Today’s post will be rather short, mainly because it should have been added to yesterday’s post covering the massive buttrage explosion over Eurovision. As it turned out, I saw the story in question only after publishing yesterday’s piece. The story was an otherwise mundane report on the decline of tourism in the Crimea in The Moscow Times. I never would have considered writing about it were it not for one of the last lines:
“The Crimean authorities have denied the falling popularity of the peninsula among Russian tourists. Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Ruslan Balbek, who oversees the tourism sector, said that Svyaznoy- Travel’s data don’t reflect the the real situation in the market.
“This is most likely either an information attack or a lack of knowledge. Crimea is one of the main tourist destinations in Russia,” Balbek was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.”
“An information attack.”
A negative report on tourism is “most likely an information attack.” Yes, the CIA had a whole team of guys working on that cunning ruse!
Do you get a sense of what I mean when I say that Putin’s regime has reduced this society to the maturity level of children? This is by no means the first time we’ve heard this from Russian state officials. Indeed, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov couldn’t even wait for the Panama Papers to be released before warning audiences that the West was preparing an “information attack” against poor president Putin. Officials spotlighted by Navalny’s organization have claimed his investigations are “ordered by the West.” I don’t know about you, but if Navalny were falsely claiming that I own certain property I would just show who actually owns it, or I would show how I managed to afford said property via legitimate sources of income. But these days, all you have to do is say “information attack” and that will suffice.
This, dear reader, is yet another reason why that “New Cold War” you’ve been hearing about is going to be very, very short. There was a time when the whole “information war” thing was just pablum to feed the TV-watching masses, people for which the Russian ruling class has nothing but the deepest contempt. But in the past couple years it’s become increasingly clear that the leadership has been “getting high on its own supply,” so to speak. They are beginning to believe their own propaganda.
In systems where you have real, competitive democracy and political pluralism you may find seemingly hopeless gridlock and bickering, but it also means you always have a source of new ideas. Of course Western political systems are not immune to group-think or conventional wisdom. We saw what happens when such a system breaks down during the Bush administration. Sure, there was some intelligence showing that Iraq had WMDs. There were also a lot of qualifiers, unknowns, and contradictory evidence. Intent on going to war, the Bush administration decided it would only consider that evidence which supported its case, however flimsy. Since then American politics have shifted towards an anti-intervention, more isolationist position, even among conservative individuals. Trump’s success contrasted with Jeb’s spectacular failure bear witness to this fact. Essentially, no matter how limited the choices may look, the very idea that there should be dissent, pluralism, a “marketplace of ideas,” etc. would seem to ensure that no ideology can dominate indefinitely, and if some mode of thinking has been dominant long enough without achieving any positive results, it will eventually be replaced by other ideas.
The Kremlin regime doesn’t work this way. The only ideology is ambiguous “patriotism,” and patriotism is determined by loyalty to your superiors, ending with Putin at the top of the pyramid. Whereas in the West we admire people who followed their conscience, from Smedley Butler to Daniel Ellsberg, such individuals would be seen as nothing but traitors by the Russian elite and sadly, much of the Russian public. Even if you’re a die-hard Kremlin fan, even if you are on Putin’s side, dissent is a risky move. I for one have seen how pro-Kremlin writers who failed to be sufficiently supportive of Putin and his policies were viciously attacked by their own compatriots. Insufficient faith in the Dear Leader’s infinite wisdom is tantamount to treason. Depart from me, ye who work neo-conservatism!
The ultimate result of all this is that the system cannot reform in any meaningful way. Like the Bush administration years ago, the Kremlin is engaging in a behavior that has been termed “bending the map.” It refers to a tendency for people who are lost to mentally “adjust” their map so that they are not really lost or closer to safety than they actually are. While believing that there’s a town just over that next ridge is comforting, it is also delusional and likely to lead to disaster. On the other hand, knowing you’ve got ten or twelve miles to the nearest road means you can mentally prepare for that journey and anything that happens along the way. But whereas the Bush administration was bending the map, sometimes it seems like the Kremlin is simply crumpling it up into a ball and setting it on fire.
Unfortunately, there is little but bad news on the horizon for Russia, but every new report will likely be met in roughly the same way.
“It’s an information attack!”
“The West is behind this!”
“It’s the fifth column! No the sixth column!”
What about the poor sap who says “Maybe we’re doing something wrong?” Well he’s definitely a traitor, probably working for the Americans! Toss him out the window!
And that’s why they’ll ultimately lose. For all its faults, the West is made up of countries that adapt over time, more or less rejecting failed ideas and keeping what works. Russia, on the other hand, belongs to that club of authoritarian nations where adaptation is either off-limits or severely hampered. More alarmist purveyors of the New Cold War thesis often like to shout about how Russia is using the same tactics of the Soviet Union against the West. And that’s supposed to make us afraid? How effective were they last time, and how scary is it if in order to wage their little Cold War the Kremlin has to dredge up the very same outdated tactics that ultimately failed?