colleagues at The Spectator wish they could, like calling Polly Toynbee an old hag.

  15. I don’t think China would be interested in a conflict with Russia in a conceivable scenario (you didn’t come up with one). It’s a bogey often wielded by Russian liberals and Westerners. If China would be set on territorial expansion they would first look at Mongolia or Central Asia (yes Russia has nukes) instead of risking any confrontation with Russia. In terms of Chinese migration into Russian’s Far East, the official numbers do not indicate any large influx, one would also wonder why it would happen at this stage, given that the Chinese average wage is now above Russia’s. Long term China’s demographics are not really positive and China will probably be more busy managing its pensioners than keen on territorial expansion.

  16. “I don’t think China would be interested in a conflict with Russia in a conceivable scenario”

    Absolutely, China and Russia will never move on each other, certainly not unilaterally, apart from the fact that their invincibility lies in their defense, they will always fully exploit the risk that the yanks know that an attack by them on either nation could also by default be a declaration of war on the nation not attacked, an enemy of my enemy if my friend. And China and Russia both know that the yanks would massively capitalize on any Sino Russian conflict.

    As for territorial expansion, I think their strategy in the South China Sea is a good example of their cunning negotiating skills. Here they have clearly overreached by any stretch of anyone’s imagination with a territorial claim that is way beyond the pale. When negotiating, it is best to ask for something ten times more than you want at the start only to eventually settle for what you do want at a tenth of your original claim. Look at the map it is a ridiculous claim.

    I think the Chinese know that they will have to relent in this area at some time, but in the meantime, they have shown that they are the king dick of the ASEAN region, sure the Japanese may be planning to send their largest warships to the area but let’s face it the ASEAN nations realize that they are screwed here and will need UN cover to counter any territorial issues in the region. The Chinese know that they must relent on the bases some day and in my view, they will hand them over to the UN, gain some kind of concession and become a registered “claimant” on the territory.

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