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Tolstoy’s War and Peace, NATO, and the Ukraine

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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In the last few years we have witnessed, in the very pages of this magazine, a debate on whether or not NATO has become an anachronism of the Cold War, which might have made sense when the West was confronting the former Soviet Union, but makes no sense now, in fact, some maintain, it needs to be jettison from present politics, if for no other reason that the EU needs to make its own decisions without interference from the US.

Usually the issue is debated within a framework of one century, beginning with the start of World War I in 1914. Let’s revisit the issue in the light of the latest development from the Ukraine and also from an historical perspective that goes beyond 1914 by a few centuries. If we do that we may be surprised at how different the whole issue begins to appear.

As we speak, Russia has de facto annexed Crimea and is invading the Eastern part of the Ukraine while the EU has issued an ultimatum of one week before more stringent economic sanctions are approved and implemented. Putin, as the bully that he is, will predictably ignore the ultimatum and go ahead with his interference in Ukrainian affairs. One hears little from EU leaders about strengthening NATO and reinforcing the defenses of all NATO countries. So one may ask: after the downing of an airline over the Ukraine with Soviet provided missiles causing the death of a couple hundred Dutch, are second thoughts being entertained about the viability of NATO? Let’s see.

 It should be obvious to most observers, at least those who do not consider truth simply what is convenient to oneself, that the incursions of Russia into the Ukraine has put to rest the idea, some have called it a myth, that the end of the Cold War has brought permanent peace to Europe, unless we are talking of the permanent peace of a cemetery or a desert where nobody speaks and no controversies ensue. Do we need to brace ourselves for new realities on the ground? Is Russia farther than ever from the West?

Which leads to this question: is Putin testing the NATO alliance’s purpose and commitment? Is US secretary of defense Hagel correct in calling what is going on a “clarifying moment” for the alliance? The time to take a second look at the complacency of the EU in thinking that it had a benign Russia on its eastern borders; the kind of benign cute Disney-like little bear shown by Putin at the Winter Olympics a few months ago, just before he annexed Crimea.

What did Angela Merkel mean with this statement made at the White House: “post-Cold War order has been put in question” by Russia’s aggression. Why did NATO, who has had a formal relationship with Russia since 1997, suspend cooperation with Moscow in light of the Ukrainian problem? What did NATO’s second ranking official, Alexander Vershbow, mean by saying that Russia has compelled NATO to begin viewing it as an adversary. Given that US defense spending on NATO’s collective defense is three times the combined spending of all the EU allies, should they bear a greater share of that defense? Is the end of history really here with the end of the Cold War and the end of European insecurity, a Fukuyama proclaimed some time ago, thus making NATO irrelevant? Is NATO responsible for fomenting conflict with Russia, as some maintain, in as much as they allowed former nations in the Soviet sphere of influence to enter NATO? Or has the West as a whole sought partnership with Russia in as much as their security interests seemed to be converging?  Is Russia still a democratic country, or a half-hearted one? One wonders.
Some may say that the above analysis is highly biased and does not take in consideration Russia’s side of the story. They claim that In the Western media which has a very short attention span, not to speak of ignorance of historical perspective, the prevailing image is that Russia is an aggressor, intent on dominating its neighbors. Western influence is presented as “positive.” Russian influence as “negative.” Joining the EU is depicted as being a road to economic and social prosperity and NATO is offered as a defensive bulwark against the “terrible” Kremlin. Remarkably, at least in the United States, liberals and conservatives are singing the same song. Further, the discourse of “invasion,” “occupation,” “aggression,” and “World War III” is hardly diplomatic. How does anyone believe that negotiations can ensue when such language is thrown about? Of course the other side of that coin is that, if we have learned anything from the beginning of World War II, it is that appeasing of a bully usually means that the bully has to get paid later with greater loss of treasure and blood.

In any case, by contrast, in Moscow, the view of the situation in Ukraine is quite different. It perceives the West as encroaching on countries to which it has been very closely associated. Ukraine (the entire country, East, South, Central, and even West), along with Belarus, is viewed as a fraternal East Slavic nation to which Russia is intimately bound. The capital Kiev is regarded by all Russians as the “mother Russian city,” the common point of origin for all East Slavs. To view Kiev within the boundaries of the EU and NATO is more than just a violation of a sphere of influence. It is a violation of one’s historical heritage. All of which of course does not excuse the use of KBG stratagems to violate the territorial integrity of neighboring sovereign countries.

It does not help that some of the most vocal advocates for Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO come from countries that Russia perceives as historical invaders. They include Poland and Sweden, the co-founders of the Eastern Partnership program that sponsored the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Both countries have a history of animosity toward Russia, but it is Poland in particular that Moscow views as being one of the chief advocates for Western expansionism.

We in the West regard Poland primarily as the victim of Russian aggression, particularly communism. We reflect on Russia’s participation in Poland’s partitions, its suppression of Polish uprisings, the Polish-Soviet War, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyń massacre, and the establishment of communist Poland. Conversely, to a Russian with a sense of history, Poland is perceived as a historical invader, a country that during the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598-1613) supported the Tsar-pretender “False Dmitriy,” attempted to bring Catholicism to Orthodox Russia, and eventually invaded and occupied Moscow in 1609. That invasion was repelled in 1612 by the duo of Kuzma Minin and Dmitriy Pozharsky, whose statue stands today in front of St. Basil’s in Moscow.

Even in more recent times, Russians recall that it was Poland’s Marshal Piłsudski who, during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, not only tried to ensure the freedom of Poland, but also sought to annex to Poland large swathes of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Western Russia to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of old. Piłsudski is still admired by some in Poland today, including members of the political elite such as the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, Jarosław. He is also greatly admired by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Russians likewise recall Polish participation in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is the Polish legion that is depicted as being the most fanatically supportive of an expansion toward Russia, so much so that they drown in the River Viliya for Napoleon. Today, the Russians see very much the same thing, except that Napoleon is now replaced by NATO and that the Poles are now showing their loyalty, not by drowning in the Viliya, but by asking for NATO troops to be stationed in their country.

In another Tolstoyan parallel, Moscow also likely views the Ukrainians who protested on the Maidan as being the modern equivalents of the muzhiks of War and Peace. It was the muzhiks who rose up against their oppressive landlords for Napoleon, who they viewed as the embodiment of the French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité. Today though, the modern landlords are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite and oligarchs, while the liberal ideals of Napoleon and revolutionary France are today the liberal ideals of Brussels and the European Union. Moscow regards the latter ideals in 2014 just as they regarded Napoleon’s ideals in 1812 – that is, as false promises motivated only by geopolitical ambitions rather than by any genuine sense of altruism.

While we should be clear-eyed about the present situation in the Ukraine and remember the bully Hitler, and take Putin’s propaganda machine with a big grain of salt, on the other hand we ought not forget history and its lessons so that we do not end up in another World War by permitting that empty rhetoric, unsupported by the historical facts, gets out control. NATO did not come out of a cloud, it has historical precedents and we better know what they are, before we rush to a mindless defense of democracy, freedom and Western ideals, which in the past have been breached more than observed.

Note: this article has already appeared in Ovi Magazine on November 1, 2014.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Battle for the Arctic: Friends and foes

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According to Western media, the “struggle for the Arctic” is becoming ever more fierce. Moreover, this confrontation is unfolding much faster than expected.

In its recent publication the Swedish Aftonbladet wrote that since  “climate change” has made the Arctic “more accessible, countries taking advantage of it to produce more fossil fuels.” Der Spiegel cites American experts as saying that “temperatures [in the Arctic region] are rising twice as fast compared to average statistics”, while permafrost melting in some regions began “70 years earlier” than predicted. Meanwhile, the US Geological Service estimates the Arctic energy reserves at more than 400 billion barrels of the oil equivalent. The Arctic is home to at least 10% of the world’s yet-to-be-discovered oil reserves, “and as much as 25% of gas,” Aftonbladet reports. In addition, in the medium and long-term perspective, the melting of polar ice makes routes through the Northwest Passage and the Russian Northern Sea Route (NSR) more attractive for commercial navigation, as these routes are , in some cases, are 1.5 – 2 times shorter than the currently used ones. As the number of mineral exploration and development projects grows, along with prospects for increasing shipping volumes, there is a need to strengthen security in the region. Therefore, many observers predict a further “militarization of the Arctic”. “The Arctic is a region whose significance is changing the geoeconomic and geopolitical situation in the whole world,”  -Bloomberg reports.

The current strategic situation in the region is determined by three main trends. The “return” of Russia, the “re-evaluation” of strategy by the United States and the growing interest in China. In the opinion of some Western commentators, the natural from the geographic point of view dependence of the Arctic region on Russia is a geopolitical problem for Europe, Canada and the United States. Nearly half of the coast and the coastal zone of the Arctic belong to the territory of the Russian Federation and its special economic zone, which yields the country up to 15 percent of GDP. In March 2018, Vladimir Putin described the NSR as “key to the development of the Russian Arctic and the regions of the Far East.” Given that the Russian leadership is fully aware of  the challenges associated with such an agenda, Russia’s Decree of May 2018 sets realistic goals: to increase the cargo flow through the NSR by 2024 to 80 million tons. At present, traffic through the Northern Sea Route is considerably less intensive than that through the Suez Canal.

What western commentators are particularly worried about is (quite natural and geographically justified) Russia’s efforts to strengthen its northern borders. Restoration of military infrastructure in the region is being presented as a “return to the Cold War practices.” Moreover, there are open warnings that can be interpreted as threats. The June report of Chatham House says that  “Russia should not assume that it can continue to freely develop the Arctic …. At present, Russia is determining the future of military activity in the Arctic. However, it’s time for the West and NATO to secure parity of potential in this region.” “We should not allow Moscow to continue to consider its military activity on the vast expanses of the region decisive”.

In May, the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that Russia “was already far ahead” of other countries not only in the military, but also in the economic development of the Arctic. Nevertheless, the West believes that the current sanctions that restrict Russian access to oil exploration and production technologies in the severe conditions of the North force Russia to partially change its priorities and focus on developing LNG projects and transport corridors instead. And Russia has been successful at that, they say: the Russian icebreaking fleet is the world’s most numerous and most powerful. Three new ships have already been put into operation, “capable of breaking ice up to three meters thick.” Such icebreakers will allow Russia to redirect part of the world’s transport routes to the NSR in the foreseeable future. And by using ice-class LNG tankers, which are currently under construction, Russia gets the opportunity to “deliver gas to customers around the world”, without being dependent on the existing pipeline systems, Stern writes.

The United States is also showing interest in the economic opportunities which spring up as the polar ice melts. The incumbent administration has reversed Obama’s decision, banning the drilling of test wells off the coast of Alaska.  Donald Trump “pays a lot of attention to the Arctic in words but take little action to this effect,” Bloomberg says, describing the Bering Strait as “a potential Persian Gulf of the future.” Meanwhile, the US practical potential in the Arctic is still limited: it has 1-2 icebreakers, while Russia has 14. So far, there is no program for the development of the region: recently, Trump gave up on his initial plans to build new icebreakers. 

In the meantime, many American experts believe that security remains Washington’s top priority in the Arctic. The Arctic joins together North America, Asia and Europe. Through this region, military experts fear, lies the shortest route for potential missile and air strikes against America from the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, Washington plans to strengthen missile defense and aviation forces. And this is not a new strategy. Back in January 2007, the United States adopted Directive No. 66 on National Security, which declared the presence of “broad and fundamental” interests in the Arctic region. It signals readiness “to act either independently or jointly with other states in order to protect these interests.” In 2012, the US Secretary of State described her country as “a leading state in the high latitudes of the planet,” and Norway, a NATO ally, as “the capital of the Arctic”. Last October, Norway hosted the largest NATO military exercises since the end of the Cold War, called Trident Juncture, with the participation of up to 40 thousand servicemen from all countries of the alliance, as well as military personnel from two northern countries that are not members of NATO – Sweden and Finland. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, recently described the Arctic as an “arena of rivalry between world powers.” Pompeo did not forget to blame Russia for planning to “use force”, and China – for demonstrating a “model of aggressive behavior.” All this dispels any doubts that for NATO, the Arctic is becoming a strategic scene of military activity.

In addition to the United States, NATO maintains its presence in the Arctic region through its two other members, Canada and Norway. The latter owns the strategically important Svalbard archipelago. At the same time, there is mutual understanding among countries that are members of the Arctic Council regarding the importance of resolving security issues “solely between them.” Nevertheless, “Russia in Global Politics” remarks, the presence of an extensive and well-developed legal framework for regulating the Arctic does not prevent “an increasing number of countries” from trying to provide cooperation in the region with a wide “international dimension”.

In particular, the European Union has not been giving up on attempts to obtain the status of observer with the Arctic Council. While doing so, the EU has consistently cast doubt on the legal status of the NSR as a Russian national transport artery. The EU is also advocating an exceptional priority of norms of international law in the Arctic, primarily the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, while “deliberately forgetting” about the country level of regulation. In contrast to Russia, the EU is pursuing ambitious plans for the development of a transport hub in Kirkenes, which is seen as an alternative to the ports of the Russian NSR. In 2018, the Norwegian city became the terminating point of a railway route from Europe to the Arctic. According to the Arctic Corridor Project, the route is to be built from the northern coast of Norway to the planned tunnel under the Gulf of Finland to Estonia, and then across Europe to Berlin. By connecting the Arctic Corridor with a transit route through the NSR, the EU hopes to transform Kirkenes into a major logistics hub for Chinese goods which are planned to be transported to Europe as part of the Polar Silk Road Project. But critics of this project rightfully fear that if the EU becomes an observer of the Arctic Council, it could provoke similar claims on the part of NATO.

China declared its interests in the Arctic in 2013, when it joined the Arctic Council as an observer. Such a move sent the West into  bewilderment. According to the Pentagon, Beijing artificially “appropriated” the status of an “Arctic state”. However, China has already opened research stations in Iceland and Svalbard with a view to explore the Arctic. In January 2018, Beijing unveiled the White Paper titled China’s Arctic Policy. An analysis of the text gives grounds to consider Beijing’s approach a multi-faceted one. On the one hand, the document contains passages that suggest China’s readiness to recognize the legal priority of the Arctic countries, their national level of regulation in the Arctic. However, some passages echo the point of view of the United States.

At present, China is promoting the above mentioned  concept of the “Polar Silk Road”, which aims to provide it with natural resources and alternative shipping routes for export purposes. According to estimates by the Chinese Institute for Polar Research, Arctic routes will account for 5 to 15 percent of China’s foreign trade by 2020. Western experts are keeping a close eye on the progressive development of cooperation between China and Russia. Investors from China own shares in a number of large-scale  industrial and infrastructure projects implemented by Russia beyond the Arctic Circle. One of such projects is Yamal-LNG, the gas reserves of which are estimated in the West higher than at “all US gasfields.”  According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “China’s ambitions in the region do not seem to disturb Moscow yet.” Moreover, Russia is counting on Chinese investment in the NSR.

The main “battles” around the status of the Arctic are unravelling in the legal sphere. The debate is centered on two issues: the external borders of the continental shelf and its delimitation in the central part of the Arctic Ocean, and freedom of navigation. The legal position of the Russian Federation, backed by geography, gives a “broad” definition of the boundaries of the NSR, explaining that this route follows more than one way and is not fixed. Russia’s main foes on this issue are the United States and the EU. They do not recognize the priority rights of the Arctic states, primarily Russia and Canada, to regulate shipping in Arctic waters. Moscow’s decisions to introduce a permit procedure for the passage of foreign ships and, in particular, warships, as well as a mandatory use of Russian icebreaking and piloted convoys, are considered as a loose interpretation of Art. 234 of the 1982 Convention.

In general, despite the fact that Russia and the United States have potentially common interests related to the desire of the polar countries to avoid “internationalization” of regional regulation issues, the Arctic is becoming another point of discord in a series of geopolitical differences around the globe. In May this year, the Arctic Council “for the first time in its history” failed to agree on a declaration on the results of its meeting. According to one report, the US opposed the clause on “the need to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement”. According to other reports, this was because the US accused China of promoting its economic and military interests in the region in an “inappropriate way”.

Moscow is fully aware of the gains from the development of the Arctic at a qualitatively new level. The Russian leadership is also aware of the fact that this will require multibillion investments over many years. Not to mention efforts that will be required for the protection of national interests in one of the least developed regions of the planet. Russia’s consistent position on this issue will undoubtedly yield economic fruit over time, but this fruit will have to be fought for.

From our partner International Affairs

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Towards the First All-African Conference in Sochi

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As Russia prepares to strengthen its overall corporate economic profile during the African leaders’ summit, policy experts are questioning bilateral agreements that were signed, many of them largely remained unimplemented, at least, for the past decade with various African countries.

Experts, such as Professors Vladimir Shubin and Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, Institute for African Studies in Moscow, have argued that Russia needs to be more strategic in aligning its interests, and be more proactive with instruments and mechanisms in promoting economic cooperation in order to reap the benefits of a fully-fledged partnership.

“The most significant positive sign is that Russia has moved away from its low-key strategy to vigorous relations, and authorities are seriously showing readiness to compete with other foreign players. But, Russia needs to find a strategy that really reflects the practical interests of Russian business and African development needs,” said Arkhangelskaya, who is also a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics.

Currently, the signs for Russian-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements entered into previously will be implemented in practice, she pointed out in the interview.

The revival of Russia-African relations have to be enhanced in all fields. Obstacles to the broadening of Russian-Africa relations have to be addressed more vigorously. These include, in particular, the lack of knowledge or information in Russia about the situation in Africa, and vice versa, suggested Arkhangelskaya.

In his opinion, Professor Shubin, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, reiterated: “Russia is not doing enough to communicate to the broad public, particularly in Africa, true information about its domestic and foreign policies as well as the accomplishments of Russian culture, the economy, science and technology in order to form a positive perception of Russia abroad and a friendly attitude towards it as stated by the new Concept of the Foreign Policy.

Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Research Director at the Valdai International Discussion Club and Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertize on Russian foreign policy and global developments – has acknowledged that Chinese strategy in Africa is about to get access to resources, vitally important for Chinese development. To achieve this, Beijing use all leverage, including soft power, technical and economic assistance, political support to leaders of African countries (be it Zimbabwe’s Mugabe or Sudan’s Bashir).

“Russia has not similar need to gain African resources, so there is no motivation to develop such a comprehensive approach. We can identify many aspects of Chinese experience which would be useful to learn, but looking realistically I don’t think Russia will ever do it,” Lukyanov wrote in an emailed interview.

The media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase the level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well, he suggested and added that “soft power has never been a strong side of Russian policy in the post-Soviet era.”

London based Business Consultant and Director, Irina Awote, explained in an emailed interview that increasingly, the African continent is witnessing a surge in the number of infrastructure and investment deals requiring a combination of both internal and external financing, increased capital for expansion. And indeed, she says Russia has to demonstrate its preparedness for all these.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia primarily focused on building and strengthening its internal economy, she explained.  Awote, however, added “today, the Russian economy and Russian industries have come a long way since the Soviet collapse – the Russian economy is a lot stronger than in the first two decades following the Soviet collapse, at the same time many Russian enterprises have since evolved and developed, many through partnerships with international organizations.”

As such, there has been, for a long time, interest from Russia to revive its old economic ties with Africa. Russia and Russian enterprises are in a much stronger position to capitalize on this opportunity than a few decades ago. At the same time, not ignoring the fact that the continued economic sanctions imposed by the West, has made Russia reinforce its strategic partnerships with other regions, and especially Africa where they have had good historical ties from the Soviet era, according Irina Awote.

Late July, Bogdanov held talks with the President of Burkina Faso, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and further discussed about military-technical cooperation while meeting with the Minister of National Defense and Veteran Affairs, Moumina Sheriff Sy, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Burkina Faso, Alpha Barry, and Vice-President of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso, K. Traore.

Reports indicated that Moscow and Ouagadougou had agreed to further develop the entire range of relations including deepening the political dialogue, expanding trade and economic cooperation, promoting promising mutually beneficial projects, strengthening partnerships in the areas of developing mineral resources, energy, transport and agriculture.

Working with Sierra Leone has been on the table for years. Quite recently, Bogdanov and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Republic of Sierra Leone Solomon Jamiru also held diplomatic talks, rounded up the discussion on fishing ventures, military-technical cooperation and the forthcoming Russia-Africa Summit.

On Aug 1, while attending the official inauguration of the new leader in Mauritania, Bogdanov used the opportunity to discuss about current relations with President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. The President of Mauritania elected on June 22, 2019. Both agreed on possible ways for strengthening aspects the existing relations. An official report says the common interest of Moscow and Nouakchott is giving additional dynamics to the development of mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields, primarily in the field of marine fishing and the development of natural resources, as well as the personnel training in Russia.

Over the past two to three months, Bogdanov has met with nearly all African ambassadors accredited in the Russian Federation. The key issue here is to explore opportunities for expected stronger collaboration and dialogue them on African leaders’ and business people’s participation in the upcoming Sochi Summit.

According to the official information posted to the ministry’s website, Minister Bogdanov during these high-level meetings described 2019 as a momentous year for Russian-African relations, and the culmination of all activities would see the first full-format Summit and Economic Forum, on the sidelines of which a number of new bilateral and multilateral agreements are expected to be signed.

About 35 leaders of African countries have officially confirmed their participation in the Russia-Africa Summit, according to Bogdanov. “Almost all of them want to come. About 35 leaders have officially confirmed their participation. I believe at least 40 leaders will come. We do feel our partners’ commitment and their keen interest.”

Since his appointment in 2004, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has distinctively done a lot for Africa. Speaking in an exclusive interview as far back on October 21, 2011, (simultaneously with the Voice of Russia, the Echo of Moscow and the Radio of Russia) Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov informed listeners that “the main thing is to develop mutual economic ties, something that is yet to be implemented as far as our relations with African nations are concerned.”

Now, the situation is gradually changing. The Russia-Africa summit will be the first in a series of activities under the aegis and direction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian Ministry of Energy, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development, as well as legislative bodies and public organizations. During the past decades, a number of foreign countries notably China, the United States, European Union, India, France, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea have held such gatherings in that format.

This first Russia-Africa summit is expected to enhance mutual multifaceted ties, reshape diplomatic relationships and significantly rollout ways to increase effectiveness of cooperation between Russia and Africa. The idea to hold a Russia-Africa forum first initiated by President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in July 2018.

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Neo-Kennan Paranoia and the Hope for Russia’s Downfall

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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For more than two decades I have written about missed opportunities and egregious missteps on the part of America (sometimes accidental, sometimes seemingly deliberate) when it comes to establishing a new relationship dynamic with Russia that could be positive strategic if not necessarily truly friendly. For about that same amount of time I have traveled all across my native country of America, openly inviting and challenging any and all comers to respectfully but critically debate the issues and ideas that hinder this new relationship from emerging. For the most part, those entreaties and invitations have been ignored, refused, or openly derided. Now, admittedly, I would love to think this apparent reluctance to intellectually engage on stage before an interested public was motivated by dread fear of my incredible talent, intelligence, and debating skills. But alas, in all likelihood, the real reason for this lack of engagement is based on the simple fact that too many of the powerful institutions, agencies, and bodies in America are purposely set to maintain a negative relationship with Russia and see that it will not be allowed to move beyond tired standards set back during the worst of the Cold War-era. But, as they say, no worthy fight should ever be abandoned. As such, this article is yet one more attempt on my part to bring light to this purposeful paranoia and expose for it for the fake and flawed intellectualism that it is.

The focus of today’s effort is on a recently published piece in Politico.com by an international security professor working at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Now, for those that do not know the NDU, it is a magnificent and important institution, technically closed to the general public, as it trains and educates those already in the employ of the American Intelligence Community and those deeply engaged within the national security industry writ large. It is a place of deep thought, serious reflection, and total devotion to the security and well-being of the United States. This is why my focus on the recent article, “The Best Way to Deal with Russia: Wait for It to Implode,” is of such importance. If institutions as noted, respected, accomplished, and important as NDU can produce ideas so off-the-mark, then there needs to be some effort from somewhere to challenge those ideas. Otherwise, the national attitude on Russia has no chance but to remain stale and ignorant.

The first point to remark on is the telegraphing of intent in the article. The author, whom I have nothing but respect for in terms of his service and commitment to American security, culled the present article from a forthcoming book which he commands as a ‘neo-Kennanite’ approach to Russia. For those who may not know or have forgotten the importance of George Kennan’s genius, he really can be cited as the inspiration, the godfather, behind American Cold War ideology. Mind, this is not written as a refutation or rejection. Kennan’s words and philosophy (born from the post-WWII 1940s-50s) were indeed needed and necessary in the global circumstance at the time. What matters here, however, is the idea of someone trying to formulate a ‘neo-Kennan’ approach in 2019 which, if it stays logically consistent, is ideologically committed to justifying and maintaining a thought process at any cost which isolates Russia as a rival and enemy, just as Kennan did with the Soviet Union nearly 70 years earlier.

The problem, of course, for those who wish to work on new platforms and create new relationship foundations for Russia and America, is that there is nothing new about ‘neo-Kennanism.’ It is, de facto, a testimony to and application of Cold War thinking to modern Russia. It is a reduction of modern Russia so as to see it as nothing but a mimic of the old Soviet Union eternally. Indeed, it is a predetermined engineering of the narrative so that Russia has no other course, is able to achieve no other path, in its relations with America. As such, it is not a reflection of modern reality at all but a fantastical framing so as to make sure modernity does nothing but mirror the past. This tired approach must be discarded as much for its reckless dangerousness as for its lethargic inaccuracy.

In the very first paragraph of the article, the author decries what a giant threat Russia represents for its targeted interference in the 2016 American Presidential election and its alleged desire to continue such interference as America heads into 2020. While there is no doubt such attempts are indeed illegal under American law, the author does not mention the fact that every piece of evidence to date indicates Russian attempts to actually alter or interfere with real election technology proved unsuccessful. As a result, the real concentrated effort on the part of Russia was an expansive social media disinformation campaign, largely contained within Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Breakdowns of that disinformation campaign reveal almost laughably biased attempts to sway the minds of the American public, both left and right. If one argues that campaign was successful, then isn’t at least some, if not most, of the blame firmly resting in the gullible and intellectually lazy minds of American citizens, who did not bother to vet, check, or investigate the things they came across on social media?

Perhaps more bothersome, the author quotes an intelligence professional who admits that the American Intelligence Community is now, in response, doing far more than it has ever done before to Russian civil society, including stepped-up attacks on Russia’s power grid. The problem with this, obviously, is that the author is calling Russian social media attacks as grounds for maintaining Russia as a ‘deadly’ threat but openly ignores America’s own response, which, given it is an attempted incursion on critical Russian national infrastructure, is arguably far more threatening and far more dangerous. Finally, in this infantile tit-for-tat environment, why is anyone in America even feigning shock that the Russians would continue its own campaigns? The current dilemma between the two countries is far less Cold War and far more children on the school ground. The failure to openly and self-critically assess these kinds of positions (and whether they truly mark dangerous threats) makes American national strategy on Russia not only flawed: it drives it into dead-end corners of its own making.

The author also makes somewhat grandiose but utterly off-base assessments of the state of current Russian power, claiming it is far less stable today than the end of the Romanov dynasty and highlights supposed ethnic republican strife that could challenge the very territorial integrity of the Russian Federation as a whole. Again, with no disrespect to the author, these arguments are simply…WRONG. It is either a misreading of history (ie, not understanding just how flagrantly unstable and chaotic the end of the Romanov dynasty was) or an emotionally inaccurate and hyperbolic characterization of present-day Russia (ie, not realizing just how little ethnic unity there is between the so-called Finno-Ugric nationalities largely existing throughout Southern Russia). The citing of some relatively localized and entirely powerless youth/citizen groups in Bashkortastan and Tatarstan, respectively, is hardly evidence to make an argument as wild as millions of citizens are simply waiting for Putin to no longer be President so as to seek out their own state independence. This is simply false. As someone who has done research on the ground in both Ufa and Kazan, the capital cities of said republics, these leaps of illogic are more a reflection of American wishful thinking for the disintegration of Russia than real scholarly research built on painstakingly collected empirical data. This also hints at another egregious misconception often professed by American Russian experts: that the current Russian state is nothing but a megalomaniacal dictatorship revolving entirely around the whims of Putin’s personality. Again, this is completely inaccurate: a hyper-presidential system not entirely enamored with the American system of democracy, which Russia definitely is, is not a synonym for what Stalin created. It simply isn’t. Writing articles where you pretend that it is doesn’t make it so.

This position is only more erroneously pounded upon with statements that are both flat wrong and perhaps purposely taken out of context. Vyacheslav Volodin is incorrectly named as Putin’s Chief of Staff, a position he departed from in 2016 in order to run successfully for the Duma, where he now sits as its Speaker. In addition, Volodin’s 2014 quote of ‘there is no Russia without Putin’ was purposely misappropriated in the article. It was used as evidence for how dictatorial Russia had become. In reality, that quote came as Volodin was head of Putin’s presidential re-election campaign and was said as a reference to how none of Russia’s current success and progress could have been achieved without the efforts of Putin’s previous terms as President. It was literally standard campaign-PR bravado that we see already nearly every day in America as it gears up for 2020. Reframing it to push as false evidence of a modern-day Stalinist Russia is extremely flagrant. Worthy of a Russian disinformation campaign, in fact.

Finally, the author states that the fact that modern Russia no longer has a strong unifying ideology like it did back in the Soviet Union Communist hey-day means it is primed for divisional strife and ultimate disintegration. Most of what I have written above already proves how that is yet another example of hyperbolic political posturing/propagandizing. But I would also be remiss to not point out how the very argument itself is in contradiction with the other ‘pieces of evidence’ used in the article to justify keeping Russia the dread enemy of America. Russia has either remade itself into a modern-day equivalent of Stalinist Soviet dictatorship OR it is a mere shadow pathetic shell of itself barely keeping all of its disgruntled peoples under one bann er, desperately afraid of splitting into a dozen little pieces. It cannot be both at the same time. This article, without realizing it, argues that very thing.

So, for the so-called neo-Kennanites, I have bad news: Russia is not ready to disintegrate and even Putin’s exit from the political stage will not trigger a massive ethnic upheaval. Unfortunately, for the so-called neo-Kennanites, I have even worse news: the only group that likely needs to disintegrate, not only because it mishandles contemporary Russian analysis but pushes a political agenda that actually weakens, not strengthens, American national security, is the neo-Kennanite group itself.

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