Real Realism

Beware the snake oil known as foreign policy “realism” or “pragmatism,” at least when it comes to Russia. Every time I read something from a “realist” or “pragmatist” it always starts out more or less fine, but then soon degenerates into blaming all Putin’s bad behavior entirely on the West, and suggesting a “compromise” that basically amounts to giving the Kremlin whatever it wants, whatever the case. Usually these people portray themselves as moderates, objective observers standing in no-man’s land between rabid neocons in the West and Kremlin-supported neo-imperialists in Russia. Yet one cannot help but notice how quickly their arguments degenerate into a collection of tried and true Kremlin talking points, and their “solutions” require the West or its allies to make all the concessions while Russia isn’t bound to reciprocate.

If you feel like reading a long takedown of these folks and some of their arguments, there’s a nice piece on the topic by Lilia Shevtsova. Brian Whitmore of The Daily Vertical also has a recent piece which helps toward explaining why the “realist” approach is at best, extremely misguided. But if you’re dead set on reading a response to the “realist” school of foreign policy punditry that contains dick jokes- well, you’d best set here for a spell and read on.

First of all let’s tackle the whole objectivity thing. As I stated in my FAQ when I began this blog, my objectivity stems from not having a stake in the game between the Kremlin or “the West.” I’m not saying this is the only way a person can be objective. I respect striving towards objectivity so long as one is not engaging in balance for the sake of balance and making false equivalencies. I also can’t respect it when someone claims to be objective and then clearly takes one side 100%. Declare for a camp or try to remain a moderate, objective observer, but please don’t claim to be the latter or fly a false flag as you represent the other camp.

Having dealt with the question of objectivity and moderation, let’s get on to the topic of negotiation and compromise, which “realists” seem to misunderstand, occasionally on purpose. Compromise entails a quid pro quo. You do this, we’ll do that. To date I’ve yet to see a single “realist” say what Putin should do for the West in exchange for the long list of concessions they think the Kremlin deserves:

Scrap Minsk and unilaterally pull out of the Donbas, taking their weapons and proxies with them? Oh no! Russia will always feel a deep-rooted connection to those Russian speakers of East Ukraine! This is their backyard after all! They’ll want assurances that Ukraine won’t join NATO! Hell, even Chomsky claimed that Russia had “a case” for invading and carving up Ukraine. And give back the Crimea? Don’t even waste your breath. Deep historical connection, national humiliation, etc. If we just let them have the Crimea, they’ll be more inclined to quit Eastern Ukraine! But if they don’t, well, see the previous explanation.

What about Syria? Well a peace deal would be great, so long as there are new elections and Assad leaves. But you know, we shouldn’t press him to leave. In fact, we don’t really need those elections at all. Let’s just team up with Russia against ISIS and let them do whatever they want in the Middle East. In fact, the Middle East is so important, and Russia is so essential to the efforts against ISIS, that we can’t afford to be worrying about little Ukraine and its problems. Russia was justifiably upset at Western support for Maidan and the new Ukrainian government. Surely if we just recognize the Crimean annexation and put pressure on Kyiv to do everything Moscow demands, the latter will fulfill all its obligations and we can all concentrate on pounding ISIS into dust! 

You get the gist. These articles never seem to explain what Putin will give in return for all of this, and by coincidence, neither does the Russian foreign ministry. Hell, what can they give, some kind of guarantee in the form of a treaty? Whatever treaty they might sign guaranteeing no further intervention in Ukraine, for example, wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. This would be especially true if the price of such an agreement amounted to recognizing the Crimean annexation and allowing Russia to continue exercising influence in the Donbas. Since I’ve never seen any “realist” even suggest Putin actually giving any concessions from his side, it seems like the only possible obligation from Moscow’s side in a “realistic” compromise would be a worthless agreement.

Another misunderstanding common among “realists” and “pragmatists” is their understanding of Western responsibility for Putin’s Russia. They way they put it, the West is responsible for all of Putin’s bad behavior. In fact, this often goes towards justifying said behavior by making it seem like a logical response to Western rudeness, neglect, meddling, or outright aggression. There are legitimate critiques of the West in relation to Russia, and there are not so legitimate ones. Guess which category the “realist”arguments tend to fall into?

One of these illegitimate arguments, for example, are the claims that Putin is driven by a perceived threat of NATO expansion. The NATO expansion line looks pretty solid until you actually bother to study what forces existed in Europe and where they were located. As Kremlin hysteria over NATO expansion grew, troop numbers, especially for the US, steadily dropped. No permanent bases were built in the new member states, including those which bordered the Russian Federation. Even today very little has been done to reverse this trend, the only catalyst for doing so being Putin’s recent sabre-rattling and invasion of Ukraine. And should anyone dispute that last point, feel free to provide some evidence about a buildup of NATO forces on the Russian border, as well as an explanation as to why a country that couldn’t manage a war in Iraq and Afghanistan would decide it could pull off an invasion of the largest country on Earth, which also happens to be heavily armed with nukes.

Still not convinced? Just a few years ago Russia was allowing NATO members, including the US, to use an airport in Ulyanovsk as a military transit hub for the sake of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Just a logistical base, you say? Well take a look at how many US military installations in Europe are basically the same thing. And what about espionage? Why is the Russian government so afraid of NGOs and bloggers yet it was willing to actually allow NATO military personnel to use its airspace and infrastructure? The answer is that they’re full of shit, that’s why. They’re not afraid of a NATO invasion and they never were. In fact, their campaign in Ukraine proved how useless and non-threatening NATO really is. If something scared Putin, it was the Orange Revolution, and Maidan doubly so. The thing he fears most is being held accountable for his actions by his own people, which is why he’d rather have NATO military personnel on Russian soil than civil society groups and opposition parties.

Here is where we get to the crux of “realism” when it comes to Putin’s Russia. The fact is that it isn’t realistic at all; it is either out of touch with reality or in the worst cases, totally delusional. It is for this reason that I wish to present to the “realists” a bit of actual realism, so as to shake you out of these fantasies. Naturally this will be lost on the die-hard Kremlin supporters, particularly those with careers courtesy of the Russian state media or other lucrative business in Russia. This is for those naive types who are really struggling to meet Moscow half way and silently wonder what can we do to make Putin respect the Western position. It’s for those who think this is all just some big misunderstanding and if we could only find common ground Putin would be more than happy to cooperate toward a more prosperous, peaceful world, one in which Western businessmen can keep on making massive profits in Russia. If you’re one of those folks (e.g. John Kerry), brace yourself- this will not be gentle.

Give up. Putin and his elite don’t care about your genuine remorse for how the West has treated Russia, whether the slights are imaginary or real notwithstanding. Whatever concessions you give the Kremlin will be accepted with a smile, but nothing of significance will be given in return. As they smile and shake your hand, their media will be regaling the populace with tales of how Putin and his pals have once again outfoxed the degenerate, ever-weakening West, but also how everyone must still remain vigilant because that same collapsing hegemonic power is still a grave threat to Russia. To use the vernacular of a good friend of mine, they’ll be talking out their neck while you’re patting yourself on the back, thinking you finally got them to see your point of view.

Putin literally can’t pull back or offer any concessions. If Merkel, Obama, and literally every other Western leader came to Putin, asked him what he wanted, and then just granted his every wish, the rhetoric wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t give a televised speech praising the West for coming to its senses, being realistic, and finally burying the hatchet between them and Russia. How do I know? Well for all those years America was getting its military out of Europe, Kremlin propaganda has made it sound as though NATO is gearing up for Operation Barbarossa II. For all those years that American and other foreign companies were pouring millions of dollars into the Russian economy and providing Russian citizens with a wealth of consumer goods their parents and grandparents could only dream of, the same propagandists were screaming about how the West wanted to undermine and dismantle Russia, leaving it destitute. If this is what the Kremlin narrative was during the best of times, what will it be during the worst of times, even with concessions. Indeed, we can see a microcosm of this reality in recent times. While the West leaves Ukraine in tatters and lectures it on the need to fulfill the ridiculously pro-Russian Minsk protocol, the propaganda machine is still droning on about NATO legions with American and Turkish mercenaries. So what will more concessions do?

Once you accept the reality that Putin will not reciprocate for any concessions, there’s the fundamental question of why this is the case. Put simply, Putin is not worried about NATO or the West. Putin and the elite he serves are scared to death of their own people. Back when oil prices were high and times were good, they didn’t have to worry so much. Russians were enjoying their new commodities, hobbies, and foreign travel. Then they got too uppity and demanding and had to be put in their place. The need to do so became even more dire after the Ukrainian people showed they wouldn’t put up with corruption and economic ruin for the sake of non-existent “stability.” Obviously one course of action for the Kremlin to remain secure against popular revolution is to crack down on dissent, which has been the case since 2012. Of course this is a lot easier to do with some kind of justification, therefore we have the sharp increase in anti-Western rhetoric. Yes, Russian citizens will have to tolerate more corruption and declining living standards, but there simply is no choice- we’re at war!

The specific nature of that rhetoric is such that any attempt to deescalate the conflict and promote peace and understanding is seen as weakness and submission. This is especially true as the government has mobilized vatnost, a certain mentality that obsesses over dominance and humiliation. To get an idea of why this is so dangerous, imagine that tomorrow the Kremlin and Washington totally make up and be friends on whatever terms. Obama goes on TV and informs America that Russia and the USA are definitely friends now, and that “New Cold War” is definitely off for good. Apart from some politicians looking to score tough-guy points, the vast majority of Americans won’t care. When I say they won’t care, I mean at all. Assuming they even pay attention to the news, they’ll probably just blink and wonder what that whole two-year Cold War 2.0 was all about before popping some Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits into the microwave. You’re not going to find significant numbers of Americans lamenting the fact that they never got to trounce Putin’s Russia in a military engagement, or that economic trade will resume and there’ll be no repeat of 1991. I was rather young that year, but I don’t remember any celebrations about the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was more like shock and the exhilaration that comes from witnessing a historical event of massive significance.

However, as I have stated above, in the same scenario Putin could never make the same announcement, no matter how many concessions America makes. He can never say: “Well it looks like our Western partners listened to their realists and not only recognized our claim to Crimea, but they also agreed to create a buffer zone of neutral, non-aligned states so as to ensure we cannot possibly be threatened by NATO. Therefore, let us stop this animosity toward America and the West and embrace each other in a spirit of brotherhood!” No, Putin could not say this because to the base he now relies on, this still sounds like capitulation. Thanks to the narrative the Kremlin has been disseminating through its media, the only acceptable ending entails America in ruins like the USSR in 1991, and because that’s not going to happen, Putin has to keep up the self-destructive dick measuring contest* they call the “New Cold War.”

To admit that the West is not a threat to Russia is to undermine the legitimacy of his rule and the measures that have been implemented to cement it. Without the NATO bogeyman, there is nothing with which to distract Russian citizens from the real conflict that has been going on this whole time- between the Russian ruling class and the majority. In other words, Putin and his elite will feel just as threatened no matter how conciliatory the West acts. As long as these countries represent an alternative to his corrupt system, and in particular so long as they maintain considerably higher living standards compared to Russia, they will represent a threat to the Kremlin that is far more frightening than any NATO tank division the US might deploy in Europe.

You wanted realism? That’s reality. Deal with it.

 

*Thought I wouldn’t deliver on the dick joke? You thought wrong, my friend.

 

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28 thoughts on “Real Realism

  1. Callum C.

    Former Poli-Sci student here. Realism has a specific meaning, which doesn’t necessarily include being realistic. It’s kind of a discredited theory these days, because it failed pretty badly at explaining why the Soviet Union voluntarily gave up all of its client states and dismantled itself, although there has been a recent resurgence based on some updated models.

    Basically, Realism treats international relations as an anarchic affair between states. These states are seen as unitary and rational, and their objective is to pursue their own self-interest. Realists also don’t believe that types of government (i.e. democracy, autocracy, oligarchy) matter when looking at a country’s foreign policy.

    There are some good ideas in Realism, in particular the idea of the security dilemma. This is where an increase in one state’s security makes its neighbours feel less secure (so, when India got nuclear weapons, Pakistan got really nervous).

    A less good idea in Realism is that world politics are a zero-sum game. That means, it is impossible for one state to gain something unless another state loses something. This means that Realists tend to be very suspicious of any cooperation between states. Realists have described the EU as a vehicle for German hegemony, for example, and others have predicted that the US will try to undermine the organization to remove Germany as a competitor.

    See here for a more detailed explanation: http://www.iep.utm.edu/polreal/

    That isn’t to say that everyone who describes themself as a Realist understands any of this. Most probably don’t. But at least some do so it’s important to keep in mind what the word actually means.

    You might also, in reading my summary of realism, have thought “Hey, that sounds a lot like Russian political thought!” And it kind of is. The main thing that doesn’t fit is Russia’s “Special Path” bullshit, but a realist would just describe that as a useful fiction to maintain the unity of the state (see, Realism has some merit).

    The reason I think Realists often like Russia is precisely because Russia acts more like a Realist would expect a state to act. It joins international organizations and regimes whenever it’s convenient, but doesn’t feel bound by their rules. It invokes International law when it’s convenient, and ignores it when it isn’t (and let’s face it, Russia isn’t the only country that does this). The main attraction Russia has to a Realist, I think, is that Realists are completely OK with the idea that a big state might erode the sovereignty of a small state in order to increase its own security.

    See for example the writings of John Mearshimer:

    Here he is advocating against arming Ukraine: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/09/opinion/dont-arm-ukraine.html?_r=0

    Here he was in 1993 advocating that Ukraine keep its nuclear weapons:
    http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/A0020.pdf

    And here he is blaming the Ukraine crisis on the West: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault

    And here’s another Realist explaining why Mearshimer is wrong on the last count: http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/the-ukraine-crisis-according-to-john-j-mearsheimer-impeccable-logic-wrong-facts_2079.html

    The point is, Realists (at least those with serious academic credentials) aren’t necessarily deluded about the facts on the ground; Mearshimer is no Stephen Cohen or Noam Chomsky here; most of the facts he references are basically correct. However, for some reason or other, people like Mearshimer seem to interpret these facts in a way that supports Russia. As I said, I think it’s because some of them see Russia as a more Realist power (even though that isn’t necessarily the case).

    That was a lot longer than I expected it to be.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This does sound almost identical to the Russian concept of geopolitics. Values don’t matter, only state interests matter. Of course this incorrectly assumes that everyone in the state has the same interests, and naturally they don’t.

      It also sounds a lot like the Smithian view toward economics, i.e. “the invisible hand.” We’ve seen how well that works out dozens of times. I’m paraphrasing Keynes here, but this theory posits that men will be driven to work for the common good for the worst reasons.

      Reply
    2. Callum C.

      Haha it’s alright, Realism might be an even more misused term than Socialism, although it would be a close call.

      In regards to Realism vs Vata, they are fairly similar to the casual observer.

      hat said, I would really recommend reading the last link I posted above, the one by Alexander Motyl, because it does a very good job of explaining why Russia’s actions are less defensible from a Realist perspective than they might seem to on the surface.

      Reply
      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        ““Putin’s actions should be easy to comprehend,” writes Mearsheimer. Ukraine is a “huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself.” Since Ukraine serves as a “buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia … no Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine.” By the same token, no “Russian leader [would] stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West.” After all, “great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.” ”

        OH GOD NO! To act as if war today is like WWII or in the 19th century. For fuck’s sake, long after Napoleon entire armies could maneuver around without even meeting each other. That’s why the Army of the Potomac was actually chasing and searching for the Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War, long after Napoleon was dead in the ground.

        I’m sorry Mearsheimer, but Fallout is wrong- war DOES change. It changes a LOT and very rapidly. Ask France.

        Anyone who claims that Russia needs control of Ukraine in order to secure its borders should be required to say who is planning to attack Russia and for what reason.

        There is ONE country that would conceivably do this, and it is China. Meanwhile Putin’s BRILLIANT gambit has forced his country into an unequal and potentially dangerous relationship with…THUNDER DRUM ROLL…CHINA.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Oh wow I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Motyl for once. I feel like Coriolanus!

        “The second problem with the argument is that is it based on non-facts or twisted interpretations of real facts. For starters, Napoleon crossed today’s Belarus, not Ukraine; imperial Germany couldn’t have crossed Ukraine to strike at Russia, because Ukraine in 1914 was part of Russia; Nazi Germany attacked not Russia but the Soviet Union in general and Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus in particular, when its forces launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Mearsheimer might counter that this kind of criticism is picky and that his point is that three powers crossed Ukraine—“a huge expanse of flat land”—to attack Russia.”

        One might also point out that neither Belarus or Ukraine, if you’re coming from the West, are particularly well suited for invasions.

        Belarus has a lot of forest and swampland, Western Ukraine has the Carpathians, and then of course you’ve got the Pripyat marshes, which the Germans believed impassible for tanks and large forces. This is one reason they were caught by surprise during Bagration. Add to that bad infrastructure and weather that turns roads into mud and one can understand why the “flatness” of Ukraine and Belarus doesn’t exactly make it a highway to Moscow.

        This betrays Mearsheimer’s very superficial understanding of military history.

        I’m also pretty sure the country where the Somme offensive took place was no less flat than much of Ukraine.

  2. Anonymous Expat

    I think by “realist” they mean they don’t let ethical concerns (like their proposals treating Ukrainians — and rest of Eastern Europe, oftentimes — as people of 2nd sort, not entitled to chose their own path) get in the way of their ideas.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      If that were the extent of it I wouldn’t see a problem with it. But then one has to ask, what’s so important about the feelings of Russia?

      See what the Kremlin supporters don’t seem to realize is that Russia actually had an excellent way to exercise far more power and influence over neighboring nations without firing a shot or moving a single soldier, and thus without provoking any undue hate.

      Basically it means doing what the US and other Western countries do. Build up the standards of living. Improve the economy. Send more people abroad and attract tourists and immigrants. Produce culture that can be exported. In other words, MAKE RUSSIA ATTRACTIVE AND PROFITABLE!

      Once again we have the nice guy comparison, and in this case the cure is like sound advice: Improve your hygiene. Get in shape. Eat right. Get hobbies. Stop obsessing over getting a girlfriend and build a life for yourself. The rest will follow.

      Alas, instead of doing that Russia decided to go on Reddit and join the “Red Pill” community. The ushanka gets replaced with a fedora, the balalaika is discarded for the katana, and the Apollo-Soyuz cigarettes are replaced with a vaping pipe (or whatever that’s called).

      But back to the topic, I can’t make it clear enough that countries like the US succeed, however unfairly, based on the strength of their own societies (something that Americans had better figure out real quickly before they screw it all up). You can go to some protester in another country and tell them about all the terrible dictatorships America supports, but all they know is that they live in a country where you can get severely punished for posting something online and Americans can post videos about how they’re prepared to fight their government with armed force should it become “necessary.” Sure, you could tell them about all the American domestic problems, but they never experience any of that so why would they care.

      I see a lot of people, sometimes justifiably, complain about how America always gets portrayed as the “good guy.” Well part of this is because it’s better to be a country that claims to stand for freedom and human rights yet fail than to be one that claims that these things don’t matter or that they’re evil Western concepts designed to bring down legitimate regimes. That, and the fact is America put in the work and created an economy that made it attractive.

      Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, wants this great power status just handed to it with no work at all. Because it once was a superpower everyone is supposed to defer to it like it still is.

      Reply
      1. Alex P

        Speaking plainly – do you think in your lifetime Russia has a chance of advancing to a rule of law / soft power type of country where the worlds creative and best and brightest want to move and live there?

        I am 47 years old and don’t think it will happen in my life. My Russian friends (here in Cali) don’t think this will happen for another 20-30 years. I have no dog in this fight – as an American who loves Russia – but am curious as to what you really believe and why?

        Thanks !!

      2. Estragon

        To Alex P: I don’t expect Russia to become a place where “where the worlds creative and best and brightest want to move and live there” anytime soon, but attracting immigrants is not a necessary condition for having a flourishing economy. Look at Japan, China, or S. Korea. Almost no immigration, yet they are powerhouses.

        Russia’s bigger problem is creating conditions that will make the people already there want to stay there and contribute. When a Russian Nobel-winning scientist working in England says he won’t go back to Russia no matter what they offer him, that gives you some idea how large the problem is.

      3. gbd_crwx

        Well, maybe there is an absolute need for imigration to be a creative Place, BUT there is a big risk of “not invented here”-syndrome in societies that don’t embrace immigration.

  3. Anonymous Expat

    (Can’t reply directly to the post mentioning post-Napoleonic stuff, for some reason):

    All the talk of Ukraine as a military buffer also fundamentally misses that before the war with Russia, with Crimea and all of Donbass fully part of the political discourse, the idea of NATO membership was a hard sell, and likely to be the first thing to be cut by any Western-oriented government to appease public protest in Crimea and Donbass — as the opponents of NATO integration cared more than the proponents (who would have been more interested in the economic aspects of EU rather than being obliged to help out NATO with whatever crazy idea US might come up with next after Iraq). People also forget that the most anti-Russia citizens before the annexation and the war (the far right types) are also anti-NATO, too, (since of course the heroic Cossack stock can fight Russia off on its own if needed if only not for the traitors within, no need for some wussy Americans, or those Poles they have some history with!)

    Of course viewing things this way requires viewing Ukraine as consisting of human beings with agendas, rather than a blob on the map, and realizing that human beings might get ticked off and change their opinion on NATO after you invade their country!

    > Anyone who claims that Russia needs control of Ukraine in order to secure its borders should
    > be required to say who is planning to attack Russia and for what reason.

    And really, ignoring that, the borders are less secure now, since they have a newly angry neighbor (rather than an ambivalent one) which actually has an army that’s not a bunch of rusting stuff with everything of value sold-off on the black market.

    Reply
      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        It’s always a classic joke, but this cuts right to the heart of the matter. The state has spent so much money and effort into convincing a majority of people that this is true to some extent or another. So if you were Putin and you suddenly came to your senses thanks to the brilliant politics of “realists,” how would you walk that back?

        “Hey everyone! You know all those TV shows we make about how NATO is creeping up to our borders like Nazi Germany, and how America wants to destroy Russia and create widespread poverty because in spite of the fact that the whole American economy is based on selling goods and services they don’t want your money for some unknown reason? Yeah well…About that. See it’s all bullshit.Yeah my buddies and I wanted the media to tell you that because we’re afraid of being out of power so that a future administration could possibly investigate and charge us over any of the dozens of dirty deals we made. Hell I would have done the same to Yeltsin if it weren’t for the fact that doing so would challenge my own legitimacy. So yeah…Well…Feels good to get that off my chest. And you know what, while I’m at it, I’m just going to come out and say what you’ve all known this whole time. I am in a loving monogamous relationship with my prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, and I really don’t care what you have to say about it!”

        And then everyone lived happily ever after.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Let us hope for that, instead of tragedy. But this also means that Navalny and other oppositionists should be careful, not only of cakes, but barrages of sanctioned fruit.

      Reply
  4. pavel

    “…explaining why the Soviet Union voluntarily gave up all of its client states and dismantled itself, although there has been a recent resurgence based on some updated models.”

    Reply
  5. pavel

    “..explaining why the Soviet Union voluntarily gave up all of its client states and dismantled itself, although there has been a recent resurgence based on some updated models.”

    I was living in Moscow in ’91 as the SU was collapsing. The collapse looked very much like a total one. Complete dysfunction. Anarchy and confusion. The uncollected garbage, empty shops, failed distribution system, bureaucrats wanting out, money going missing, gangsters rampant, corruption a way of life, even the Botkin Clinic filthy, with broken windows and slop for the patients, a children’s cancer ward for 80 patients with ribbons instead of IV tubes and one sink – anything you can imagine. Worse.

    The chief health officer in Arkhangelsk told me that the river was a biological soup – fenced off so people couldn’t get near it and contaminate themselves. Another health official told me that 90% if the infants there were born with serious health problems, intestinal, dermatological.

    Hardly anyone loved the SU anymore, because it didn’t work.because it was toxic. So it self-vaporized, and so did the client states. It didn’t so much dismantle itself as fly apart.

    Reply
  6. pavel

    “Soviet Union” was a curse. I heard it used that way myself, on the Moscow Metro, upon approaching a broken escalator, as we proceeded to climb the stairs.

    People yelling at each other as they crowded in front of food shops. Paratroopers patrolling the streets. Main battle tanks parked along Taganskaya.

    Gangsters cursing cops with impunity. Drunks crawling on their hands and knees on the streets, bouncing off buildings in Arkhangelsk.

    Ecological damage of world public enemy proportions.

    It’s hard to stop getting angry all over again.

    Reply
  7. A.I.Schmelzer

    Can you stop the 19th century bullshit?
    The world is fundamentally divided by power. Most nations/polities/interest groups have to abide, in most ways, to a certain set of rules. Power means being able to ignore these rules whenever those nations/polities/interest groups feel like it.

    This was the case in the 19th century, it was the case in the 20th century, it was the case in the 20 centuries before that and will be the case in the next 20 centuries as well, unless we either nuke ourselfs to bits first, or we get a “most powerful nation” that actually follows the rules.

    The US failed this test, in a way it failed it uniquely because most of its imperialist bullshit actually made it weaker, but that is not much of a consolation to its victims.

    If you do have an imperialist most powerful nation, and this nation engages in direct competition with other nations while clearly breaking a number of rules (what about non interference in sovereign affairs? Non use and threat of violence? The only sacred principle that Russia broke first is the one against not formally enlarging your territory. All other supposed rules of civilized behaviour in the 21th century were first broken by the USA), then it is completely obvious and natural the other sides will break the rules too. They would have to be idiots to not do so.

    As far as Russian concessions go: Russia is, in the case of a grand bargain, likely willing to cooperate in Ukraine reaching a federalized solidly neutral Ukraine as a goal. What is bad about having Switzerland and Finland as role models?
    In Syria, the current minority + non Islamist Sunni coalition would keep power with Assad maybe leaving, with the Kurds getting wide ranging autonomy. The jihadis get killed. Both of these are least bad feasible outcomes. Both also met Russian policy preferences, but just because these scenarios met Russian policy preference it does not mean that these scenarios are bad/evil/Munich whatever.

    Actual concessions by Russia would be a reduction in the transfer of military technology to China, a reduction in resource deals with China, an increase in Russian military cooperation with India and Vietnam to contain China from another angle, and increased Russian focus on leftist Latin American governments to reduce the influence Beijing holds or gains there.

    Taken together, this may increase the time China requires to reach full parity with the USA by a decade or so, a decade the USA will urgently need to fix her own house.

    Russia is not fighting for some kind of world dominance, it is fighting to stay an independent player on the global stage. Being an independent player has considerable benefits compared to being a pawn or a battlefield (as Ukraine is finding out right now), and is a completely rational and realistic goal for any Russian policy.
    The actual fight for dominance will be the west vs. China. If Russia maintains being an independent player, she may even manage to stay out of that one.

    As far as Maidan and Ukrainian sovereignity are concerned: Maidan “voluntarily” signed an agreement that turns it into a EU colony. As I have explained elsewhere, they have to follow the EU acquis, the EU CSDP, have to ditch any non EU trade standards and are forbidden from adopting any non EU trade standards unless the EU says this is ok, and have no input on either the EU CSDP, the EU acquis or EU trade standards at all.
    It is a EU colony, not an independent state. Turning it back into an independent state requires ditching the DCFTA, although the EU association parts could stay intact.
    Allowing Ukraine to adopt and/or keep trade standards other then the EU ones, allowing it to have its own foreign policy and allowing Ukraine to not blindly follow European law on economic matters are hardly unreasonable demands.

    Concerning Ukrainian nuclear weapons: Would have indeed been a good idea in the 90s. Nuclear weapons have a disciplining effect on the involved actors, and that kind of responsiblity may have stopped some bullshit both internally and internationally before everything went completely to shit. It is also possible that some issues between Ukraine and Russia could have been solved by a “Ukraine gets the nukes, Russia gets the Crimea” bargain.
    The problem Mearsheimer does not go into is how one lets Ukraine keep nukes, but Kazakhstan and Belarus not.

    Reply
  8. Asehpe

    “Can you stop the 19th century bullshit?”
    Well, the 19th century is over. Its bullshit should be over too. If it weren’t for Russia’s 19-century bullshitophilia…

    “The world is fundamentally divided by power.”
    Sure. But there are various types of power, each inlfuencing the balance. Your oversimplification is simply that: an oversimplification.

    “The US failed this test.”
    Much less so than Russia. America knows what soft power is, and uses it (consciously or unconsciously) to a much better degree than Russia. Enough so, that it actually deserves success way more than current Russia does. And the world sees that. Which is why you get Ukraine wanting to join the EU, NATO and hoping for more American influence, whereas Mexico, despite all of Trump’s talk about building the wall and maknig the Mexicans pay, does not want to join the CIS or the Eurasian Union and is not hoping for Russian military help…

    “All other supposed rules of civilized behaviour in the 21th century were first broken by the USA”
    And the USA gets duly criticized for it, as you’re doing yourself. And Russia? Does it get a bonus for imitating the US? Since “Johnny did it first”, then Russia can, too? Does it stop being a crime when Russia does it?

    “it is completely obvious and natural the other sides will break the rules too.”
    Well, it shows that they agree with this, and any posturing about condemning the US for doing so becomes hypocrisy. Which is what happens to ‘the other side’ when they do ‘the obvious and natural thing’: they become hypocrites.

    Bottom line: the US is better than Russia. Economically, militarily, socially, morally. All you’re saying is simply that “better” doesn’t mean “good”, and that’s true. A ham sandwich is better than unprocessed wheat as food, but it is far from being a full meal. If America remains the epitome of human social evolution, then we’ll be a rather sorry species indeed. Still, America is better than Russia. There is simply no principled way to deny that. For every bad thing America did, Russia did worse; in the past, and in the present.

    “Russia is, in the case of a grand bargain, likely willing to cooperate in Ukraine reaching a federalized solidly neutral Ukraine as a goal.”
    Only because this means retaining Ukraine as a vassal or controlled state. I don’t think the Ukrainians would like that. (By the way, do you care about what the Ukraininans think? You’d imagine their opinion should be part of the discussion about the future of their state, even taking into account your amoral attitude towards power.)

    “What is bad about having Switzerland and Finland as role models?”
    Finland was, well, Finlandized for long enough just in order to survive; most Finns I’ve talked about find the situation much less than ideal and only put up with it because they had no choice. Switzerland chose to isolate itself out of its own will: nobody imposed that on them from the outside. In Ukraine’s case, you’d be proposing the Finlandization of a country that doesn’t want to be Finlandized. Which is simply outside oppression, or bullying. THAT is what is bad with Finland and Switzerland as models.

    I’d rather see Russia do what it preaches and adopt real federalization in its own turf. Why not give real power to the regions, so that Vladivostok can import cars from Japan and Kaliningrad can integrate with the other Baltic states as they probably should? But nooo — federalization is good for Ukraine, but not for the Russian federal state…

    “The jihadis get killed.”
    Unfortunately the Russians are killing way more than jihadis. It’s almost as if they don’t care about whether or not they’re killing jihadis, as long as Assad stays in power.

    “just because these scenarios met Russian policy preference it does not mean that these scenarios are bad/evil/Munich whatever.”
    Oh, not in principle. What makes them bad/evil/Munich/whatever is how Russia is going about them — bombing civilians and then denying it, taking advantage of the refugee flow to put pressure on the EU, etc. Also, Russia is hurting the interesting of neighboring nations, who, as Russia puts it when it talks about Ukraine, have vested interested in Syria, like Turkey or Saudi Arabia. If it’s OK for Russia to claim a Machiavelian sphere of influence, why should it be wrong for Turkey?…

    Reply
  9. Asehpe

    Besides, of course, the fact that backing Assad does indeed sound like backing an evil dictator who did horrible things to his own people. It’s not like you can claim this is all rainbows and unicorns…

    “Russia is not fighting for some kind of world dominance, it is fighting to stay an independent player on the global stage.”
    If this were the case, Russia would be trying to improve is economy and living standards to the point that its soft power influence would make them real independent players on the global stage. No–what Russia wants is simply muscle, and free reigns to bully any neighbors (or eve non-neighbors) it wants to bully. This has nothing to do with independence — cf. Switzerland again for comparison. Indeed it is rational to be independent, but it’s just not what Russia is striving for.

    “The actual fight for dominance will be the west vs. China. If Russia maintains being an independent player, she may even manage to stay out of that one.”
    And indeed, as it should be, this fight will be played not with armies occupying intermediary countries, but with soft power and economic influence — as China x Russia is doing in the Central Asia republics and in Mongolia. Russia, however, with its 19th-century mentality, is clearly losing this battle. Fortunately, the West doesn’t share this mentality, so the West x China fight may end differently for them than it’s ending for Russia.

    “Maidan “voluntarily” signed an agreement that turns it into a EU colony.”
    Yes, being part (check the word ‘part’ in a dictionary) of a Union implies these kinds of duties. I suppose you also agree that Siberia is a colony of Russia, then, since it has to abide by a number of rules that limit is soverignty?…
    The bottom line is that what you call “a EU colony” is clearly a desirable state: development, democracy, freedom, independence from Russian bullying. It remains to be seen whether or not Ukraine will be able to achieve it (yes, this “colonization” is of this funny type in which the “colony” has to convince the “metropole” that it deserves to be a “colony”… or else the “metropole” just won’t “colonize” it fully…). Maidan might well fail. But given the aggressive, imperialistic and violent stance of their Eastenr neighbor, Maidan’s desire to be “colonized” by the EU is, to quote you, “completely rational”. As all the Eastern countries who immediately tried (successfully) to be “colonized” by the EU right after they got off the Russian ship will testify. Not a single one of them failed to join the EU, and not a single one of them wants to leave. I’ll bet the rest of the world also wishes they could be “colonized” like that!…

    Look, Schmelzer, I understand it: you like Russia, you think it’s being treated unfairly (“the US always gets a break! Why doesn’t Rossiya?…”) and you want to defend it. OK, go ahead. But see: the reality of the situation is not as you portray it. There are good things to be said in favor of Russia, even now, that it has decided to follow the path of anti-Western imperialism. It’s just that the things you’re saying don’t really help this cause.

    Reply
  10. A.I.Schmelzer

    Concerning the test:

    Tabulate the body count for post Stalin Soviet Union, contrast and compare it with the body count of the contemporary USA.
    Now, do the same for Russia vs. the USA in the post Cold War era.

    Post Cold War US body count is roughly an order of magnitude greater (just the Iraq sanctions alone killed 5000 children per month. Which is about as many dead children per month as the number of people that had combat related deaths in Ukraine since Maidan.). Post Stalin Cold War US body count is also considerably greater then that of the post Stalin Soviet Union.

    The Soviet Union also dismantled itself with about as few casulties as one could reasonable expect. They did not react, as other falling empires did, by lashing out and trying to fix their problems by conquest. I am not optimistic that the US will make the same choice.

    Now, please consider your own position: Despite the fact that the US killed far more people then Russia (and killing lots of people is pretty much hard power in a nutshell), you maintain that the USA is better then Russia because of “Soft power”.
    Did it occur to you that this “soft power” is what allows the USA to keep killing and murdering people on scales unmatched by Russian Imperialism? And that the possession of this soft power is what makes the USA far more dangerous and not “more benign” then Russia?

    Or lets ask it differently. You have one city with 2 Mafia families. One of the families as responsible for about 100 murders per year. It kills people everywhere in the city, many of their victims had nothing to do with any kind of Mafia activities. It is deeply entrenched in the cities law enforcement, judiciary and penal subdivisions, it possesses several TV stations that broadcast its views, and has the worlds best lawyers on retainer. They occassionally engage in some good will operations, as in feeding the homeless etc. .

    The other family murder about 10 people per year, usually in its direct neighbourhood and commonly (but not always) people who were enemies of this family. It has one much ridiculed newspaper, a somewhat decent legal staff and enough say in city hall to not get openly attacked.

    Which of these families is more threatening?

    And concerning the “great game”. Russia was quite contend to play the game in Ukraine diplomatically and economically. It was not Russia, or the pro Russians, who first seized power by armed force in Ukraine. It was not Russia, or the pro Russians, who directly violated Ukraines constitution and declaration of state sovereignity, and it was not the Russians, or the pro Russians who first declared independence and stormed army depots to arm themselfs.

    Reply
  11. Jim Kovpak Post author

    I’m sorry I couldn’t respond earlier. For Alex P, your question deserves a post of its own, which I will do shortly as it ties in with my observations on the Nemtsov march and the Russian opposition in general.

    Now, on to our resident Putinversteher…

    First, I’ll stop bringing up the 19th century when the Kremlin realizes it’s over and stops acting as though it is a 19th century great power when it is not.

    As for Ukraine, nobody cares what is “acceptable” to Russia. Ukraine is a sovereign country and has been since 1991. There are some general arguments in favor of federalization but the fact is that Russia itself basically squashes federalization in its own borders unless we’re talking about Chechnya. Furthermore Russia is illegally occupying part of Ukraine, so talking about how Ukraine ought to have federalization is nonsense.

    Next you speak of the EU association agreement (initiated by Yanukovych) and say it makes Ukraine a colony of the EU. Are EU member countries also colonies? Is Turkey a colony? Would joining the Customs Union not make it a colony of Russia? Would Ukraine making sweeping political and territorial reforms that are pleasing to Russia NOT make Ukraine a colony of that country? Did the EU association agreement require Ukraine to give up any land to a foreign country and radically change its government structure to a federalized system?

    Now on to the topic of counting bodies- first of all I am loathe to engage in this kind of body counting as it has often been dishonestly exploited by Cold War anti-Communists to create “telephone number” piles of victims laid at the feet of “Communism,” a la The Black Book. That being said, it is also equally foolish to attribute say, all deaths in the Vietnam War solely to the US.

    Second, the USSR didn’t just voluntarily dissolve. It had become so rotten that it couldn’t go on and it collapsed. The signature was just making everything official. And even then, Russia intervened in wars so as to maintain military strongholds in the Caucasus and on the Black Sea.

    In any case this whole argument is just a more subtle “what about,” and it doesn’t fly because first of all, I neither represent the United States nor am I supporting it in this argument. So the aggression of the United States is bad, and the aggression of Russia is bad. They’re both bad. Second, it’s glaringly obvious that Russia never had a problem with the principle of invading and attacking countries, it’s just that they lacked the capacity to project military force like the US. As soon as they achieved some measure of capability to do so, they gleefully engage in the same kind of activity that the US got involved with in Iraq, for example.

    Do you know what a REAL alternative is? Take a look at how Canada uses its military abroad. It’s almost exclusively for humanitarian relief, UN peacekeeping, etc. When offered to join in on Iraq they refused. Canada has the capacity to project military force abroad but generally doesn’t on principle.

    Oh and by the way, at least when the US invaded Iraq, they ADMITTED IT and told everyone they were going to do it. Nor do they insist that they actually found WMDs today. Because of the democratic system and a free press, that debacle left such an impact on Bush’s legacy that his brother recently felt it during his failed campaign this year.

    Reply
  12. Asehpe

    “Oh and by the way, at least when the US invaded Iraq, they ADMITTED IT and told everyone they were going to do it. Nor do they insist that they actually found WMDs today. Because of the democratic system and a free press, that debacle left such an impact on Bush’s legacy that his brother recently felt it during his failed campaign this year.”

    Heh heh, and when Putin admitted in that interview that there were Russian military personnel doing military things in the Donbass, everybody in his government bent over backwards to “unsay” what he had said… I’ll bet that, if Russia had invaded Iraq in search of WMDs instead of the US, they’d be still telling us that the WMDs were there (perhaps they’d plant a few?), and that anyway they hadn’t invaded anybody so what the hell are you getting angry about? It’s all someone else’s fault!…

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      One thing’s clear, if Russia had the power to invade a country in the same way that the US has, they’d happily do it. Ukraine ended for good and all the Kremlin’s myths about non-intervention and sovereignty.

      Reply
      1. Asehpe

        I hear the Russians are re-igniting the fighting along the front lines, with more tanks transferred to the area around Debaltsevo and stuff. And that, while Western leaders criticize the Ukrainian government and Viktor Orban claims that sanctions against Russia won’t be authomatically renewed.

        Ah, poor Ukrainians. I guess the world is really suffering from Ukraine fatigue, especially now that the ‘hot’ war is in Syria. I don’t know what is going to happen to the Donbass, or to Ukraine as a whole; but I really fear that Europe doesn’t care about it anymore. Such a sad story!….

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