Thursday, May 04, 2006

Demonizing Russia

I couldn't help but post this comment made by Patrick Armstrong, analyst for the Canadian government, from Untimely Thoughts (Peter Lavelle's project).

There's always a standing bill of indictment against Russia, although the details continually change. In 2001 the Washington Post warned that Russia would default on debt repayments; the Kursk sinking prompted reflections on the "callous disregard for human life" of Russia's leadership (Knight 2000); in 1997 Kissinger was complaining about Russia's "refusal" to demarcate its borders; no Russian leader had ever left power voluntarily and neither would Yeltsin, warned Stephen Cohen in 1994. Most charges prove ephemeral or false - nuclear tests in Nova Zemlya, the Security Council as the "new Politburo", war over the Black Sea Fleet - but others come up again and again. Some charges have validity. The war in Chechnya was certainly very brutal. Putin has centralized power and tightened control over the media. But, when these charges appear on the bill of indictment, they appear without context. The Russian army is brutal in Chechnya not necessarily because it wants to be, but because bad armies are brutal. And, despite "fabricated rumors of a Chechen-al Qaeda nexus" (Washington Times, 2002), we know better. Nor do we hear as much about "unresolved" (Guardian, 2000) apartment bombings when there have been so many jihadist bombings of nightclubs, railway stations, tourist resorts and mosques. Putin is centralising because he (and, be it clear, most Russians) agree that the 1990s were frighteningly chaotic. A centralised media is not desirable but neither was the media of the oligarch wars. Too many governors were the pawns of local hoods. Putin does have reasons, good or bad, for what he does: saying "tight-lipped 47-year-old KGB staffer" (Guardian, 2000) or "Andropov redux" (Gaffney, 2000) is not an explanation. When Brzezinski last year stormed that Moscow refused to repudiate the Hitler-Stalin pact, it wasn't just "nostalgic efforts by Vladimir Putin to restore Moscow's control": no country will assume responsibility for historical malfeasance when it knows the next step will be reparations claims.

While charging Putin with bringing back the "Soviet anthem" (Wall Street Journal, 2000), the fact that all the other state symbols were lifted straight from the Tsars was not mentioned. This is not argument, it is advocacy. The essence of the charge sheet style is that the conclusion determines the evidence. Take the everlasting assertion that Russia is naturally imperialist: this is the oldest of the charges - experts "knew" that Gorbachev would never leave Germany - and as time moves on, the accusation remains. The format is the same: Russia's so-called nostalgia for empire is asserted (Jonathon Eyal in 1993, Pipes in 1994 and 1998, George Tenet in 1997, Paul Goble 2000) and examples are filled in as needed: "democratic Georgia" today, the Baltics yesterday, Germany the day before. As the troops leave one country, another place is found to prove the point. The "energy weapon" is deployed against contumacious neighbors like Ukraine (but be careful not to mention that Gazprom is raising the price for "friends" like Armenia and Belarus, too). The charge predates Putin ЁC in 1993 The Economist decided that Georgia's independence had been already snuffed out and the energy wars have been going on since 1991.

Rarely, however, is it pointed out that Russia's neighbors are more independent each year and that Russian troops are leaving them too. Or that while Ukraine needs Russian energy, Russia needs Ukrainian pipelines to move its gas to those who actually pay for it. The boot here is actually on both feet. "Imperialist Russia", it is clear, is a premise, not a conclusion. The repetitive bills of indictment have a cumulative effect - people forget the alarums that never came to pass but remember the underlying message that Russia is a menace. Why try to take an objective look at the whole of Russian reality when "traditional Russian imperialism" (Kissinger, 1997) is all you need to know? A great deal of opinion in the USA and the West has been shaped by the continual drum roll of warnings, accusations and indictments. Eventually the message gets stuck in: Russia is an enemy.

Putin hires a Western PR company to help improving Russia's image in the world. Absolutely hopeless. I think it's better to forget about "image problems" and go our own way. Собака лает - караван идет.


Lyndon said...

The "sobaka laet" chestnut was employed to best effect, in my memory at any rate, by the late, great Aleksandr Lebed'. I've always found it interesting to imagine what a Lebed' presidency might have looked like, but I think it might not have lived up to my expectations.

Getting more on topic, it's true that the US has a whole cohort of professional Sovietologists, some of whom have been unable or unwilling to break out of their 1980's mode of analysis. I think it is fair to point out that Russia also has a generation of foreign relations professionals who grew up regarding the US with hostility, and I think it's been easy for people in Russia inside and outside of the policy elite to fall back into this comfortable mindset.

The US and Russia both have "image problems," as does, for example, China, and in every one of these cases the "image problems" reflect legitimate flaws and criticisms, at least to a certain extent - does this mean that each of these large countries, whose spheres of interest (territorial, economic, security, etc.) cannot help but bump into each other in today's world should just "go its own way"? At some point the caravans will collide.

Anyway, Putin or whoever he's got managing the media can't seem to do without the West - an external "enemy" is required for domestic consumption, and sadly foreign NGO's seem to be it.

Thomas Wicker said...

Lyndon said many of the things I was thinking upon reading the piece -- namely, that image problems abound around nations (he picked two great ones with the US and China).

Two other points:
1) For every "image problem issue," and expert who says, "Oh, [fill-in-the-blank] is the end of the world!", there's another expert who disagrees. That's what experts do. Cheney's speech was considered remarkable (in the US) not because it was seen as being accurate -- but because it was the highest-level expression of the viewpoint and considered to be a setback for Russian "expert" Condi Rice, who's much less negative about what Russia is doing. In fact, a good bit of the analysis of Cheney's speech isn't that Russia is evil as a result, but that, in addition to an attack on Rice's position, it's also a salvo in gas wars.

2) I think Lyndon's comparisons are interesting for a second point -- and that is that, with all major powers, you're going to have people who don't like you. That's life. Sure, you try to put facts in the media (which, I think, is all Putin's doing with getting a PR firm), and you recognize that you can't shut yourself off from the world (Russia's foreign account surplus comes, by definition, from trade with foreign sources -- otherwise it wouldn't be a "foreign" account surplus). That said, you'll have pot-shots taken at you.

Now, admittedly, Russia does have another option, and Konstantin expressed it. You can shut off the rest of the world and pretend it doesn't exist. Just stop trade and become an ignored backwater. After all, when was the last time you heard of any news from Tuvalu?

On the other hand, if Russia wants to be the power it can be, then, well, it gets the full package.

Those of us from the US and China simply say, "Oh, you're getting disparaged? Welcome to the club."

-- twicker

(fyi, I'm posting this from the lobby of the Intourist Hotel in Krasnodar -- and, frankly, I think you need to start fixing your image problems at home before you worry about the ones abroad. Things ain't so bad -- but, whenever anything isn't quite perfect, I commonly hear people say, "Welcome to Russia" as a way of explaining it. Whereas, even though not everything in America is perfect, you wouldn't hear Americans saying, "Welcome to America" as a way of explaining the breakdown. I doubt you'd hear it from the Chinese, too.)

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