New Book (3): Russian Political War: moving beyond the hybrid

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The third of my crop of books out this month is Russian Political War: moving beyond the hybrid from Routledge, a study of what I think we should be talking about instead of ‘hybrid war’ (let alone the mythical ‘Gerasimov Doctrine‘). It builds off my earlier report, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? to argue that while the Russian military – like everyone else – is looking at the opportunities in non-kinetic means to prepare the battlefield (after all, has any war not been ‘hybrid’?), the real challenge the West faces is different. The current campaign being waged against the West is not a preparation for eventual military conflict, but rather a wholly non-military campaign that echoes ‘political war’ as described by George Kennan at the start of the Cold War, and which has its spiritual home and command and control centre within the Presidential Administration and Russia’s civilian national security elites.

New Book (2): Kulikovo 1380: the battle that made Russia

IMG_20190129_212026The second of the three books of mine coming out in February is in the Osprey ‘Campaign’ series. CAM 332, Kulikovo 1380: the battle that made Russia looks at this battle that was a genuine triumph for Muscovite Prince Dmitri Donskoi, but was turned into a much more decisive victory over the ‘Golden Horde’ through centuries of successive myth-making, as it became used first to launder Moscow’s reputation – from the Mongols’ prime agents to paladins of a new Russia – and then to claim credit by the Orthodox Church and to create a story of national military glories.

That mythology made writing the book all the more of a challenge, as so much of the received wisdom about the battle, from the clash of champions at the beginning onwards, is questionable, the accumulations of generations of chronicles embellishing the last. But that is also one of the things that made it a fun exercise in historical detective work. The irony is that the battle doesn’t need much titivation, as it’s a fascinating story of political opportunism, tactical cunning and brutal butchery, of ambush and subterfuge, Armenian archers and Genoese mercenaries, Lithuanian exiles and Mongol-Tatar horsemen, Russian boyars and militias, sacrifice and plunder…

Russia: an increasingly ‘normal’ country…with an abnormal regime

One of my regrets of 2017 was, for reasons beyond my control, not getting to speak at the Yeltsin Centre in Ekaterinburg. I confess I am not the greatest fan of Yeltsin-the-Man – for all his successes bringing down the USSR and crushing some of its more unpleasant remnants, he was a destroyer rather than a creator, and as Tony Wood trenchantly demonstrates in his Russia Without Putin, in many ways Putin is an heir not just to the failures of the 1990s but also the policies. Nonetheless, the Yeltsin Centre appears committed to the best ideals of Yeltsin-the-Symbol in hosting a series of very interesting lectures, especially on the social and political processes shaping Russia and the world.

Recently the indefatigable Ekaterina Schulmann – whom every serious Russia-watcher should follow – delivered a fascinating lecture on the evolution of Russian society, and fortunately Znak has published a detailed summary of her comments. There is much in the lecture to explore and enjoy, and I will not try and do it full justice. Rather, what I want to focus on is her core point, that especially since 2014, Russia has been moving towards what Westerners might consider ‘normalcy,’ with less of the atomisation, survivalism and dependence on state institutions that has so consistently dogged Russian politics and society. In terms of the global values map reproduced below, the country is slowly but surely moving to the right.

I think she is absolutely correct, and one of the – many, many – tragedies of the current geopolitical struggle between the Kremlin and the West is that hysteria and paranoia, on both sides, have obscured all the reasons to be cheerful. The corollary that Schulmann raises is that Russia doesn’t need (indeed, should avoid) some new revolution. Ket me reproduce, in my clumsy translation (if in doubt, go to the original), some of her closing paragraphs:

We do not need to make a new revolution to improve our lives. We have a really low quality of public administration, but it is sub-standard relative to our level of social development. We are at heart a healthy society. We are an urban country: 74.4% of our fellow citizens live in cities. Our literacy rate is 99%, and more than half of the population has a higher than average education. In this sense, we are at the level of Israel and Canada. Most of our fellow citizens are not engaged in physical labour. We even have a falling prison population. We could have a political system which suits us more, life could be much better without any revolutionary upheavals. The authorities should meet society’s needs, and the society does not need mass repressions, control over public space, censorship, or bans on meetings – none of this is needed. This is just unnecessary.

In fact, the simple observance of the Constitution and the rolling back of the repressive measures of 2012-14 will give us, without any grand struggles and huge sacrifices, a much more responsive political system. People want to be listened to, people want political participation and competition. They want to go to rallies and not get their skulls cracked by the National Guard, they want to go to vote and see candidates who represent them on the ballots. People want a party system that meets their needs, people want a public sphere, in which they can talk about what matters to them, not the ‘crimes of the Kyiv junta’ committed some year or other.

We are closer to normal than we ourselves think. Our ideas about fears of a disastrous future are based on nothing. Apocalyptic expectations, which, of course, are also pushed by the state-run media, do not conform to reality. It does not mean from this that nothing bad could happen to us. It could – and that would be even more painful, because then there would have been no rhyme or reason, it would just have come out of the blue, and for nothing. It could have been different and it could have been much better.

Of course, saying Russia ‘just’ needs the Constitution upheld and Putin’s recent repressive counter-proto-revolutionary measures rolled back is a little like saying the economy ‘just’ needs rule of law and an end to corruption – easy to say, not so easy to do. But this is an absolutely crucial point. For all the arbitrary authoritarianism and capricious kleptocracy of the Putin years, this has coexisted with a too-often-unsung process of social development, even a still-unfinished but not insignificant degree of legalism. It may take years, it may take political generations, but the foundations for a process of democratisation, liberalisation, normalisation, Westernisation, whatever one wants to call it, are there.

And this is, of course, a challenge for the Kremlin and the upper levels of the elite whose power and privilege depends upon it. While he may not – probably does not – think of it in these terms, much of what Putin does these days is, if not to reverse this process, to obscure it. The increasingly paranoid quest for fifth, sixth (seventh?) columnists at home, the rabid and xenophobic propaganda too visible on state TV, the presentation of the world as a hostile place, committed to keeping Russia bound and subordinated, all of these are distractions. But the good news is that the very reason why the volume and pitch of these distractions is getting greater and greater is that it has at best limited impact. Russians are still organising and forming bonds of social cohesion, they are supplementing the TV’s vision of the world with one they gather on the internet or through personal experience, they pin on a St George’s ribbon on Victory Day but have no willingness to see blood and treasure expended in Syria, Venezuela and, probably, the Donbas.

A normal society and an abnormal regime. For now, the latter gets the airtime, but in the long term, the former will win out.

 

 

New Book (1): We Need To Talk About Putin

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Is it money that drives him? Power? Ego? Spookness?

Thanks to the vagaries of different production schedules, I have three books coming out in February, so over the next week or so I’ll flag each one up. Given that yesterday I came home from a very picturesque and productive trip to Lithuania and Latvia (more on that later, too) to an advance copy of We Need To Talk About Putin, let me start with that. It is, I should stress, written for a lay audience (although I hope scholars and policy wonks will find it of use and interest, too), so don’t expect footnotes, and do expect anecdotes, some humour, and unapologetically opinionated takes on the key myths that too often seem to shape perceptions of Putin and thus modern Russia. Is it really all about the money? Can one understand him simply through the prism of his KGB experience? Is he really the devil-may-care risk-taker the bare-chested macho theatrics would suggest? How far is this really “Putin’s Russia”? All that, and more…

I had fun writing it, and I hope people have as much fun reading it, but also find it of value. It will be published in paperback and ebook formats by Ebury, an imprint of Penguin Random House:

Penguin site: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1117583/we-need-to-talk-about-putin/9781529103595.html

or:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/We-Need-Talk-About-Putin/dp/1529103592 (Amazon.co.uk)

https://www.amazon.com/We-Need-Talk-About-Putin/dp/1529103592 (Amazon.com)

https://www.amazon.de/We-Need-Talk-About-Putin/dp/1529103592/ (Amazon.de)

 

The Integrity Initiative and Me (and Jeremy Corbyn)

I understand that amongst the latest batch of hacked documents from the Institute of Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative is one that lists me as part of their team. Given how many queries from journalists I’ve been fielding, I thought it would be easier all round for me briefly and publicly to address this for once and, hopefully, for all.

Back in January 2018, IoS co-director Chris Donnelly reached out to see if I would be interested in perhaps being involved with a proposal they were making for funding to address Russian information operations. We had a chat, I made some comments, and I said that I’d be glad to be involved in some way if the project got off the ground, depending on quite how it evolved.

And that was it. I never heard any more, so I don’t know if the bid was successful or not. I have no other relationship with the II or the Institute of Statecraft.

In fairness, the II has whittled a number of rods for its own back. It is extremely untransparent: while its motto seems to be “Information is the basis of democracy. Without information, there can be no informed debate, and no informed decision-making,” at the same time the II website gives no names of anyone involved, who funds it, etc. (Were this the case of some anti-mainstream site, many would regard that as implicit proof of shadowy connections.)

They are also connected with a range of other initiatives, some of which are – in my opinion – deeply unprofessional or at the extreme end of the Cold War spectrum. And tweeting against Corbyn was just stupid in the circumstances, regardless of the rights and wrongs of that specific situation.

But.

A few ill-judged tweets do not an anti-Labour political black ops infowar make. Nor does FCO funding demonstrate any kind of nefarious intent. The FCO funds all kinds of projects, some smart and some stupid, some political and some purely cultural. Given that there can be no doubt that there is a Russian political-information campaign being waged, through open media and covert influence, it is right and proper that measures are taken to understand and respond.

I have no idea if the Integrity Initiative is a good choice for this. I have no idea if it is not. But just as I often find myself wishing those determined to find a nefarious Muscovite hand behind everything that goes wrong, from Brexit to football hooliganism, dialled down their reflexive Russophobia and thought a little more sharply about the purely domestic crisis these incidents reflect, in this case I can only hope that those determined to present the II as some anti-left smear factory, instead think that maybe there are genuine and understandable reasons why Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Russia could be alarming. As someone who regards himself as being on the left of the political spectrum, I certainly would be alarmed were his statements to be manifest as British foreign policy.

Masha and the Bear are not coming to invade your homeland

On Guard For The Defence Of The Motherland!

Time for a Saturday spleen-venting. It’s always dangerous to predict that we’ve reached “peak” anything, because life will no doubt find a way to prove you wrong. But I truly with that a story in today’s Times could turn out to be peak…I don’t even know quite what to call it…cliché Russophobia.

The target of my ire is a short article, ‘Children’s show is propaganda for Putin, say critics,’ which uncritically relays allegations that the Russian animated cartoon Masha and the Bear is “a ‘soft propaganda’ tool for the Kremlin” because “the Bear symbolised Russia and was designed to replace a negative image of the country with a positive one in children’s minds.” Worse yet, “in one episode, Masha, wearing a Soviet border guard’s cap, patrols the Bear’s garden and chases out a hare that tries to steal carrots. Critics have seen this as a statement about Russia’s defence of its borders.” One Prof. Glees, of the University of Buckingham, is trotted out to deliver the punchline that “Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her slight weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.”

Well, actually it is pretty damn far fetched to see Putin in a little girl who cries when she doesn’t get what she wants and gets her pig to dress up like a baby. Even more so that the Kremlin would want that to be how people think of Putin. Needless to say, the only contrary view in the article is a note in the last paragraph that “Russia’s state media has ridiculed the concerns.”

For a start, such a take omits to consider that the cartoon series, which admittedly began in 2009, under Putin, is based on a long cycle of oral folk stories predating the 1990s. It would be a little like accusing Fawlty Towers as being pro-Brexit, because the representation of the incompetent Spanish waiter Manuel was a call for Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’…forty years later. Or perhaps that Bob the Builder, with its distinct absence of Polish plumbers and Romanian roofers, is likewise Brexit-Isolationist brain washing…

This is just one of a steady trickle of bizarre stories relating to Russia’s Machiavellian genius in weaponising everything. Remember those football hooligans who were somehow part of Putin’s ‘hybrid war’? Of course Russia is launching a active measures campaign against the West, but shoddy pieces like this that suggest that anything demonstrating that the Russians themselves are human beings like us, that their kids watch TV cartoons like us, that their hot-headed young men can get violent in support of their teams and in mutual displays of machismo like ours, that they live and love, dream and die like us, is somehow ‘soft propaganda,’ is depressing to the nth degree.

It’s also a problem. Why?

  1. It’s stupid. Just that; this is a desperate and silly idea that shouldn’t be reported except as such. And if it is going to be written about, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to find some kind of alternative take – that’s just proper journalism, no? (By contrast, The Herald had earlier ran a much funnier but also more balanced take.)
  2. It devalues the real propaganda. Of course Russia is maintaining a soft power campaign to try and influence foreign perceptions, ranging from presenting Putin as some kind of bare-chested champion of traditional values, to suggesting that the Europeans are being coerced into sanctions and other anti-Kremlin moves by an overweening America. Just as to defend all is to defend nothing, so too to see everything coming from Russia as propaganda is to make it impossible to make a serious case when it really is.
  3. It devalues us. When did it become necessary to dehumanise the Russians, to have to pretend that everything in and from Russia is evil, in order to critique and resist Putin’s regime? First of all, this – I would say – flies in the face of our own liberal world view.
  4. It helps Putin. Secondly, it is bad politics, it plays to Putin’s own legitimating narrative, that the West hates Russia and Russians, and that is why they need a strong state and a strong leader.

 

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