America's Foreign Policy Echo Chamber Has Warped Our Understanding of Russia

The problem is that Russia is described in whichever terms suit desired policies rather than actually studying Russia and then designing policy

For purposes of this essay, I take Foreign Affairs magazine as a marker for the broad spectrum of U.S. expert publications in international affairs. That is justified because the magazine has the greatest circulation in its class. The sins of the magazine’s editor Gideon Rose, which I set out below, are not his alone, to be sure.

Where Russia is concerned, and now also where China is concerned, one can count on Foreign Affairs magazine to feature articles presenting the bogeymen in the form the United States security and international affairs establishment feels most comfortable with, irrespective of whether this particular bogeyman has any basis in real life facts. They are comfortable, because the given analyses support policy recommendations, and in particular, defense appropriations, which the establishment wants to see approved by the White House, by the Congress.

<figcaption>US-Russia tensions can be attributed to a stable of clueless, dishonest 'experts'</figcaption>
US-Russia tensions can be attributed to a stable of clueless, dishonest 'experts'

I do not mean to suggest that all articles fit this generalization, because occasionally dissenting views are allowed some space, especially if they are badly argued. But the great majority does fit it, and the American public is the big loser by this disservice because the expert community, not to mention your average citizen, is deprived of any objective, hands-on examination of these very important and powerful countries which can, and perhaps already do pose existential threats to the USA, but for reasons of reaction to American policy rather than any latent aggression.

It is the resulting cluelessness of our media and of the experts who are given air time and print pages that time and again catches us by surprises dealt by the supposedly volatile Russians and enigmatic Chinese. If the initial U.S. action were mentioned, still better analyzed, the reaction could be modified or forestalled. Instead, the reaction is taken as a starting point and a policy recommendation to neutralize it is put forward that opens a new action-reaction cycle rather than closes the existing one. In this way we are escalating tensions to the breaking point, which in our still nuclear age is not very smart and looks more like a death wish.

Whatever the future holds for Russia, the featured specialists in the field seek to instill in us that the outcome can only be threatening to world security. Either Russia is getting too strong, and so is aggressive and dangerous as it flexes its muscles. Or Russia is imploding, and therefore behaving aggressively, dangerously and unpredictably to distract the populace by xenophobic nationalism. Heads I win, tails you lose seems to be the guiding editorial line of FA.

A month ago, Foreign Affairs published yet another dispatch on the pending ruination of Russia submitted by a repeat offender, Professor Alexander J. Motyl of Rutgers University and Columbia’s Harriman Institute. The purple prose title, for which we may surely thank the coy FA editors, is “Lights Out for the Putin Regime. The Coming Russian Collapse.”

Ever since the onset of the confrontation over Crimea and the Donbass, Motyl has been riding the white water flow of events in the region, his mood alternating between euphoria and deep depression according to the prospects for the heroic Maidan regime at any given moment. It appears, strangely, that he is now once again celebrating the imminent demise of the government in the Kremlin at the very time when the numbers on the Ukraine’s economy, when the standing of its corrupt and ineffective government in the eyes of the IMF and European Union sponsors has touched bottom. The absurdity of Motyl’s essay was well exposed by an article in Russia Insider by staff writer and editor Riley Waggaman.

Perhaps to show off a new horse in its stable, Foreign Affairs has just published an article about the threat from Russia predicated on its weakness written by a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Robert D. Kaplan’s “Eurasia’s Coming Anarchy” has the single merit of extending the theory to explain the parallel threat from China. See the subtitle: “The Risks of Chinese and Russian Weakness.”

This attempt to take out two eagles with a single pebble manages in passing to set out as many of the wrong commonplaces on the subject countries as the author could scoop up. It offers argumentation which does not stand up to a logic test.

Kaplan’s article opens with a couple of unexceptional assertions. One is that we are witnessing a historical turning point: “for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell, the United States finds itself in a competition among great powers.” The realization that China and Russia represent ‘great powers’ in itself suggests we are dealing with a realist author compared to the “regional power” designation applied to Russia by the U.S. president just two years ago.

His second factual starting point, namely that both countries are experiencing “steadily worsening” economies and “economic turmoil” also is reasonable. However, from this point on Kaplan loses his grip on reality. We are told that the leaders of China and Russia are no doubt suffering “from a profound sense of insecurity, as their homelands have long been surrounded by enemies, with flatlands open to invaders.” One has to wonder which maps Kaplan has been consulting. He compounds this wonderment by adding that both countries “are finding it harder to exert control over their…immense territories, with potential rebellions brewing in their far-flung regions.”

This wholly unsupported and unsupportable assertion leads straight into his argument that the “prospect of quasi anarchy in two economically struggling giants” is worrisome. Here is where the oft repeated Neocon reasoning emerges: domestic problems in autocratic regimes translate into belligerence and nationalism. The same charges have been brought in the past by historians and political scientists against all kinds of regimes experiencing hard times, but today’s conventional wisdom is that democratic nations like the United States have robust governance, whereas the authoritarian or autocratic regimes are fragile and more in need of artificial manipulation of public opinion to stay in power.

Moreover, we are told that aggression coming out of strength is easy for other states to interpret whereas aggression coming out of weakness can result in “daring, reactive, and impulsive behavior, which is much harder to forecast and counter.” How convenient that this formulation fits perfectly the description of Mr. Putin by nearly all of the US media. No doubt it will be soon applied to President Xi and his associates. The reader is now forewarned: the author has no in-depth knowledge of the subject matter and will say whatever he deems useful to bring us to his prescribed conclusion.

Collection of unsubstantiated untruths

About Russia under Vladimir Putin, Kaplan offers a sampling from the wild and unproven accusations that litter the popular press. The Russian President’s goal has been clear: “to restore the old empire.” This has been done not with troops but by building “a Pharaonic network of energy pipelines,” helping politicians in neighboring countries, by intelligence operations and getting control of local media. Apart from those “Pharaonic” pipelines, the toolkit ascribed to Vladimir Vladimirovich rather closely resembles the modus operandi of the American Empire.

From subterfuge, Putin turned only recently to use of military force when his domestic economy began to fail. There were interventions in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea in 2014 and in Syria in 2015. With his big brush approach, Kaplan has no need to explain what might have preceded these acts of alleged aggression. They exist in a vacuum and can be understood satisfactorily by motives inherent in a diseased regime: “to restore Moscow’s position in the Levant – and to buy leverage with the EU by influencing the flow of refugees to Europe.”

Otherwise the aggression charts very well against the onset and grip of an economic crisis associated with falling energy and raw material prices on world markets and Western sanctions. Russia has nothing to sell the world outside of military equipment. Its rulers “never built civil institutions or a truly free market.” And for good measure, Kaplan reminds us that “the corrupt, gangster led economy of Russia today exhibits eerie similarities to the old Soviet one.”

To keep his failing state together in the face of severe internal problems, Putin uses foreign policy and “nurses historical grudges concerning Russia’s place in the world.” In this he is creative, calculating and “even deceptively conciliatory at moments.” Hence, Putin’s claims now to help the West fight the Islamic State.

All of this will ultimately be to no avail. The regime is brittle and overly centralized. Kaplan predicts a possible coup against Putin such as toppled Khrushchev in 1964. Or Russia may simply break up in the midst of chaos, as happened after the 1917 revolutions. The North Caucasus, Siberia and the Far East may loosen their ties. This could end in a “Yugoslavia lite.” Then the global jihadist movement would move in.

Alternatively Kaplan presents us with the scenario of the Russian bear attacking Baltic states which is so popular at the moment among NATO general staff. Europe is disunited, NATO is weak. Russia has been sowing discord with its Nord Stream 2 project. European will is being undermined by right wing and left-wing nationalist movements which were spawned by slow economic growth.

I have cited above many but not all of what passes for nuggets of insight about Russia and Europe in Kaplan’s essay. In fact, the building blocks of his essay are off-the-shelf lies with no basis in reality if one pauses to inspect each one separately. Simply put, the author does not know what he is talking about.

Policy Recommendations

In the case of Kaplan, the pre-selected policy recommendation which he peddles is rather innocent and will disappoint those looking for adventure. It is that the United States should exercise caution in dealing with Beijing and Moscow: the “first task should be to avoid needlessly provoking these extremely sensitive and domestically declining powers.”

At the end of the essay he puts this in more prescriptive language: "Although congressional firebrands seem not to realize it, the United States gains nothing from baiting nervous regimes worried about losing face at home." He urges against entertaining any aspirations of fomenting regime change: building democracy should be left to the Russians themselves.

Overall, Kaplan falls back on Teddy Roosevelt's famous maxim "Speak softly and carry a big stick."  The big stick means stepped up appropriations for the U.S. military. Specific recommendations include adding more submarines to the U.S. naval presence in the Baltic Sea, increasing the numbers of U.S. military personnel in front line NATO states on the Eastern reaches of the alliance (as Ashton Carter has just requested), and generally raising the defense department budget to restore ground troop strength levels. This validation of 'inside the box' policy will surely go down well with the generals and admirals. Whether it will avoid stirring up the Russians or ensure greater American security is an entirely different matter.

To be fair, we should be thankful that the author of this ignorant essay has more instinct for survival and common sense than a great many other experts who populate the pages of our international relations journals. The very same building blocks of argumentation he presents are very often used to justify still more provocative policies such as permanent rather than rotating NATO forces at Russian borders or stepped-up information warfare and financing of opposition groups within Russia.

The problem with describing Russia to suit policy recommendations rather than actually studying Russia and then designing policy is that risks and threats which may actually exist in relations with the subject country are wholly overlooked. In follow-on articles, I will explain how U.S. policies towards Russia over the past 25 years and most especially since the withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002 have prompted the Kremlin to adopt counter measures that do indeed present existential threats to the American homeland. They are not discussed publicly at present, because doing so would sound alarm bells over what we are not prepared to deal with; the clamor to identify those guilty of dereliction of duty would sound louder than the cries over a ‘missile gap’ did in the late 1950s. More of that anon.


Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.


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