Recently I’ve had the pleasure of running across two excellent articles regarding Russia’s recent attempt to hit back at Western sanctions by depriving millions of consumers and potentially destroying thousands of local businesses.
Let me start by presenting this piece by Natalia Antonova. If you haven’t heard of Antonova, know that she used to work for The Moscow News and RIA Novosti. She also has a personal blog which is definitely worth following. One of the most entertaining things about her blog is that for some reason it seems to attract a lot of creepy, misogynistic stalker types who she exposes and mocks from time to time. I’m telling you these guys are so stereotypical they almost seem like someone’s deliberate parody of the “M’lady”-spouting, chivalrous “gentleman” or the “red pill” expat archetype. If you visit her blog for no other reason, you’ve got to see at least one of these bizarre creatures in action. Alright, enough plugs.
The reason I’m blogging about her article is because she points out something which I feel Julia Ioffe totally missed in her recent article regarding the import ban on foodstuffs. Ioffe, who is by no means alone among journalists when it comes to this topic, has either intentionally or unintentionally implied that this ban will be felt most keenly by Muscovite hipsters, the “creative class.” In her defense, her perception could have been skewed because she was following the reaction of various Russian bloggers who belong to that crowd.
Antonova corrects this by pointing out that it isn’t just the upscale supermarkets like Aliye Parusa or Azbuka Vkusa and their well-to-do clientele who are affected by this ban. In fact just hours ago I ran across this story about how the Finnish dairy products company Valio has stopped all production for export to Russia. This isn’t some line of “elite” products. We’re talking things like spread cheese, maybe butter. The shelves of ordinary supermarkets, even those far from Moscow, hold foreign products. And even if one argues that the list is limited today, even if the Kremlin has no plans to expand it people know that they can do so at any given time. Once again the Kremlin shows weakness, hurts its own people, and undermines trust and stability. Great move, guys!
Moving on to the other article, I thought it deserved recognition for being very unique in that it presents four very different viewpoints, three of them being rather objective and thus making the article uniquely balanced. It provides a photo of Donbas refugees, reminding people that while Russian claims of ethnic cleansing or atrocities may be bullshit, there is a humanitarian crisis in the Donbas and civilians are caught in the crossfire. If sympathy for the victims in Gaza is mainstream, I don’t see why we can’t do the same for Eastern Ukrainians who may never have desired to be a part of Russia.
There is bad news though; I do have to take issue with the second piece in the article by James Nixie of Chatham House. While he does make a good case and avoids blatant bias or sensationalism, I get a strong sense of concern trolling from what he wrote.
The problem starts when he is describing two extreme sides of the spectrum when it comes to Russia. He talks about how rabid anti-Russia critics are accused of being Cold Warriors who live in the past, but then he presents a counter-argument in their favor, implying that they were proved right, without any criticism. Then he gets to the other side, which I will quote so that I can demonstrate my problem with his analysis.
Those who think more charitably toward Russia are, to my mind, a more interesting bunch.
When you read the words “think more charitably toward Russia” keep in mind he’s comparing that to the opposite extreme. So there’s a huge implication there, particularly since he doesn’t really define what he means by thinking more charitably toward Russia. Are we talking about principled attempts at being objective or just more nuanced thinking, or are we talking about full-on Team Russia? That seems important because while he is pretty level-headed, he does reveal a bit of a slant which I’ll explain after this part where he describes those more charitable thinkers. I supply my commentary for each item.
Their rationale for thinking the way they do appears to be among the following:
– they have spent insufficient time in the other former Soviet states (such as Ukraine) and thus are overly impressed by Russia
I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make here. It implies that other former Soviet states might be as good as, if not better than Russia. That can certainly be the case in some former Soviet states like those of the Baltics, though they do have some serious issues of their own, but what if you spent your time in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan? And is he implying that Ukraine is impressive? I’ll be the first to admit that I liked Kyiv more than Moscow, at least before a bunch of dipshits destroyed it. Still, the fact that Ukraine was far worse off than Russia in almost every category was the reason why Maidan happened in the first place. Again I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make. It’s like saying a person hasn’t spent enough time in other Russian cities besides Moscow, and thus they are overawed by that city. Sure, Kazan has improved greatly and is one of Russia’s most developed cities, but that doesn’t change the fact that opportunities and living standards are far greater in Moscow.
– good old fashioned left-wing thinking or anti-Americanism (America is bad so Russia must be good… or at least no worse)
I don’t take kindly to the conflation of this kind of vulgar anti-Americanism with “left-wing thinking” of any sort. There have been plenty of right-wingers who gravitate towards Russia and I would go so far as to say most die-hard Russian supporters are likely to be conservative. The “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thinking is in full-swing, but they are attracted to Russia’s phony image of a guardian of “traditional” values.
– they make money in Russia or their income is dependent on it;
Okay this hits a little close to home. For one thing, he ignores the fact that many critics of Russia used to make tons of money off of it until they were kicked off the gravy train. Then suddenly they had a change of heart and decided that their real concern was democracy and human rights. The late Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky are two examples who come to mind.
Tim Kirby could fall under this category, since he has clearly made a profitable career off of Russia. I make money in Russia and depend on it, but that’s because I live and work here and I have a family to take care of. I continued working here because I saw that my skills were in high demand here, so I endured all the problems in order to make money and be productive. Should I have stayed home and continued doing the backbreaking labor I used to do? If an investor moves his capital abroad because he sees it as more profitable, he gets lauded for his business acumen. If a worker breaks the bonds of national borders to go where they can get better pay for their skills, they’re looked at as a job-stealing parasite or in my case some kind of traitor.
The truth is our lives are dominated by capital. If you don’t own capital in one form or the other, you are at the mercy of the market and other factors far beyond your control. Believe me, I’m feeling that very strongly right now.
– they are ‘great power realists’ who believe that big states dominate have always dominated the small and so it must always be. It’s not very nice but at least it will help keep the peace if we keep Russia happy and give it what it wants;
This can be a bit of a strawman. Realistically, in a capitalist world rich, powerful countries dominate weaker ones. Of course it’s not always big dominating the small. The recent sanctions and the Russian government’s flailing, impotent response shows that large nations which neglect their economy can find themselves without leverage. Russia’s leaders just assumed that size, nuclear weapons, oil, and gas would guarantee it regional superpower status. They guessed wrong.
In any case, it would be good to think back to late last year and remember that Ukraine, which had been used as a political football by Russia and the EU for years, was basically delivered an ultimatum to sign a free trade agreement which would be most profitable for European businesses. Russia’s counter-offer was essentially the same thing. Only an idiot could believe that the terms could possibly benefit Ukraine more than the side offering the treaty.
So this is one of those issues where you only get to condemn it if you are against capitalism, the system that drives this kind of disparity between nations.
– finally, for some, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Having visited Russia in the 1990s and possessing a vague interest in international affairs should not be mistaken for expertise.
On this I totally agree, because prior to moving here I was that guy who visited Russia in the 90’s for a short time and became an insta-expert. Now it’s hard to come up with a single thing I believed about Russia in the period between 1999 and 2006 which was actually correct. Having said that, and more importantly having now spent more of my adult life in Russia rather than the United States, I must say that expertise also doesn’t come from four years of classroom instruction and a summer or two in Russia. I’m not saying this about Mr. Nixey, but those types are out there and they occupy both sides of the fence when it comes to Russia.
The next disturbing thing Nixey writes comes in the form of another list, which I will treat similarly.
I would like to think that if the evidence changed, then so would my views (what’s the alternative? To hold steadfastly to one’s views even when fresh and contradictory evidence becomes available?)
This is a sentiment I greatly respect, but keep in mind that Mr. Nixey did not specify what he meant by thinking more charitably toward Russia, so we don’t know what mistaken views he’s really talking about here.
Sadly however, the evidence thus far is damning in its sheer volume as well as in its content and variety.
What’s about to follow is a list of grievances against Russia that I assume is supposed to make people think less charitably toward Russia. Among totally legitimate complaints, he slips in some not-so-honest items which I will point out below.
– the prosecution of an horrific war in Chechnya killing tens of thousands;
“An horrific war?” There were two wars in Chechnya, the first actually claiming more casualties than the second. And who prosecuted that first war? Yeltsin, not Putin. Now one might ask why that matters since it was still Russia. I agree that this is legitimate, and I don’t buy the Yeltsin’s Russia/Putin’s Russia dichotomy, but I do know that Yeltsin never experienced anything like Putin when it comes to criticism of the Chechen conflict. He crushed his own people with tanks and soldiers and got away with it too. For all his faults, who could possibly expect Putin not to take notice of that?
– the dismemberment of an independent oil company – Yukos – and theft of its assets;
To be fair, it was stolen from a thief. You know what they say about honor among thieves. But that’s just it- Putin is a symptom, not the disease.
– the expulsion of British Council offices from Russian cities;
Granted I don’t know much about what British Council actually does, but I’m not sure if this is a terrible stain on Russia’s record. In fact if they provide free or low-cost English language training, fuck ’em, I say.
– overt support for Yanukovych in the obviously rigged 2004 Ukrainian election;
While this is indeed bad let’s not forget he won an election democratically later down the road, which to be honest doesn’t bode well for the reputation of liberal democracy if such a corrupt man can be so elected. But realistically speaking, the West heavily backed candidates which were favorable to their interests. Expecting a country like Russia not to have interests in its own neighborhood is just naive and literally unfair. You can criticize the way Russia acts in furtherance of its interests, but not the idea that Russia should have interests at all. Again though, we’re talking capitalist world here.
– reneging on international treaties (Energy Charter, INF, Helsinki Accords, Budapest agreement);
Not going to dispute this as a lot of it is out of my field of expertise, but I take international treaties and law with a grain of salt ever since the Iraq War. I know this is going to set off whataboutery alarms, but I’ve noticed a clear pattern by which countries like the US cite international law when it suits them, then claim it’s irrelevant when it doesn’t, a behavior I often observed in supporters of the Bush administration. As St. Augustine wrote, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
– selling weapons to the Syrian regime;
Because Western countries never sell arms to authoritarian regimes, and certainly not Middle Eastern dictatorships. And I don’t care what anyone says- Better to sell all the arms you can to Assad than ISIS or rebels who might end up turning them over to ISIS and similar groups. Also I noticed he didn’t mention Gaddafi. I wonder if that had anything to do with the fact that the US and some Western countries had been selling him some kind of military equipment or supplies up until 2010(based on what I read about those countries reducing these sales at the time).
– the invasion of Georgia, ripping two territories away from it;
Okay here we’ve got a major problem. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone over this, but Georgia declared Soviet law null and void. It was the USSR which determined that Abkhazia and South Ossetia were to be autonomous SSRs inside of the Georgian SSR, which under Soviet law meant they did not have the right to secede. Declaring that law void and the USSR an “illegal occupation” certainly would give the Georgians an argument for claiming those territories and not granting them autonomy, but it also gives the Abkhaz and Ossetian people the right to secede from Georgia. After all, were they not also “illegally occupied” by the Soviet regime in Moscow, and forced into the composition of Georgia? Clearly those people thought they had that right, because they fought for it in 1992 and 1993.
Georgia launched an ill-advised offensive in 2008 against Ossetia and violated a ceasefire. Indeed, Russian forces did invade actual Georgian territory, but they quickly vacated it, indicating that this offensive was aimed at neutralizing retreating Georgian forces. The idea that you must break all contact with a retreating enemy force the second it crosses an imaginary line isn’t taught in any war academy as far as I know.
– the invasion of Crimea, ripping it from Ukraine;
– an absence of free and fair elections;
Agreed, but then this was always the case, including during the Yeltsin regime which was praised by the West and Russian “liberals” alike. In fact American PR advisers even saved Yeltsin’s ass in 1996 in a very suspicious campaign. Apparently there’s a Hollywood film about it.
– total control over the television media;
Though they have tried to shut it down via indirect means, they haven’t managed to kill Dozhd TV.
– a poor human rights record (assassinations of journalists, Pussy Riot’s incarceration, political prisoners etc);
This could apply to many countries which do not receive anything like the treatment given to Russia, at least by the press if not by politicians. Also I can’t think of a single journalist assassination which has actually been linked to the Russian government. I can think of at least one, Paul Klebnikov, who was most likely assassinated by that crusader for human rights and democracy in Russia, the late Boris Berezovsky. You didn’t see a lot of talk about that.
– the lack of an independent judiciary;
– predatory state-owned corporate enterprises run by security service officials with little regard for sanctity of contract or corporate social responsibility.
I always get suspicious when I see people use terms like “state-owned” as if we’re supposed to see that as inherently bad. Norway has at least one oil corporation that is 100% state-owned, if the information I read is accurate. In the case of Russia, lack of rule of law and the flagrant cronyism is beyond a shadow of a doubt, but all this means is that state ownership can go both ways. When run according to strict rules and for the benefit of the public, they can have amazing results as in Norway. Or like the steel-manufacturing giant POSCO, a state can build up an enterprise before privatizing it when it is prepared to compete on a global scale, as Korean economist Ha Joon Chang points out.
Now we get to Nixey’s conclusion.
However bad the west can be, whatever its misdemeanours – and there are plenty, there’s no doubt – its recent record is not this bad.
What does he mean by “recent record?” Some of the most egregious things on his list happened as far back as 1993. In that case there are a bit more than plenty “misdemeanors.” I would say the invasion of Iraq, which is now descending into radical terrorist chaos threatening to claim thousands more lives, is actually a pretty serious felony rather than a misdemeanor. The fact that he ignores this reveals a clear bias. And he doesn’t get to claim whataboutery here since he opened the door to comparisons.
Reporting on Russia, for real balance, should concede what must be conceded but reflect the fact that there is no moral equivalence.
Whenever you hear think tank pundits telling you there is no moral equivalence, beware. What has Mr. Nixey basically just told us here? I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I feel you could rephrase that as “admit the facts but still arbitrarily dismiss any equivalency.” It’s not that I’m terribly opposed to what he’s saying in this case, but it’s a dangerous habit that can be used to justify pretty horrible policies.
The West continually talks about democracy and human rights, ergo it should hold itself to a higher standard. For years they were happy to make profits off of Russia while snubbing every overture Putin made toward them, particularly his offer of Russian membership in NATO. This refusal to acknowledge Putin at that time could not have been conducive to making the kind of political or economic reforms necessary to be a part of that world. You could even say he was “taught” that the West only wanted oil and gas from Russia, and was happy to turn a blind eye to whatever he did so long as it didn’t hurt the profits of their investors.
Another reason for not letting the West off the hook is that as recent events have proved, they are still far more powerful economically, socially, and militarily. The US, for example, had every opportunity to not invade Iraq. It’s not as if the US economy was collapsing, Bush was in his third term, corruption was rampant, and thus a military campaign was necessary to silence the masses in the name of patriotism. The West could have pressured the Ukrainian government to suppress right-wing nationalists. The US could have stayed out of the debacle altogether and let the EU take responsibility for the whole thing. John McCain could have stayed home instead of telling the protesters that the United States was uncritically supportive of them. And NATO could certainly prevent the Ukrainian army from indiscriminately bombing and shelling populated areas. In the case of Russia, Putin’s really not in total control of the rebel insurgency. Plenty of other observers have expressed this idea before me, i.e. the idea that Putin has unleashed forces which are no longer under his control.
Given these facts, I am suspicious of anyone who uses the claim of no moral equivalency when it seems to let the West totally off the hook. You could almost say that the West acted like something of a bad parent to the emerging Russia of 1991. That parent didn’t pay any attention to Russia’s problems or needs, it was dismissive of its ideas and requests, it refused to acknowledge its good deeds, it was arbitrary, and it fed it junk food and junk ideas. Now it’s dealing with the angsty, pissed off teenager whose lashing out and rebelling. This doesn’t absolve the Russian government or even the Russian people of responsibility, but they aren’t going to take responsibility and progress if the West doesn’t do the adult thing and set an example.
Indeed, on many issues there is no equivalency between Russia and the West, but before making a blanket statement declaring there to be no moral equivalency altogether, it might be helpful to remember that this works both ways. Thus far Russia has yet to fully invade and conquer a sovereign country on totally flimsy pretexts, causing well over 100,000 civilian casualties and leaving a power vacuum which is rapidly being filled by well-armed fanatics. Russia has, to the best of my knowledge, not been a state-sponsor of terrorism, nor has it aided Islamic fundamentalists in any country. Russia’s also comparatively weak all across the board, meaning it cannot project its power very far, its propaganda is crude and thus it cannot conceal any of its crimes, and it lacks any effective way to influence many countries save for certain former Soviet republics. That alone could be used to make the argument that the US and its allies should be considered more of a threat to worldwide peace and security. See when you just go ahead and unilaterally declare that there are no moral equivalencies, you end up with statements like this one from the article’s most anti-Putin contributor, Gregory Feifer of NPR:
After his first invasion of a sovereign country, neighbouring Georgia in 2008, western leaders eager to look past the conflict were able to quickly resume business as usual with Moscow partly because international media didn’t pay enough attention to Putin’s messianic nationalism and anti-westernism.
I’m sorry but an Iraq comparison is very apt here, and much more egregious because it led to total regime change which is still having repercussions today. I don’t think I even need to mention the fact that Medvedev, not Putin, was president during the Georgia conflict, and the “messianic nationalism” was nowhere near what it’s been since the annexation of the Crimea and the takeover of the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. I know, I was here the whole time.
So please, let us not arbitrarily abstract away things we don’t want to consider by dismissing any idea of equivalency. The West needs to live up to its standards, and it needs to make Russia aware that it can live up to those same standards and if it does so, it will mean prosperity and dignity for all Russia’s citizens.