This is why they’ll lose

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?



15 thoughts on “This is why they’ll lose

  1. Estragon

    Re: “the West is made up of countries that adapt over time, more or less rejecting failed ideas and keeping what works. Russia… belongs to that club of authoritarian nations where adaptation is either off-limits or severely hampered”

    This reminds me of something that was said by the highly idiosyncratic dissident Alexander Zinoviev. He said that Western societies had means of constant renewal, whereas Soviet society was stagnant and moribund.

    However, it should be noted that 1) he thought Soviet society would last forever despite this; 2) later in life, when his prediction didn’t pan out, he blamed the West for destroying it.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I take it he wrote that before his “conversion?” I remember reading some of his thoughts cited in a European New Right publication. Naturally they weren’t interested in him after he went all “I love Stalin” on them.

      1. Estragon

        Yeah, the initial observation was made in the mid-1980s. I think his “conversion” happened around 1998.

  2. John

    This always reminds me of the difference between proscriptive outlooks, like religious law/morality, and secular law/morality. One proscribes a fixed, unchanging, obtuse and unnuanced stance defiant of change or new information, and the other adapts to the newly mapped landscape of human well-being.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      It may even be worse, depending on how you look at it. Religions tend to annoy me because they’ll claim to be “timeless” and every bit as relevant to modern life while they OBVIOUSLY change their practices and even beliefs to accommodate the modern world.

      The Kremlin seems to want to believe that it has changed, that it’s learned something from the failure of the Soviet experience, yet when they try to wage their “information war” they end up going back to the same tactics that didn’t work the first time.

      Of course Russia isn’t a copy of the USSR and isn’t trying to become so, but contrary to their claims they haven’t really brought anything new to the table in terms of values or ideology. Now they just have an incoherent ideology.

  3. John

    This always reminds me of the difference between religious morality and secular morality. Proscriptive, unchanging, unnuanced, obtuse and contemptuous in the face of new information versus an ever-adapting outlook that takes into consideration the newly discovered landscape of human well-being.

  4. Julia

    Erm… I think you might be overreacting to a stupid phrase said by a stupid person. Unfortunately, there are many not-so-bright people in Russia – among both ordinary citizens and officials. But hey, is Russia the only country to face this issue?

    Maybe you are just being etnocentric, assuming that ‘they’ (representatives of another culture, namely Russians) are just not as good as Americans are. Well… I guess, everyone is etnocentric a bit; but please consider this: while some fools say ridiculous things (like this guy, Balbek), others keep silent and come to right conclusions. Not everyone is that stupid, mind you.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Unfortunately this is basically an epidemic now. I’m sure there are realistic people within the Russian government, and they often speak at key events, but we see how their reforms and recommendations are pretty much never implemented (think Kudrin, for example). Meanwhile the “patriots” who propose new repressive measures because of the “threat” of “information war” or “color revolutions” seem to hold a lot more sway.

      1. Shalcker

        “Patriot” measures and reforms like the ones suggested by Glaziev (which is “other side” counterpart to Kudrin) are “pretty much never implemented” either.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Of course not. They’re not that ridiculous. It’s not about ideology. It’s about living a life of unbelievable luxury at the expense of your own people and never being held accountable for what you’ve done.

        If tomorrow the West said, “Fine, keep Crimea, do what you want, and let’s go back to say, 2005-2012 relations,” Putin would do it and the money would keep flowing out of Russia into London and Panama.

  5. ramendik

    Well it’s not THAT bad (seeing as you write this from Russia and many native Russians write similar stuff) but pretty bad, yes. Especially with some recent court cases that, well, nearly approach what Kiev did with Ruslan Kotsaba.

    However, while Western countries are generally much better at freedom of speech it does not always translate into ability to reform. Take US internevtionism. Iraq was a disaster but then a president who got elected by the peace vote had to go and invade Libya when the leader of Libya started doing the right thing about Islamists, whom he rightly described as rats. The rats proved him right by killing an American ambassador – that after being handed the victory by Americans.

    But even after that they had to go throw support at alleged “moderate” “rebels” in Syria – with press articles repeatedly claiming surprise that the aid, including trained fighters, ended up with al-Qaeda.

    And now, Trump. He did sound off that the world would have been better with Saddam and Qaddafi… except I think he did it right when Rand Paul was leaving the campaign. And he sounded different at other occasions, what with his jab at the Geneva conventions.

    So where’s that reform?

    (I thought of calling you out on toeing the “Assad bad” line, but thankfully read more of the blog before writing it. You appear to be pro-Kurd/YPG and the Kurds are apparently the sole anti-Assad force who are not actually Islamist terrorist).

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Okay where to begin with this. First of all, I write exclusively in English, on purpose. This is why I don’t have problems because the state here doesn’t give a shit about someone writing in English. So I’m sorry but that doesn’t prove anything.

      Next, on Libya. This is another campaign I disagreed with at the time, but in reality the opposition wasn’t totally comprised of Islamists. We see that now as the democratic forces are locked in a war with Islamists. Russia agreed to the UNSC resolution on this matter.

      Again in Syria, it started out with Syrian forces firing on peaceful demonstrators. The rebels were mostly moderate in the beginning until later. Much of what we know about Western failures in Syria come from…SURPRISE! Western media!

      You claim that this somehow proves that free speech doesn’t change policy. This is flat out false. Imagine what would be happening if the US still operated on the Bush doctrine. There’d be boots on the ground in Libya and Syria much earlier, no deal with Iran, and Cuba would still be treated like an enemy and subjected to more political pressure (as it was under Bush).

      Keep in mind people elected Obama because he was considered the opposite of Bush. He ended the US involvement in Iraq, greatly drew down in Afghanistan, and also redirected US efforts in anti-terrorism to finding and taking out Osama bin Laden (that thing the whole war was supposed to be about from the beginning). Yeah there’s the drone wars. Yes there’s still foolish, unrealistic interventions like Libya and Syria, but guess what- in a democracy you don’t get everything you want. One reason why Americans don’t get more of what they want is because voter turn out is still very low and most people don’t give a shit about politics except during a presidential campaign season.

      As for the YPG- no, they are not the only non-Islamist rebel forces facing the regime. There are still considerable non-Islamist rebel groups.

      1. ramendik

        We seem to be interpreting the very same fact the opposite ways. You see Obama’s election, much of it on a peace vote, as a half full glass – I see it as half empty. You say policy was changed to a considerable extent. I say it wasn’t changed nearly enough, leading into massive bloodshed in the Middle East and into the refugee crisis in Europe.

        We don’t really differ on valuing free speech as such, I just don’t see it having sufficient reform power in and of itself. Too often it is simply a release valve – a very much needed release valve (which some parties in the Kremlin apparently fail to realize) but not much more. Some of that is, yes, because people don’t give a … and you get low voter turnout. Very true. Now remember you wrote about that Putin social contract when people were free to enrich themselves but should not care about politics? Same thing, different country, isn’t it?

        And the West did it first, too. Putin learned a lot from the West, in many other things, too. Yes, he (or someone up there in the Kremlin anyway) also apparently interpreted the Maidan thing as “you should shut things down by brute force before they get out of control”. These two lessons are in conflict and one gets a very contradictory message in what’s being done – whatever about you and English, there really are a lof ot authors who blast this stuff in Russian and normally don’t get molested (including, for example, Alexander Nevzorov, who shares Churchill’s achievement of re-ratting but not Churchill’s wisdom). Then, out of the blue, they jail Vadim Tyumentsev who was far from the worst to start with…

        Bu some comments I gleaned in some posts, looks like you had the “learning from the West” topic earlier. I guess I need to scroll all the way down to pre-2014 to get to the part where you explain the Western connections of the failures that led to Putin’s Russia, because I suspect you’ll be stating what I wanted to state, but better.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        “You say policy was changed to a considerable extent. I say it wasn’t changed nearly enough, leading into massive bloodshed in the Middle East and into the refugee crisis in Europe.”

        Okay let’s take this apart too. First of all, Bush’s policy, particularly Iraq, was a massive step backwards in Western diplomacy. It was even worse than Vietnam in this sense. Now nobody wants to get involved in something like that.

        On the flip side, this means a half-assed policy on Libya and Syria. But you are wrong to pretend like the refugee crisis is all due to Western intervention. What folks like you have a major problem understanding is that while you may be submissive and lack dignity, other people in the world aren’t necessarily the same. There is no good reason why people should live under the same man or family for roughly 40 years or so. All this does is breed corruption due to a severe lack of accountability. And repressive laws and actions only make more enemies. Eventually, the lack of political participation and free speech makes the only method of change violence.

        Have you ever noticed how nearly all the world’s richest nations tend to be democracies with a high standard of civil rights? Ever notice how they tend to be more stable and don’t collapse into civil war or insurgencies so easily? This is because people have mechanisms for change other than violence.

        This also means that when people get really pissed at one administration, they have something to “let off steam.” Or if they don’t vote them out of office, they at least have to leave at the end of their term.

        “Now remember you wrote about that Putin social contract when people were free to enrich themselves but should not care about politics? Same thing, different country, isn’t it?”

        No, it’s not. Because you don’t get crushed if you decide you care about politics. The Russian government co-opts an makes things difficult even for non-political NGOs. They simply do not like people organizing on their own. It scares them.

        As for Maidan, had the authorities not used violence in the beginning, and then again later, it probably never would have ended that way. The first violence on Maidan started when the police cleared the square and brutally beat the occupants.

        As for Putin learning from the West, I’ve said this quite a bit. But here’s the thing- it doesn’t make what he does right. It’s not an excuse. All it is is a lesson for Western leaders on why they have to work on their own values and behavior.

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