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

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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.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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